Amazon (AMZN) vs. Apple (AAPL)

I changed radio channels from the morning news to Bloomberg Radio while I was in the car yesterday.  It was about 9am, so I figured I’d get some market news while avoiding the Today-like chitchat that begins on Bloomberg at 10am.

What I heard instead was an expression of disbelief about the relative valuation of AMZN and AAPL, with the former being inappropriately trading at 3x the price/free cash flow of the latter.   The senior talking head presented this as being so self-evidently true as to need no further discussion.

I’m not sure why this howler bothered me, but it it did.

Three points:

–Both companies were formed by visionary entrepreneurs who transformed the landscape of their industries.  However, Jeff Bezos is still innovating and AAPL hasn’t produced a big new product in the past five years.

AAPL is a high-end smartphone company.  Today, that’s a mature product that depends on replacement demand.  There are no new customers.  Network operators are trying to stretch out the replacement cycle as a way of lowering their costs.

In contrast, AMZN is all about web services, a business that’s in its infancy and growing like a weed.  And the world is increasingly shifting to online purchasing.

In other words, AAPL and AMZN are very different companies.

–The accounting principles AMZN uses are more conservative than AAPL’s.  What might appear on the AAPL income statement as $1 in profit might only be, say, $.75 on AMZN’s. That alone doesn’t explain why one should trade at 3x the other.  But the comparison is far from clean.  Dollars to donuts the talking head I heard had no idea.

–I don’t get why free cash flow generation is an appropriate metric to use in making the comparison in the first place.

Free cash flow is the money a firm generates from operations minus the capital it invests in building/maintaining the business (and, for me, minus any mandatory debt repayments, as well).  Free cash flow is the “extra” that can be used to pay dividends.  Good for income-oriented investors.  If it’s very large, free cash flow may even attract potential acquirers in related industries who have investment opportunities that are greater than their ability to fund.

At the same time, large free cash flow can signal that a business has no new investment opportunities.  So the large free cash flow may simply mean the company has gone ex growth.  That’s bad.  On the other hand, a firm may have little or no free cash flow because it has lots of new investment opportunities and huge capacity to grow.  A growth investor will pick the second over the first any day of the week.

Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion on AMZN vs. AAPL.  For years I’ve been bemused by the strength of AAPL shares despite the clear evidence that the smartphone market was nearing saturation.  I’ve also been surprised by how well AMZN shares have done.

My point is that there was a children-playing-with-matches aspect to the discussion I heard.  There was no recognition that AMZN and AAPL are very different kinds of companies and the comparison metric was, yes, a little more sophisticated than PE–but completely wrongly used.

Maybe CNBC isn’t so bad, after all.

 

more on risk as volatility

volatility as risk

I was listening to Bloomberg radio the other day when a talking head who usually has interesting things to say (an increasing rarity on Bloomberg) began to “explain” how 2015 was a very risky year for stocks.  This, even though the S&P 500 was ending December in basically in the same place it started out in January.

Measures of interday change in individual stock prices were also relatively benign   …but, he said, intraday price movements in stocks were unusually high.  Therefore, stocks were riskier than usual.

Yes, in a very tortured sense…or for a day trader who’s consumed by hour-to-hour price movements…that might be so.  For you and me, though, that’s crazy.

 

Last September 14th I wrote another post about the academic notion that investment risk can be defined as day-to-day volatility, i.e., the daily change in the price of a given security.

The main pluses for this idea are that it’s simple, the data are readily available and you don’t have to know anything about the security in question or the goals of the holder.

In my earlier post, I pointed out that this notion led to catastrophic results in the late 1980s-early 1990s for institutional holders of commercial real estate and junk bonds.  Neither traded very often, so the daily price–as determined by the last actual transaction–rarely changed. Volatility was negligible.  What a surprise when lots of people wanted to sell at the some time, only to find that low volatility didn’t represent safety.  It signaled illiquidity–there were no buyers at anywhere near the last trade.

not a 100% useless concept

There is a sense in which volatility may be important, though.  Over several year periods, stocks tend to follow an up and down pattern that mirrors the business cycle, with stocks leading the economy by about six months.  Over longer periods, stocks tend to advance on trend around the rate of growth in reported profits, which has historically been about +8% per year in the US.

 

If you’re in your thirties or forties and saving for your retirement or to pay for your young children’s college tuition, then daily or even business cycle fluctuations in stock prices are irrelevant now.  Investing in stocks that have low volatility–which usually also comes with low appreciation potential–makes no sense at all, despite the notion’s academic pedigree.

On the other hand, if you’re saving, say, for a wedding or to buy a house and will need the funds in six months or a year, then having it in stocks is probably a bad idea.  That’s because prices could easily be 10% below today’s level when you need the money.  Just look at a chart of the S&P 500 in 2015–which chronicles a mid-summer S&P swoon– to see what I mean.  In this case, keeping your money in (low-volatility) cash is the better course of action.

 

 

 

 

Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: currency and interest rates

currency

Japan and the EU have tried over the past several years to jumpstart their economies through massive currency  depreciation.  This has resulted in a gigantic loss of national wealth in both regions.  It has also depressed the local standard of living by making dollar-denominated commodities–energy, food, metals, textiles–more expensive.

But the move has also revived industry, at least in the EU, by making end products cheaper.

Therefore, Europe could see substantial export-based growth in 2016.  As usual, I’m thinking that Japan is a lost cause.

interest rates

The US is alone among major countries of the world to have recovered far enough from the 2008-09 recession to begin to raise interest rates from their current intensive care lows.

The Fed Funds rate will most likely be be boosted to +0.25% next week.  And the benchmark will doubtless be raised again in 2016.  Nevertheless, the initial increases will probably have little, if any, negative effect on economic activity.

My guess is that we’ll exit 2016 with the Fed Funds rate at 1%.

At first blush, it would seem that by increasing interest rate differentials between the US and the rest of the world, the Fed would induce international fixed income investors to reposition their portfolios. Selling foreign bonds and buying US Treasuries would give them both higher interest income and the chance at a currency gain–since the flow of foreign funds into the US would imply further strength in the US$.

However, the Fed move has been widely telegraphed for an extended period of time.  We’ve already seen considerable struength in the US$ in 2015.  My guess is that most of the potential asset shift has already taken place in 2015.

So, I’m thinking that the Fed’s interest rate moves will be a non-event in both domestic economic and currency terms.

Tomorrow:  petrodollars

Shaping a Portfolio for 2016: emerging markets

your father’s emerging markets…

I started working in emerging markets in 1984.  At that time, the most important were Hong Kong and Singapore.  If one were feeling adventurous, Thailand, Malaysia and even Indonesia (shudder!) beckoned.  Taiwan and Korea were also on the list, but not easily accessible to foreigners.

At that time, there was a certain equivocation in the “emerging markets” term.  Yes, the stock markets were relatively rudimentary and overlooked by investors in the US and the EU.  But the economies of the big ones, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, were all advanced, with living standards for the average resident somewhere between those in Europe and the US.

With the notable exception of Indonesia, the 1980s-style emerging markets were all oil importers (Malaysia and Thailand have large reserves of natural gas, and export LNG, but that’s a different thing).

Back in the day, investing in Hong Kong was all about the then-colony, now SAR, with exposure to the mainland limited to the successors to the nineteenth-century opium traders and a few small manufacturers with operations on the mainland.

Mexico was the notable emerging market not in the Pacific.

 

…and today’s

China is now, of course, the emerging markets behemoth.  Direct access to foreign portfolio investors isn’t seamless.  Nor, in my view, is it desirable.  However, the investment significance of Hong Kong has radically shifted, from a focus on the physical place to the access its China-related listings allows to the mainland.

Perhaps more important for today’s economic situation, however, the emerging markets arena has expanded to include much more of Latin America (think: Brazil or Venezuela)–and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia and Eastern Europe as well.  Some thrill-seeking investors have tiptoed into the Middle East as well.

Two strong net effects:

–the emerging markets category contains many more emerging economies, with less stable politics, and

–today’s emerging markets are heavily weighted toward exporters of natural resources, especially oil.

for 2016:

China is several years into a transition from being an export-oriented manufacturer to being a domestic demand-oriented service economy.  The way I look at it, China is doing better than the consensus thinks–and will continue to do so in 2016.

The rest of the emerging markets arena is a mess.  Economically, that’s mostly because so many countries depend on mineral exports.  From a stock market point of view, it’s that plus the high weighting of natural resource issues (including banks that finance them) in the local indices.

My guesstimate is that Greater China will show 6% real GDP growth in 2016.  As a group, the rest will be in the minus column.  I have no idea what the net result will be.  I’m planning on it being mildly positive.

Until the oil price begins to recover–mid-year at the earliest, I think–I don’t see this as a time to hold an emerging markets index.  Individual stocks or a China fund/ETF is the way to go.  Other than China, developed markets, rather than emerging markets, are the place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Square, venture capital and the late-1990s Internet bubble

a bubble deflating

Internet payments company Square came to market yesterday.  It has a two-letter symbol, SQ, and trades on the NYSE, not NASDAQ.  But the most salient fact about the offering is that the IPO price was a lot below the private market value that venture capital investors had placed on SQas little as a year ago.

At the same time, the small number of mutual funds which have been aggressive venture capital buyers in Silicon Valley have been, more or less quietly, writing down the carrying value of their non-public company holdings.

What we’re seeing is, I think, a smaller and much more benign–both for the economy and for us as stock market investors–analogue of the deflation of the Internet mania of the late 1990s that started in early 2000.

the late 1990s and the internet

I remember noticing in 1998, that earlier- and earlier-stage companies were coming to market successfully.  Some were little more than concepts.  Take Amazon (AMZN), for example, which IPOed in mid-1997.  The pre-offering roadshow that I saw emphasized that investors had made gigantic fortunes on buying unknown companies like Microsoft during the personal computer era and that AMZN was a lottery ticket to a similar outcome in the Internet Age.  Of course, even a success like AMZN didn’t turn profit for its first eight years as a public company, surviving on the proceed from the IPO and follow-on debt offerings.

I thought at the time, and unfortunately committed my theory to writing, that we were seeing a fundamental change in the role of the stock market in capital formation.  Portfolio managers were gradually taking on the role previously played by venture capital.  So, I mused, managers of mutual funds like me might have to think about reserving a small place–no more than, say, 5%–of their portfolios for developing companies that they normally wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole.

Not my finest intellectual hour.

today’s bubble deflation

The slow escape of air from the venture capital bubble that is now going on will not have much effect on publicly traded companies, I think, for several reasons:

–the amount of money involved in this speculation is much smaller

–investors of all stripes still wear the scars of 2000-2001, so they haven’t been anywhere near as crazy this time around

–the people who are losing money now are, or represent, wealthy, seasoned speculators, not retail investors

–maybe most important, much of the original internet froth surrounded highly capital-intensive efforts to build a global physical internet transport infrastructure.  Names like Global Crossing and Worldcom come to mind.

Yes, too much physical capacity did get built back then, and some builders were highly financially leveraged.  But also dense wave division multiplexing, a technological breakthrough in technique (basically, putting glorified prisms on each end of a cable), made it possible for each fiber optic strand to carry 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x ( in 2015 the number is 240x)…  more traffic than initially anticipated.  Thanks to DWDM, suddenly, despite the rapid growth of internet traffic, an acute shortage of signal transport capacity turned to mind-boggling glut.  The transport industry was facing collapse as customers played a ton of potential suppliers against each other for lower prices.  Naturally, new construction–and related orders for all sorts of high-and low-tech components, dried up completely.   So did investment, employment in civil engineering   …and the stocks.

In today’s software world, there’s no equivalent, other than perhaps the market for software engineers.  And there are no signs I can see of recession in this arena.  Quite the opposite.

 

the holiday retail season: Millennials vs. Boomers

Conventional wisdom in the US has long been that 30-somethings want a house, a car and clothing suitable for work.  Fifty-somethings want a vacation home, jewelry and a cruise.

As the Baby Boom generation became more important, therefore, an investor wanting exposure to consumer spending should have shifted away from homebuilders and carmakers and toward high-end specialty retail, luxury goods and hotels and cruise lines.

Of course, there were other secular forces at work, as well–the move from the cities to the suburbs and the dismembering of the traditional department store by specialty retail, just to name two.

Today we’re in the early days of another significant demographic change.  Millennials now outnumber Boomers in the US.  Millennials only earn about half what Boomers do.  And they were hurt much more severely than the older generation by the recession.  But they’re on the up escalator, while Boomers as a group will see their economic power wane as they retire.

Playing the aging of the Boomer generation had two aspects to it, one positive and one negative.  The positive side was hard–finding the small, relatively obscure companies like the Limited or Toys R Us or Home Depot/Lowes or Target or (later on) Coach that would catch the fancy of the Baby Boom.  The negative side was easier–avoiding the losers who didn’t “get” what was going on.  These included American carmakers and the department stores.

In 3Q15 corporate results, we’re already beginning to see the new generational change begin to play out.  Home improvement stores are doing surprisingly well.  Large retail chains are reporting relatively weak results.  What strikes me about the latter is that the worst-affected seem to be the most heavily style-dependent and the firms that have put the least effort into their online presence.  In contrast, I’m struck by how many small online, even crowdsourcing, alternatives to bricks and mortar there now are to buy apparel.

How to play this emerging trend?

The negative side is easy– avoid the potential losers, that is, firms whose main appeal is to Boomers and companies with a weak online presence.

The positive side is, as usual, harder.  Arguably, many of the winners–Uber, and the sharing economy in general being an example–aren’t yet publicly traded.  Absent a pure play, my best idea is to invest in the winners’ onlineness.  The easiest, and safest, way to do so is through an internet or e-commerce ETF.

 

One other point:  for many years, economists have tracked the activity of Boomers as a way to estimate the health of the economy.  To the degree that they, too, fail to adjust quickly enough, their assessments, like department store sales, may understate growth momentum.

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