1Q15 results for Intel (INTC)

the results

INTC reported 1Q15 earnings after the close on Tuesday.   Results were flattish year-on-year, matching analysts’ forecasts.  This was unsurprising, given  INTC had preannounced 1Q15 was not going as well as expected.  The company thinks some, but not much, relief from the current doldrums will appear in the second half.

The culprit has been the traditional PC business.  Small-and medium-sized firms haven’t been converting their old Windows XP desktops to newer machines.  Maybe they’ve decided to wait for Windows 10, or they don’t want to update their (pirated?) Office programs or they just figure they’ll use XP until something breaks.  Whatever the reason they’re not buying.

This hurts INTC in two related ways:  OEMs don’t have to reorder parts   …and they run down their inventory levels to match weaker demand.  INTC thinks the second process was pretty much over by the end of March.

Notebooks and tablets were up, though, and the server-related businesses are going great guns.

picky stuff

INTC now thinks its full-year tax rate will be 25%, not the 27% previously forecast.  This suggests the current mix of business is more Asia, less US than the company previously thought.

INTC is cutting capital expenditure plans.  Weaker PC demand means less need for older factories, which can be refit for more cutting-edge use.  Hence, less need to build from scratch.

Tablet demand was up 45% yoy in 1Q15.  This is good news and bad.  Good that someone wants the chips, bad in that INTC is essentially paying users to take them.  Nothing new here.  However, INTC had expected to begin to show profits on them by yearend.  That apparently is not going to happen.  INTC was likely planning to get out of the hole both by raising prices and by driving down unit manufacturing costs.  My guess is that the first isn’t happening yet.  (My view is that whatever it takes to get INTC parts into the hands of manufacturers is the correct strategy.  Ideally, the prior CEO would have understood the movement away from big clunky tethered PCs and reacted years ago.  But that’s water under the bridge.)

the big change (in my view)

INTC has changed the way it is presenting results to investors, effective with 1Q15.  It is folding the loss-making Mobile and Communications Group into the former PC Client Group, now dubbed Client Computing Group.

Some of this is just optics–the MCG lost about $1 billion a quarter during 2014, mostly trying to jumpstart the tablet business.  So we won’t see the red ink any more.

At the same time, through the magic of subtracting mobile losses from PC profits, the server business  becomes the largest single earner INTC has.

conclusions

In a sense, INTC is saying it wants to be known as an internet infrastructure company that happens to make PCs, rather than as a PC firm that happens to make servers.

Who wouldn’t!, a cynic might comment.

I think  the move is more than that, however.  It may also signal a change in behavior.  The new line of business table neatly divides the company into a growth segment–servers, embedded internet-of-things chips, 3-D flash…–and a mature cash cow, Client Computing.

If so, the first will be run as a profit center and measured by growth, the second more or less a cost center and measured by contribution margin (the reason I wrote about this topic yesterday).

During the conference call (as usual, I read the Seeking Alpha transcript) INTC said the servers etc. are accounting for 60% of the company’s profits right now.  If we assume that these businesses can continue to grow at 20% annually and that CCG stays flat, then servers etc. would be 75% of INTC’s profits–and expanding in scale–in 2018.

This would presumably result in a higher PE multiple at come point, as well as higher earnings.  The question I’m currently pondering is whether this prospect makes INTC more attractive than a tech-oriented ETF.

 

contribution margin

three sets of books

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the three sets of accounts that a publicly traded company maintains:

–tax books, where the objective is to pay the smallest amount of tax legally possible–in other words, to fool the IRS,

–financial reporting books, where a more liberal view of when and how revenues and expense occur allow a company to put its best foot forward with owners–in other words, to fool shareholders, and

–management control books, also called cost accounting books, which the company uses to actually run its operations.

contribution margin

Contribution margin is a cost accounting concept.

The first thing to note is that despite its name it’s not really a margin–that is, it’s not a percentage.

Instead, it’s the amount by which an activity or a  line of business exceeds its own direct costs and makes a contribution to corporate overhead.  This isn’t the same as making a standalone profit, meaning after covering total costs.

Take a restaurant that’s now open for lunch and dinner and makes money doing so.

Should it open for breakfast, as well?

In the simplest case, the question is whether the restaurant can generate enough revenue to offset the cost of paying for the food and the staff.  If so, it makes a positive contribution margin.  If we were to allocate, say, 20% of the restaurant’s total expense for rent, electricity and depreciation of equipment,  breakfast might be bleeding red ink.  But those costs are there anyway, whether breakfast is or not.  As long as the contribution margin is positive, the firm is better off with breakfast than without.  (Yes, the actual situation is more complicated   …is the wear and tear higher because of breakfast?   …does breakfast cannibalize the other meals?   But I’m keeping it simple to illustrate a point.)

Another case.   Some lines of business may never have been intended to create growing profits, or may no longer be capable of doing so, even if they once were.  A manufacturer may make precision components in-house.  The component division will typically be run as a cost center, not a profit center.  It’s mission will be to provide high quality parts at the lowest price, not to maximize profits.  Its managers will be evaluated by their ability to provide output more cheaply than third-party alternatives can.  Again, the division may not be profitable after allocation of its share of corporate overhead.  Still, it may be very valuable.  Its value will be measured by contribution margin, defined as the difference between in-house and third-party component costs.

Why is this important?

It’s a mindset thing.  Not every part of a company may be intended to grow.  Rising stars may eventually turn into cash cows as businesses evolve.  It’s important both for company management and investors to understand the role an activity should be playing in the overall enterprise.

 

 

Hong Kong back to earth

After four days of furious buying by mainland institutional equity investors, the Hong Kong market had a down day today.  This comes despite continuing healthy money inflow from the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect mechanism.  Although I didn’t watch the market closely (too late in the night for me), it seems as if sellers emerged in force in the afternoon when mainland money was unable to push the market much higher in the morning.

As one might expect, the big winners of the past week were the big losers of today.

Although I feel no overwhelming need to buy tomorrow, it looks to me that Stock Connect will end up setting a higher floor under China-related shares in Hong Kong than was possible when locals and US/EU international investors were the main participants in the market.

 

I’ve been a bit bemused at media surprise that many Hong Kong heavyweights have not participated in the rally.  The stocks in question have at least one of the following characteristics:

1.  they have broad global exposure but no particular focus on China,

2.  they’re controlled by UK interests and continue to be symbols of former colonial rule, and/or

3.  in the case of the “hongs” or trading companies, they are the 21st century form of the British-owned opium companies that were Hong Kong’s mainstay in the nineteenth century.  During the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, Britain invaded China, forcing legalization of trade in the narcotic and effectively seized of Hong Kong Island and a chunk of the mainland from Beijing.  Companies strongly connected with this national humiliation are the last firms mainland investors are likely to buy!

What stocks are mainlanders buying?  They’re what one would expect:

–companies dually listed in Hong Kong and China, but trading at a discount in Hong Kong

–companies with attractive businesses in China, but listed only in Hong Kong.

Trading over the next few days will likely give us a better idea of the staying power and price sensitivity of mainland investors.  For me, the key question is whether Stock Connect buyers will let prices drift down before reentering.

 

the “decimation” of Portland, Oregon’s container business–is this LA’s future?

Last week I wrote about the Los Angeles-area container ports’ continuing problems between the shipping lines and port workers.  My view is that inability to resolve these conflicts is the motivating factor behind the shippers’ support for alternate routes to the east coast of the US, like the expansion of the Panama Canal now under way.  A corollary is that there’ll be a significant supply chain reshuffle for East Coast customers once the canal expansion is completed.

Shortly after that post, I found an article in the Journal of Commerce about the contraction of the container business in Portland, Oregon.  It seems to me to anticipate what is likely to occur in the LA area in coming years.

According to the JOC,  a jurisdictional dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) over who controls two electrician positions servicing refrigerated containers has resulted in continuing work stoppages and slowdowns in the Portland port over the past three years.  The jobs were originally IBEW positions.  In 2010, the ILWU demanded–and was given–control over the two slots.  After ILWU members were unable to do the work satisfactorily, the port returned control to the IBEW.  That triggered local work stoppages and slowdowns.  In addition to this, the Portland local of the ILWU participated in the recent four-month work slowdown that affected all West Coast ports.

A month ago, Korean shipper Hanjin, which represented about 2/3 of the port’s container business, ceased operations at Portland.  Last week, German shipper Hapag-Lloyd, which is virtually all of the rest, did so as well.

This leaves Portland with two problems:

–exporters to Asia of agricultural products from Oregon and Idaho, which had been using the return leg of trans-Pacific shipping routes to get their output to market no longer have that possibility.  Their (more expensive) choices:  truck goods to Tacoma, Seattle or LA.

–the ILWU contract calls for full-time workers to be paid $35.58/hour for 37.5 hours per week, whether there is work or not.  If the recently negotiated contract is ratified, those figures will rise to $36.68 and 40 hours.

 

The Oregonian estimates that the loss of Hanjin will eliminate work for 657 longshoremen, being paid $225,000 a day–and put 5,000 more jobs in the community at risk.  The earliest it sees possible replacement traffic is in two years.  By then, however, the Panama Canal expansion should be complete–or very close.

 

surging Hong Kong stocks

a rising Hang Seng

The Hang Seng index is up by close to 10% over the past five trading days.  The Hang Seng China Enterprises index, which measures the performance of stocks dually listed in Hong Kong and on the mainland, has risen by 13%+.

Both figures understate the performance of many individual issues in the Hong Kong market over that span.  Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HK: 0388), for example, is up by 40% over the past week.  BYD (HK: 0285), the battery/electric car company, has risen by 30%; Air China (HK:  0753) is 40% higher.

The bulk of the money fueling these purchases is coming from the mainland, through the Stock Connect mechanism (see my post on SC) that Beijing established about half a year ago.  The purpose of Stock Connect is to gradually allow larger flows of portfolio capital between Hong Kong and the mainland stock exchanges.  The idea is that at some point the two areas will act effectively as one.

Up until the past few days, SC flows between Hong Kong and Shanghai have been disappointing.  That changed drastically when Beijing gave the okay on March 27th for mainland mutual funds to use the SC mechanism.  I don’t know whether it happened again overnight, but Chinese mutual funds have been forced to stop buying because the daily limit to Stock Connect transfers has been reached early in afternoon trading over each of the past several days.

What is causing the surge?

Two factors:

–sharp upward movement in mainland stock markets had left the Hong Kong shares of dually-listed Chinese companies trading at extremely deep discounts to their equivalent shares in China (shares in Hong Kong still average around 20% cheaper), and

–strict market regulation, properly audited financials and the existence of companies traded in Hong Kong but not available on the mainland all make Hong Kong an interesting destination for Chinese portfolio money.

my take

As long as Hong Kong’s China-related shares trade at a steep discount to their Shanghai counterparts, arbitrage should be a support both for these individual issues and for the Hong Kong market as a whole.

For the first time ever, Hong Kong investors have got to keep a close eye on mainland exchange activity, since arbitrage can work both ways.

To the extent that any Hong Kong stocks are still about the physical place, Hong Kong, and not about the mainland, they’ll likely be significant laggards.

A tiny voice in the back of my head says that there’s something artificial about this week’s sharp rise.  If this were 1980s Japan, I’d be convinced that mutual funds had been strongly urged by some government ministry to use Stock Connect vigorously this week.  Could something like that have happened in China?  Maybe.  I think next week’s stock action will give us a hint as to whether the week’s exuberance is voluntary.

I have a lot of Hong Kong exposure already.  I have no inclination to chase stocks solely on the idea I’ll surf a mega-wave of incoming money.  Still, if this is genuine Chinese investor interest, I think we’re unlikely to see prices back at their week-ago levels any time soon.  And we’re probably going to see pretty regular mainland support for Hong Kong shares.  So I might be tempted to add on weakness.