US retail inventories

Going into the end of year holiday shopping season, inventories of US merchants–especially of apparel–seem to be unusually (i.e., too) high.  I don;t think this is the case across the board.  It appears to be especially true of department stores, however.

I think this oversupply is partly caused by a reaction to last year’s troubles at the West Coast ports, meaning that merchants made their buying decisions early, to avoid running out of stock if labor problems resurfaced.

But I also think a couple of mindset issues are at work, as well.

–the recent strategic shift Wal-Mart announced to emphasize the internet suggests to me that throughout established retail, high level, long time executives who made their careers controlling the logistics of servicing physical stores have been in denial about online.

–in a housing upswing, the typical pattern around the world is that people who are establishing new households, either by renting or by buying, find the money to pay the rent/mortgage, paint, decorate, furnish…by shifting spending away from other, less immediately pressing, items.  Like apparel, for example.

The only time I can recall this reallocation not occurring is in the US, during the period from the mid-1990s to the crash in 2008.  That’s when homeowners were financing consumption by borrowing against the equity in their houses.

That’s no longer the case.  We’re back in a more normal environment, where a dollar spent on furniture or hoe improvements means a dollar less to be spent on clothes or toys (except for Star Wars, of course).

My thoughts:

It’s easier to adjust from having made the second mindset mistake than the first.  Revenues may not show who has made either; profits (or a lack of them) will.

The idea that as investors in retail we have to play the housing cycle as a key determinant of profit growth is another aspect of the Millennials vs. Boomers phenomenon in the economy.

segmenting the Millennial market

This is a continuation of my post from Wednesday.

How important is understanding this evolving segmentation between older and younger Millennials?

Overall, I think it’s more important to think about shifting our consumer stock exposure away from Baby Boomers and toward Millennials.  On the other hand, this potential change in portfolio structure is probably already much better understood than the finer point of distinguishing between older and younger Millennials.  So the latter may have equal outperformance-creating power.

In what follows, I’m relying on a recent NPD study that you can send for on the NPD website.

1. Overall spending

Both older and younger Millennials do a larger amount of their spending online than the rest of the population.

Older Millennials tend to belong to loyalty clubs and often use retailer apps on their phones.  Younger Millennials, not so much.

Older Millennials buy more kids’ stuff and have more home-related expenses.  This makes sense, since they are in the household formation stage of their lives .  Younger Millennials are attracted to experiences rather than things–they do more and buy less.

2.  Eating

Older Millennials like to cook;  younger ones don’t.  Both groups want healthy, filling food, but younger Millennials like the convenience of eating out.

Both groups use wholesale clubs more than supermarkets.

3.  Department stores vs. specialty retail

Overall, Millennials spend more of their income in department stores than the rest of the population.

Among specialty apparel retailers, younger Millennials like Hollister and Charlotte Russe the best.  Older Millennials prefer Zara and Old Navy.

4.  Beauty products

Millennials spend more on this category than the overall population.  Both older and younger do about half their spending in this category in a combination of Wal-Mart, Target and Costco–a larger percentage than the population in general.

5.  Younger Millennials are very interested in health in fitness.  Not so their older counterparts.  YMs like REI and Nike.

 

 

segmenting Millennials

I got an e-“book” from NPD, the retail data and analysis people, the other day that argues we as investors shouldn’t look at Millennials as a coherent group, but rather segment them by age ( I wrote “book” because it’s ten pages long).  Here’s what it says:

general

Millennials are an important demographic group in one sense because they’re the largest segment in the US by age, having recently passed the Baby Boom in size.  More important, they’re in the ascendant economically, while Boomers are gradually fading into retirement, with attendant lower incomes and weakening propensity to spend.  In addition, 13.8% of those 18 -29 are either unemployed or out of the workforce.  This suggests that this group will show better than average income–and spending–growth as Boomer retirement and economic expansion make more jobs available.

Millennials are projected to account for a third of total US retail spending within the next five years.

segmenting

NPD divides Millennials into younger (18 – 24) and older (25 -34).

Older Millennials:

74% white

40% married (44% have been married at least once)

40% have children

have more money

are less optimistic

favor Donald Trump.

 

Younger Millennials:

68% white

10% married (20% have been at least once)

10% have children

have less money (many are still in school)

are more optimistic

favor Bernie Sanders

 

Differing retail habits on Friday.

 

 

Japan as a possible future for the US

Japan, in my subjective view

As I wrote yesterday, the Japanese economy continues to limp along at about stall speed, hugging closely to the 0% line between growth and contraction.  There are several reasons for this, in my :

–an aging population

–strong social prejudice against accepting women as working professionals (meaning Japan wastes potentially half its workforce)

–strong aversion to foreigners that manifests itself as an unwillingness to allow immigration

–therefore, a shrinking workforce

–money-based politics that fiercely defends the status quo

–veneration of age as the source of wisdom, meaning that older managers can’t/won’t solicit/accept suggestions from younger, more technically competent, subordinates

–a docile electorate

the US is the same, in…

–an aging population

–lingering discrimination against women

–growing political (shoot-yourself-in-the-foot) pressure to limit immigration overall, and especially by high skilled professionals from Asia

–money-based politics that defends the status quo, seen, among other places, in failure to reform the federal tax code (Japan and the US have the highest rates in the OECD)

the US differs, in…

–having a younger population than Japan, meaning we have time to make changes–and the example of the fate of Japan to motivate us to do so

–a better record on hiring women (not a high bar, though)

–political and cultural embracing of youthful entrepreneurs and disruptive ideas

summing up

The US has younger population tan Japan and a more vigorous economy, but is carrying similar dead-weight in the forces of the status quo, typified by politics in Washington.

In the past 25 years, Japanese voters have voted on two occasions to toss the dominant Liberal Democratic  Party out of office and replace it with the Democrats (formerly the Social Democrats, and the Socialists before that).  Both occasions triggered bitter intra-party warfare about who should receive credit for the victory.  Nothing got done, so voters quickly reselected the LDP, as the lesser of two evils.

Hopefully, we can do better than that.

 

Japan in recession …again

Assuming we take the simple, but commonly accepted, definition of recession as two consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth as our measure–and there’s no real reason not to, I think–Japan slipped back into recession during its last fiscal quarter.  The reason:  in Groundhog Day-like fashion, the Tokyo government tightened fiscal policy prematurely earlier in the year, producing the same negative result for the third time in recent memory.

Three observations:

–the Japan experience is the reason Janet Yellen is so wishy-washy about raising interest rates in the US

–in a certain sense, technical recession isn’t as bad a thing for Japan as it wold be for, say, the US or China.

How so?

GDP growth comes from two sources:  having more people working, or having existing workers perform their jobs more efficiently.  Unlike the view (often) expressed by one of my Depression-era former bosses, productivity increases don’t come from imposing sweat shop working conditions.  They come from investment in education, training and productivity-enhancing equipment.

In Japan’s case, the domestic working population peaked around 1995 and has been falling by about 0.5% per year since.  One obvious solution to this problem would be to allow foreign workers to immigrate.  But, although there has been some slight movement lately, Japan’s borders remain rigidly closed to outsiders.

Productivity?   From 1950 – 19980, Japan was a productivity wonder.  However, Japan has struggled to keep up with the more intensive pace of change since then.  Why?  I think the rigidly hierarchical nature of company social interaction in traditional Japanese companies stifles the voice of innovation from younger employees.

Let’s say, though, that somehow Japan achieves productivity increases of +1% annually despite the “no comments; just follow orders” attitude of top managements.  I think that’s too much, but let’s go with it.  If so, the overall economy needs half that figure to overcome the decline in the workforce.  Real GDP growth has a trend ceiling of +0.5%.

So, the maximum sustainable rate of GDP expansion in Japan is barely north of zero.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if that figure spends considerable time south of breakeven.  As long as the numbers don’t get too negative, Japan will continue to stumble along on its journey to economic insignificance.

–what makes Japan important, interesting …and scary for the US and the EU is that we’re seeing a possible future for us in the Japan of today.

More on this tomorrow.

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.