following the money; the fashion industry and working capital

I was reading an article in the Financial Times the other day about pandemic-created issues in the high-fashion modelling agency business–something I’ll confess to knowing virtually nothing about.

Part of my interest is just securities analyst nerdiness. Part is that the FT is a highly reliable source, providing information that’s almost always accurate. Also, I think the story illustrates the more general point for us as investors that a simple look at receivables and payables on the balance sheet can provide a lot of insight into the economic power relationships in an industry.

The main players here:

–the models. They’re freelancers. They get assignments from modelling agencies, pay all their own expenses and get paid after they do the work (in arrears, as the accountants say)

–the agencies. They’re middlemen. They get assignments from branded merchandise companies and fill them with models they’re in contact with. The agencies also get paid in arrears

–the fashion brands. After crafting selling campaigns for their merchandise, they hire agencies to fill their need for photography and runway models. The brands pay in arrears.

in general…

…in a commercial relationship the entity that receives credit (or services in advance of paying for them, which is basically the same thing) is in a stronger position than the one that supplies it.

–Models would seem to be in the worst position of the three groups, since they pay for all their working expenses in advance and get paid only after the assignment is over. In accounting jargon, they are converting an asset on their personal balance sheets, cash, into another, less valuable, asset, receivables (meaning trade IOUs)

–Agencies are in a somewhat better position. They make a few phone calls, get an assignment from a fashion brand (the money from which they list on their balance sheet as a receivable) and line up a model (whose compensation they list on the liabilities side as a payable). Assuming the agency is a money-making enterprise, the receivable is considerably larger than the payable)

–Fashion brands hold the market power. They order a model and pay the agency for services afterwards. They list what they’ve promised to pay the agency on their balance sheets as a payable.

This is the first round of analysis: having all payables and no receivables is the best position to be in; having receivables without payables is the worst. For firms with both, the net of the two–payables minus receivables–is what counts.

round two

Round one is usually enough to get a sense of market power. There are a couple of wrinkles to consider.

–not everybody pays on time; in fact, not everybody pays, period. The balance sheet reserve for doubtful accounts will reveal what a firm’s historical experience has been

–if receivables are due to be paid to you in three months but your payables are due in two weeks, you have a cash flow problem. The typical solution is a growing amount of short-term debt. This situation is also a sign of lack of market power. Customers can demand very favorable payment terms, while suppliers insist on being paid almost immediately.

about the modelling industry in particular

According to the FT, modelling agencies are facing hard times for several reasons. Fashion houses are doing what many big firms do when times are tough–they are slowing down payments to their suppliers. As well, some smaller clients have gone out of business before paying their bills, making those receivables worth little, if anything. Both developments make it harder for agencies to pay models who have already completed assignments.

more changes brewing

Worse for agencies and models, the FT says fashion brands are being forced by travel restrictions and social distancing rules to innovate away from the elaborate, model-intensive runway shows they traditionally stage to introduce new merchandise. The same for elaborate photo shoots used to generate publicity materials. In fact, Gucci and Burberry have both used their own employees as models to launch new collections.

My guess is that many pandemic-forced “fixes” by the fashion brands will become permanent. Two typical motivations: the firms will find that eliminating large in-person events and lavish photo displays will have little negative effect on revenues, so their necessity will begin to be questioned; it’s usually much easier to convince the board of directors to cut large outlays than it is to get the funds reinstated.

Perhaps most important, if I’m correct, the weakening of the scope and influence of these expensive displays, or their demise, will remove a significant barrier to entry for newer, smaller brands.

parts of an email from yesterday

I guess you’ve seen all the stuff about huge buying of options on individual tech stocks, both by Bar Stool-style traders and by Softbank, driving tech stocks up.  My guess is that has ended for now.  If so, it will probably take a week or so for trading in the big tech names to settle down.

I’ve read that when the Tokyo market found out what Son had been up to, and had made $4 billion on speculative options trading, Softbank dropped by 8% (?), losing shareholders $20 billion in market value.  That’s because what he did is bet-the-company crazy.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that some second-line names are doing much better (meaning falling more slowly) than what must be Robinhood-ish favorites.


It’s never clear what triggers a market selloff.  In this case, though, it’s doing a healthy thing by readjusting relative values among different groups of stocks–something I’ve thought would happen by a temporary reversal of leadership in an uptrend.

I think the fact that at zero interest rates stocks are the only game in town means stocks will drop to some longer-term trend line, stabilize, and then begin to move up again.  A hope, not a belief–at the close today NASDAQ seems to have hit the bottom of a channel it’s been in since April.  (It’s also about 25% above its March high, which says these are not bargain-basement levels.)


Over the past 5 trading days, NASDAQ is down by -9.2%, the S&P by -5.5%, and the Russell by -4.7%, so there is outperformance of a sort by the R2000.
Very often after a big selloff, market leadership changes.  That didn’t really happen in March, although afterwards the R2000 began to keep up more with the S&P for several months.  My sense is that the market wants to broaden out to find non-tech stocks that will do well over the next year or two.  This is why consumer discretionary names have been doing well recently.  But because some kinds of tech are going to be long-term winners, the move has to be based on finding consumer names that have good growth prospects, not just that they’re in another sector. 

The market hasn’t gotten conviction yet with this idea, probably in large part because Trumponomics gets loonier by the day.  The near-term economic outlook in the US had already been deteriorating before his latest China ideas, and won’t have a chance to be better unless he’s defeated in November.

Then there’s the human side of things. Who’d have thought we’d see George Wallace reincarnated, or the Waffen SS recreated, or scary abuse of power in the Justice Department–or that the Joint Chiefs would feel the need to say they would not obey any Trump orders to use troops to deny Americans their civil rights.

 
The last two paragraphs both bear on stocks like NWL.  Arguably, NWL is a true “value” name.  That is, all the bad stuff–and more–that could reasonably be expected to happen has already taken place and been factored into the stock price.  So it has some downside protection. It’s also economically sensitive and non-tech; and maybe if management can use the company’s assets competently, good things will happen. 

Another way of putting this is that in a world where TSLA can be down 30% in a week maybe the value formula of dead money for now with the hope of upside later on isn’t so bad to have as part of a portfolio.

Wall Street and US elections

There are two pieces of Wall Street lore about market performance around presidential elections that have passed their sell-by date but which continue to float around. They are:

–the last year of a presidential terms is a good one for stocks; the first year of the new term is a bad one.

The idea behind this is that the incumbent president would successfully pressure the Federal Reserve into a looser-than-necessary money policy in the runup to the election. This would give an artificial boost to the domestic economy, enhancing his reelection prospects. This extra stimulus would be reversed after the election, slowing the economy down in the first months of the new term. Gerald Ford’s refusal to follow this custom is often cited as the reason he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

With the exception of Donald Trump, who has continually pressured the Fed to loosen money policy throughout his term, this no longer happens. I’m not 100% sure why. My leading candidates: the world is a much more complex and mutually integrated place than it was a generation ago, so it’s not so easy to use the domestic money supply to give the economy a pre-election jolt; over the past quarter-century there have been a succession of crises, from Y2K/Internet bubble to 9/11, to the Great Recession, to Trump’s wrongheaded tariff wars, to his coronavirus bungling, that have dwarfed any monetary tweaking the Fed might contemplate .

In any event, there’s no reason to believe that the world economy will be weaker in 2021 than it is now or that a post-election tightening in money policy is on the cards.

–Republicans are good for stocks, Democrats are not.

The idea here, from a generation ago as well, is capital vs. labor. A high-level Republican goal is to protect the accumulated wealth of its country club backers. This means having low taxes and low inflation. The Democrats, on the other hand, represent workers whose chief asset is their labor. Their main economic goal is to obtain real wage/benefit gains. The inflation that results doesn’t hurt them because they have no wealth to begin with. And it makes them better off by eroding the real value of the goods and services they need to buy from Republicans.

Again, the class warfare that defined the old Democrat/Republican battle lines is mostly gone. As a former work colleague of mine was already writing thirty years ago, neither party has a relevant economic program for today’s world. Ironically, despite its business roots, the current Republican administration is supported mainly, I think, by workers disenfranchised through the demise of heavy industry in the US (and ignored in a worst-in-the-world fashion by both parties). And the head of the party is a stunningly inept businessman who continues to do enormous economic damage to the country.

A more reasonable worry about the election might be that a Democratic administration would partially reverse the corporate income tax cuts of 2018. That might lead to after-tax results from the S&P 500 next year being, say, 3% lower than expected. 3% is not a big number, though. And there might be positive effects on growth from reopening the borders, a more intelligent approach to the potential threat from China than shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tariffs, removal of some of the white racist tarnish of the American brand abroad…

the fight over unemployment benefits

My cartoon version of US politics:

A generation ago the Democrats were the party of the working people and the Republicans the party of the wealthy, especially of inherited wealth.

The Democrats’ goal was to push for strong wage gains, to improve the lot of their supporters. They were also for wealth redistribution–taxing the rich to get the money for social welfare programs like Medicare or Social Security. High wage gains would also eventually create inflation, eroding the value of the assets supporting hereditary wealth–an added plus.

The aim of the Republicans was to defend the status quo, the value of their bonds and their industrial operations, by advocating low wages, low taxes (no redistribution) and low inflation.

Even though both parties have strayed far from their roots, this old picture has some relevance in explaining economic forces at work in the US today.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal budget deficit for 2020–the amount that government spending will exceed income–will come in at $3.7 trillion.

This is where the current debate on extension of unemployment benefits comes in. Democrats are calling for another $3 trillion in aid to out-of-work Americans; Republicans are arguing for $1 trillion. In simple terms, the difference is between continuing $600 a week in extra benefits vs. reducing that to $200.

In the former case, the federal deficit would come in at about $7 trillion and total government debt would rise to just under $30 trillion. This compares with GDP of about $19 trillion this year–with real GDP growth (even before the pandemic) reduced to close to zero due to Trump’s epic incompetence. That would put us higher than perennial poor soul Italy in terms of debt/GDP and into the same bracket with Greece and Lebanon. Only Japan, with debt of 2.5x GDP would be out of our reach–for now, anyway.

(An aside: hard to believe one man could do so much damage so quickly–and that’s not considering his white racism, environmental recklessness, the secret police roaming Democratic cities…)

Anyway, the question wealthy Republican backers seem to be asking is at what point will creditors balk at continuing to fund the Federal government. Their answer can be seen in the Republican negotiating stance–we’re already there. In my view, a lot depends on whether Trump is reelected despite his devastation of US aspirations and value. I think we’re already seeing the first indications of the world’s worries in the decline of the dollar vs the euro. For wealthy holders of dollar-denominated assets–real estate, industrial plants, fixed income securities–losses could be very large.

the MBA-ization of old school US

After last year’s crashes of the Boeing 737 Max caused the plane’s grounding worldwide, I decided to take a quick look at Boeing (BA) on the idea that the selloff might be an overreaction. BA is a stock I’ve never owned. And although I appreciate the power of the BA/Airbus commercial aircraft duopoly, it’s not an area I keep tabs on.

I was surprised to find that BA looked a lot like a US auto company to me–that is, an assembler of parts and components made by others (who own–my guess–the bulk of the engineering intellectual property I’d mistakenly thought was in BA). Billions spent on share buybacks, too. What’s left inside BA? …a brand name, a distribution network and a group of airline customers who have organized their maintenance operations around BA aircraft. My conclusion: BA is a shell of its former self, a product of MBA-ish financial legerdemain rather than a center of engineering excellence. Why is this bad? …because hollowing out the company creates good times now at the expense of diminishing ability to generate future profits. As with the auto industry in the US, innovation now resides with suppliers, who are where the superior profit growth is to be found.

What made me think of BA now is the surprising announcement from Intel (INTC) that it has not only lost the big engineering lead it had over the rest of the semiconductor fabricating industry just a few years ago but also is now about a year behind TSMC (yes, the nm numbers are different between the two, but that’s not so important). More than that, the company is mulling over whether to outsource manufacturing to TSMC. When I owned INTC shares in 2012-14, the company was trading at book value of $19 and yielding 3%. Yes, the world was passing the company’s x86 design by. But manufacturing was still excellent. I thought there was limited downside and that INTC was working to catch up with semiconductor rivals. The stock doubled while I owned it. At some point, though, it looks like INTC, too, opted for the business school financial engineering solution, which would be the really bad news in the INTC announcement.

Why do companies abandon the technical excellence that made them great in the first place? I think there are three related reasons:

–in an established company, the status quo is very powerful. This is even more true if the founding management is still around.

–CEO tenure is usually very short. Pay is astronomical, and is tied both to profit growth and the stock price. Someone who has spent thirty years getting to the top hoping for a gigantic payoff has little incentive to lead a (necessary) restructuring that will produce, say, two years of losses and a potentially depressed stock price

–in mature companies, CEOs tend to be marketers who have little technical background or understanding. They emphasize what they know.