the amazing shrinking dollar

So far this year, the US$ has fallen by about 14% against the €, and around 8% against the ¥ and £.

A substantial portion of this movement is giveback of the sharp dollar appreciation which happened last year after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president.  That was sparked by belief that a non-establishment chief executive would be able to get things done in Washington.  Reform of the income tax system and repair of aging infrastructure were supposed to be high on the agenda, with the resulting fiscal stimulus allowing the Fed to raise interest rates much more aggressively than the consensus had imagined.  Hence, continuing dollar strength on a booming economy and increasing interest rate differentials.

To date, none of that has happened.   So it makes sense that currency traders would begin to reverse their bets on.  However, last year’s move up in the dollar has been more than completely erased and the clear consensus is now on continuing dollar weakness.

 

Dollar weakness has caused stock market investors to shift their portfolios away from domestic-oriented firms toward multinationals and exporters.  This is the standard tactic.  It also makes sense:  a firm with costs in dollars and revenues in euros is in an ideal position at present.

It’s interesting to note, though, that over the weekend China lifted some restrictions imposed last year that limited the ability of its citizens to sell renminbi to buy dollars.

To my mind, this is the first sign that dollar weakness may have gone too far.

It’s too soon, in my view, to react to this possibility.  In particular, the appointment of a new head of the Federal Reserve could play a key role in the currency’s future path, given persistent Republican calls to curtail its independence.  Gary Cohn, the establishment choice, is rumored to have fallen out of favor with Mr. Trump after protesting the latter’s support of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Still, it’s not too early to plot out a potential strategy to benefit from a dollar reversal.

 

 

Jeep as a Chinese brand

A mainland Chinese company, Great Wall Motor of China, has recently expressed interest in acquiring either the Jeep brand + manufacturing operations or all of Fiat/Chrysler.

The press has since been filled with commentary whose thrust is that Washington will oppose either sale proposition.

Several things strike me as odd about this:

–brands like Volvo and Jaguar have looked a lot more interesting recently since coming into Asian hands, so that shouldn’t be an issue (although this is likely the crux of the matter)

Jeep is now part of an Italian company   …which bought it from a German firm that was slowly sinking under the weight of a senescent Chrysler   …which had been foundering despite a government bailout in the 1970s and a huge injection of badly needed engineering talent under Daimler.  So a firmer economic footing for the whole Chrysler enterprise is unlikely to come without outside-the-box thinking.  Also, it’s hard to make a logical argument that foreign ownership for any part of Chrysler is a problem

–if the Great Wall Motor interest is real, it suggests the company has access to foreign exchange at a time when Beijing is cracking down on reckless foreign m&a by domestic corporations.  That likely means that Great Wall has enough influence in China to be able to expand the Jeep brand’s reach quickly

–I haven’t heard a lot of posturing from Washington.  Either I’m really out of touch on this one, or the anti-Great Wall sentiment is mostly in the minds of reporters.

a rainy Friday in August in New York

August is the month when many senior portfolio managers are away from the office on vacation.  So big decisions on portfolio structure tend not to be made.

Friday is the day of the week when short-term traders’ thoughts turn to flattening their books so they won’t carry risk over the weekend.

It’s raining, which sparks thoughts in traders of sleeping in or leaving work early.

Add all that up, and the heavy betting should be that US stocks will likely move sideways in the morning and fade off toward the close.

That means this is a good day to stand on the sidelines and size up the tone of the market.

 

In pre-market trading, tech is up and bricks-and-mortar retailing (on the earnings miss by Foot Locker) is down.  …nothing new about this.  At some point there will doubtless be a fierce counter-trend rally.  But the negative earnings surprises are still provoking severe selloffs.  So I don’t think today is the day.

Pundits are speculating about the damaging effects on his political agenda of Mr. Trump’s apparent defense of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.  …but the Trump trade has been MIA since January, with the US a laggard among world stock markets during Mr. Trump’s time in office so far.  Yes, there may be residual hope for corporate tax reform from the administration, which this latest demonstration of the president’s ineptness as a executive could arguably undermine.  My guess is, however, that he is already well understood.

Two questions for today:

–will the market perform more strongly than the season and the weather are suggesting? This would be evidence that there’s still an untapped reservoir of bullishness waiting for somewhat better prices to express itself.

–should we be buying in the afternoon if it’s weaker than I expect?  My answer is No.  I think there is a lot of untapped bullishness, but we’re in a slowly rising channel whose present ceiling is less than 2500 on the S&P 500.   That’s not enough upside for me.  I’m also content to wait for any incipient bearishness to play itself out further.

It will be interesting to see how today plays out.

 

Blue Apron (APRN) at $5+

APRN went public less than two months ago at an offering price of $10 a share.  That was down from pre-offer brokerage chatter (which is  always very optimistic) of $15 – $17.   Given that the average cost for pre-IPO shareholders is just above $1.60, though, any double-digit price must have looked good.

Certainly, the possibility of Amazon/Whole Foods as a competitor was–and still is–a worry.  There are, however, others:

–lack of barriers to entry

–churn:  stories that very large numbers of customers who signed up for trials at promotional discounts balked at continuing at the full price of about $10 a meal

–continuing working capital deterioration.  According to the prospectus, at yearend 2015, APRN had $127 million in unrestricted cash.  By 3/31/17, that figure had shrunk to $61 million, despite APRN taking in $121 million through long-term borrowing and advance subscription payments by customers (listed on the balance sheet as deferred revenue).  Looked at this way, APRN’s operations gobbled up over $180 million in fifteen months.  By 6/30/17, the situation was $30 million worse.

As it turns out, one of my sons had a Blue Apron subscription in the months before the IPO.  I helped prepare some of the meals.  I thought the recipes were excellent but that the ingredients supplied suffered from trying to keep costs down.  So I’m not a fan.  In fact, I’m a bit surprised the IPO went as smoothly as it did.

where to from here?

My initial take is that IPOs like APRN or Snap indicate there’s too much cash sloshing around in the system.  That always seems to end up chasing speculative deals.  My hunch is that APRN won’t be a big success without a significant revamp of strategy.

On the other hand, there’s arguably a price for everything.  In addition, the activist investor that pushed for changes at Whole Foods, Jana Partners, has just disclosed a 2% stake in APRN.

…maybe a turn for the better.  But, as things stand now, I’ll be watching from the sidelines.

 

 

Disney (DIS) as a conglomerate

DIS can be seen as a collection of only loosely connected businesses:  ESPN; the ABC television network; Disney theme parks; and Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and Disney movies.

The sharpest line of separation can be drawn between ESPN (or ESPN + ABC), on the one hand, and the DIS animation, film and theme park businesses, on the other.

When I began to examine DIS stock about a decade ago, my first thought was that the company should change its name to ESPN, to reflect the fact that ESPN represented about three-quarters of the company’s earnings and virtually all of its growth.

That situation has changed dramatically during Bob Iger’s tenure as chairman, on two fronts.

–Iger fixed the formerly ailing Disney movie studio.  He acquired Marvel and Lucasfilms, which provided DIS with rich sources of underdeveloped content, as well as a collection of male characters to balance its previously almost completely female lineup.  In addition, the new characters allowed the theme parks to increase their attractions and merchandising to become a more important part of the profit picture.

–ESPN’s profits stopped growing.  This changed its investment attraction from earnings expansion to cash flow generation.  The shift arguably makes the case for splitting DIS up into ESPN and the residual DIS a stronger one, since the company now seems to consist of an income component and a capital gains one.

Arguably, investors interested in capital gains would pay a higher price for residual DIS earnings if they didn’t have to worry about ESPN.  Income-oriented investors would pay a higher price for ESPN cash flow if it were being dividended to them and if they didn’t have the unwanted risk of the business cycle sensitivity of the residual DIS businesses.

 

why I think a voluntary breakup won’t happen

Two reasons:

–ESPN cash flow may be in slow secular decline.  But it is still a large and convenient source of funding for the rest of DIS, and

–the current market cap of DIS is $160 billion, too large to be a takeover target.  Post-breakup DIS would have a market cap of, to pluck a figure out of the air, $85 billion.  Yes, that’s a large number, but it would change the takeover calculation from impossible to hard-but-doable.

So management likely has zero interest in breaking the company up.

selling: average cost or specific shares?

I’ve had a Fidelity brokerage account for a long time.  I’ve been relatively happy, with only two complaints:

–The first is a “just me” concern.  The Hong Kong stocks I own are always mispriced, except during Hong Kong trading hours.  Other than when that market is live, prices are typically two days old.

I’ve discussed this numerous times with Fidelity representatives (who probably think:  “Oh, him again!”);  I’ve also mentioned this in many surveys I’ve filled out over the years.  Apparently, it isn’t important enough to fix.  Every once in a while a Fidelity trader will advise me to trade these shares on the OTC market in the US, where they will be priced in my account, if accurate quotes are so important.  I don’t see the advantage for me, since my experience is that in times of stress US volumes for stocks like these evaporates.   In such circumstances, my observation is that prices can easily be 5% -10% less favorable in the US than in Hong Kong.  They’re also cheaper to trade in Hong Kong, too, but that’s a lesser issue.

 

–The second is more serious.  For some years, brokers have been required to report gains an losses from trading in taxable accounts to the IRS.  Determining selling price is straightforward.  The default option Fidelity uses for the cost of the shares sold, however, is the average price paid for all the shares in the position.

This is apparently the easiest thing for Fidelity to deliver.  But it’s not always the best for the client.  And the layout of the Fidelity online trade ticket doesn’t really highlight this important issue.  Unless you click on the expanded ticket link at the bottom of the form, you won’t be able to specify the tax lots that will be sold.

What is this about?

Two considerations:

–gains from stocks held for a year or less are taxed as ordinary income;  gains on stocks held longer than that are taxed at the (lower) long-term gains rate (more information from Turbotax).  So all other things being equal, it’s better to recognize a long-term gain than a short-term one.

–I generally try to sell my highest-cost shares first.  This results in recognizing the largest loss or smallest gain.  A net loss can have a tax value (see the Turbotax link above); subject to the holding period rules, the smallest gain should also mean the smallest income tax payment.

An example:

Suppose I hold 100 shares of JPM that I’ve bought at $50 and another 100 at $80.  Both lots are short-term.

I decide to sell 100 shares and net $9000 for them.

If at the time of sale I specify the shares with the $80 cost, my taxable gain is $1000.

If I specify the $50 shares, my gain is $4000. (I would probably only do this if I expected to offset this gain with a loss from other stock sales or from losses carried forward from prior years.)

If I let the Fidelity computer do the work, my capital gain is $2500.

 

If I’m in the 25% tax bracket, my income tax on the sale will be $250, $625 or $1000–depending on how I handle my cost basis.

 

Yes, I’ll likely sell the remainder of the position eventually, so I’m only postponing tax by choosing the highest cost shares.  Even so, in the meantime I have more money to put back to work today if I minimize current taxes.

 

 

 

cryptocurrency (ii)

Yesterday I observeded that a significant issue for any investor in cryptocurrencies is their relative illiquidity.

Well, CBOE (Chicago Board Options Exchange), the world’s largest options exchange, is about to address this shortcoming.  It recently announced that it intends to offer derivative trading in bitcoin before yearend.

 

Several points:

–just by offering a derivative, CBOE will give legitimacy to bitcoin with traditional investors that it didn’t have before, even though CBOE likely has its eye mostly on trading commissions

–it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that the true price setting will occur in the options market rather than in that for the underlying bitcoin

–one of the first arbitrages that will likely occur is between options and the bitcoin etf, GBTC.  The result will presumably be for the still-substantial premium of GBTC to its net asset value to erode

–presumably some form of ether will be the next cryptocurrency derivative on offer.