the Huawei questions

Huawei is a Chinese telecom company.  It makes niftier smartphones than Apple and has 5G technology that’s better than anything US companies can offer.  The company is certainly a competitive threat to US cellphone makers, as well as to manufacturers of telephone equipment worldwide.

The question that arises with a firm like Huawei, also the perennial question raised about dominant US tech companies since WWII, is the degree to which Huawei will act in the national interest of China.  That is, can/will Beijing eavesdrop on conversations or collect/alter data being carried on Huawei networks–maybe even stop them operating, if Beijing so chooses.

The Trump response to Huawei’s technological edge has been two-fold:  to blacklist Huawei, and to aid its US rival, Qualcomm.

Two questions:

1.is this the proper response?   …or is it like Mr. Trump’s invoking national security to price better-performing Asian and European cars to unaffordable levels, forcing citizens to buy US automobiles that three-quarters of the population now shun?

I’m guessing the former.

 

2. does Mr. Trump have a strategy?   Has he thought out the consequences of what he’s doing?

Here my guess is no.  Otherwise, he would have been promoting science education and welcoming skilled foreign scientists, rather than compelling tech firms to relocate their tech hubs to Canada and elsewhere.

(An aside, sort of:  I was recently listening to a podcast which dealt with Mr. Trump’s weak record in real estate by saying that he was rich before he started in the family business and he remained rich after negotiating treacherous waters during the 1980s.  Really?

My read of the president’s career:  he ended (prior to licensing his name and performing in a reality show) with about as much money in real terms as he started with.  So in that highly technical sense what the podcast said is right.  Over the same period, however, a run-of-the-mill real estate developer made, adjusting for risk, four times what Trump did.  A really competent real estate person might have made 10x.  In achieving his result, Mr. Trump was also aided by the public listing, debt refinancing and subsequent bankruptcy declaration of his Atlantic City casinos.  Although Mr. Trump prevailed in the litigation that ensued, as a professional investor I find this an eyebrow-raising episode.

Mr. Trump was “successful” in running a business in the sense that he went fishing during a time when tons of fish were jumping into the boat and he came back with the boat.  Nothing in it …though he was in the area where the most fish were to be had   …and he was soaking wet in a way that suggested he fell out at some point.

I’m also extrapolating from that.)

investment implications?

Throughout my investing career, politics has never made much of a difference.  In fact, to my mind professional investors who based their decisions on reading Washington’s runes simply revealed the poverty of their thought.  I think now is different.  Mr. Trump has exposed the surprising weakness of Congress.  The reality of China as a rival superpower to the US has been made clear.

Unfortunately, Mr. Trump is executing an early twentieth-century strategy to solve a twenty-first century dilemma.  Arguably, but not necessarily, this is a drama where the US is playing the role of post-WWI Britain and China is the 1920s US.  We all know how that worked out. By simultaneously discouraging innovation at home and forcing China to up the pace of its own tech progress, I think the administration is auditioning for the UK part, and thereby potentially doing significant long-term harm to the economy.  Ironically, those hurt most badly will likely be Mr. Trump’s most rabid supporters.  Withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, for example, is already putting US farms at a disadvantage vs. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand rivals.

What to do?

I’m taking a two-pronged strategy in the US.  I’m looking for companies with worldwide reach and innovative products.  For domestically-oriented companies, I’m taking an approach that might be called, for lack of a better term, “value with a catalyst” (regular readers will likely know that I don’t believe traditional value works any more in the US).  This term usually means a value stock where a turnaround has progressed far enough that the path for the firm to return to health can be identified.  E.g., the stock is trading at 20% of book value in an environment where healthy firms are trading at book.  Only “deep” value investors might be interested.  Then the company recruits a CEO who’s a turnaround expert and the stock begins to trade at 30% of book–this is value with a catalyst.  I’m not so interested in book, though.  I’m looking at price/cash flow.

I’m also looking harder in the Pacific Basin.  I’m even thinking about the EU, although that’s an area where market participants have a thorough value orientation and where lots of local market lore is needed to be successful.  So I find it a bit scary–better said, the rewards not worth the effort.

 

 

 

my take on Kraft Heinz Co (KHC)

Late last week, KHC reported 2Q18 earnings.  The figures were disappointing.  More importantly, the company announced it is:

–cutting the $.625/quarter dividend to $.40,

–writing down the value of its intangible assets by $15.4 billion (about 28% of the total) and

–involved in an SEC inquiry into the company’s accounting practices for determining cost of goods sold.  Apparently prompted by this, KHC boosted CoG for full-year 2018 by $25 million in 4Q18.

The stock declined by 27% on this news.

 

What’s going on?

broadly speaking…

KHC is controlled by famed investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and by 3G, a group of investment bankers behind the consolidation success of beer maker Anheuser-Busch Inbev.

As I see it, Buffett’s principal investing idea continues to be that markets systematically undervalue “intangible assets,” accounted for as expenses, not assets–namely, successful firms’ brand-building through advertising/marketing and superior products/services.  This explains his preference for packaged goods companies and his odd tech choices like IBM and, only after all these many years of success, Apple.  All have well-known brand names cemented into public consciousness by decades of marketing expenditure.

3G believes, I think, that in most WWII-era companies a quarter to a third of employees do no useful work.  Therefore, acquiring them and trimming the outrageous levels of fat will pay large dividends.  Remaining workers, arguably, will figure out that performing well trumps office politics as a way of climbing the corporate ladder, so operations will continue to chug along after the initial cull.

These beliefs account for the partners’ interest in KHC.

 

My take here is that the investing world has long since incorporated Mr. Buffett’s once groundbreaking thinking into its operating procedures, so that appreciating the power of intangibles no longer gives much of an investing edge.  (Actually, KHC suggests reliance on the fact of intangibles may make one too complacent.)  As to G3, it’s hard for me to figure how companies fare after the dead wood is eliminated.

the quarter

The most startling, and worrying, thing to me about the quarter is the writedown of intangibles.  My (admittedly quick) look at the KHC balance sheet shows that total liabilities and tangible assets–working capital and plant/equipment–pretty much net each other out.  This means that shareholders equity (book value) pretty much consists solely in the intangibles that drive customers to buy KHC’s ketchup and processed cheese foods.  That number is now 28% lower than the last time the company looked at these factors.  Did all that decline happen in 2018?  Is this the last writedown, or are more in the offing?

The fall in the stock price seems to me to correspond closely to the writedown.  I’d expect the same to hold the in the future.  And it’s why I think the risk of further writedowns is a shareholder’s biggest worry.

 

–A dividend reduction is always a red flag, especially so in a case like this where the payout has been rising.  It suggests strongly that something has come out of the blue for the board of directors.  However, KHC appears to be indicating that cash cows are being divested and that loss of associated cash flow is behind the dividend cut.  I don’t know the company well enough to decide how cogent this explanation is, but it’s enough to put the dividend cut into second place on my list.

–an SEC inquiry is never a good sign.  In this case, though, it seems that only small amounts of money are at issue.  But, if nothing else, it points to weaknesses in management controls, supposedly 3G’s forte.

 

Final thoughts:

–Experience tells me the whole story isn’t out yet.  I’d want to know whether KHC is taking these actions on its own, or are the company’s lenders, its auditors or the SEC playing an important role?

–This case argues that the intangible economic “moats” that value investors often talk about have less protective value in the Internet/Millennial era than in earlier, slower-changing times.