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.

the dollar, gold and bitcoin

the dollar

The biggest influences by far in the currency markets are the large global banks. I view them as playing a very sophisticated game that looks much farther into the future than the one the typical equity person like me is involved in. One consequence is that significant changes in the economic environment often start to play out in the currency markets before spreading elsewhere.

The currency markets aren’t infallible indicators. The dollar dropped by 20% against the euro (which is not a stellar currency, either) during the first year of Trump as president. Since then the euro has been sliding back, as Europe’s internal problems–Brexit, Italy, early, very deadly arrival of the coronavirus–came to the fore.

Despite all this European ugliness, since mid-May the US dollar has been dropping, steadily and sharply, against the euro. It’s now down by about 9% against the EU currency.

How so? mostly Trump’s incompetence, I think. Europe used US medical science to control the pandemic, while Trump’s urging his supporters to flaunt medical recommendations has it raging again domestically. I don’t think the currency markets are as much concerned about the deaths as about the second round of fiscal stimulus that his bungling has made necessary and its effect on the national budget deficit/national debt.

Trump has also compounded the risk of holding Treasuries by his suggestions that the the US may choose not to repay holders he doesn’t like.

There’s no reason to think the bad news is over, either. Trump is insisting that schools reopen on schedule without pandemic safeguards–creating the worry that a third multi-trillion dollar support payment may ultimately be needed. He’s also intensified his campaign of race hatred, drawing comparisons with Hitler’s rise in the 1930s. Then, there’s the test to detect signs of dementia that he keeps mentioning–which can be seen itself as a sign of the disease he insists he is not suffering from.

implications

Currency weakness is good for exporters and bad for importers. It’s also good for the many S&P 500 companies that have foreign subsidiaries.

gold

Gold is up about 12% since mid-May. An old, but still useful, rule about the gold price is that it remains stable in the stronger of the two currencies, US$ and DM (now the euro). In other words, most of the price rise is due to the decline of the dollar. Still, there has been a small upward movement. My interpretation–and I’m about as far away from being a gold bug as one can get–is that this is more a reflection of how pricey everything else is than a genuine desire to own gold

bitcoin

Personally, I think there’s a better case for bitcoin than for gold. There’s been a sharp spike in bitcoin this week, again more, I think, a result of how expensive other things are. Were Trump to be reelected and his fracturing of the US economy to continue, I imagine bitcoin would draw a lot more interest.

Tesla (TSLA) again, with fewer numbers plucked out of the air

I got a comment from Russ about my recent TSLA post, in which I concluded that a ton of future growth is already priced into the stock. The gist of his comment is that earnings could be a lot higher than I’ve been assuming. What powers a conventional car is an internal combustion engine–an expensive machine spewed out of large-scale factories that need to operate at close to capacity just to break even. The technology is also mature. In contrast, TSLA uses gigantic batteries, a technology in its infancy, i.e., one where costs are falling.

So I decided to abandon my back-of-the-envelope approach and take a look at TSLA’s 2019 financials. Call this my front-of-the-envelope analysis.

2019 sales and direct expenses

TSLA sold 367,500 cars in 2019, at an average price of $54,341 each. It made a gross profit from auto sales (I’ve ignored leases) of $4.0 billion, or $10,900 per car. Gross profit means after all direct cost of manufacture, including materials, labor and the cost of running the plant (including depreciation).

general expenses

The company spent about $4 billion on R&D + sales, general and administrative expenses (SG&A). This offset basically all the manufacturing profit. TSLA had interest expense + taxes, so it made a loss for the year.

where the operating leverage is

The essential point, which somehow eluded me last week, is that the general expenses laid out in the preceding paragraph have been steady for the past several years. Typically, an analyst would have them accelerate at some (low) trend rate of increase. Still, any increase in this expense number will be dwarfed in short order by the rise in gross income if TSLA continues to grow at the current high rate.

If we thought that TSLA could expand sales at 30%/year for the next half-decade, while retaining the same gross profit, then it would have gross profit in 2025 of about $15 billion. If general expenses increase at 5% yearly, they would be around $5 billion then. Net income would likely be about $7.5 billion, or close to $40/share.

new battery?

What about the battery? Let’s assume–I’m just making numbers up here–that the cost of parts is a third of total gross costs (three kinds of costs: materials, labor, factory) and that the battery is half of the cost of all parts. That would make the cost of today’s battery about $7000 per car. Say new technology cuts that figure in half. That would add $3500 to the gross profit per car for TSLA, assuming (unlikely, I think) it could retain the whole amount. TSLA’s unit sales in 2025 would be about 1.4 million at a 30% cagr, meaning $14/ share more in eps, if so.

As I’m writing this, the TSLA price is about $1700, implying a pe of just over 40x, assuming no changes in unit profits and 30+, on the same assumptions, if all the profits of new battery technology accrue to TSLA.

Trump and TSMC (ii)

Over the weekend The Economist published an article about the administration’s attack on Huawei, denying Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) the use of US intellectual property in making chips for the Chinese telecom firm. The article basically paralleled my post from the 18th.  And it concluded that the ban could easily end up hurting the US far more than China.  In other words, it’s vintage Trump.

Although I didn’t mention it a week ago, I think it’s interesting to observe the behavior of the US companies affected by the initial order, which prevented them from supplying US-made chips to Huawei.

A basic fact about chip manufacturing is that although the output comes from gigantic, multi-billion dollar factories, the chips themselves are tiny and weigh next to nothing.  Output can easily and cheaply be shipped anywhere.  So plants don’t need to be located near customers.  They are highly automated, so no need for a large nearby workforce, either.  The key variables in locating a fab: areas where there are no earthquakes and where government tax breaks and subsidies are the highest.

Anyway, US firms continued to supply Huawei as usual after the initial directive, just from non-US facilities.

 

My point isn’t about administration ineptitude in taking months to realize this elementary workaround.  It’s that the chipmakers acted as businessmen.  They did what they thought was best for the long-term survival and prosperity of their firms.  Logically, it’s what they should have done as stewards of other peoples money.  More important, it’s what they did do.  That is, we have a reason to think that they will continue in this manner–to at least plan to put their operations out of the reach of Washington.  In addition, they will presumably pressure their suppliers of capital equipment–the semiconductor production equipment makers, some of which are heavily concentrated in the US–to do likewise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC)

Note:  the post just before this has a brief description of TSMC.

new restrictions on TSMC

Last week the Trump administration announced that foreign users of American-made semiconductor design software or production equipment will need permission from Washington to use these to fashion chips for Chinese telecom company Huawei, the world leader in 5-G wireless technology.

At the same time, TSMC announced that it will be opening a new $12 billion fab in Arizona in 2024, its second in the US.  No details yet on why, although presumably Washington is footing the bill.

my thoughts

Huawei is TSMC’s second-largest customer, after Apple.  60% of TSMC’s output goes to the US, 20% to China.

I’m a fan of TSMC as a company but not of TSM as a stock.  This is because I don’t have any edge in evaluating TSM.  I find Taiwanese accounting opaque and I believe a ton of local knowledge is needed to be successful in sizing up that market.  While the latter is true just about everywhere, Taiwan is, for me, an extreme case.

I wonder how this new Trump rule can/will be enforced.

What would I do if I were TSMC?  I’d see if I could rearrange assembly lines to avoid making Huawei chips using US-sourced machines.  My ultimate goal, however, would have to be to minimize the threat to my business by transitioning away from US equipment suppliers.  This might mean giving extra assistance to Japanese or EU companies, or encouraging technology transfer to develop Chinese alternatives.  It could mean moving advanced production equipment to foundries on the mainland to supply Huawei from there–making clear this output is not coming from Taiwan.  I’d probably be figuring I’d shed current generation US-made equipment I already own by moving it to the new US foundry.

If I were a current US supplier to TSMC?  If I wanted to keep TSMC business, I’d be starting to figure how to shift at the very least that part of my operations out of the US.  The same if I were a US-based maker of semiconductor design tools.

 

I think this will end up being another aspect of the “chaotic disaster” that is the Trump economic policy.  In this case, though, the purpose of the move appears solely to be to deflect attention from Trump’s worst-in-the-world response to COVID-19, in support of his lie that somehow not his bungling but Beijing and/or the Obama administration are responsible for the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

I continue to think that Trump and his enablers in government and the media are doing enormous damage to the long-term economic prospects of the US.  What strikes me most about the developing TSMC situation, however, doesn’t have much directly to do with the stock market.  It’s that Trump et al are concerned only about covering up what they’ve done; their cynical strategy is to lie and to distract by doing more harm elsewhere.  There isn’t the slightest hint of remorse for what they’ve done nor sympathy for the relatives of the death.