iPad 2 is likely to be a big success: Boston Consulting Group survey

the Boston Consulting Group survey

The iPad 2 goes on sale this Friday.  It’s faster than the original iPad–as well as sleeker and lighter.  It comes equipped cameras and is available in two colors.  A recently-released internet survey of over 14,000 respondents done by the Boston Consulting Group last December suggests that iPad 2 will be a much bigger success than its predecessor.  This survey follows up on a previous one done in March 2010, just before the launch of the first iPad.

its conclusions

The main conclusions of the December 2010 survey, with is actually about both tablets and e-readers, are:

1.  Awareness of this category of devices is growing.  In the US, for example, 67% of respondents to the survey knew about tablets and e-readers.  That’s up from 54% in the December poll (I wonder where the other 33% live).

2.  Lots more people intend to buy one. Globally, 69% of respondents who are familiar with tablets and e-readers intend to buy one in the next three years.  That’s slightly smaller percentage than the 73% of people from the March survey.  Given that awareness has increased so much, though, the pool of potential buyers is still much deeper than it was a year ago.  Applying the figures to the US, for example, suggests that 17% more Americans want to buy a device now than a year ago.  Half plan to pull the trigger in the next 12 months.

3.  Consumers want tablets, not e-readers.  The margin is 3.5/1 in favor of tablets.

4.  The market understands what these devices do. Respondents said they wanted to use the devices to browse online (85%), read email (84%) and view videos (69%).

5.  People are willing to pay for content…

(Note:  my experience is that people aren’t crazy.  They flat-out lie to surveyors about the prices they’d be willing to pay for stuff.  They regard money questions as part of a price negotiation and give low-ball numbers.  Wouldn’t you?  So I regard the content responses as very encouraging.)

US respondents said they’d pay $5-$10 for a digital book, $3-$6 per month for a digital magazine subscription and $5-$10 a month for a daily newspaper.  These are roughly the same numbers people gave last March.  The figure that jumps out to me as especially high is the magazine one.

6. …but not for the device itself. Respondents from the US say they’d pay $130 for an e-reader (which they don’t particularly want), but  only about $200 for a tablet (which they do).  See my note to point 5.

All in all, the picture looks very good for AAPL.


BCG had 14,314 respondents from 16 countries:  Australia, Austria, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, the UK and the US.  Each provided at least 700 respondents, split equally between male and female.  All were internet users (duh!), and read print books or periodicals.  In Australia, South Korea and China, respondents tended to be clustered around cities; elsewhere they were distributed proportionally in urban and rural areas.

The big advantages of internet surveys is that they’re fast, cheap and can reach lots of people.  The main worry is that the techniques used in traditional surveying to figure out whether respondents really mirror the population you want to find out about don’t work.  See my post on internet surveying for more details.


bankruptcy of Borders Group: implications for Barnes & Noble (BKS)

Borders’ bankruptcy

Last week BGP filed for a reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and announced it had subsequently received new financing from GE Capital.

This wasn’t a big surprise, given that BGP had been reported for some time to be withholding payments to book publishers and to its landlords in order to conserve cash.  What would it be “conserving” this cash for?   –to pay salaries and keep the lights on in the bookstores and warehouses, for one thing  It’s also possible that some of its suppliers had noted Borders’ deteriorating financial condition and were asking for cash payment before shipping new merchandise.

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 11

Bankruptcy in the US generally comes in two flavors:

–Chapter 7, or liquidation, where the debtor is considered defunct.  In this case, the bankruptcy action consists in selling the assets and distributing proceeds to creditors.

–Chapter 11, or reorganization with the debtor remaining in control. The main thrust is to put the enterprise into position to have a second chance at success.  The firm continues to operate while it restructures.  It may terminate or renegotiate contracts, including leases, under the supervision/assistance of the bankruptcy judge.  Typically, common shareholders and trade creditors are wiped out completely.   Debtholders exchange their obligations for stock in the revamped company that emerges from from the bankruptcy proceeding.

To some extent, bankruptcy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Suppliers typically study the finances of their customers carefully.  They may reduce–or even stop completely–shipments at the first whiff of trouble.  Or they may ask for cash upfront instead of extending credit.  And why not, since their receivables are most likely a total loss once a customer files for bankruptcy.  The result, however, is that the store in question may no longer have the best merchandise, or the former large variety, in stock  …which means more customers stop coming.

reports of the Borders plan

Reports in the blogosphere and in newspapers suggest that book publishers want Borders to shrink its floorspace by about a third in its reorganization.

positive news for BKS?

The stock did go up about 10% last week, as the rumors of an imminent Chapter 11 filing by Borders swirled. So someone must think this is a big plus for BKS..

My guess, however, is that the demise of the current Borders will do little good for BKS.  Three reasons:

1.  Borders will continue to operate, although in about a one-third smaller form.

2.  In a case that I think is very similar to Borders/Barnes&Noble today, in 2009 consumer electronics retailer Circuit City went into liquidation.  How fast are the revenues of rival Best Buy growing today, without competition from Circuit City?  In the US, they’re not growing much  at all.  In fact, on a comparable store basis, they’re actually declining.

How so?  Circuit City’s customers didn’t all flock to Best Buy.  As I see it, the chain’s demise accelerated the trend of consumer electronics sales to a newer technology, the internet, and to the big discounters like Wal-Mart.

In the bookstore instance, the biggest effect of Borders’ shrinkage in size may well be a speeding up in the adoption rate for e-readers.   My feeling is that most of the new business will go to Amazon, not Barnes and Noble, although thee may be some shifting of Barnes and Noble’s bricks-and-mortar customers to the Nook.

3.  Another, somewhat older–but still pertinent, I think–pattern of industry development comes from toy retailing.  As I interpret the data, every year in the first half of the Nineties big discounters like WMT and TGT took market share from Toys R Us.  But every year, Toys R Us took market share away from small independent toy retailers, so it was relatively unaffected by the loss of customers was experiencing.  But then, sometime in the mid-Nineties, there were no more small independents left for Toys R Us to take market share from.  Toys had killed all the ones who were going to die.  The competitive situation had therefore been reduced to Toys R Us vs. the big discounters.  From that point on, TRU was in trouble.

I think that we may be seeing the same mid-Nineties situation emerging in the book industry, with BKS playing the role of Toys R Us, Borders and small independent bookstores the part of the small toy retailers, and Amazon and WMT being the equivalent of WMT/TGT.  If Borders and the small booksellers (who appear to be enjoying a resurgence, by the way) have no more market share to give up, then the new competitive dynamic is between BKS and AMZN.  Of course, AAPL may take some market share as well.

Given that different e-reader systems are mutually incompatible, would you feel more comfortable buying one from a company with a market cap of $84 billion (AMZN) or $1 billion (BKS); with $8 billion in net cash (i.e., after repaying all debt) on the balance sheet (AMZN) or a comparable number we won’t know for sure until reporting time, but which is probably going to be only mildly positive (BKS).  In this case, I think size will count for a lot.

INTC will make chips for Achronix in its newest 22nm fabs

INTC and Achronix

Achronix, a small privately-held fabless semiconductor design firm in Silicon Valley, announced on Monday an agreement that it and INTC have been working on for almost a year.  INTC will manufacture Achronix’s 22-nanometer Speedster 22i, which it calls “the world’s most advanced field programmable gate array (FPGA),” using one of the company’s most advanced fabricating plants, slated to open late next year.

INTC didn’t make an announcement, but did post the news on a company blog.

On the surface this looks like a lopsided deal in Achronix’s favor.  The key feature of FPGAs is that their programming can be improved or upgraded even after the chip is in a device.  So they’re great for putting new technology into telecom or networking equipment.  Achronix claims the Speedster 22i will offer 4x performance vs. competing chips and will use 50% less power, but will cost 40% less.  A lot of this will be due to the INTC process technology.

What does INTC get in return?  The company isn’t really saying and there’s no agreement either among analysts or technology bloggers.

my thoughts

I think there’s a good news/bad news aspect to the answer, which is why INTC is mum.

A semiconductor fab in today’s world costs at least $3 billion to build.  It’s capable of producing about $7 billion in yearly output.  Who can afford to build one?  Who needs that much output?   No one–other than INTC, which has a near monopoly in processors for PCs, Samsung, the dominant force in memory chips, and maybe TXN.

To the degree I’ve thought about these facts–and I haven’t done much–I’d assumed that being big enough to continue to have your own fabs, and to relentlessly push for more advanced fab technology, would prove a critical market advantage.  But it hasn’t.  That’s the bad news.

For most semiconductor design firms, fab ownership is out of the question financially.  They turn to third-parties, the so-called “foundries” like TSMC or UMC, to do their manufacturing for them.  For the fabless firms, then, manufacturing is not a competitive advantage.  What separates winners from losers among them is the flexility of products, the ability to do more creative things within the confines of a standard fabrication technology.  As a result, the fabless industry has made a virtue of necessity and learned how to do a lot more with a lot less.  Arguably, the foundries have done the same.

In other words, the rules of the game for semiconductor device makers–and especially for chips in mobile devices–have changed in a way that puts INTC at a disadvantage.  More bad news.

Where’s the good news?  –it’s that INTC understands what’s going on and has decided to try to change the game once again.   Companies like Achronix get manufacturing prowess that will give their chips features the competition may not be able to match.  INTC learns the mindset of the designer of products for the mobile universe.  Together, the two firms may be able to create system-on-a-chip products that make future generations of the Atom processor more attractive to makers of cellphones and tablets.

My guess is that this move isn’t at all about INTC itself becoming a foundry.  It’s more about changing the chip design culture within INTC to the point where it can meld the best of the fabless world in with its own traditional skills.

If I’m right, this is a real sign of management strength.  It might work.  I don’t see anything in the company’s stock price that suggests this possibility is being discounted at all. Let’s see what happens.





AAPL’s 2Q10 earnings: a raft of records, followed by an aftermarket fall

the report

After the close last night on Wall Street, AAPL reported its 4Q10 (the fiscal year for AAPL ends on September 30) results.  At $20.4 billion, quarterly revenue was a record high, as were net profit, at $4.31 billion, and eps, at $4.64.  The company also had record unit sales of Macs, iPhones and iPads.  AAPL guided to December quarter eps of $4.80.

Despite the stellar numbers, AAPL’s stock fell by about 6% in aftermarket trading.   This same fate befell the shares of IBM and VMW, both of which also reported above consensus results after the bell.  So this weakness may simply be the reaction of short-term traders whose plan has been to “sell on the news”–no matter what the news was.  In AAPL’s case, there are one, maybe two, sore points with investors, though–iPad sales and the tax rate.


AAPL sold 3.9 million Macs during the quarter.  That was 440,000 more than in the previous record quarter (3Q10) and a 27% gain vs. the year-ago period.  This compares favorably with the overall PC industry, which grew by 11% vs. 2009.

iPod units fell by about 11% year over year, to 9.1 million.  Hardware revenue fell by only 5.5%, however, as consumers continued to gravitate toward higher-priced models.  Throw in the iTunes store and sales of accessories, and revenues in this very mature segment and revenues were up 5% vs. the comparable quarter of 2009.

With iPhone4 available for the full quarter, iPhone units were up a stunning 91% year over year, compared with a 64% global advance by the smartphone category.  Despite the huge gain, AAPL was capacity-constrained during the quarter and thinks it could have sold more iPhones if it could have manufactured them.

In its second quarter of existence, iPad sold 4.188 million units vs. 3.27 million in its inaugural three months.  Manufacturing capacity, now reportedly at 2 million+ units monthly, appears to have caught up with demand in the major markets where the tablet was launched.  AAPL ended the quarter with an extra 500,000 units in channel inventory.  My guess is that AAPL has about 1.2 million iPad units in stock.  The company’s only comments are that supply and demand are in balance in the markets where iPad is available so far; and that inventories are 3-4 weeks supply, below the 4-6 weeks it would prefer.

The Apple Stores continue to expand rapidly.  At $3.57 billion, up 75% year over year, store revenues were a record.  Sales of Macs totaled 874,000 (another record), half of which went to customers who had never owned a Mac before.

AAPL ended the quarter with no debt and $51 billion in cash.

The fourth-quarter tax rate was 21%, about 5 percentage points below company guidance and about 3.5 percentage points below the full-year rate.  This is partly because sales were stronger than expected in low tax-rate jurisdictions outside the US, partly due to year-end adjustments between what the company estimated (and recorded in its quarterly income statements) its tax liability would be and what it actually turned out to owe.

why is the market upset?

After all, sales of the iPhone4 were at least a couple of million units better than the consensus had expected.  Macs were strong, as well.

The main issue is the iPad, I think.  After all the hype about the device and recent stories by industry experts attributing at least a portion (maybe even most) of the current weakness in consumer PC sales in the US and Europe to cannibalization from the AAPL tablet, expectations were very high.   Investors thought they’d hear that the company was still struggling to meet demand and it had sold about 5 million units in the quarter.  What they heard instead was that inventories were starting to accumulate and that sales were a bit under 4.2 million.

Yes, the “shortfall” in units sold was more than made up for by iPhone strength.  But the iPad market has been transformed in analysts’ minds from one where they can imagine boundless growth for a long time to one where available information forces them to think demand is 1.5-2 million units a month.  To some degree, the “dream” is punctured.

The tax rate is also a potential issue, for me anyway.   The actual 21% meant after-tax income was about 7% higher than it would have been under the 26% rate AAPL had guided to.  But operations were very strong on a pre-tax basis.  And I don’t think today’s Wall Street pays more than fleeting attention to the tax rate in any event.

should it be?

I don’t think so.

Before the earnings announcement, analysts were estimating that AAPL could earn a bit over $18 in the 2011 fiscal year.  That number will probably rise to $19 as the factor the strength of Macs and the iPhone into their numbers.  At $300 a share, that would mean AAPL is trading at under 16x prospective earnings, with over 30% earnings growth in prospect.

Yes, maybe the iPad and iPod results, plus the increasing importance of foreign markets, mean that AAPL products don’t all have immunity from economic weakness in the US and Europe.  Yes, maybe thinking about AAPL’s earnings has lost some of the element of boundless upside.  But, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, AAPL sports nothing like the 35x-50x PE multiple that a growth stock usually carries.  In anything other than the panic conditions of late 2008 and early 2009, the very low multiple limits any downside, I think.

An ISS voting recommendation adds 9%+ to the value of BKS: does this make sense?

My guess is that it doesn’t.  But this will be an interesting case to watch.

Barnes and Noble

The management of BKS, the Riggio family, is locked in a struggle with dissident shareholders, Ron Burkle and Peter Eichler, over the strategic direction the bookseller should take.  Each side controls about a third of the stock.  The Burkle group has nominated three candidates to oppose management’s selections in the upcoming shareholder vote for members of the company’s board of directors at the firm’s annual meeting.

Both sides are actively campaigning for their candidates.  That’s where Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), a part of the MSCI asset management consulting conglomerate MSCI, comes in.

what does ISS do?

Each year, a publicly traded company will prepare a list of proposals that it needs a favorable vote of shareholders to implement.  The list varies from company to company, and country to country, but almost always includes names of candidates for election to the firm’s board of directors.  The document that contains this list is called a proxy statement. In the US, companies file the proxy statement with the SEC and send copies, along with what amounts to an absentee voting ballot, to its shareholders.

Over the past twenty years or so, government regulation has more closely defined the obligations of registered third-party investment advisers, like mutual fund or pension fund money managers, toward voting the shares of stock they hold for their clients.  Current SEC rules require that investment advisers:

–vote the shares they control,

–vote in the best interests of their clients, and

–let clients know what they’re doing, and why.

This is a large legal and administrative burden for an asset management company, which may hold thousands of different stocks in its portfolios.  And if a money management firm performs this task completely by itself, it risks being second-guessed or possibly sued for actions it takes.  So virtually everyone hires a proxy consulting firm, both to ease the administrative burden and as insurances agains possible lawsuit.

ISS is the largest and most influential proxy advisory firm.  It has been in business since 1985, about the time voting clients’ shares started to become a hot-button issue.  ISS analyzes and makes voting recommendations to its clients–primarily asset management companies–on matter contained in publicly traded companies’ proxy statements.  Yes, someone–more likely, a committee of investment professionals–in the asset management firm will review the proxy and cast the firm’s vote.  But in addition to the proxy, he will have a detailed ISS report in his hand.  As a practical matter, he/they will either follow the ISS recommendations, or extensively document the instances where the vote is in the other direction.

The bottom line:  ISS has immense influence in directing the votes of institutional shareholders of stock.  And for most publicly traded companies, institutions hold a majority of the shares.

the BKS case…

In the case of BKS, ISS has recommended voting for the dissident board nominees, not management’s.  Hence the spike upward in BKS stock yesterday.

…is not a typical one

BKS has a market capitalization of about $1 billion.  That’s tiny, but it still overstates the liquidity of the stock.  In addition, the Riggio family + the dissidents own about two-thirds of the shares.  That means that the “float,” that is, the shares available for ordinary trading, amounts to only about $350 million.

Average trading volume is about one million shares a day–or about $15 million worth.  So an institution would figure to be able to trade at most $2-$3 million a day without making a lot of noise in the market.  Even that might require very skillful trading.

In other words, BKS is too small and too illiquid for most institutions.


My guess is that the ISS recommendation is going to have little effect on BKS voting.  Institutions probably don’t own the stock, and non-institutions don’t know–or care–who ISS is.

I think retail investors hold most of the float.  That’s important.  Typically, retail investors are intensely loyal to the incumbent management, even in cases where this attitude seems to fly in the face of common sense and the retail investor’s own economic interest.

There is, of course, the wider issue of whether having  Mr. Riggio or Mr. Burkle calling the shots will make any difference for a firm whose market is undergoing rapid structural change.

As I said at the outset, this vote should be interesting to watch.