Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

Most of the talk I’ve heard about AMZN’s acquisition of WFM revolves around the idea that AMZN plays a long game.  That is, the company is willing to forgo profits for an extended period in order to achieve market share objectives–which will ultimately lead to an earnings payoff.  After all, it took eight years to get its online business into the black.

What’s being lost in the discussion, I think, is the present state of WFM.  It’s not a particularly well-run company.  Analyst comments, which have surfaced publicly only after it became clear that WFM would be acquired, suggest the company has antiquated computer control systems.  It has waffled between emphasis on large stores and small.  We know that it needed a private equity bailout during the recent recession.    It has begun a down-market expansion through “365 by Whole Foods” stores; in every case I can think of, except for Tiffany, this has been a sure-fire recipe for destroying the upmarket main brand.

The easiest way to see management issue, I think, is to compare WFM with Kroger (KR), a well-run supermarket company.  Their accounting conventions aren’t precisely the same, but I don’t think that makes much difference for my point.   (Figures are taken from the most recent 10Qs.).  Here goes:

–gross margin:  KR = 19.7%;  WFM = 33.8%

–pretax margin:  KR = 1.2%;  WFM = 4%

–inventory turns/quarter:  KR = 5.8x; WFM = 7.7x.

What do these figures mean?

–WFM turns its inventories much faster than KR, which should give WFM a profit advantage

–WFM marks up the items it sells by an average of about 50% over its cost of goods;  the markup for KR is half that.

–the combination of faster turns and much higher markup should mean a wildly higher pre-tax margin for WFM

–however, 14 percentage points of margin advantage for WFM at the gross line almost completely evaporates into 2.8 percentage points at the pre-tax line.

–this means that WFM somehow loses 11.2 percentage points in margin between the arrival of goods in the store and their delivery to customers, despite the fact that stuff sells significantly faster at WFM than at KR.

my take

Yes, AMZN can expand the WFM customer base.  Yes, it can cross-sell, that is, deliver non-food goods, like Alexa, through the WFM store network and the 365 brand through the AMZN website.  Yes, using the Amazon store card will likely get customers a 5% rebate on purchases.  Yes, WFM’s physical stores may even serve as depots for processing AMZN returns.  That’s all gravy.

But if AMZN can eliminate what’s eating those 11.2 percentage points of margin (my bet is that it can do so in short order) it can lower food prices at WFM by a huge amount and still grow the chain’s near-term profits.  This is what I think activist investor Jana Partners saw when it took a stake in WFM.

 

margins

A regular reader asked me the other day to explain why I said I thought the margins of Whole Foods (WFM) are too high.  Here goes:

what they are

Margins are ratios, usually some measure of profits (gross profit, operating profit, pre-tax profit…) divided by sales. (Yes, in cost accounting contribution margin is a plain old dollar amount, not a ratio.  But it’s an exception.  I have no idea why the misleading name.)

when high margins are bad

At first thought, it would seem that the higher the margins, the better off the seller is.  Buy the item for $1, sell it for $2.  That’s good.  Raise your prices and sell it for $5, that’s better.

The financial press encourages this notion with articles that talk up high margins as a good thing.

At some point, however, other people will work out how much you’re making and start doing the same thing.  They’ll typically go for market share by undercutting your prices.  So now you’ve got a competitor who wasn’t there before and you’re facing a price war that will at the very least undercut your brand image.

Creating what analysts call a price umbrella below which competitors can price their products and be protected from you as a rival is one of the worst mistakes a firm can make.

In my experience, it’s infinitely better to build a market more slowly by yourself than to have to try to dislodge a new rival who has spent time–and probably a lot of money–to enter.

One potential exception:  patented intellectual property (think:  Intel or drug companies). Even in this case, however, there’s the danger that once-successful firms become lazy and fail to continue to innovate after initial success.  The sad stories of IBM, or of Digital Equipment, or INTC for that matter, are cautionary tales.

More tomorrow.

a new casino for Connecticut, good or bad?

Shortly after I retired as a portfolio manager, I went to work part-time at the Rutgers business school in Newark.  No, it wasn’t to teach investing or portfolio management–accreditation rules effectively rule this out for anyone without a PhD in (the alternate reality of) academic finance.  Instead, it was in a practical management consulting class run by adjuncts with real-world experience and advising mostly small businesses.  (We were all fired several years later and the program–the only profitable area in a school dripping red ink–dissolved.   …but that’s another story).

Anyway, one of the projects I mentored involved a casual dining restaurant.  A student had a connection with a very successful pizza restaurant whose approach might serve as a model for our client.  The pizza owner said he had superior results.  How so?  …he had cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table; the food was good;  he spoke with every customer himself to make sure everyone knew they were welcome.  In fact, he drew customers from as far as 15 miles away.

How far was the closest competing pizza restaurant?   …30 miles.

Put a different way, in this state customers hungry for pizza went to the closest restaurant, despite what this owner thought was his special charm!

It’s the same with a lot of other things, including local casinos.

In the case of Connecticut, the two existing operators are coming under threat by the decision of Massachusetts to legalize gambling in that state.  In particular, it’s allowing MGM to open a casino just on the northern border of Connecticut in Springfield, MA.

Hartford has just responded by authorizing a new casino in East Windsor just on the Connecticut side of the border from Springfield, to be jointly run by the two incumbent operators.

This is an interesting case.  Let’s take a (simple) look:

My pizza rule says customers go to the closest casino.   If that’s correct, the new Massachusetts casino will reduce the existing Connecticut casinos’ revenue by a substantial amount.  Hartford estimates that amount at a quarter of the current business, about $1.6 billion.   If they want to keep the remaining 75%, however, it seems unlikely to me that the casino operators will be able to reduce their costs by much.  So their profits could easily be cut in half.

And when the proposed East Windsor casino opens?

Figure that East Windsor will take back from Springfield half of the revenue initially lost.   That’s $200 million a year.  From the state’s point of view, any revenue gain means higher tax collections–in this case, about another $35 million a year.  So it’s understandable why East Windsor has gotten a legislative seal of approval.  It’s not clear, however, that the casino operators are going to be better off–because they’re taking on the expense of a third location in order to protect 12% of their current revenue.

 

We’ve also seen this movie before in the northeast US, with the effect on Atlantic City of gambling legalization in Pennsylvania, and on Pennsylvania of legalization in Ohio and Maryland.  One additional complication in this instance is that both of the incumbent operators are Native American tribes, for whom maintaining/expanding employment may be more important than profits.  A second is that the new CT casino will be run by two in-state rivals.  That should be interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney(DIS)/ESPN: from growth to value

the maturing of ESPN

In the 2016 DIS fiscal year (ended in October), earnings from the Media Networks segment, which is basically ESPN, decelerated from its fiscal 2015 +6% pace to a slight year-on-year decline.

Two problems:  increasing costs for sports rights; and “cord cutting,” that is, consumer reluctance to pay increasing fees for cable service and cancelling instead.

Part of the issue is the proliferation of new sports content generated by individual teams.

Part is the high cost of ESPN programming to consumers:  SNL Kagan estimates that by the year after next, ESPN will be charging $9.17 per cable subscriber for its services, up from what I think is around $8 now.

Part is also ESPN’s preferred position in the basic packages offered by cable companies.  I’ve read analyses, which I’m not sure are correct, that maintain that although all cable subscribers pay for ESPN, at few as 20% actually use the service regularly.  If so, $100 per year per subscriber translates into $500 per year per user.

In addition, as a sports fan I’m offended by the faux debates and shouting matches that ESPN has begun in an attempt to woo viewers.  Covering WWE as if it were a real sport   …Really?

the move from growth to value

It seems pretty clear to me that ESPN is no longer a growth business.  Gathering realization of this by investors is the reason, I think, that DIS has underperformed the S&P over the past two years by about 25%–despite its movie and theme park success.

The important question for investors is how much deceleration at ESPN is factored into today’s DIS quote.  Is the worst that can happen already priced in?

worst case

I think I understand the worst-case scenario.  It’s that pricing for ESPN ultimately shifts from per subscriber to per user.  This most likely means a substantial decrease in ESPN revenues.  The big question is how much “substantial” is.  If it’s correct that only one in five cable subscribers actually uses ESPN, then revenues could be cut in half by the change, even if users are willing to pay double what they are laying out today.

That outcome may be extreme, but it’s certainly not priced into DIS stock, in my view.

I’m not sure what the right calculation is.  However, while the outcome of this important issue is so up in the air, I find it hard to imagine DIS outperforming.

 

 

 

Disney (DIS) and ESPN: a lesson in analyzing conglomerates

DIS shares went on a fabulous run after the company acquired Marvel in late 2009, moving from $26 a share to $120 in early 2015.  Since then, however, the stock has been moving sideways to down–despite rising, consensus estimate-beating earnings reports in a stock market that has generally been rising.

What’s going on?

The basic thing to understand about analyzing a conglomerate like DIS is that aggregate earnings and earnings growth matter far less than evaluating each business in the conglomerate by itself and assembling a sum of the parts valuation, including synergies, of course.

In the case of DIS, the company consists of ESPN + television; theme parks; movies; merchandising related mostly to parks and movies; and odds and ends–which analysts typically ignore.

In late 2009, something like 2/3 of the company’s overall earnings and, in my view, 80%+ of the DIS market value came from ESPN.

How so?

At that time, ex Pixar, the movie business was hit and miss; the theme parks, always very sensitive to the business cycle, were at their lows; because of this, merchandise sales were similarly in the doldrums.  ESPN, on the other hand, was a secular growth business, with expanding reach in the global sports world and, consequently, dependably expanding profits.

ESPN profits not only made up the majority of the DIS conglomerate’s earnings, the market also awarded those profits the highest PE multiple among the DIS businesses.

At the time, I thought that if truth in labeling were an issue, the company should rename itself ESPN–although that would probably have detracted from the value of the remaining, Disney-branded, business lines.

Then 2012 rolled around.

More tomorrow.

 

buying an individual tech stock

This is just a brief overview:

–Buying any stock involves both a qualitative and a quantitative element.  That is:  What does the company do that makes this a good stock to own? and How do the numbers–the PE ratio, asset value, dividend yield and earnings growth–stack up?

–For value stocks, the numbers are more important; for growth stocks, the story is the key.  That’s because the primary element in success for value investors is how carefully they buy (because the ceiling for a given stock is relatively clearly defined).  For growth investors, it’s selling before/as the drivers of extra-fast earnings expansion run out of steam.

–Most tech stocks fall in the growth category.  My advocacy for Intel a few years ago was one of the rare occasions where a tech story is about under valued assets.

–In most cases, tech companies own key intellectual property–software, patents, industrial knowhow–that is in great demand, and which competitors don’t have and can’t seem to create substitutes for.  As long as that remains true, the company’s stock typically does well.  As I just mentioned, a crucial element in success with tech (or any other growth sector) is to exit before/as the growth story begins to unwind.  One yardstick is that this typically happens five years or so after the super-growth starts.  Yes, the best growth companies, like Apple or Microsoft or Amazon, have an ability reinvent themselves and thereby extend their period of strong earnings success.  But this isn’t the norm.

–Learning to be a stock investor is sort of like learning to play baseball.  There’s no substitute for actually playing the game.  The best way I know to learn about a stock is to buy a very small position and see what happens.  Don’t just sit idle, though.  Read everything on the company website, and the websites of competitors.  Read the last annual report and 10k.  Listen to (or read the transcripts of) the firm’s earnings conference calls.  Find and monitor (at least the headlines) financial newspapers and relevant blogs.  Try to form expectations about what future earnings might be and check this against what actually happens.  Then figure out where/how you went wrong and adjust.  Watch how the market reacts to news.  At first you may be terrible.  I certainly was.  But if you’re honest with yourself in your postmortems, you’ll probably make considerable progress quickly.

–Sooner or later–preferably sooner, learn to interpret a balance sheet and income statement.  A local community college course would probably be good, but you can get the basics of financial accounting (definitely don’t worry about double entry bookkeeping) from a book over a weekend.  Remember, here too there’s no substitute for the experience of trying to work out from a given company’s actuals what future income statements, balance sheets and flow-of-funds statements will look like.

 

The kinks of financial journalism

This is the tile of a 2014 paper by Prof. Diego Garcia of the University of North Carolina, in which heanalyzes the relationship between recent behavior of the stock market and subsequent reporting in financial newspapers.

Conventional wisdom holds that reporters’ articles mirror and perhaps intensify the tone of the recent past.  That is to say, they are unduly bearish when the stock market has been making losses, and similarly unduly bullish when it has been making gains.

Prof. Garcia, studying Wall Street as reflected in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times from 1920 to 2005, draws a different conclusion.  He writes:

“…the asymmetry of journalists’ writing is pervasive: it has barely changed from the 1920s to the 1990s, and virtually all authors exhibit the same pattern, emphasizing negative returns, ignoring large positive market moves.”

Why should financial reporting have a negative bias?

The first thing that comes to my mind is television and radio weather people, who have a strong tendency to predict more precipitation than the US Weather Service, the government body from which they derive their data, says will happen.  How so?  Media weather people know that talking about looming bad weather has more entertainment value than a more benign forecast.  Also, viewers/listeners feel relieved if the forecast is for rain and the day is sunny instead.  They only get angry if the forecast is for fair weather and it ends up pouring.  Therefore, media weather people have every business/career reason to shade their forecasts heavily toward more precipitation rather than less.

John Authers, a reporter from the Financial Times from whom I learned about Prof. Garcia’s paper, gives more or less the same rationale for the similar phenomenon with newspapers.

my thoughts

–if the default position of a newspaper writer is to write a negative story, then we probably get no investment information from it.  On the other hand, if the story is positive, it’s unusual enough that we should look into the company or industry being reported on as a possible investment idea.

–Mr. Authers illustrates the risks to a journalist of making a positive recommendation.   Better, he says, to recommend not buying Amazon and watch it double than to run the risk of a loss.  Suppose the positive recommendation turn out to be Enron?

Of course, anyone in his right mind who read the Enron financials would have stayed as far away from that company as possible (yes, a couple of less-skilled colleagues at my last firm were, incomprehensibly to me, quite eager to buy the stock just before it imploded–and, yes, I did buy a stock certificate before it was delisted at $.80 or so as a souvenir–but that’s another story).  Reporters are trained journalists, however, not securities analysts.  They typically don’t have the economics, accounting or finance background to do analysis (although Mr. Authers does have an MBA from Columbia).  Nor do they have the time.  So the risk they run by saying something positive about a company is enormously high.

–An aside:  oddly enough, one of the first steps in training a growth stock analyst is to question this common sense attitude that avoiding all possibility of loss is the highest virtue.  For growth investors, finding a stock that can triple is.

–this study is only of US newspapers.  In my experience, reporters for the Financial Times are much more highly skilled than their US paper counterparts.