PIMCO and Stocks: The Slow Motion Train Wreck

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I believe it was Bill Clinton who said, “If you don’t toot your horn, it usually stays untooted.” Good advice, but keeping his horn concealed may have helped his political and personal career in a few instances too.

In sticking with the horn metaphor, I will toot my own horn as it relates to my skepticism about bond behemoth PIMCO’s long failed attempt to enter the equity fund market. Since 2009, watching PIMCO’s efforts of gaining credibility in stock investing has been like observing a slow motion train wreck.

Although, PIMCO may continue its flailing struggles in its so-called equity offerings, the proverbial nail in the coffin was announced last week when PIMCO’s chief investment officer of global equities, Virginie Maisonneuve, left the bond giant after only a year. This departure adds to the list of high profile departures, including Bill Gross, Mohamed El-Erian, Paul McCulley, Neel Kashkari, and others.

The Wall Street Journal states PIMCO only has $3 billion (0.2%) of the firms $1.6 trillion of assets remaining in actively traded stock funds. PIMCO claims to have more assets in equity funds managed by Research Affiliates but good luck finding any stocks in these portfolios – for example, Morningstar lists 0 Stock Holdings and 698 Bond Holdings in its PIMCO RAE Fundamental Plus EMG Stock Fund. And please explain to me how this is a stock fund?

Regardless, any way you look at it PIMCO continues to flounder in its stock fund efforts. If you would like to read more about my victory lap, please reference my previous February 2013 PIMCO article, Beware: El-Erian & Gross Selling Buicks…Not Chevys.

Here is a partial excerpt:

PIMCO Smoke & Mirrors: Stock Funds with NO Stocks

Just when I thought I had seen it all, I came across PIMCO’s Equity-Related funds. Never in my career have I seen “equity” mutual funds that invest solely in “bonds.” Well, apparently PIMCO has somehow creatively figured out how to create stock funds without investing in stocks. I guess that is one strategy for a bond-centric company of getting into the equity fund market? This is either ingenious or bordering on the line of criminal. I fall into the latter camp. How the SEC allows the world’s largest bond company to deceivingly market billions in bond-filled stock funds to individual investors is beyond me. After innocent people got fleeced by unscrupulous mortgage brokers and greedy lenders, in this Dodd-Frank day and age, I can’t help but wonder how PIMCO is able to solicit a StockPlus Fund that has 0% invested in common stocks. You can judge for yourself by reviewing their equity-related funds on their website (see also chart below):

PIMCO Equity-Related Funds with NoEquity

PIMCO Equity-Related Funds with No Equity

PIMCO Active Equity Funds Struggle

With more than 99% of PIMCO’s $2 trillion in assets under management locked into bonds, company executives have made a half-hearted effort of getting into the equity markets, even though they’ve enjoyed high-fiving each other during the three-decade-long bond bull market (see Downhill Marathon Machine). In hopes of diversifying their bond-heavy revenue stream, in 2009 they hired the head of the high-profile $700 billion, government TARP program (Neil Kashkari). Subsequently, PIMCO opened its first set of actively managed funds in 2010. Regrettably for PIMCO, the sledding has been quite tough. In 2012, all six actively managed equity funds lagged their benchmarks. Moreover, just a few weeks ago, Kashkari their rock star hire decided to quit and pursue a return to politics.

Mohamed El-Erian and Bill Gross have never been camera shy or bashful about bashing stocks. PIMCO has virtually all their bond eggs in one basket and their leaderless equity division is struggling. What’s more, like some car salesmen, they have had a creative way of describing the facts. If it’s a Chevy or unbiased advice you’re looking for, I recommend you steer clear from Buick salesmen and PIMCO headquarters.

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www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in PEFAX or any other PIMCO security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 23, 2015 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

Building Your All-Star NBA Portfolio

Player Attempting to Get Rebound --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

You may or may not care, but the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs are in full swing. If you were an owner/manager of an NBA team, you probably wouldn’t pick me as a starting player on your roster – and if you did, we would need to sit down and talk. I played high school basketball (“played” is a loose term) in my youth, and even played in my early 40s against other over-aged veterans with knee braces, goggles, and headbands. Once my injuries began to pile up and my playing time was minimized by the spry, millennial team members, I knew it was time to retire and hang up my jockstrap.

The great thing about your investments is that you can create an All-Star NBA portfolio without the necessity of a salary market cap or billions of dollars like Mark Cuban. You can actually put the greatest professional players in the world (stocks/bonds) into your portfolio whether you invest $1,000 or $10,000,000. Sure, transactions costs can eat away at the smaller portfolios, but if investors are correctly managing their funds over years, and not months, then virtually everyone can create a cost-efficient elite team of stocks, bonds, and alternatives.

Now that we’ve established that anyone can create a championship caliber portfolio, the question then becomes, how does an owner go about selecting his/her team’s players? It may sound like a cliché, but diversification is paramount. Although centers Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, and DeAndre Jordan may get a lot of rebounds for your team, it wouldn’t make sense to have those five starting centers on your team. The same principle applies to your investment portfolio.

Generally speaking, the best policy for investors is to establish exposure to a broad set of asset classes customized to your time horizon, risk tolerance, objectives, and constraints. In other words, it is prudent to have exposure to not only stocks and bonds, but other areas like real estate, commodities, alternatives, and emerging markets. Everybody has their own unique situation, and with interest rates and valuations continually changing, it makes sense that asset allocations across all individuals will be very diverse.

In basketball terms, the sizes and types of guards, forwards, and centers will be dependent on the objectives of the team’s owners/managers. For example,  it is very logical to have Stephen Curry (see great video) as the starting guard for the fast-paced, highest scoring NBA team, Golden State Warriors but Curry would not be ideally suited for the slow, grind-em-up offense of the Utah Jazz (one of the lowest scoring teams in the NBA).

In order to build a consistent winning percentage for your portfolio, you need to have a systematic, disciplined process of choosing your all-star-team, which can’t just consist of picking the hottest player of the day. Not only could it be too expensive, the consequences of over-concentrating your portfolio with an expensive position can be painful….just ask Los Angeles Laker fans how they feel about overpaying for Kobe Bryant’s $23.5 million 2014-2015 salary. Investors who chased the overpriced tech sector in the late 1990s, with stock prices trading at over 100 times trailing 12-month earnings, understand how painful losses can be in the subsequent “bubble” burst.

Having a strong bench of players is crucial as well. This requires a research process that can prioritize opportunities based on quantitative and fundamental processes (at Sidoxia we use our SHGR model). Sometimes your starters get injured, fatigued, or bought out by a competitor. Interest rates, valuations, exchange rates, earnings growth rates and other economic factors are continually fluctuating, so having a bench of suitable investment ideas is critical for different financial environments.

Beating the market is a challenging endeavor, not only for individuals, but also for professionals. If you don’t believe me, then check out what Dalbar had to say about this subject in its annual report entitled, Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior:

Dalbar found that in 2014, the average investor in a stock mutual fund underperformed the S&P 500 by a margin of 8.19 percent. Fixed-income investors underperformed the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index by a margin of 4.81 percent.

 

Ouch! If you want to generate winning returns matching the likes of the 1,000-win club, which includes Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley then you need to avoid some of the most common investor mistakes (see also 10 Ways to Destroy Your Portfolio). Chasing performance, ignoring diversification, emotionally reacting to news headlines, paying high fees, and over-trading are sure fire ways to get technical fouls and ejected from the investment game. Avoiding these mistakes and following a systematic, objective process will make you and your investment portfolio a successful all-star.

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www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 16, 2015 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

Yellen is “Yell-ing” About High Stock Prices!

Scream2 FreeImage

Earlier this week, Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, spoke at the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference at the IMF headquarters in Washington, D.C. In addition to pontificating about the state of the global economy and the direction of interest rates, she also decided to chime in with her two cents regarding the stock market by warning stock values are “quite high.” She went on to emphasize “there are potential dangers” in the equity markets.

Unfortunately, those investors who have hinged their investment careers on the forecasts of economists, strategists, and Fed Chairmen have suffered mightily. Already, Yellen’s soapbox rant about elevated stock prices is being compared to former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “Irrational Exuberance” speech, which I have previously discussed on numerous occasions (see Irrational Exuberance Déjà Vu).

Greenspan’s bubble warning talk was given on December 5, 1996 when the NASDAQ closed around 1,300 (it closed at 5,003 this week). Greenspan specifically said the following:

“But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”

 

After his infamous speech, the NASDAQ index almost quadrupled in value to 5,132 in the ensuing three years before cratering by approximately -78%,

Greenspan’s successor, economics professor Ben Bernanke, didn’t fare much better than the previous Fed Chairmen. Unlike many, I give full credit where credit is due. Bernanke deserves extra credit for his nimble but aggressive actions that helped prevent a painful recession from expanding into a protracted and lethal depression.

With that said, as late as May 2007, Bernanke noted Fed officials “do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy.” Moreover, in 2005, near the peak in housing prices, Bernanke said the probability of a housing bubble was “a pretty unlikely possibility.” Bernanke went on to add housing price increases, “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.” Greenspan concurred with Bernanke. Just a year prior, Greenspan noted that the increase in home values was “not enough in our judgment to raise major concerns.” History has proven how Bernanke and Greenspan could not have been more wrong.

If you still believe Yellen is the bee’s knees when it comes to the investing prowess of economists, perhaps you should review Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) debacle. In the midst of the 1998 Asian financial crisis, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, two world renowned Nobel Prize winners almost single handedly brought the global financial market to its knees. Merton and Scholes used their lifetime knowledge of economics to create complex computerized investment algorithms. Everything worked just fine until LTCM lost $500 million in one day, which required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks.

NASDAQ 5,000…Bubble Repeat?

Janet Yellen’s recent prognostication about the valuation of the U.S. stock market happens to coincide with the NASDAQ index breaking through the 5,000 threshold, a feat not achieved since the piercing of the technology bubble in the year 2000. Investing Caffeine readers and investors of mine understand today’s NASDAQ index is much different than the NASDAQ index of 15 years ago (see also NASDAQ Redux), especially when it comes to valuation. The folks at Bespoke put NASDAQ 5,000 into an interesting context by adding the important factor of inflation to the mix. Even though the NASDAQ index is within spitting distance of its all-time high of 5,132 (reached in 2000), the index would actually need to rally another +40% to reach an all-time “inflation adjusted” closing high (see chart below).

Source: Bespoke Investment Group

Source: Bespoke Investment Group

Economists and strategists are usually articulate, and their arguments sound logical, but they are notorious for being horribly bad at predicting the future, Janet Yellen included. I agree valuation is an all-important factor in determining future stock market returns. Howeer, by Robert Shiller, Janet Yellen, and a host of other economists relying on one flawed metric (CAPE PE), they have not only been wildly wrong year after year, but they are recklessly neglecting many other key factors (see also Shiller CAPE Smells Like BS).

I freely admit stocks will eventually go down, most likely a garden variety -20% recessionary decline in prices. While from a historical standpoint we are overdue for another recession (about two recessions per decade), this recovery has been the slowest since World War II, and the yield curve is currently not flashing any warning signals. When the eventual stock market decline happens, it likely will not be driven by high valuations. The main culprit for a bear market will be a decline in earnings – high valuations just act as gasoline on the fire. Janet Yellen will continue to offer her opinions on many aspects of the economy, but if she steps on her soapbox again and yells about stock market valuations, you will be best served by purchasing a pair of earplugs.

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www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 9, 2015 at 4:22 pm 4 comments

U.S. Takes Breather in Windy Economic Race

Competition

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (May 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Looking back, in the race for financial dominance, the U.S. economy sprinted out to a relatively quick recovery from the 2008-2009 financial crisis injury compared to its other global competitors. The ultra-loose monetary policies implemented by the Federal Reserve (i.e., zero percent Fed Funds rate, quantitative easing – QE, Operation Twist, etc.) and the associated weakening in the value of the U.S. dollar served as tailwinds for growth. The low interest rate byproduct created cheaper borrowing costs for consumers and businesses alike for things like mortgages, refinancings, stock buybacks, and infrastructure investments. The cheaper U.S. dollar also helped domestically based, multinational companies sell their goods abroad at more attractive prices.

However, those positive dynamics have now changed. With the end of stimulative bond buying (QE) and threats of imminent interest rate hikes coming from the Federal Reserve and its Chairwoman Janet Yellen, the tailwinds for the U.S. economy have now transitioned into headwinds. The measly +0.2% growth recently reported in the 1st quarter – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) results are evidence of an economy currently sucking wind (see chart below).

As it relates to the stock market, the Dow Jones crept up +0.4% for the month of April to 17,841, and is essentially flat for all of 2015. Small Cap stocks in the Russell 2000® Index (companies with an average value of $2 billion – IWM), pulled a muscle in April as shown by the index’s -2.6% tumble. A slight increase in the yield of the 10-Year Treasury to 2.05% caused bond prices to contract a modest -0.5% for the month.

Beyond a strengthening dollar and threats of rising interest rates, debilitating port strikes on the West Coast and abnormally cold weather especially back east also contributed to weak trade data and sub par economic performance. Although a drop in oil and gasoline prices should ultimately be stimulative for broader consumer and industrial activity, the immediate negative impacts of job losses and declining drilling in the energy sector added to the drag on 1st quarter GDP results.

Source: Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit)

Source: Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit)

The good news is that many of the previously mentioned negative factors are temporary in nature and should self-correct themselves as we enter the 2nd quarter. One positive aspect to our country’s strong currency is cheaper imports. So, as the U.S. recovers from its temporary currency cramps, foreigners will continue pumping out cheap exports to Americans for purchase. If this import phenomenon lasts, these lower priced goods, coupled with discounted oil prices, should keep a lid on broader inflation. The benefit of lower inflation means the Federal Reserve is more likely to postpone slamming the brakes on the economy with interest rate hikes. The decision of when to lift interest rates will ultimately be data-dependent. Due to the lousy 1st quarter numbers, it will probably take some time for economic momentum to reemerge, and therefore the Fed is unlikely to raise interest rates until September, at the earliest.

The great thing about financial markets and economics is many of these swirling monetary winds eventually self-correct themselves. And during April, we saw these self-correcting mechanisms up close and in person. For example, from March 2014 to March 2015 the U.S. dollar appreciated in value by about +25% versus the euro currency (FXE). However, from the peak exchange rate seen this March, the value of the U.S. dollar declined by about -7%. The same self-correcting principle applies to the oil market. From the highs reached in mid-2014 at about $108 per barrel, crude oil prices plunged by about -60% to a low of $42 per barrel in March. Since then, oil prices have recovered significantly by spiking over +40% to about $60 per barrel today.

Competitors Narrow the Gap with the U.S.

Source: Dr. Ed Yardeni

Source: Dr. Ed Yardeni

As I’ve written many times in the past, one of the ultimate arbiters of stock price performance is the long-term direction of corporate profits. And as you can see from the chart above, profits have hit a bump in the road after a fairly uninterrupted progression over the last six years. The decline is nowhere near the collapse of 2008-2009, but given the rise in stock prices, investors should be prepared for the bears and skeptics to become more vocal.

And while the U.S. has struggled a bit, European and Asian shares have advanced significantly. To that point, Asian equities (FXI) spiked an impressive +16% in April (see chart below) and European stocks jumped a respectable +4% (VGK) over the same timeframe.

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Bolstering the advance in China’s shares has been the Chinese central bank’s move to cut the amount of cash that banks must hold as reserves (“reserve requirements”). The action by the central bank is designed to spur bank lending and combat slowing growth in the world’s second largest economy. The Europeans are not sitting idly on their hands either. European central bankers have taken a cheat sheet page from the U.S. playbook and have introduced their own form of trillion dollar+ quantitative easing (see Draghi Provides Beer Goggles) in hopes of jump starting the European economy. Given the moves, how is the European business activity picture looking? Well, based on the Eurozone Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), you can see from the chart below that the region is finally growing (readings > 50 indicate expansion).

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

The economic winds in the global race for growth have been swirling in all directions, and due to temporary headwinds, the dominating lead of the U.S. has narrowed. Fortunately for long-term investors, they understand investing is a marathon and not a sprint. Holding a globally balanced and diversified portfolio will help you maintain the stamina required for these volatile and windy economic times.

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www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), FXI, VGK, and a short position in FXE, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in IWM, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 2, 2015 at 8:09 am Leave a comment

Netflix: Burn It and They Will Come

Baseball Field Morgue

In the successful, but fictional movie, Fields of Dreams, an Iowa farmer played by actor Kevin Costner is told by voices to build a field for baseball playing ghosts. After the baseball diamond is completed, the team of Chicago White Sox ghosts, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, come to play.

Well, in the case of the internet streaming giant Netflix Inc (NFLX), instead of chasing ghosts, the company continues to chase the ghosts of profitability. Netflix’s share price has already soared +63% this year as the company continues to burn hundreds of millions in cash, while aggressively building out its international streaming footprint. Unlike Kevin Costner, Netflix investors are likely to eventually get spooked by the by the stratospheric valuation and bleeding cash.

At Sidoxia, we may be a dying breed, but our primary focus is on finding market leading franchises that are growing cash flows at reasonable valuations. In sticking with my nostalgic movie quoting, I believe as Cuba Gooding Jr. does in the classic movie, Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!” Unfortunately for Netflix, right now the only money to be shown is the money getting burned.

Burn It and They Will Come

Money Burning

In a little over three years, Netflix has burned over -$350 million in cash, added $2 billion in debt, and spent approximately -$11 billion on streaming content (about -$4.6 billion alone in the last 12 months). As the hemorrhaging of cash accelerates (-$163 million in the recent quarter), investors with valuation dementia have bid up Netflix shares to a head-scratching 350x’s estimated earnings this year and a still mind-boggling valuation of 158x’s 2016 Wall Street earnings estimates of $3.53 per share. Of course the questionable valuation built on accounting smoke and mirrors looks even more absurd, if you base it on free cash flow…because Netflix has none. What makes the Netflix story even scarier is that on top of the rising $2.4 billion in debt anchored on their balance sheet, Netflix also has commitments to purchase an additional $9.8 billion in streaming content in the coming years.

For the time being, investors are enamored with Netflix’s growing revenues and subscribers. I’ve seen this movie before (no pun intended), in the late 1990s when investors would buy growth with reckless neglect of valuation. For those of you who missed it, the ending wasn’t pretty. What’s causing the financial stress at Netflix? It’s fairly simple. Beyond the spending like drunken sailors on U.S. television and movie content (third party and original), the company is expanding aggressively internationally.

The open check book writing began in 2010 when Netflix started their international expansion in Canada. Since then, the company has launched their service in Latin America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Australia, and New Zealand.

With all this international expansion behind Netflix, investors should surely be able to breathe a sigh of relief by now…right? Wrong. David Wells, Netflix’s CFO had this to say in the company’s recent investor conference call. Not only have international losses worsened by 86% in the recent quarter, “You should expect those losses to trend upward and into 2016.” Excellent, so the horrific losses should only deteriorate for another year or so…yay.

While Netflix is burning hundreds of millions in cash, the well documented streaming competition is only getting worse. This begs the question, what is Netflix’s real competitive advantage? I certainly don’t believe it is the company’s ability to borrow billions of dollars and write billions in content checks – we are seeing plenty of competitors repeating the same activity. Here is a partial list of the ever-expanding streaming and cord-cutting competitive offerings:

  • Amazon Prime Instant Video (AMZN)
  • Apple TV (AAPL)
  • Hulu
  • Sony Vue
  • HBO Now
  • Sling TV (through Dish Network – DISH)
  • CBS Streaming
  • YouTube (GOOG)
  • Nickelodeon Streaming

Sadly for Netflix, this more challenging competitive environment is creating a content bidding war, which is squeezing Netflix’s margins. But wait, say the Netflix bulls. I should focus my attention on the company’s expanding domestic streaming margins. This is true, if you carelessly ignore the accounting gimmicks that Netflix CFO David Wells freely acknowledges. On the recent investor call, here is Wells’s description of the company’s expense diversion trickery by geography:

“So by growing faster internationally, and putting that [content expense] allocation more towards international, it’s going to provide some relief to those global originals, and the global projects that we do have, that are allocated to the U.S.”

 

In other words, Wells admits shoving a lot of domestic content costs into the international segment to make domestic profit margins look better (higher).  Longer term, perhaps this allocation could make some sense, but for now I’m not convinced viewers in Luxembourg are watching Orange is the New Black and House of Cards like they are in the U.S.

Technology: Amazon Doing the Heavy Lifting

If check writing and accounting diversions aren’t a competitive advantage, does Netflix have a technology advantage? That’s tough to believe when Netflix effectively outsources all their distribution technology to Amazon.com Inc (AMZN).

Here’s how Netflix describes their technology relationship with Amazon:

“We run the vast majority of our computing on [Amazon Web Services] AWS. Given this, along with the fact that we cannot easily switch our AWS operations to another cloud provider, any disruption of or interference with our use of AWS would impact our operations and our business would be adversely impacted. While the retail side of Amazon competes with us, we do not believe that Amazon will use the AWS operation in such a manner as to gain competitive advantage against our service.”

 

Call me naïve, but something tells me Amazon could be stealing some secret pointers and best practices from Netflix’s operations and applying them to their Amazon Prime Instant Video offering. Nah, probably not. Like Netflix said, Amazon wouldn’t steal anything to gain a competitive advantage…never.

Regardless, the real question surrounding Netflix should focus on whether a $35 billion valuation should be awarded to a money losing content portal that distributes content through Amazon? For comparison purposes, Netflix is currently valued at 20% more than Viacom Inc (VIA), the owner of valuable franchises and brands like Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, BET, VH1, Spike, and more. Viacom, which was spun off from CBS 44 years ago, actually generated about $2.5 billion in cash last year and paid out about a half billion dollars in dividends. Quite a stark contrast compared to a company accelerating its cash losses.

I openly admit Netflix is a wonderful service, and I have been a loyal, longtime subscriber myself. But a good service does not necessarily equate to a good stock. And despite being short the stock, Sidoxia is actually long the company’s bonds. It’s certainly possible (and likely) Netflix’s stock will underperform from today’s nosebleed valuation, but under almost any scenario I can imagine, I have a difficult time foreseeing an outcome in which Netflix would go bankrupt by 2021. Bond investors currently agree, which explains why my Netflix bonds are trading at a 5% premium to par.

Netflix stockholders, and crazy disciples like Mark Cuban, on the other hand, may have more to worry about in the coming quarters. CEO Reed Hastings is sticking to his “burn it and they will come” strategy at all costs, but if profits and cash don’t begin to pile up quickly, then Netflix’s “Field of Dreams” will turn into a “Field of Nightmares.”

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www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), AAPL, GOOGL, AMZN, long Netflix bond position, long Dish Corp bond, and a short position in NFLX, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in VIA, TWX, SNE, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 25, 2015 at 11:42 pm Leave a comment

Fink & Capitalism: Need 4 Kitchens in Your House?

Kitchens

Do you need four kitchens in your house? Apparently financial industry titan Larry Fink does. If Mr. Fink were a designer for millionaire homeowners, he would advise them to use their millions to build more kitchens in their house (reinvest) rather than distribute those monies to family members (dividends) or use that money to pay back an equity loan from mom and dad for the down payment (share buybacks). Essentially that is exactly what is happening in the stock market. Companies that are generating record profits and margins (millionaires) are increasingly choosing to pay out larger percentages of profits to stockholders (family members) in the form of rising dividends and share buybacks. Contrary to Mr. Fink’s belief, corporate America is actually doing plenty with room additions, landscaping, and roof replacements – I will describe more later.

As a consequence of corporate America’s increasingly shareholder friendly practices of returning cash, Fink believes this trend will stifle innovation and long-term growth in American companies. Here’s a snapshot of the supposed dividend/buyback problem Mr. Fink describes:

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

Fink Mails Letter from Soapbox

For those of you who do not know who Larry Fink is, he is the successful Chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc. (BLK), an investment manager which oversees about $4.65 trillion in investment assets. Mr. Fink ignited this recent financial controversy when he jumped on his soapbox by mailing letters to 500 CEOs lecturing them on the importance of long-term investing. What is Mr. Fink’s beef? Fink’s issues revolve around his belief that CEOs and corporations are too short-term oriented.

In his letter, Mr. Fink had this to say:

“This pressure [to meet short-term financial goals] originates from a number of sources—the proliferation of activist shareholders seeking immediate returns, the ever-increasing velocity of capital, a media landscape defined by the 24/7 news cycle and a shrinking attention span, and public policy that fails to encourage truly long-term investment.”

 

He goes on to bolster his argument with the following:

“More and more corporate leaders have responded with actions that can deliver immediate returns to shareholders, such as buybacks or dividend increases, while underinvesting in innovation, skilled workforces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.”

 

What Mr. Fink does not say in his letter is that large, multinational S&P 500 corporations driving this six-year bull run are sitting on a record hoard of cash, exceeding $1.4 trillion (see chart below). In this light, it should come as no surprise that CEOs are forking over more cash to investors in the forms of dividends and share repurchases.

Cash S&P500

What’s more, despite Fink’s assertion that share buybacks and dividends are killing innovation, he also fails to mention in his letter that 2014 capital expenditures of $730 billion are also at a record level. That’s right, CAPEX has not been cut to the bone as he implies, but rather risen to all-time highs.

It’s true that generationally low (and declining) interest rates have accelerated the pace of dividends/repurchases, however dividend payout ratios (the percentage of profits distributed to shareholders) of about 32% remain firmly below the long-term payout ratio of approximately 54% (see chart below) – see also Dividend Floodgates Widen. I find it difficult to fault many companies doing something with the gargantuan piles of inflation-losing cash anchoring their balance sheets. Don’t cash-rich companies have a fiduciary duty to borrow reasonable amounts of near-0% debt today (see Bunny Rabbit Market) in exchange for share buybacks currently providing returns of about 5.5% (inverse of 18x P/E ratio) and likely yielding 7%+ returns five years from now?

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

The “Short-Term” Poster Child – Apple

There is no arguing that excessive debt eventually can catch up to a company. Our multi-year expanding economy is eventually due for another recession in the coming years, and there will be hell to pay for irresponsible, overleveraged companies. With that said, let’s take a look at the poster child of “short-termism” according to Mr. Fink …Apple Inc. (AAPL).

Of the roughly $500 billion in buybacks spent by S&P 500 companies in 2014, Apple accounted for approximately $45 billion of that figure. On top of that, CEO Tim Cook and his board generously decided to return another $11 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends. Has this “short-term” return of capital stifled innovation from the company that has launched iPhone version 6, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and is investing into exciting areas like Apple Television, Apple Car, and who knows what else?

To put these Apple numbers into perspective, consider that last year Apple spent over $6 billion on research and development (R&D); $10 billion on capital expenditures; and hired over 12,000 new full-time employees. This doesn’t exactly sound like the death of innovation to me. Even after doling out roughly -$28 billion in expenditures and -$56 billion in dividends/share repurchases, Apple was amazingly able to keep their net cash position flat at an eye-popping +$141 billion!

Mr. Fink abhors “activist shareholders seeking immediate returns” but rather than deriding them perhaps he should send the greedy, capitalist Carl Icahn a personal thank you letter. Since Icahn’s vocal plea for a large Apple share buyback, the shares have skyrocketed about +85%, catapulting BlackRock’s ownership value in Apple to over $19 billion.

With respect to these increasing outlays, Mr. Fink also notes:

“Returning excessive amounts of capital to investors—who will enjoy comparatively meager benefits from it in this environment—sends a discouraging message.”

 

This would be true if investors took the dividends and stuffed them under their mattress, but an important message Mr. Fink neglects to address as it relates to dividends and share buybacks is demographics. There are 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 – 1964 and a Boomer is turning age 65 every 8 seconds. With many bonds trading at near 0% yields (even negative yields) it is no wonder many income starving retirees are demanding many of these cash-rich corporations to share more of the growing spoils via rising dividends.

Capitalism Works

After looking at a few centuries of our country’s history, one of the main lessons we can learn is that capitalism works – especially over the long-run. With about 200 countries across the globe, there is a reason the U.S. is #1…we’re good at capitalism. As our economy has matured over the decades, it is true our priorities and challenges have changed. It is also true that other countries may be narrowing the gap with the U.S., due to certain advantages (e.g., demographics, lower entitlements, easier regulations, etc), but the U.S. will continue to evolve.

In many respects, capitalism is very much like Darwinism – corporations either adapt with the competition…or they die. I repeatedly hear from pessimists that the U.S. is in a secular state of decline, but if that’s the case, how come the U.S. continues to dominate and innovate in major industries like biotechnology, mobile technology, networking, internet, aviation, energy, media, and transportation? Quite simply, we are the best and most experienced practitioners of capitalism.

Certainly, capitalism will continue to cultivate cyclical periods of excess investment/leverage and insufficient regulation. But guess what? Investors, including the public, eventually lose their shirts and behaviors/regulations adjust. At least for a little while, until the next period of excess takes hold. If Apple, and other balance sheet healthy companies allocate capital irresponsibly, capital will flow towards more aggressive and innovative companies. BlackBerry Limited (BBRY) knows a little bit about the consequences of cutthroat competition and suboptimal capital allocation.

While I emphatically share Mr. Fink’s focus on long-term investing values (including his self-serving tax reform ideas), I vigorously disagree with his attacks on shareholder friendly actions and his characterization of rising dividends/buybacks as short-term in nature. In fact, increasing dividends and share buybacks can very much coexist as a long-term investment and capital allocation strategy.

The question of proper capital allocation should have more to do with the age of a company. It only makes sense that younger companies on average should reinvest more of their profits into growth and innovation. On the other hand, more mature S&P 500-like companies will be in a better position to distribute higher percentages of profits to shareholders – especially as cash levels continue to rise to record levels and leverage remains in check.

BlackRock’s Larry Fink may continue to urge CEOs to reinvest their growing cash hoards into superfluous corporate kitchens, but Sidoxia and other prudent capitalist investors will continue to exhort CEOs to opportunistically take advantage of near-free borrowing rates and responsibly share the accretive gains with shareholders. That’s a message Mr. Fink should include in a letter to CEOs – he can use BlackRock’s lofty, above-average dividend to cover the cost of postage.

Investment Questions Border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including AAPL and iShares ETFs, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in BLK, BBRY or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 18, 2015 at 1:58 pm Leave a comment

Goodbye My Friend

Corky-Wade

It’s been a good run my friend, but nothing lasts forever.

I’ve worked in the world of finance and money for almost a quarter century, but as each new year passes, I appreciate the value of relationships more and more. Beating the benchmark, helping clients, and making money is still a thrilling challenge, but life has a way of periodically throwing you a curve ball to help recalibrate your perspectives on what’s important.

The Early Years

Over the last 17 years, our Beagle Border Collie mix, Corky, has been with us through thick and thin. She was a spry little pup from the day we adopted her from the local PetSmart. Corky provided surprises from the start when the store adoption volunteer told us we were the proud new parents of a masculine Rottweiler pup. That was the case until our first visit to the veterinarian, when Dr. Hardin regretfully told us, “I hate to break this to you, but your dog is not a Rottweiler…you have a Beagle mix on your hands.” Instead of a 100 pound beast, we gained a 20 pound lap dog princess. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

There’s no replacing that special bond with your special pet.

There’s no replacing that special bond with your special pet.

The year Corky joined the family was 1998 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in full swing – the U.S. was also in hot pursuit of terrorist Osama bin Laden after embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A lot transpired over Corky’s 84 dog-year life, everything from job promotions and job transitions to family vacations and family deaths. In fact, Corky was part of our family four years longer than my oldest daughter.

The Special Bond

There’s a reason a dog is often considered man’s/woman’s best friend. There is a special bond between a loyal pet and its family members. The unconditional love shared between owner and pet cannot be replicated. After a bad day at work, even your best friend, sibling, or spouse has a tough time competing with a cheerful bark, wagging tail, and slobbery kiss. With dogs there is no lying, cheating, backstabbing, jealousy, yelling, mistrust, deceit, grudges, or judgment. Never have I ever heard someone say, “My dog was such a jerk yesterday, I’m definitely avoiding him (her) today.” In the disparate realm of pets, dogs are especially unique because you can’t exactly nuzzle up to a pet fish or snake. Pet owners are a unique breed as well. Would an average person pick up poop for just anyone at 5:30 am in sub -10 degree weather? Or call a dog sitter three times about his/her’s wellbeing while on a one week vacation? Probably not…but most pet owners don’t think twice when it comes to the welfare of their dog.

Corky may not have liked it, but she played along with our costume abuse.

Corky may not have liked it, but she played along with our costume abuse.

Like most pet-family relationships, the defining characteristic of the special bond usually boils down to the pets’ unique personality, and Corky certainly did not lack any personality. Corky will without a doubt be missed but like many of us, the pain and weight of old age eventually caught up to her. It was painful to watch the rapid decline. First the hearing went, then the jumping, then the sight, then the high-pitched bark, and ultimately her ability to walk.

Despite the pain, the darker times will not overshadow the many amazing and everlasting memories. Our memories may mean nothing to those who did not know Corky, but to us they mean the world.

Reminiscing: Eat, Sleep, Play

For starters, Corky’s life, like many dogs, revolved primarily around eating, sleeping, and playing – not necessarily in that order. When it came to Corky’s one-of-a-kind diet, sure she would put up with the basic dry and wet dog food, but what she would really go bananas for was…bananas! That’s right, our monkey got plenty of potassium, but in order to balance out the sweetness of bananas, she also loved the saltiness of popcorn. Corky would stand up twirling, play dead, shake your hand, or do any other trick to earn access to these special treats.

In the sleep department, Corky was willing to sleep almost anywhere, but her favorite spot was a fresh pile of warm unfolded clothes (below).

Slide1

As mentioned, playing was also a priority. Corky loved to chase rabbits, squirrels, and cats. Corky also had an affinity for unapproved field trips – usually when a crack was left open in the front door or a side gate was inadvertently left open. Maybe Corky was part cat because she displayed more than nine lives on countless occasions. Miraculously she was able to dodge cars when racing across traffic-filled intersections as mom, dad, and children attempted to chase Corky back home alive.

Needless to say, we were lucky to have had Corky for so long. Not everyone is a pet lover but almost any adult (middle-aged or younger) has experienced loss of a family member or relative. And if you haven’t faced it, you or someone else close to you will have to deal with it eventually. Those who know me closely understand I have dealt with my fair share of loss, but in each case I have gained a stronger appreciation for life and live each day with new found awareness. I continue to celebrate the memories for all my lost friends and family members…Corky included. Bananas in my cereal, and popcorn in my Cracker Jack’s will never again have the same meaning. Corky, we will miss you. Rest in peace my good friend….

Corky Lay Down

 

 

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in PETM or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

April 12, 2015 at 3:19 pm 3 comments

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