Archive for August, 2009
The doom and gloomers say the “green shoots” are actually “yellow weeds” and turn a blind eye to the positive (or less negative) economic data. The unemployment rate declined marginally last month to 9.4%, and GDP rates are expected to turn positive in the current quarter. Even so, the nay-sayers like Nouriel Roubini, Marc Faber, and Nassim Taleb still believe worse days lie ahead. Recent comments from a steely industry veteran may point to maturing “golden trunks” rather than younger, greener varieties.
Normally I do not expend too much energy on a single quarter of data relating to a stock I do not own, however comments coming from Bob Toll, founding CEO of Toll Brothers Inc. (dating back to 1967) caught my fancy. Besides the invaluable perspective he provides on the industry, he is in the unique position to explain the spending dynamics covering the higher-end demographic area. Toll Brothers is the largest luxury home builder in the U.S., operating in 21 states spanning the North, South, Mid-Atlantic, and West regions.
Although counterintuitive to many of the current news headlines, here is what Mr. Toll had to regarding Tolls’ recent quarterly earnings data and the state of the U.S. housing market:
• “Although our industry continues to face significant challenges, we are encouraged by the increase in number of net contracts signed this quarter. This marks the first time in sixteen quarters (4 years) dating back to fiscal year ’05’s fourth quarter that our net contracts exceeded the prior year same quarter. (The Results) also marked the first quarterly sequential unit increase in our backlog in more than three years.”
• “Price is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant factor. It appears that those taking this step today have more confidence than one year ago.”
• “As the supply of unsold housing inventory shrinks nationwide, and if consumer confidence continues to improve, we should see stronger demands. It has already positively impacted our pricing power as we are reducing incentives in many markets.”
• “Fiscal year ’09’s third quarter cancellation rate, current quarter cancellations divided by current quarter’s signed contracts, was 8.5% versus 19.4% in fiscal year ’08’s third quarter. This was our lowest cancellation rate since the second quarter of fiscal year ’06 and is approaching our historic average of approximately 7% since going public.”
• “There’s a better feeling about jobs, a better feeling about the economy. Six months ago …we were all scared that the end was near…So I think we’ve just got a better market now and if things continue to improve, I think the market will continue to improve.”
• “(Traffic data) is certainly more than anecdotal information. You’re getting these averages from 235 approximately communities, 250 communities, so that’s a pretty good indicator of where the market is right now.”
• “The number of weeks of improvement that we have had as I said in the monologue, are certainly more than anecdotal. You’re talking about a whole lot of communities in 40, 50 markets and 20, 22 states. So we’re getting pretty deep information.”
Certainly Mr. Toll’s responses should be taken with a grain of salt. CEOs comments are generally overoptimistic and the economy is clearly not out of the woods yet. Having said that, for those that have followed Mr. Toll’s comments over the last few years, know that he did not always sugar-coat the weak results on the way down. Just six months ago, Mr. Toll said this: “We have not yet seen a pickup in activity at our communities,” and to combat pricing pressures the company offered a multitude of promotions, including a 3.99% mortgage rate to buyers.
The sustainability of the positive housing trends is unclear, but the signs are encouraging – especially since government stimulus cannot be directly responsible (i.e., no $8,000 new home-buyer credits for homes in the $700,000 price range) for awaking the housing bear from a four-year hibernation. The passage of time will determine whether Toll’s improving assessment of housing fundamentals will deteriorate into “yellow weeds” or flourish into a “golden trunk.”
Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients did not have any position in TOL at the time the article was published. No information accessed through the “Investing Caffeine” website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.
Coca-Cola (KO) has come up with a new product idea: fizzy milk. Sound strange? From my perspective, I prefer my milk with cereal and chocolate chip cookies. I never received a marketing degree, so somebody please explain to me what the heck Coke is thinking?
What’s next? Coca-Cola anchovy and liver protein shakes. Or perhaps fizzy gravy? What better than a little carbonation to liven up your mash potatoes on Thanksgiving?!
The name of Coke’s new carbonated milk product is Vio, and the creation is being test-marketed throughout New York (primarily in delis and health food stores) to gauge acceptance. The fizzy milk product comes in various fruit flavors, including Tropical Colada, Very Berry, Citrus Burst, and Peach Mango. Peculiarly, the product is stocked on shelves at room temperature. Mmm, nothing like lukewarm milk, it just sounds so delightful (I don’t think so).
Coke also has grander ambitions of rolling Vio out globally, if the U.S. launch proves successful. According to the TimesOnline article, perhaps natural food stores should not be targeted since Vio contains similar levels of sugar as Coca-Cola’s main non-diet drinks. Some believe Coke’s introduction of Vio is merely a crafty exploitation of a technicality in school beverage rules. A recent article written on creativematch states, “The American Beverage Association’s School Beverage Guidelines prohibits sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks from being sold in elementary, middle, and high schools. However, the guidelines still allow some milk-based products to be sold.” Perhaps Vio is Coke’s Trojan Cow for getting new drinks onto schools’ menus.
Time will tell whether Coke is successful in this beverage niche, but I will not hold my breath for its triumph. No matter the level of Vio achievement, at a minimum, dairy cows have found a new revenue stream to keep them employed in a tough economic environment.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do not have direct investment exposure in Coca Cola Co. (KO) at the time the article was published. 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.
Michael E. Porter, a former aeronautical engineer graduate turned Harvard Economics PhD professor, came out with a revolutionary article thirty years ago (How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy) in which he describes the Five Forces of competition that shape the profitability dynamics of an industry. Since then, Porter’s management theories have continued to spread and his knowledge is continually sought after. Some people believe Porter’s Five Forces, and other management business theories, are pure voodoo.
In a recent HBR (Harvard Business Review) article, Andrew O’Connell completed a book review of The Management Myth: Why the “Experts” Keep Getting it Wrong written by Matthew Stewart, a former consultant. Mr. Stewart (a former consultant turned non-believer) exposes the sham of the business consulting industry by outlining the outrageous fees paid by clients and the “mumbo-jumbo” language spouted out by newly minted MBAs.
In a similarly titled article (the Management Myth) written in 2006, Mr. Stewart goes on to say:
“The impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.”… M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch.”
Some other interesting comments include his views on failing companies:
“In fact, we kind of liked failing businesses: there was usually plenty of money to be made in propping them up before they finally went under. After Enron, true enough, Arthur Andersen sank. But what happened to such stalwarts as McKinsey, which generated millions in fees from Enron and supplied it with its CEO?”
Too often with many books, a silver bullet or holy-grail is searched for. The true answer – there is no easy solution. I believe tools or frameworks, like Porter’s Five Forces, can create significant benefits by forcing practitioners into thinking about competition and profits in new ways. Although the lessons may not be worth millions in consulting fees, the education may be worth the $21.95 cost of a book (including free shipping) from Amazon. Mr. Stewart would likely take umbrage with these views, especially since I have an MBA from Cornell.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
Our economy may be coming out of a long economic hibernation; however technology does not sleep through a recession. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation, has proven this trend true through his groundbreaking piece written in the April 1965 issue of Electronics Magazine. In the article Mr. Moore predicted transistor densities would double about every two years (“Moore’s Law”). Transistors can be thought of as the brains of electronics devices, and the industry (Intel and other semiconductor manufacturers) has been boosting the brain power of electronics for decades. How far has the industry come? The number of transistors contained on a chip has gone from 16 in 1960s to over 600 million today – now that’s what I call progress!
These achievements have been nothing short of revolutionary, and many people consider the introduction of the transistor as the greatest invention of the 20th century. According to many industry experts, Mr. Moore’s forecasts have been shockingly accurate and many believe “Moore’s Law” will hold true for years to come – despite challenging technological limitations.
We may curse at our computers (I absolutely despise Vista), but there is no arguing with the huge productivity and standard of living improvements we have experienced over the last forty years – since the introduction of the transistor. Many take their GPS, Tivo, WiFi laptop, iPhone, and HiDef TVs for granted, however I for one thank Gordon Moore and those diligent engineers for making my geeky tech dreams come true.
However the cost of further advancements is becoming pricier. As line widths (the ability to add more transistors) narrow, the costs of building fabrication plants (“fabs”) with the necessary equipment are running in the multi-billion range. The Financial Times (FT) article talking about semiconductor trends mentions a $4.2 billion state-of-the-art factory in upstate New York that is just beginning construction. The FT notes that only two players (Intel and Samsung) have firm plans to build 20 nanometer fabs. For comparison purposes, one nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter and a human hair is 100,000 nanometers wide. In other words, a nanometer is pretty darn tiny. To further illustrate the point, Intel has managed to fit up to 11 Intel Atom processors – each packed with 47 million transistors – on the face of an American penny.
As the chip making industry become more costly, fewer semiconductor manufacturers will be playing in the sandbox:
“Intel argues that only companies with about $9bn in annual revenues can afford to be in the business of building new fabs, given the costs of building and operating the factories and earning a decent 50 per cent margin. That leaves just Intel, Samsung, Toshiba, Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics.”
The economy may still be in the doldrums, but the $60 trillion global economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product) never sleeps – technologies created by Gordon Moore and others continue to propel amazing advancements.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
Don’t shoot the messenger, even if it means walking down “money-honey” memory lane. Maria Bartiromo has been a staple for business television viewers since she joined CNBC in 1993. The broad hair-styles of Maria Bartiromo, ranging from the “Tease” and “Business Mullet” to the “Classic” and the “Librarian,” have been more volatile than the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX). Word has it that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) is working on a hair futures contract, designed to hedge against potential price spikes in the hairspray market.
To avoid any sexist comment critics, and if there are enough requests, I will submit a “dew dude” montage of Wade Slome’s past cranial mop designs. For those outraged by the hair-dew review, rest assured knowing Mrs. Bartiromo has been quoted as saying, “Frankly, I’m flattered” by the “money-honey” reference.
Like a day trader adapting to the changing markets, Mrs. Bartiromo has shown tremendous versatility in adjusting to the ever-changing business style demands. Some may debate whether her journalistic intensity has kept pace with the times. Change is a constant when considering financial markets and hairstyle trends – I’ll be watching Mrs. Bartiromo work her craft in both areas.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
There is a silver lining to the deep, tortuous job cuts in this severe recession and it is called “productivity.” Those fortunate enough to retain their jobs are forced to become more productive. In layman’s terms, productivity simply is output divided by hours worked.
Unemployment dropped to 9.4% in July, thanks in part to a decline in the job losses to -247,000 from a peak in January of -741,000 job losses. During this period of job-loss cratering, we managed to sustain a decline of a mere -1% in Q2 Gross Domestic Product (GDP). How could we lose more than 6 million jobs since the beginning of 2008 and still be on a path to recovery? A large contributor is our friend, productivity, which came in at a whopping +6.4% in Q2 – the highest in six years.
Productivity increased in part because of a slashing of work-hours by employers. Employees that have maintained employment are therefore forced to produce more output (goods and services) per unit hour of employment. In this severe recession that we are pulling out of, the American worker is being stretched like a rubber band. At some point, the “Law of Diminishing Returns” kicks in and employers are forced to hire new employees to meet demand levels, or the rubber band will snap.
The prime ways of increasing productivity are raising the amount of capital per worker (capital intensity) and also elevating the workers’ average level of skill, education, and training (labor quality).
Not only are the surviving U.S. workers toiling harder, they are not getting pay increases large enough to offset inflation. For example, Q2 hourly compensation increased +0.2%, but after accounting for inflation, real hourly compensation was actually down -1.1%.
As the MarketWatch article points out:
The early stages of recovery are typically the best for productivity: Output is rising, but cost-cutting plans are still being implemented… Productivity gains are the key to higher living standards, higher wages, increased profits and low inflation… Productivity averaged about 2.7% annually from 1948 to 1970, then slowed to 1.6% from 1971 to 1995. Since then, productivity has grown about 2.5% annually. In 2008, productivity increased 1.8%.
Productivity allows the U.S. to produce more goods and services with fewer workers. For instance, the MarketWatch article also highlights the U.S. is producing 20% more output relative to a decade ago, yet employment has not changed at all over that time period.
We are certainly not out of the woods when it comes to the recession, and for those lucky enough to maintain employment, they are being asked (forced) to work more for less pay. These productivity improvements feel like torture to the survivors, however this pain will eventually lead to economic gain.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
As a former tenured economics professor at Princeton University, I would believe Ben Bernanke would understand and appreciate the power of diversification, but apparently not. The bulk of his $1.2 million to $2.5 million (only a broad range was disclosed) was invested in a large-cap stock fund and a fixed-rate annuity from TIAA-CREF. Some would say his portfolio could use a higher dosage of small-cap, mid-cap, international and alternative asset classes, including real estate. With arguably the highest ranking finance job in the universe, wouldn’t you expect him to have a smoking hot portfolio? The data paints a different picture.
According to publicly disclosed data, Bernanke’s assets were down -29% (about -$600,000) in 2008, better than the S&P 500, but not comparable since his portfolio also included fixed income securities like Canadian treasury bonds and an annuity fund. For whatever reason, the global money czar couldn’t or wouldn’t use his knowledge to outmaneuver the markets. Why didn’t he use the Yen carry trade to buy crude oil up to $140 per barrel, then short emerging markets during 2008 before going long technology stocks beginning on March 9, 2009?
Certainly, Bernanke does not want to create a conflict of interest, whether real or implied. I’m sure Bernanke is not day trading options and shorting levered Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) on E-Trade, because the headaches it would create for him would undoubtedly outweigh any short-term financial benefits earned from his investment ideas. Even if Bernanke felt he could exploit profit opportunities, the real bucks will come from speaking events and consulting prospects after he leaves his position of Federal Reserve Chairman. If Bernanke does a better job with his portfolio, perhaps he can retire at a younger age…
Wade W. Slome CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
Bill Maher, shock-comedian and host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, has made up a new rule in a recent article, “Not Everything in America Has to Make a Profit.”
Hey Bill, that sounds intriguing. I’ve got an idea – how about you decide to work for no profit? If free healthcare is a right for every American, then why should people pay for your stupid jokes? If I have a right to free healthcare, then why not a right to free laughs?
Don’t get me wrong, our system is broke and needs to be fixed. The real question, is insuring an additional 50 million uninsured, by the same bureaucratic healthcare system leading the Medicare train-wreck, our best approach in solving our healthcare crisis? Sure, doing nothing should not be a fallback, but I’m not sure a trillion dollar healthcare plan with Washington bureaucrats is the best idea either? I’m not against government involvement, but before we dive headfirst into the deep-end with additional deficit exploding plans, why not wade in the shallow end and slowly roll-out success-based models that prove their superiority first.
I’m no medical expert, but let’s take the best structures, whether it’s the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, or other leading structures and have the government manage a steady roll-out. If the government can prove a lower-cost, more efficient way of serving higher quality care, then by all means…let’s see it. Some argue we don’t have time to test new models, well unfortunately our disastrous system took decades to create and a pork-filled bill through Congress is not going to be an immediate silver-bullet for our dire healthcare problems.
Getting back to Mr. Maher’s profit objections on healthcare, I wonder if he’s ever complained or contemplated the innovations created by the profit-laden healthcare system. Whether it’s an MRI, hip replacement, cholesterol drug, cancer test, glaucoma treatment, ADHD medication or the hundreds of other beneficial advancements, maybe Mr. Maher should ask and understand where all these innovations came from? The answer: good old profits that were invested in critical research and development. Without those profits, there would be fewer and less impactful healthcare innovation for millions of Americans.
As for the firemen who do not “charge” or make a profit, I would like to remind Mr. Maher who is paying their fair share for those services consumed by hundreds of millions of Americans – it’s those same “soulless vampires making money off human pain” that you castigate. Profitable corporations are funding those essential government services with tax dollars derived from, you guessed it, profits. If we can find a lower-cost, more efficient way of serving the public services by the government, then as Phil Knight from Nike (NKE) says, “Just Do It!” Unfortunately, I prefer to see some tangible proof first, before spending hundreds of billions of tax dollars.
From an early age, even as babies, we are incentivized for certain behavior. Whether it’s offering M&Ms to potty-train a two year old, or submitting six-figure bonuses to a fifty-two year old for hitting department profit targets, incentives always plays a central role in shaping behavior. Figure out the desired behavior and create incentives for your subjects (and penalties for non-compliance).
As the government comes up with a public solution, I have no problem with Washington pressuring insurance companies and the medical industry to become more efficient and provide a higher threshold of care. I’m confident that structures can be put in place that mitigate conflicts of interest (i.e., pure profit motive), while increasing the standard of care and efficiency. Rewarding the healthcare industry with incentives, rather than just simply beating them over the head with lower reimbursements under a single-payer system, may produce longer-lasting, sustainable benefits.
In certain areas of society, such as policemen/women, firefighters, national defense, and doctors there has always been a view that government is better suited for handling certain services. However, sometimes government does not implement the proper incentive plans, which then leads to bureaucracy, inefficiency, and excessive costs. Eventually, these negative trends overwhelm the system into failure, much like sand grinding engine gears to a halt.
Bill, I appreciate your viewpoint, and I like you would love if everything was free. For starters, I’ll look for your press release announcing the cancellation of your multi-million contract with HBO, closely followed by the revelation of your pro-bono comedy work. Here’s to profitless prosperity.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in NKE, 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.