Archive for August, 2009

Housing: Green Shoots Turning to Golden Trunks?

Tree Trunk

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.”

Watch Extended Interview of CEO Bob Toll (Post Q3 2009 Conference Call)

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.

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August 31, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Coke Targets Cows

Cows

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 Vio

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.

August 28, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Business Theory: Voodoo or Value?

voodoo-doll

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.

August 27, 2009 at 8:41 am 2 comments

Social Media Revolution Taking Over World

poing levé

When I speak of revolution I’m not talking about religion, politics, or wars; rather I am talking about “social media.” Should I care that Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more twitter followers than the populations of Ireland, Norway, and Panama? Some say social networking is just a fad, but if you blindly sit along the sidelines, the whole world may pass you by in a blink of an eye. Erik Qualman, author of the book and blog Socialnomics, has a must see video that details the revolutionary growth of social media and explains how it is changing the world.

Ever since the early 1900s when the commercialization of radio took hold, millions of people were able to connect all over the world through the spread of technology – in this case the spread of AM (Amplitude Modulation) and FM (Frequency Modulation).  Other technologies, such as the telephone, television, and now the internet, have also allowed people to connect. Mr. Qualman details how social media is spreading faster than ever.

Through a chain of details, Qualman highlights the following facts: the invention of the radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users; the television 13 years; the internet 4 years; and the iPod 3 years.  Pretty staggering figures until you realize it only took less than 1 year – actually 9 months – for Facebook to add 100 million users! We know the trend is real when my mom (in her seventies) asked me last week how she can register on facebook. Currently, the 55-65 year old female segment is the fastest growing member segment on facebook.

Facebook is just one of many social media networks, which includes twitter, orkut, bebo, flickr, digg, myspace, YouTube, and countless others. The networks are expanding at break-neck speed, and the types of networks are becoming more focused and strange (for example, Spot-a-Potty, or Weird Beard).

Regardless of your view – fad or revolution – the younger generation is consuming more of it. It doesn’t take a genius to follow consumers where they are spending more time. The smart advertisers and businesses are moving to where the action is.  As Mr. Qualman notes, Generation Y (the so-called “Echo-Boomers) already outnumbers the Baby Boomers – hmmm,  I think advertisers are slowly getting the picture.  Investors should be paying attention too. I am investing my own money (and my clients’) in areas like these, where I see companies benefitting from technological change. If pushed to make a choice regarding social media, I pick revolution over fad.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: At the time of publishing, Sidoxia Capital Management and some of its clients owned certain exchange traded funds, AAPL, and GOOG, but had no direct positions in twitter, Facebook, orkut, bebo, flickr, digg, myspace, or any other security referenced. 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.

August 25, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Technology Does Not Sleep in a Recession

Hibernate Bear 

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.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

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.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

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.

August 24, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Walking Down “Money Honey” Memory Lane

Bartiromo

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.

 Click Here For Clusterstock’s Random Walk Through Bartiromo’s Hairstyles

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.

August 21, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Tortuous Path to Productivity

Medieval public beheading

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.

August 20, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

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