Archive for April, 2010

Revenge of David: Technology Empowers Small-Fry

The garage tinkerer’s canvas is manifested through these relatively new 3-D printers.

What happened in the virtual world with software and operating systems over the last 15 or so years is now happening in the bricks and mortar world. Linux, a free open source software operating system, was designed in the early 1990s and initially registered its trademark in 1994. The no cost system takes advantage of charitable brainpower by using programming prowess from others around the globe.

The same phenomenon is happening in the real world, and critically acclaimed Wired writer Chris Anderson wrote about it this trend in a recent article, In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits. With the help of a laptop, free design software, and a few mouse clicks to a manufacturing plant in China, Anderson shows how a small fry entrepreneur with a good idea can become a successful micro-factory in weeks. This same process might have taken traditional manufacturers years in the past. Accelerating production from novel idea to output reality are new 3-D printers, robotic-like equipment that can build real time prototypes from molten plastic (see picture above). Sounds expensive, but these former six-figure devices can be purchased for less than $1,000 thereby allowing state of the art products to be made with relatively little capital and inventory. In other words, the small fry entrepreneur David now has the ability to become a fine tuned Goliath with the help of democratizing technologies. The high barriers to entry have been toppled down by creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs.

In describing this manufacturing marvel, Anderson highlights Local Motors, an open source car company that managed to produce a car in months what would have taken legacy automakers years to build. Rather than hire a host of expensive engineers (the company only had 10 employees), Local Motors relied on a global community of volunteers (also called “crowdsourcing”) to design the original “Rally Fighter” automobile. Utilizing a ratio of 500-to-1 volunteers to employees has allowed Local Motors to leverage the power of atoms to bits. What Anderson calls “garage tinkerers” are slowly taking over the world.

Building Your Dream

On the surface, the micro-factory concept sounds fairly straightforward, but how does one practically pursue this strategy? Anderson has five steps to building your dreams:

1)      Invent: Come up with idea and check U.S. Patent and Trademark office to make sure idea has not been used before.

2)      Design: Use 3-D design tools to model out your idea.

3)      Prototype: Upload your design to a 3-D printer and watch prototype idea grow into reality.

4)    Manufacture: Find manufacturing partner online through sites like Alibaba.com (1688.HK).

5)   Sell: Market your product online to reach the masses.

If you look back in time, the industrialization of America squeezed out the little guys because small time citizens did not have the capital or expertise to keep up with the big boys. Thanks to the internet, the playing field has been leveled and the small-fry David can not only compete with Goliath, but can also defeat him.

Read Chris Anderson’s Famous The Long Tail Article from 2004

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 positions in Alibaba.com or any 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.

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April 30, 2010 at 1:37 am 2 comments

Goldman: Gambling Prosperity at Client Expense?

What a scene that 11-hour Senate subcommittee interrogation of Goldman Sachs (GS) executives was on C-Span – I’m still wondering whether a forklift was utilized to hoist in the multi-thousand page binders stuffed with reams of exhibits. With caffeine beverage firmly in hand, I watched as much of the marathon as possible until fatigue set in. Not all was lost though, because I managed to simultaneously conduct new stock research as I was glued to the hearings. After I saw the Goldman executives repeatedly wrestle open the gargantuan-sized binders of smoking-gun emails, I checked the paper futures markets and am now contemplating a purchase of International Paper’s (IP) stock.

Lead trader of the controversial Abacus/John Paulson deal, “Fabulous Fab” Fabrice Tourre, did not disappoint his supporters either, firmly addressing his responses in his French Pepe Le Pew accent.  His Goldman trading counterparts (Daniel Sparks, ex-mortgage department head, Joshua Birnbaum, ex-managing director of the department, and Michael Swenson, current managing director of the department), like all Goldman witnesses, did their best at bobbing and weaving the intrusive, pointed questions. On the cozier side of the questioning fence, the Senators did a superb job of raking the Goldman execs over the coals with endless exhibits of emails. Judging by the shiny, sweating mugs of the traders, the Senators were successful in making the testifiers uncomfortable – either that, or the Senators had the thermostat in the room raised to 82 degrees.

Betting Away to Profits

At the heart of the questioning was the key issue of whether Goldman Sachs executives and employees were acting in the best interest of their clients (fiduciary duty), or were they making bets against clients with the benefit of privileged information. Senator Claire McCaskill compared Goldman to a bookie manipulating bets in their own favor without sharing their edge with bettors (investors). In the case of the Abacus deal, Goldman admits to not freely disclosing the involvement of now-famous, mortgage market short seller John Paulson (see the Gutsiest Trade) to the so-called sophisticated institutional investors, ACA Capital Holdings Inc. Was this lack of disclosure illegal? Perhaps unethical, but pundits have already established the high hurdle the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) will need to clear in order to prove Goldman’s guilt.

Based on the testimony and facts introduced in the hearings, and as I write in my previous Goldman article (Goldman Cheat?), Goldman’s behavior throughout the housing collapse and participation in the ACA deal reflects more about intelligent opportunism within a loose regulatory framework than it does about criminal behavior. Having managed a $20 billion fund (see my book) I dealt with the conflicts of interest and self dealings of the investment banks first hand. As I entered trade orders reaching into the millions of shares, do I naively believe Goldman and other banks altruistically kept that information in their trading vaults? Or is it possible that information leaked out to other clients or was used for the banks benefit? Suffice it to say, the regulatory structure and conflict of interest frameworks, as they stand today, are not stacked in favor of investors.

The Solutions

Although we wish our regulators and government officials could have been more forward looking, rather than reactive, nonetheless, some reforms need to be instituted to resolve the substantial risks built into our financial system today. Here are a few ideas from the 10,000 foot level:

Volcker Rule: Former Federal Reserve Chairman’s so-called “Volcker Rule” is looking better by the minute. Not a new concept, but as regulators shine the light on the opaque industry of derivatives trading and proprietary trading desks, the need for new reforms becomes even more evident. Derivatives are not evil (see Financial Engineering), but like a gun or knife, if misused these instruments can become extremely dangerous…as we have found out. The Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment bank functions from commercial bank functions, was repealed almost 70 years after its introduction in 1932. The Volcker Rule would be a “lite” version of Glass-Steagall Act because the thrust of the proposal is aimed at splitting the risk-taking proprietary trading desk activities from the client based activities.

Heightened Capital: If you rented out an exotic car or motorcycle from a store, you would likely be required to commit a deposit or collateral to protect against adverse conditions. The same principle applies to derivatives, which generally raises volatility due to inherent leverage. The riskier the product, the larger the capital requirement should be. The collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG are painful lessons learned from situations of excessive leverage.

Central Clearing/Transparency: Derivative products such as options, futures, and swaps have existed for decades. The transparency gained by trading these securities on exchanges increases market confidence, thereby increasing liquidity and lowering costs for end-users. Standardization around complex derivatives like CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), CDSs (Credit Default Swaps), and CLOs (Collateralized Loan Obligations) is a must to ensure the fact regulators can actually understand the products they are regulating.

Credit Rating Agency: It’s not entirely clear to me that the rating agencies play a critical role in the market place. In effect, the agencies serve as an outsourced research resource primarily for fixed income investors. If the agencies disappeared today, investors would be forced to do their own homework on each deal – not necessarily a bad idea. If the existing oligopoly structure of agencies ultimately survives, I suggest penalties should be incurred by firms with inaccurate ratings. Conversely, ratings could be structured such that compensation could be tiered (or escrowed) over time with payment incentives tied to the underlying deal performance relative to ratings accuracy.

Too Big To Fail: The massive bailouts and TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money handed out to the financial and auto companies have left a sour taste in taxpayers’ mouths. A systemic risk regulator with the authority to unwind unhealthy institutions makes common sense. An insurance pool financed by self-inflicted industry taxes would assist regulators in achieving the reduction of troubled financial institutions.

Fiduciary Duty: Sidoxia Capital Management is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and must act in the best interests of the client. Unfortunately, much of the industry is structured with a much lower “suitability” threshold, which provides a veil for firms to engage in less than ethical behavior.

Overall, regulatory reform urgency is in the Washington D.C. air and there is no question in my mind that a certain degree of witch hunting and scapegoating is occurring. Nonetheless, Lloyd Blankfein and team Goldman Sachs made it out alive from the Congressional hearing, but not without suffering some negative reputational damage. Former Goldman CEO alum and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson probably sent roses to Mr. Blankfein thanking him for taking Paulson’s job before the 2008 market collapse.  When regulatory reform eventually kicks in, perhaps Lloyd Blankfein and Henry Paulson will take a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate (or commiserate).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and in a security derived from an AIG subsidiary, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in GS, IP, AIG, JPM/Bear Stearns, LEH/Barclays  or any 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 28, 2010 at 1:19 am 2 comments

General Motor’s Amazing Debt Trick

Now you see it, and now you don’t. General Motors claims that it has pulled off an amazing trick – the CEO of the troubled automaker, Ed Whitacre, claims in a recently released nationwide commercial, “We have repaid our government loan, in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule.” (See video BELOW):

Blushing Pinocchio

Even Pinocchio would blush after listening to those statements. The loan that GM is claiming victory over is roughly $7-8 billion in TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) loans made from the U.S. and Canada. What Mr. Whitacre failed to acknowledge was how investors will be made whole on the whopping balance of around $45 billion.

How did GM miraculously pay off this debt? Whitacre would like taxpayers to believe booming sales or an operational turnaround has funded the debt repayment. Rather, these debt repayments were funded through other government TARP loans held in escrow with U.S. Treasury oversight. Effectively, GM has paid down one Mastercard (MA) bill with another Visa (V) credit card, and then gone on to brag about this financial shell game through a multi-million dollar advertising campaign. It’s bad enough that politicians and so-called media pundits attempt to “spin” facts into warped truths, but when a government-owned entity steps onto a national loudspeaker and spouts out blatantly distorted sound-bites, there should be consequences to these actions. American taxpayers deserve more honest accountability and transparency regarding their tax outlays rather than quarter truths.

GM’s Future

As Jedi Master Yoda’s famously quotes, “Uncertain, the future is,” and “Always in motion is the future.” GM is not out of the woods yet – the company lost $3.4 billion in the 4th quarter of 2009 alone and remains 70% government-owned. Nobody is certain how much (if any) of the $43 billion will be repaid by General Motors. For reference purposes, GM lost $88 billion from 2004 until 2009 when they declared bankruptcy  (see AP article)  If all goes according to plan, the former debt holders (now equity holders) and government stockholders will get a return on their capital infusions if and when GM does an equity offering to the public sometime later in 2010. If achieved, the company will have come full circle: public to bankrupt; bankrupt to private; and private to public.

While executives at GM are confident in their repayment capabilities, less convinced are certain branches of our federal government. Maybe these government agencies have taken note of the horrific train wreck occurring in the automotive industry over the last few decades (see GM Fatigue) Take for example the Office of Management and Budget, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – they see TARP losses exceeding $100 billion, including about $30 billion from the auto companies…ouch.

The probability of success will no doubt hinge on some of the dramatic transformations made over the last year. First of all, GM has axed the number of brands in half (from eight to four), cutting Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab. Cutting costs is great, but chopping expenses to prosperity cannot last forever – at some point you need compelling products that will drive sales. The rubber will hit the road late this year when GM is scheduled to release the “Volt,” a plug-in hybrid, which the company is using as a launching pad for new products.

TARP on Right Track but Not to Finish Line

Given the heightened political sensitivity in Washington regarding the banks and Wall Street it’s not too surprising that many of the banks wanted to be out of the governments crosshairs and pay back TARP as soon as possible. Beyond political pressure, banks have accelerated TARP repayments in part due to the massively steep and profitable yield curve, along with signs of an improving economy. According to the Treasury Department less than $200 billion in bailout money is outstanding for what originally started out as a $700 billion fund ($36 billion of automaker bailouts is estimated as uncollectible). Even though there has been progress on TARP collections, unfortunately non-TARP losses associated with AIG, Fannie Mae (FNM), and Freddie Mac (FRE) are expected to add more than $150 billion in bleeding.

I don’t believe anyone is happy about the bailouts, although some are obviously more irate. Accountability and transparency are important bailout factors as taxpayers and investors look to recover capital contributions. The next trick GM and Ed Whitacre need to pull off is paying off tens of billions in taxpayer money with the benefit of sustained profits – now that’s a television commercial I want to see.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and in a security derived from an AIG subsidiary, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in General Motors, AIG, FNM, FRE, MA, V, or any 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, 2010 at 11:40 pm 6 comments

SEC Awake at the Switch…Sort Of

The SEC is accusing Goldman Sachs (GS) of screwing its own clients through lack of disclosure (see also Goldman Cheat? article), but the SEC apparently enjoys passively watching a little action itself. Throughout the financial crisis, as investors watched the collapse of major financial institutions like Bear Stearns (JPM), Lehman Brothers, and AIG, the SEC was accused of falling asleep at the switch. As it turns out, the SEC was not asleep, but rather they were quite awake switching on the porn.

Efficiency may not be the core strength of all governmental agencies (several of my horrific trips to the department of motor vehicles (DMV) can attest to that fact), but little did I know that my tax dollars were supporting six-figure salaries (some over $200,000), so SEC employees could watch skin flick classics like Pulp Friction, Spankenstein, or Buttman and Throbbin’.

I guess from a certain standpoint, one might appreciate SEC employee ingenuity and determination. For example the Associated Press reported the following:

“An accountant was blocked more than 16,000 times in a month from visiting websites classified as “Sex” or “Pornography.” Yet he still managed to amass a collection of “very graphic” material on his hard drive by using Google images to bypass the SEC’s internal filter, according to an earlier report from the inspector general.”
“A senior attorney at the SEC’s Washington headquarters spent up to eight hours a day looking at and downloading pornography. When he ran out of hard drive space, he burned the files to CDs or DVDs, which he kept in boxes around his office.”

 

Perhaps the SEC is just like Goldman Sachs? They both just happened to get caught, even though many others have participated in the sinful behavior. How widespread is pornography viewing in the workplace? A study conducted by Websense in 2006 reported that 16% of men with internet access admitted to watching porn during office hours.

Watching nudey movies is less damaging than allegedly misrepresenting and hiding information from investors, but Dick Fuld, Bernie Madoff, and Allen Stanford are certainly thankful to the distracted SEC staffers for the extra time the crooked Wall Streeters were given to run their schemes. Wall Street has become a lightning rod, and given the fact that 2010 is an election year, there is extreme pressure on politicians to limit the power, size, and activities of the major banks. Maybe the new regulatory reform legislation being crafted in Congress will even include a ban on workplace pornography viewing. With additional free time, the SEC may successfully find more law-breakers. Who knows, possibly Goldman could even help the government recover some lost tax revenue by auctioning off excess dirty movies left over at the SEC?

Read the Rest of the AP Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and in a security derived from an AIG subsidiary, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in GS, Bear Stearns (JPM), and Lehman Brothers, or any 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 23, 2010 at 1:15 am 2 comments

Filet or Mac & Cheese? Investing for Retirement

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 placed a large swath of investors into paralysis based on a fear the United States and the rest of the world was on the verge of irreversible destruction. Regardless of what the newspaper headlines are reading and television pundits are spouting, individuals have to shrewdly plan for retirement no matter what the economy is doing. So then the question becomes, do you want to be eating macaroni & cheese in retirement, or does filet mignon or alternate five-star cuisine sound more appealing? I vote for the latter.

Despite what the government statistics are saying about the current state of benign inflation, you do not need to be a genius to see medical costs are exploding, energy charges have skyrocketed, and even more innocuous items such as movie ticket prices continue to rise. If that’s not a burden enough, depending on your age, there’s a legitimate concern the Social Security and Medicare safety nets may not be there for you in retirement. It is more important than ever to take control of your financial future by investing your money in a more efficient manner (see Fusion), focusing on long-term, low-cost, tax-efficient strategies. Whatever the direction of the financial markets (up, down, or sideways), if you don’t wisely invest your money, you will run the risk of working as a Wal-Mart (WMT) greeter into your 80s and relegated to eating mac & cheese (for lunch and dinner).

Broaden Your Horizons

The last decade has been tough for domestic equities. It’s true that not a lot of compounding of returns has occurred in the domestic equity markets over the last decade (see Lost Decade), but that weakness is not necessarily representative of the next decade’s performance or the past relative strength seen in areas like emerging markets, materials and certain fixed income markets. These alternatives, including cash, would have added significant diversification benefits to investor portfolios during previous years. Rather than focusing on what’s best for the investor, so much financial industry attention has been placed on high cost, high fee, high commission domestic stock funds or insurance-based products. Due to many inherent conflicts of interest, many individual investors have lost sight of other more attractive opportunities, like exchange traded funds, international strategies, and fixed-income investment vehicles.

Rule of 72

Depending on your risk profile, objectives and constraints, the “Rule of 72” implies your retirement portfolio should double from a $100,000 investment now to roughly $200,000 in seven years (to $400,000 in 14 years, $800,000 in 21 years, etc.), assuming your portfolio can earn a 10% annual return. Unfortunately, this snowballing effect of money growth does not work if you are paying out significant chunks of your returns to aggressive brokers and salespeople in the forms of high commissions, fees, and taxes (see a Penny Saved is Billions Earned). For example, if you are paying out total annual expenses of 2-3% to a broker, advisor, or investment manager, the doubling effect of the Rule of 72 will be stretched out to 9-10 years (rather than the above mentioned seven years).  If you do not know what you are paying in fees and expenses (like the majority of people), then do yourself a favor and educate yourself about the fee structures and tax strategies utilized in your investments (see also Investor Confusion). If you haven’t started investing, or you are shoveling out a lot of money in fees, expenses, and taxes, then you should reconsider your current investment stretegy. Otherwise, you may just want to begin stockpiling a lot of macaroni & cheese in your retirement pantry.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and shares in WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any 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 the IC “Contact” page for more information.

April 21, 2010 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

Goldman Cheat? Really?

Really? Am I supposed to be surprised that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has dug up a CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) deal with $1 billion in associated Goldman Sachs (GS) losses? The headline number may sound large, but the billion dollars is not much if you consider banks are expected to lose about $3 trillion dollars (according to an International Monetary Fund report)  from toxic assets and bad loans related to the financial crisis. Specifically, Goldman is being charged for defrauding investors for not disclosing the fact that John Paulson (see Gutsiest Trade), a now-famous hedge fund manager who made billions by betting against the subprime mortgage market, personally selected underlying securities to be included in a synthetic CDO (a pool of mortgage derivatives rather than a pool of mortgage securities).

Hurray for the SEC, but surely we can come up with more than this after multiple years? More surprising to me is that it took the SEC this long to come up with any dirt in the middle of a massive financial pigpen. What’s more, the estimated $1 billion in investor losses associated with the Goldman deal represents about 0.036% of the global industry loss estimates. These losses are a drop in the bucket. If there is blood on Goldman’s hand, my guess is there’s enough blood on the hands of Wall Street bankers to paint the White House red (two coats). The Financial Times highlighted a study showing Goldman was a relative small-fry among the other banks doing these type of CDO deals. For 2005-2008, Goldman did a little more than 5% of the total $100+ billion in similar deals, earning them an unimpressive ninth place finish among its peers. As a matter of fact, Paulson also hocked CDO garbage selections to other banks like Deutsche Bank, Bear Stearns, and Credit Suisse. The disclosure made in those deals will no doubt play a role in determining Goldman’s ultimate culpability.

Context, with regard to the fees earned by Goldman, is important too. Goldman earned less than 8/100th of 1% of their $20 billion in pretax profits from the Abacus deal. Not to mention, unless other charges pile up, Goldman’s roughly $850 billion in assets, $170 billion in cash and liquid securities, and $71 billion in equity should buttress them in any future litigation. These particular SEC charges feel more like the government trying to convict Goldman on a technicality – like the government did with Al Capone on tax evasion charges. At the end of the day, the evidence will be presented and the courts will determine if fraud indeed occurred. If so, there will be consequences.

Demonize Goldman?

How bad can Goldman really be, especially considering their deep philanthropic roots (the firm donated $500 million for small business assistance), and CEO Lloyd Blankfein was kind enough to let us know he is doing “God’s work,” by providing Goldman’s rich menu of banking services to its clients.

Certainly, if Goldman broke securities laws, then there should be hell to pay and heads should roll. But if Goldman was really trying to defraud investors in this particular structured deal (called Abacus 2007-ACI), then why would they invest alongside the investors (Goldman claims to have lost $90 milllion in this particular deal)? I suppose the case could be made that Goldman only invested for superficial reasons because the fees garnered from structuring the deals perhaps outweighed any potential losses incurred by investing the firm’s own capital in these deals. Seems like a stretch if you contemplate the $90 million in losses overwhelmed the $15 million in fees earned by Goldman to structure the deal.

Maybe this will be the beginning of the debauchery flood gates opening in the banking industry, but let’s not fully jump on the Goldman Scarlet Letter bandwagon just quite yet. Politics may be playing a role too. The Volcker rule was conveniently introduced right after Senator Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, and political coincidence has reared its head again in light of the financial regulatory reform fury swelling up in Washington.

Waiting for More teeth

There is a difference between intelligent opportunism and blatant cheating. There is also a difference between immorally playing a game within the rules versus immorally breaking laws. Those participants breaking the law should be adequately punished, but before jumping to conclusions, let’s make sure we first gather all the facts. While the relatively minute Abacus deal may be very surprising to some, given the trillions in global losses caused by toxic assets, I am not. Surely the SEC can dig up something with more teeth, but until then I will be more surprised by Jesse Jame’s cheating on Sandra Bullock (with Michelle “Bombshell” McGee) than by Goldman Sachs’s alleged cheating in CDO disclosure.

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 positions in GS, DB, Bear Stearns (JPM), and CSGN.VX/CS.N or any 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 19, 2010 at 4:35 pm 2 comments

Digging for iPad Gold with Simplicity

We live in a hyper global competitive world, yet some companies manage to find gold while others unsuccessfully dig for their dreams. What is a major determinant of great companies? Apple Inc. (AAPL), and other companies, may include “simplicity” as a key ingredient. Take the iPad for example. Already the company has successfully exceeded iPad sales target thanks to the shrewd marketing of the simple touch-screen technology. Some call it a glorified iPhone because the iPad uses a very similar interface on a larger scale. Nonetheless, the device is getting rave reviews from the likes of US Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Newsweek, and as Stephen Colbert smartly pointed out in his video (below), the iPad even makes salsa to boot.  Many estimates point to more than a half million units sold in the first few weeks, making the 2010 estimates of 3-4 million units sold likely too low.

CLICK HERE TO SEE IPAD VIDEO

Competition Not a Game Killer

How much more competitive can the personal computer and cell phone markets be? According to the United Nations, we will reach 5 billion subscribers in 2010. With pricing pressure galore, and new Asian competitors popping up all over the place, how can companies grow, let alone make profits? Ever since the revolutionary iPhone was introduced in 2007, rivals have attempted to copy-cat the device. In the meantime, Apple continues to gain market share while they sit on close to $40 billion in cash, not to mention the flood of new cash rolling in the doors ($10+ billion in free cash flow generated in calendar 2009).

Innovation and the Remote Control

One key driver of profitability is innovation, but an elegant solution driven by an out-of-touch engineer with consumer demands will only lead to share losses and headaches. I mean how many times have you pulled your hair out trying to navigate through a 100-button TV remote control or screamed in frustration from attempting to learn a non-Wii videogame?

But Apple is not the only company to find simplicity in its quest for profit domination. In order to be a massive juggernaut like Apple Inc., a company’s product or service must gain mass appeal. A key determinant for mass appeal is simplicity. Beyond Apple, think of other dominant franchises that also operate in massively competitive markets like Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) in retail; Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) in coffee; Google Inc. (GOOG) in internet advertising; Coca Cola Co. (KO) in soda; Netflix Inc. (NFLX) in video rentals, among a host of other category killers. Many of these corporate giants offer products we cannot function or live without. I still find it utterly amazing that my children will never know what life was really like without an internet search on Google or a Caffe Misto Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks.

All Good Things Come to an End

It’s not clear how much longer these titans of corporate America can thrive. By innovating new products that improve lives in some way, these Dancing Elephants will continue to prosper. But nothing in the stock market is static, so investors should pay attention to several potential derailing factors:

  • Valuations: Valuations are extremely important in determining long-run appreciation potential, and chasing winners solely based on momentum (see related article) can lead to problems.
  • Market Share Losses: What will be the next computer, cell phone, or e-reader killer? I don’t know right now, but eventually the day will come where these leaders will lose market share to a new kid on the block.
  • Rising Costs: Competition is not the only factor in leading to slowing sales and declining profit margins. Inflation either related to labor or other input costs can crimp profits and decay investor appetites.
  • Too Big to Succeed: There has been a lot of talk about “too big to fail,” but I strongly believe companies reach a point where they become “too big to succeed.” Either the law of large numbers catches up with these companies making simple math more challenging (think of the supertanker Wal-Mart growing its $400+ billion revenue base), or regulatory scrutiny kicks in (think of Microsoft Corp. [MSFT] and Intel Corp [INTC]).

Size: Peeling More of the Onion

Success can continue for these giants, however at some point “size” becomes a headwind rather than a tailwind. Just as simply as a train can speed down a railway at over 100+miles per hour, under the right conditions the train can derail as well. As Warren Buffett states, when referring to a company’s growth prospects relative to size, “Gravity always wins.”

However, investors should remind themselves that gains can last longer than expected too. Finding “ginormous” winners in many ways is like finding a needle in a haystack. But even if you find the needle in the haystack relatively late in a company’s growth cycle (see Equity Life Cycle story), in many instances there can be a lot of appreciation potential still available. Take Wal-Mart (WMT) for example. If you bought Wal-Mart shares after it rose 10-fold during its first 10 years, you still could have achieved a 60x return over the next 30 years.

 Time will tell if Apple will strike additional gold with its iPad introduction, nonetheless Steve Jobs has found an element present in many long-term successful companies…simplicity.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, WMT, GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MSFT, SBUX, KO, INTC, NFLX, Nintendo or any 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 16, 2010 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment

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