Posts tagged ‘Wal Mart’

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

Amazon: Growing Up to be Wal-Mart

Toddler

Wal-Mart (WMT) got its start almost 50 years ago with its first store in Rogers, Arkansas (1962). Since then, the company has expanded to create a global franchise generating more than $400 billion in revenues with a market capitalization valued at about $190 billion. Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) is a relative toddler (founded in 1995 by CEO Jeff Bezos) generating about $20 billion in revenue with a market cap about 1/5th that of Wal-Mart. Mr. Bezos graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton University in 1986, and we know he has no problem in thinking big. The evidence can be found in his space travel company, Blue Origin, which is expected to initiate human travel in the upcoming years. Beyond space, Mr. Bezos is presented with a multitude of growth opportunities that have the potential of elevating Amazon from a young toddler into a mature adult like its cousin Wal-Mart.

So how does Mr. Bezos get the company through puberty to adulthood? Well actually, all I believe it will take is just more of the same. The company has created an incredible franchise with huge barriers to entry, if you consider the billions spent on the technology, infrastructure, and its distribution dominance as compared to its e-commerce brethren. Bolting on new categories (whether its jewelry, sporting goods, groceries, private label or digital downloads) can be extremely profitable since unlike Wal-Mart, Amazon doesn’t need to build or reconfigure thousands of stores to expand into new categories. For example, Wal-Mart has opened over 600 Sam’s stores nationally in order to target the wholesale club market. Once a new category is added, the blue-print is rolled out nationally and then eventually internationally. And just like Wal-Mart, as economies of scale are achieved, the cost savings are rolled back into lower prices, which then brings more customers, and even more scale advantages. This virtuous cycle then creates deeper and deeper moats separating itself from competitors.

GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES

Besides just the natural expansion of users purchasing more online and Amazon adding to existing categories, here are some other fertile areas for future growth:

  • Amazon Prime (Free shipping membership is driving incremental revenue and usage).
  • Kindle (This digital reader is already estimated to account for 35% of Amazon’s book sales and some analysts see $2 billion in Kindle revenues by 2012).
  • Zappos.com (This acquisition provides instant dominance in shoes and adjacent product lines).
  • International Expansion (Joyco.com acquisition in China is an example of how Amazon is expanding into emerging markets).
  • New Categories (There are virtually limitless potential categories, but the migration to digital will be key).
  • Cloud Computing, Storage & Other Services (EC2 cloud computing, S3 storage, and other outsourced technology services offer promising opportunities).

TREND IS AMAZON’S FRIEND

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

E-Commerce sales account for only about 3.6% of total retail sales ($32.4 billion in Q2’09), but as you can see from the chart, the upward sloping trend is the friend of Amazon. With the proliferation of broadband and the natural aging of our next generation of computer-savvy internet users, not only is the number of online shoppers increasing, but the amount of time spent online is escalating as well. If you consider catalog sales (e.g. Land’s End, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, etc.) have represented about 7-8% of total retail sales, there is a lot of head-room left for online sales to catch-up or replace these  sales. Mr. Bezos believes online industry sales can ultimately reach 15% of total retail sales (double catalog sales). Top-rate online franchises like Amazon will be natural beneficiaries of these trends and funnel shoppers through their internet aisles, as a function of these demographic and behavioral tailwinds.

CAPITAL ADVANTAGE

Even when you account for the significantly higher revenue growth rates and growth initiatives (e.g., Kindle, E3, digital, etc) for Amazon relative to Wal-Mart, the capital intensity (as measured by CAPEX/Sales) is still about 70% higher for Wal-Mart as compared to Amazon. For one thing, Amazon does not need to support the some 8,100 stores in 15 countries that Wal-Mart is saddled with, and in turn Amazon can redeploy that capital into areas such as new products, services, and lower delivery costs. Surviving the dot-com bubble bursting, along with paying down billions of debt has afforded Amazon even more capital flexibility.

VALUATION

Valuation can be tricky, especially when you’re talking about a high growth company like Amazon. The exercise becomes a little easier once you realize Amazon is generating about $1.5 billion in free cash flow per year, with $4.3 billion in cash/investments on the balance sheet with virtually no debt in the middle of one of the worst recessions in a generation. At roughly $90 per share, AMZN is trading at over 53x’s Wall Street analysts’ projected earnings of $1.68 for 2009. Jeff Bezos and the rest of the management make it very clear the company is managing their business to one key goal – maximize free cash flow per share (music to my ears – see my article on cash flow). On that basis, AMZN trades at about 25x’s trailing free cash flow and closer to 22x’s if you strip out the $4 billion+ in cash on the balance sheet. If AMZN can grow 15% for the next 5 years (not a given), the valuations just mentioned above could be chopped in half, if price levels and share count remained constant.

With the large run-up in 2009, I have locked in some gains this year, but tactically I will be doing what “Deep Throat” advised in the movie All the President’s Men, and that is to follow the money (cash). If Bezos and Amazon can continue on its current growth trajectory in the coming years, this toddler will mature into a company more closely resembling its cousin Wal-Mart.

Wade S. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do have direct long positions in AMZN and WMT at the time article was originally posted. 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.

October 5, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

The Yuppie Bounce & the Lemming Leap

Source: Gary Larson – Where’s Your Preserver?

Source: Gary Larson – Where’s Your Preserver?

Making money in the stock market is a tough game, and most people don’t beat the market because like lemmings the average investor follows the herd mentality to underperformance. So, should Wall Street analysts and the media be crucified for their analysis? The short answer is yes. Certainly there are some exceptional analysts and journalists, however most of them merely report what is happening or are looking in the rear-view mirror. Beyond that, the vast majority of commentators prey on emotions of the public and masses by pushing them into knee-jerk selling panics at the bottom and also getting them frothing at the mouth to buy at market peaks. Can I understand why they offer such bad advice? Yes. Quite simply, the incentive structures are wrong.

If you are an analyst or journalist, the number one priority (incentive) is not to be wrong, because if they are mistaken, then job loss becomes a bona fide risk. However, if they throw in some fancy language and mix it in with a lot of caveats, there virtually is no risk of being wrong. If factors happen to change, no worries, their opinions can change too. Therefore, most analysts huddle together in tight packs reporting the same news du jour as everyone else, while mixing in a fair dosage of fear and greed to drum up more interest. These incentives align well for the journalists/analysts but unfortunately not for the average investor.

Joshua Brown over at the Reformed Broker recently wrote an excellent piece highlighting his so-called “Yuppie Bounce” example. Last winter, as all the discretionary consumer stocks (Joshua Brown calls them “waster stocks”) were getting pasted, the pundits were advising investors to pile into defensive stocks. Lo and behold, this was the absolute worst time to follow that advice. Mr. Brown gives a superb Starbucks (SBUX) versus Wal-Mart (WMT) example showing how SBUX has effectively doubled over the last nine months just as WMT flat-lined.  

Source: The Reformed Broker (Joshua M. Brown)

Source: The Reformed Broker (Joshua M. Brown)

Investing is like a game of chess, so although a current move may sound logical, it’s more important to think about decisions multiple steps into the future. Most successful long-term investors don’t follow the conventional lines of thinking, and they are generally swimming against the tide. Therefore, if you are going to jump in with the other lemmings, make sure you have your life preserver with you.

DISCLOSURE: Some Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts HAVE direct positions in WMT 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.

September 1, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment


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