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September 12, 2019

Global Market Comments
September 12, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(WILL ANTITRUST DESTROY YOUR TECH PORTFOLIO?),
(FB), (AAPL), (AMZN), (GOOG), (SPOT), (IBM), (MSFT)

Will Antitrust Destroy Your Tech Portfolio?

In recent days, two antitrust suits have arisen from both the Federal government and 49 states seeking to fine, or break up the big four tech companies, Facebook (FB), Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Google (GOOG). Let’s call them the “FAAGs.”

And here is the problem. These four companies make up the largest share of your retirement funds, whether you are invested with active managers, mutual funds, or simple index funds. The FAAGs dominate the landscape in every sense, accounting 13% of the S&P 500 and 33% of NASDAQ.

They are also the world’s most profitable large publicly listed companies with the best big company earnings growth.

I’ll list the antitrust concern individually for each company.

Facebook

Facebook has been able to maintain its dominance in social media through buying up any potential competitors it thought might rise up to challenge it through a strategy of serial defense acquisitions

In 2012, it bought the photo-sharing application Instagram for a bargain $1 billion and built it into a wildly successful business. It then overpaid a staggering $19 billion for WhatsApp, the free internet phone and texting service that Mad Hedge Fund Trader uses while I travel. It bought Onovo, a mobile data analytics company, for pennies ($120 million) in 2013.

Facebook has bought over 70 companies in 15 years, and the smaller ones we never heard about. These were done largely to absorb large numbers of talented engineers, their nascent business shut down months after acquisition.

Facebook was fined $5 billion by the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) for data misuse and privacy abuses that were used to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.

Apple

Apple only has a 6% market share in the global smart phone business. Samsung sells nearly 50% more at 9%. So, no antitrust problem here.

The bone of contention with Apple is the App Store, which Steve Jobs created in 2008. The company insists that it has to maintain quality standards. No surprise then that Apple finds the products of many of its fiercest competitors inferior or fraudulent. Apple says nothing could be further from the truth and that it has to compete aggressively with third party apps in its own store. Spotify (SPOT) has already filed complaints in the US and Europe over this issue.

However, Apple is on solid ground here because it has nowhere near a dominant market share in the app business and gives away many of its own apps for free. But good luck trying to use these services with anything but Apple’s own browser, Safari.

It’s still a nonissue because services represent less than 15% of total Apple revenues and the App Store is a far smaller share than that.

Amazon

The big issue is whether Amazon unfairly directs its product searches towards its own products first and competitors second. Do a search for bulk baby diapers and you will reliably get “Mama Bears”, the output of a company that Amazon bought at a fire sale price in 2004. In fact, Amazon now has 170 in-house brands and is currently making a big push into designer apparel.

Here is the weakness in that argument. Keeping customers in-house is currently the business strategy of every large business in America. Go into any Costco and you’ll see an ever-larger portion of products from its own “Kirkland” branch (Kirkland, WA is where the company is headquartered).

Amazon has a market share of no more than 4% in any single product. It has the lowest price, and often the lowest quality offering. But it does deliver for free to its 100 million Prime members. In 2018, some 58% of sales were made from third-party sellers.

In the end, I believe that Amazon will be broken up, not through any government action, but because it has become too large to manage. I think that will happen when the company value doubles again to $2 trillion, or in about 3-5 years, especially if the company can obtain a rich premium by doing so.

Google

Directed search is also the big deal here. And it really is a monopoly too, with some 92% of the global search. Its big breadwinner is advertising, where it has a still hefty 37% market share. Google also controls 75% of the world’s smart phones with its own Android operating software, another monopoly.

However, any antitrust argument falls apart because its search service is given away to the public for free, as is Android. Unless you are an advertiser, it is highly unlikely that you have ever paid Google a penny for a service that is worth thousands of dollars a year. I myself use Google ten hours a day for nothing but would pay at least that much.

The company has already survived one FTC investigation without penalty, while the European Union tagged it for $2.7 billion in 2017 and another $1.7 billion in 2019, a pittance of total revenues.

The Bottom Line

The stock market tells the whole story here, with FAAG share prices dropping a desultory 1%-2% for a single day on any antitrust development, and then bouncing back the next day.

Clearly, Google is at greatest risk here as it actually does have a monopoly. Perhaps this is why the stock has lagged the others this year. But you can count on whatever the outcome, the company will just design around it as have others in the past.

For start, there is no current law that makes what the FAAGs do illegal. The Sherman Antitrust Act, first written in 1898 and originally envisioned as a union-busting tool, never anticipated anticompetitive monopolies of free services. To apply this to free online services would be a wild stretch.
 
The current gridlocked congress is unlikely to pass any law of any kind. The earliest they can do so will be in 18 months. But the problems persist in that most congressmen fundamentally don’t understand what these companies do for a living. And even the companies themselves are uncertain about the future.

Even if they passed a law, it would be to regulate yesterday’s business model, not the next one. The FAAGs are evolving so fast that they are really beyond regulation. Artificial intelligence is hyper-accelerating that trend.

It all reminds me of the IBM antitrust case, which started in 1975, which my own mother worked on. It didn’t end until the early 1990s. The government’s beef then was Big Blue’s near-monopoly in mainframe computers. By the time the case ended, IBM had taken over the personal computer market. Legal experts refer to this case as the Justice Department’s Vietnam.

The same thing happened to Microsoft (MSFT) in the 1990s. After ten years, there was a settlement with no net benefit to the consumer. So, the track record of the government attempting to direct the course of technological development through litigation is not great, especially when the lawyers haven’t a clue about what the technology does.

There is also a big “not invented here” effect going on in these cases. It’s easy to sue companies based in other states. Of the 49 states taking action against big tech, California was absent. But California was in the forefront of litigation again for big tobacco (North Carolina), and the Big Three (Detroit).

And the European Community has been far ahead of the US in pursuing tech with assorted actions. Their sum total contribution to the development of technology was the mouse (Sweden) and the World Wide Web (Tim Berners Lee working for CERN in Geneva).

So, I think your investments in FAAGs are safe. No need to start eyeing the nearest McDonald’s for your retirement job yet. Personally, I think the value of the FAAGs will double in five years, as they have over the last five years, recession or not.

 

 

 

 

May 8, 2019

Mad Hedge Technology Letter
May 8, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(ELBOWED OUT OF THE WAY BY APPLE)
(SPOT), (AAPL)

January 17, 2019

Mad Hedge Technology Letter
January 17, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(WHY FINTECH IS EATING THE BANKS’ LUNCH),
(WFC), (JPM), (BAC), (C), (GS), (XLF), (PYPL), (SQ), (SPOT), (FINX), (INTU)

Why FinTech is Eating the Banks’ Lunch

Going into January 2018, the big banks were highlighted as the pocket of the equity market that would most likely benefit from a rising rate environment which in turn boosts net interest margins (NIM).

Fast forward a year and take a look at the charts of Bank of America (BAC), Citibank (C), JP Morgan (JPM), Goldman Sachs (GS), and Morgan Stanley (GS), and each one of these mainstay banking institutions are down between 10%-20% from January 2018.

Take a look at the Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) that backs up my point.

And that was after a recent 10% move up at the turn of the calendar year.

As much as it pains me to say it, bloated American banks have been completely caught off-guard by the mesmerizing phenomenon that is FinTech.

Banking is the latest cohort of analog business to get torpedoes by the brash tech start-up culture.

This is another fitting example of what will happen when you fail to evolve and overstep your business capabilities allowing technology to move into the gaps of weakness.

Let me give you one example.

I was most recently in Tokyo, Japan and was out of cash in a country that cash is king.

Japan has gone a long way to promoting a cashless society, but some things like a classic sushi dinner outside the old Tsukiji Fish Market can’t always be paid by credit card.

I found an ATM to pull out a few hundred dollars’ worth of Japanese yen.

It was already bad enough that the December 2018 sell-off meant a huge rush into the safe haven currency of the Japanese Yen.

The Yen moved from 114 per $1 down to 107 in one month.

That was the beginning of the bad news.

I whipped out my Wells Fargo debit card to withdraw enough cash and the fees accrued were nonsensical.

Not only was I charged a $5 fixed fee for using a non-Wells Fargo ATM, but Wells Fargo also charged me 3% of the total amount of the transaction amount.

Then I was hit on the other side with the Japanese ATM slamming another $5 fixed fee on top of that for a non-Japanese ATM withdrawal.

For just a small withdrawal of a few hundred dollars, I was hit with a $20 fee just to receive my money in paper form.

Paper money is on their way to being artifacts.

This type of price gouging of banking fees is the next bastion of tech disruption and that is what the market is telling us with traditional banks getting hammered while a strong economy and record profits can’t entice investors to pour money into these stocks.

FinTech will do what most revolutionary technology does, create an enhanced user experience for cheaper prices to the consumers and wipe the greedy traditional competition that was laughing all the way to the bank.

The best example that most people can relate to on a daily basis is the transportation industry that was turned on its head by ride-sharing mavericks Uber and Lyft.

But don’t ask yellow cab drivers how they think about these tech companies.

Highlighting the strong aversion to traditional banking business is Slack, the workplace chat app, who will follow in the footsteps of online music streaming platform Spotify (SPOT) by going public this year without doing a traditional IPO.

What does this mean for the traditional banks?

Less revenue.

Slack will list directly and will set its own market for the sale of shares instead of leaning on an investment bank to stabilize the share price.

Recent tech IPOs such as Apptio, Nutanix and Twilio all paid 7% of the proceeds of their offering to the underwriting banks resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Directly listings will cut that fee down to $10-20 million, a far cry from what was once status quo and a historical revenue generation machine for Wall Street.

This also layers nicely with my general theme of brokers of all types whether banking, transportation, or in the real estate market gradually be rooted out by technology.

In the world of pervasive technology and free information thanks to Google search, brokers have never before added less value than they do today.

Slowly but surely, this trend will systematically roam throughout the economic landscape culling new victims.

And then there are the actual FinTech companies who are vying to replace the traditional banks with leaner tech models saving money by avoiding costly brick and mortar branches that dot American suburbs.

PayPal (PYPL) has been around forever, but it is in the early stages of ramping up growth.

That doesn’t mean they have a weak balance sheet and their large embedded customer base approaching 250 million users has the network effect most smaller FinTech players lack.

PayPal is directly absorbing market share from the big banks as they have rolled out debit cards and other products that work well for millennials.

They are the owners of Venmo, the super-charged peer-to-peer payment app wildly popular amongst the youth.

Shares of PayPal’s have risen over 200% in the past 2 years and as you guessed, they don’t charge those ridiculous fees that banks do.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America charge a $12 monthly fee for balances that dip below $1,500 at the end of any business day.

Your account at PayPal can have a balance of 0 and there will never be any charge whatsoever.

Then there is the most innovative FinTech company Square who recently locked in a new lease at the Uptown Station in Downtown Oakland expanding their office space by 365,000 square feet for over 2,000 employees.

Square is led by one of the best tech CEOs in Silicon Valley Jack Dorsey.

Not only is the company madly innovative looking to pounce on any pocket of opportunity they observe, but they are extremely diversified in their offerings by selling point of sale (POS) systems and offering an online catering service called Caviar.

They also offer software for Square register for payroll services, large restaurants, analytics, location management, employee management, invoices, and Square capital that provides small loans to businesses and many more.

On average, each customer pays for 3.4 Square software services that are an incredible boon for their software-as-a-service (SaaS) portfolio.

An accelerating recurring revenue stream is the holy grail of software business models and companies who execute this model like Microsoft (MSFT) and Salesforce (CRM) are at the apex of their industry.

The problem with trading this stock is that it is mind-numbingly volatile. Shares sold off 40% in the December 2018 meltdown, but before that, the shares doubled twice in the past two years.

Therefore, I do not promote trading Square short-term unless you have a highly resistant stomach for elevated volatility.

This is a buy and hold stock for the long-term.

And that was only just two companies that are busy redrawing the demarcation lines.

There are others that are following in the same direction as PayPal and Square based in Europe.

French startup Shine is a company building an alternative to traditional bank accounts for freelancers working in France.

First, download the app.

The company will guide you through the simple process — you need to take a photo of your ID and fill out a form.

It almost feels like signing up to a social network and not an app that will store your money.

You can send and receive money from your Shine account just like in any banking app.

After registering, you receive a debit card.

You can temporarily lock the card or disable some features in the app, such as ATM withdrawals and online payments.

Since all these companies are software thoroughbreds, improvement to the platform is swift making the products more efficient and attractive.

There are other European mobile banks that are at the head of the innovation curve namely Revolut and N26.

Revolut, in just 6 months, raised its valuation from $350 million to $1.7 billion in a dazzling display of growth.

Revolut’s core product is a payment card that celebrates low fees when spending abroad—but even more, the company has swiftly added more and more additional financial services, from insurance to cryptocurrency trading and current accounts.

Remember my little anecdote of being price-gouged in Tokyo by Wells Fargo, here would be the solution.

Order a Revolut debit card, the card will come in the mail for a small fee.

Customers then can link a simple checking account to the Revolut debit card ala PayPal.

Why do this?

Because a customer armed with a Revolut debit card linked to a bank account can use the card globally and not be charged any fees.

It would be the same as going down to your local Albertson’s and buying a six-pack, there are no international or hidden fees.

There are no foreign transaction fees and the exchange rate is always the mid-market rate and not some manipulated rate that rips you off.

Ironically enough, the premise behind founding this online bank was exactly that, the originators were tired of meandering around Europe and getting hammered in every which way by inflexible banks who could care less about the user experience.

Revolut’s founder, Nikolay Storonsky, has doubled down on the firm’s growth prospects by claiming to reach the goal of 100 million customers by 2023 and a succession of new features.

To say this business has been wildly popular in Europe is an understatement and the American version just came out and is ready to go.

Since December 2018, Revolut won a specialized banking license from the European Central Bank, facilitated by the Bank of Lithuania which allows them to accept deposits and offer consumer credit products.

N26, a German like-minded online bank, echo the same principles as Revolut and eclipsed them as the most valuable FinTech startup with a $2.7 Billion Valuation.

N26 will come to America sometime in the spring and already boast 2.3 million users.

They execute in five languages across 24 countries with 700 staff, most recently launching in the U.K. last October with a high-profile marketing blitz across the capital.

Most of their revenue is subscription-based paying homage to the time-tested recurring revenue theme that I have harped on since the inception of the Mad Hedge Technology Letter.

And possibly the best part of their growth is that the average age of their customer is 31 which could be the beginning of a beautiful financial relationship that lasts a lifetime.

N26’s basic current account is free, while “Black” and “Metal” cards include higher ATM withdrawal limits overseas and benefits such as travel insurance and WeWork membership for a monthly fee.

Sad to say but Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and the others just can’t compete with the velocity of the new offerings let alone the software-backed talent.

We are at an inflection point in the banking system and there will be carnage to the hills, may I even say another Lehman moment for one of these stale business models.

Online banking is here to stay, and the momentum is only picking up steam.

If you want to take the easy way out, then buy the Global X FinTech ETF (FINX) with an assortment of companies exposed to FinTech such as PayPal, Square, and Intuit (INTU).

The death of cash is sooner than you think.

This year is the year of FinTech and I’m not afraid to say it.

 

 

 

December 14, 2018

Global Market Comments
December 14, 2018
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(DECEMBER 12 BIWEEKLY STRATEGY WEBINAR Q&A),
(SPX), (MU), (PYPL), (SPOT), (FXE), (FXY), (XLF), (MSFT), (AMZN), (TSLA), (XOM), 
(SIGN UP NOW FOR TEXT MESSAGING OF TRADE ALERTS)

August 28, 2018

Mad Hedge Technology Letter
August 28, 2018
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:
(SPOTIFY STILL HAS SOME UPSIDE),
(SPOT), (AMZN), (AAPL), (P)

Spotify Still Has Some Upside

Investors sulking about Spotify’s (SPOT) inability to make money do not get the point.

Yes, the job of every company to be in the black, but the No. 1 responsibility for a modern tech company is to grow, and grow fast.

Tech investors pay for growth, period.

As investors have seen from Netflix, companies can always raise prices after seizing market share because of the stranglehold on eyeballs inside a walled garden.

That potent formula has been the bread and butter of powerful tech companies of late.

Spotify is a captive of the music industry, of which it is entirely dependent for its source of goods, in this case songs.

At the same time, the music industry has fought tooth and nail to destroy the likes of Spotify, which benefits immensely from distributing the content it creates.

History is littered with failed music streaming services outgunned in the courtroom. Pandora (P) is the biggest public name out there whose share price has tanked over the long haul.

The music industry will battle relentlessly to exterminate Spotify and force up the royalties these Internet giants must pay as their main input.

But that does not mean Spotify is a bad company or even a bad stock.

Every company has its share of pitfalls. Throw in the mix that Amazon (AMZN) and Apple (AAPL) have music streaming services that do not even need to make a profit, and you will understand why some might be wary about putting new money to work in music streaming business stocks.

The primary reason that Spotify shares will outperform for the foreseeable future is because it is the preeminent music streaming platform.

Also, there is favorable latitude to make way toward the goal of monetization, and ample space to improve gross margins.

Global streaming revenue growth has gone ballistic as the migration to mobile and cord cutting has exacerbated the monetization prospects of the music industry.

Streaming revenue was a shade under $2 billion in 2013, and continued to post a growth trajectory of more than 40% each year since.

As it stands now, total global streaming revenue registered just a tick under $7 billion per year in 2017, and that was an improvement of 41.1% from 2016.

There are no signs of yielding as more avid music fans push into the music streaming space.

Social media platforms have helped publicize popular artists’ content.

Music is effectively a strong part of youth culture, which will eventually see the youth integrate a music streaming app into their daily lives for the rest of their adult lives.

The choice among choices is Spotify in 2018.

The company was dogged by many years of famous artists removing their proprietary content from the platform citing unfavorable terms.

A prime example was in 2009 when Lady Gaga’s hit song “Poker Face” only received $167 in royalty payments from Spotify for the first million streams. This highlighted the rock-solid position Spotify has curated inside the music industry.

Individual artists’ fight against Spotify has been dead on arrival from the outset, but the benefits and exposure from cooperating with the company far outweigh the drawbacks.

Eventually, almost all artists have relented and reinstalled their music on Spotify. They depend on alternative moneymaking avenues to compensate for lack of royalties, which is mainly live music.

That is why it costs an arm and a leg to go see Taylor Swift in living flesh now, and why those summer festivals dotted around America such as Coachella command premium ticket prices.

How does Spotify make money?

It earns its crust of bread through paid subscriptions but lures in eyeballs using an ad-supported free version of its platform.

Naturally, the paid version is ad-less, and this subscription is around $5 to $15 per month.

In the second quarter, Spotify’s paid subscription volume surpassed 83 million, a sharp uptick of 40% YOY.

Ad-supported users came in at more than 101 million, even under the damage that General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) did to western tech companies.

The ad-supported subscribers rose 23% YOY, and the paid version expects between 85 million to 88 million paid subscribers in the third quarter.

Many of the new paid subscribers are converts from its free model.

Spotify is poised to increase revenue between 20%-30% for the rest of the year.

The rise of Spotify’s developing data division could extract an additional $580 million of revenue in 2023, making up 2% of total revenue.

Remember that Spotify’s reference price set by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was $132 in April 2018. The parabolic move in the stock on the verge of eclipsing $200 undergirds the demand for high-quality tech companies.

When Spotify did go public, the robust price action was with conviction, making major investors – such as China’s Tencent, which possess a 9.1% stake and Tiger Global Management, which owns 7.2% – happy stakeholders.

In the last quarter’s earnings report, Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy reiterated the company’s goal to push gross margins from the mid-20% range to “gross margins in the 30% to 35% range.”

A jump in gross margins would go a long way in making Spotify appear more profitable, and that is the imminent goal right now.

The path to real profitability is still a long way down the road and small victories will offer short-term strength to the share price.

If Spotify can retrace to around the $185, that would serve as a perfect entry point into a stock that has given investors few chances in which to participate.

July and August have only offered meager entry points into this stock, one around the $180 level in August, and another around $170 in July.

Spotify enjoyed a great first day of being public after its unorthodox IPO ending the day at $149. The momentum has continued unabated while Spotify has posted all the growth targets investors come to expect from companies of this ilk.

Bask in the glow of the growth sweet spot Spotify finds itself in right now.

The long-term narrative of this stock is intact for a joyous ride upward, and only whispers of Amazon and Apple meaningfully attempting to monetize this segment could derail it.

For the time being, the music part of Amazon and Apple are just a side business. They have other priorities, such as Apple’s battle to avoid being exterminated from communist China, and Amazon’s integration of Whole Foods and new-fangled digital ad business.

 

 

 

The Dominant Music Streaming Platform of 2018

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Quote of the Day

“Ever since Napster, I’ve dreamt of building a product similar to Spotify,” – said cofounder and CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek.