Posts

May 7, 2019

Mad Hedge Technology Letter
May 7, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(THE LURKING DANGERS BEHIND FACEBOOK)
(FB), (WFC), (NFLX)

The Lurking Dangers Behind Facebook

The current business model of social media is dead, and the future model seems in doubt – that was the take away from world's largest social media platform at F8 that I attended, its annual developer conference.

Co-founder and CEO Facebook (FB) Mark Zuckerberg stated at the event that “in our digital lives, we also need both public and private spaces,” an impromptu call to action to migrate users into a new private digital world with Facebook dictating the terms.

The sushi must really be hitting the fan for Zuckerberg to announce his future vision of social media, and the writing is on the wall for his current social media experiment, that is, if he continues along at the same rate.

The projected $5 billion fine incurred by Facebook from the Federal Trade Commission over its privacy handling of personal data is peanuts for the social media company, but this could be the first of numerous fines doled out by regional and national regulatory bureaus that span from the Bay Area to Vietnam.

Facebook is a company that made over $55 billion in revenue last year and the $5 billion would amount to less than 10% of annual sales.

From that $55 billion, Facebook earned profits of over $22 billion, and this $22 billion is what the regulatory battles are about, along with the co-founder’s tenacious defense of deploying his users as free content.

The firm has continued to post operating margins of over 40% and delivered margins of 46% last quarter, a sequential rise of 4% in Q4 2018.

The Oracle of Omaha better known as Warren Buffet cited necessitating accountability for CEOs that drive a company into a government bailout especially banks.

He advocated that these executives and their spouses should be stripped of their net worth if they damage shareholder value.

The comments were directed at the way Wells Fargo’s (WFC) former CEO Tim Sloan crippled Wells Fargo and has since been sidelined during the long bull market in equities.

At some point, Zuckerberg could confront similar ructions because of his efforts at perverting democracy that has caused innumerable damage to American democracy and global society, and I am certain his legion of lawyers are already hatching a plan to tackle this thorny predicament.

If you ponder about his announcement in a zero-sum environment, it makes no sense for Facebook to pivot to “private” messages.

This leads me to believe his words are smoke and mirrors so that Facebook can perpetuate its duopoly and force digital ad players to continue to drink from the same Kool-Aid.

As before, Zuckerberg still believes this game of cat and mouse is a half-baked marketing fix.

This is why many of his trusted disciples such as former executive Chris Cox left under a shroud of mystery citing “artistic differences” in terminating his tenure at Facebook.

It is clear to many that Facebook is barreling straight into an even more frightening future.

What does the announcement mean from a business perspective?

Zuckerberg will continue to purge anyone that disagrees with him, even trusted lieutenants, and continue to integrate the family of apps into one big platform that includes Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp messenger.

These three will become one and thus, Zuckerberg’s ad machine rolls on like the dystopian action film Mad Max.

Let me remind you, these drastic measures boil down to Facebook doing everything they can to keep content costs down.

If they, for example, have to go the same route as Netflix (NFLX) - overpaying for the best actors and directors to generate premium content, the stock would halve the next day.

And that is what Zuckerberg is desperately hoping to avoid after the 30% dip in shares in 2018 because of regulatory headwinds.

Combining the three apps would be impossible to regulate at a time that regulation is rearing its ugly head.

Zuckerberg is intentionally upping the ante and accruing more risk in the hope that Facebook can outmuscle its way through in one piece.

The ad industry is crying out for something new, but as long as Zuckerberg’s claws are firmly into the meat of the digital ad budgets for most companies, he gets to decide how the industry develops because he knows the ad dollars will stick.

In the future, your private chats won’t be private because Zuckerberg will be mining the data for ad dollar revenue.

No matter what he says, nothing will change unless Facebook goes in an entirely new direction which would inhibit sales.

Until the fines become material, let’s say 70% of annual revenue or something of that nature, a $5 billion hit to the bottom line will not persuade the management to transform their practices.

Expect less privacy, and WhatsApp and Instagram to be heavily monetized through ad promotion and data mining even though Zuckerberg pledging his company won’t hold user data “longer than necessary.”

As for Facebook itself, Zuckerberg can’t throw his baby out with the bathwater and will hope to minimize its deceleration by bundling it with the growth trajectory of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Instead of major structural changes, Zuckerberg continues to beat around the bush saying, “You should expect that we’re not going to store your data in countries where there's weak data protection.”

This is not the crux of the problem and shows Zuckerberg is still paying lip service and not ponying up to reality.

Attaching Facebook and its dying model is not an attractive strategy leading to a slew of executive resignations.

I believe this could all end in calamity for Zuckerberg as he figures piling on more risk onto the elevated risk levels is the right decision making Warren Buffet’s point for him about CEO’s accountability.

Should Zuckerberg refund shareholders if his flight turns into a suicide mission then claims to be an unwitting victim?

And how does he even refund democracy with his apps causing major unrest to society such as killings that occur because of the distribution of fake news on his platforms?

Making a hot potato hotter might work for the short term and if ad dollars stream into WhatsApp and Instagram, Zuckerberg will claim victory.

But at some point, the potato will scald his hands so bad that it will drop.

Your private chats will be the content at the fulcrum of his data broker empire since his “digital town square” approach isn’t working anymore.

The company is utterly incentivized to figure out how to continue this ad revenue carnival because 93% of total revenue last quarter came from digital ads which is up from the prior year when it constituted 89%.

It all sounds like a big brother apocalyptical novel, which we are in, scarily, in putting out this dialogue before the firestorm starts, Facebook wants to normalize, and front runs the craziness of selling your private chat data before it becomes a national issue.

Will regulators shut this down or will they be naïve and turn a blind eye?

 

 

March 5, 2019

Global Market Comments
March 5, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(THE BIPOLAR ECONOMY),
(AAPL), (INTC), (ORCL), (CAT), (IBM),
(TESTIMONIAL)

March 4, 2019

Global Market Comments
March 4, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(THE MARKET FOR THE WEEK AHEAD, or THE RECESSION HAS BEGUN),
(SPY), (TLT), (GLD), (AAPL)

March 1, 2019

Global Market Comments
March 1, 2019
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:

(OH, HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN),
(BRK/A), (AXP), (AAPL), (BAC), (KO), (WFC), (KHT),
(AMGEN’S BIG WIN), (AMGN), (SNY), (REGN)

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.

 

 

 

August 23, 2018

Mad Hedge Technology Letter
August 23, 2018
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:
(THE RACE TO ZERO FOR BROKERAGE COMMISSIONS)
(JPM), (WFC), (ETFC), (SCHW), (AMTD)

The Race to Zero for Brokerage Commissions

The other shoe has dropped.

No more waiting for it as it was only a matter of time, but it was going to happen soon enough.

The acceleration of the race down to zero for brokerage commissions has moved into full throttle.

In a bid to engage new customers, especially millennials, J.P. Morgan (JPM) will offer its customers 100 free stock or ETF trades for one year.

The new service will be available on Chase’s mobile banking app called “You Invest” and also does not require a minimum balance as do so many of the competitors.

Last year, J.P. Morgan was still charging customers a horrific $24.95 per trade, a ridiculous sum in an age of brokerages slashing fees left and right.

Recently, I chronicled the start-up fin-tech brokerage Robinhood, which rolled out the zero-commission model to the chagrin of the traditional brokerages on the verge of major disruption.

Well, Wall Street has stood up and taken notice. There is no way back from this new normal.

The catalyst for J.P. Morgan to change direction was its lack of competitiveness in the digital brokerage space and a free model of luring in business is seen as a quick recipe to correct its ills.

J.P. Morgan has pumped in $300 million in the past two years into digital initiatives but still lacks the volume it was hoping for. This could help capture fresh accounts that could eventually turn into a meaningful business.

Freemium models made popular in Silicon Valley are catching fire in other parts of the economy as potential customers can dabble with the service first before committing their hard-earned money.

This is dreadful news for the fin-tech brokerage industry as it indicates a whole new level of acute pressure on margins and revenue.

The brokerage business has been under fire the past few years after regulators discovered Wells Fargo (WFC) was cunningly ushering clients into higher fee trading vehicles, taking a larger cut of commissions.

Wells Fargo did everything it could to rack up costs for high net worth clients. The atrocious behavior was a huge black eye for the entire industry.

Technology has forced down the cost of executing a trade and each additional trade is almost nil after fixed costs because of software and hardware carrying out these functions.

E-brokerages are set for a rude awakening and their cash cows are about to be disrupted big time.

Charles Schwab (SCHW) has 11.2 million brokerage accounts, and no doubt clients will get on the ringer and ask why Schwab charges an arm and a leg to execute trades.

Schwab might as well start charging clients for emails, too.

The cut in commissions has already started to affect margins with Schwab revenue per trade sliding from $7.96 in 2017 to $7.30 in the most recent quarter.

TD Ameritrade (AMTD) is experiencing the same issues with revenue per trade of $7.83 last year dropping to $7.30 last quarter.

The beginning of the year provided e-brokers with respite after euphoric trading sentiment pushed many first-time equity buyers into the markets, making up for the deceleration in revenue per trade.

However, that one-off spike in volume will vanish and margins are about to get punctured by fin-tech start-ups such as Robinhood.

J.P. Morgan’s move to initiate free trades is a huge vote of confidence for upstart Robinhood, which charges zero commission for ETFs, option trades, and equities.

I recently wrote a story on the phenomenon of Robinhood, and the new developments mean the shakeout will happen a lot faster than first anticipated.

TD Ameritrade, E-Trade (ETFC), Fidelity, and Charles Schwab could face a deeply disturbing future if Silicon Valley penetrates under the skin of this industry and flushes it out just like Uber did to the global taxi business.

E-Trade shares have experienced a healthy uptrend and it is now time to pull the rip cord with the rest of these brokerages.

It will only get worse from here.

Investors should be spooked and avoiding this industry would be the right move at least for the short term.

The golden age of trading commissions is officially over.

Turning this industry into a dollar store variety is not what investors want to hear or hope for.

The decimation of commission fees has coincided with the rise of passive investing.

Only 10% of trades now are performed by active traders.

Brokerages earn demonstrably less with passive investing as the volume of trading commission dries up with this buy-and-hold-forever strategy.

Index funds have been all the rage and quite successful as the market has returned 400% during the nine-year bull market.

When the market stops going up, the situation could get dicey.

The real litmus test is when a sustained bear market vies to implode these ETFs and what will happen with a massive unwinding of these positions.

A prolonged bear market would also scare off retail investors from executing trades on these e-brokerages.

Many will take profits at the speed of light not to be seen or heard again until the next sustained bull market.

Moreover, it is certain the global trade war is scaring off retail investors from their trading platforms as the uncertainty weighing on the markets has thrown a spanner into the works.

Tech has been the savior to the overall market with the top dogs dragging up the rest, but for how long can this continue?

Other industries are experiencing minimal earnings growth and tech cannot go up forever.

Regulations are starting to bite back at the once infallible tech narrative.

Chinese tech is also having its own headaches where Tencent has been perpetually stymied by local regulators blocking access to gaming licenses needed to monetize blockbuster video games.

Tencent missed badly on its earnings report and there is no end in sight to the delay.

Social media has been torn apart as of late and the weaponization of its platforms is accelerating with government operations moving onto them to fight against each other.

Interest rate revenues are the saving grace for these brokerages that account for 50% or more of revenue.

As interest rates rise, there will be a bump in interest rate revenues. However, as competition heats up and commission falls to zero, will these clients stick around for the e-brokers to reap the interest rate revenues or not?

Millennials are hard-charging into Silicon Valley start-ups such as Robinhood, and the traditional brokers’ clientele are mainly directed on the lucrative middle-age cohort.

The next development for e-brokers is who can best harness artificial intelligence to best enhance their customer experience and products.

If the Charles Schwab’s of the world must compete with nimble Silicon Valley start-ups in technology, then they will find a hard slog of it.

One of these big e-brokers is likely to implode setting off another round of consolidation.

The race down to zero is fierce, and I would avoid this whole industry for now.

There are better secular stories in technology such as the e-gaming phenomenon capturing the hearts and minds of global youth.

 

 

 

 

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Quote of the Day

“Expect the unexpected. And whenever possible, be the unexpected,” – said Twitter and Square cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey.

 

August 14, 2018

Global Market Comments
August 14, 2018
Fiat Lux

Featured Trade:
(WHY BANKS HAVE PERFORMED SO BADLY THIS YEAR),
(JPM), (C), (GS), (SCHW), (WFC),
(HOW FREE ENERGY WILL POWER THE COMING ROARING TWENTIES),
(SPWR), (TSLA)