President Trump has been bashing Amazon of late. And Amazon is down about 12.5% since peaking on March 12, 2018. Simultaneously the DJIA fell 10% from 1/26/18 thru 4/3/18, so it is hard to discern if Amazon’s pullback has more to do with market conditions and trade war fears or Presidential bashing. Amazon’s performance has been only slightly worse than the Dow. Anyway, one would think that if the President is right and Amazon plays unfairly, the future would bode well for Walmart.
That is very unlikely. Since peaking on January 29, just after the Dow, Walmart crashed 32% by April 3. Over the last month the stock has stabilized, but unfortunately the signs are not good for Walmart investors.
Walmart leadership has never shown a keen understanding of e-commerce, nor a commitment to making Walmart a leading market competitor. You might counter that Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com showed a strong commitment. But we now know that amidst the minimalistic hype, Walmart actually cheated when providing its e-commerce results. And when Walmart hired a former Tesco executive to lead Jet.com’s grocery sales effort, the news was not splashed front page. Rather it was hidden in an internal email discovered by Reuters and given almost no coverage. Like Walmart was afraid to let people know it was incompetent and hiring an outsider.
Investors, and customers, need to admit that it is a LOT easier for Amazon to learn about traditional store operations by purchasing Whole Foods than it is for Walmart to learn how to succeed in e-commerce. Traditional grocery “excellence” is easy to come by, after all there are thousands of experienced grocery store executives. So Amazon can buy Whole Foods and gain what knowledge it needs overnight, while adapting Whole Foods to the tremendous e-commerce insight embedded in Amazon. But Walmart is struggling to add compete with Amazon in e-commerce, where knowledge is a lot, lot tougher to come by.
Telltale’s are strips of cloth used by sailors to provide early tips about wind direction and speed. Good sailors “read” the telltale strips to plot their sail use for maximum performance. We can read the “telltales” in business as well. The “telltales” at Walmart have long been bad signals for investors. After 3 years of recovery from a 2014 collision created by an overworked Walmart driver, comedian Tracy Morgan recently returned to television with a new show. The overworked driver was a worrisome telltale of how Walmart pressured its employees to attempt competing against much lower cost e-commerce. By February, 2016 there were 10 very obvious telltales of Walmart’s inability to cope with Amazon and the market shift to e-commerce.
Understanding e-commerce is worth a whole lot more than being good at running a tight retail operation. As I pointed out in May, 2016, knowing that trend is what makes Amazon worth so much more than the much bigger, and asset rich, Walmart. And the Walton family knows this, that’s why it became clear by October, 2017 that they were cashing out of the traditional Walmart business. As I’ve said before, if the Walton’s aren’t putting their money in Walmart (or shopping in the stores) why should you?
Do you still have a pile of compact discs? If so, why? When was the last time you listened to one? Like almost everyone else, you probably stream your music today. If you are just outdated, you listen to music you bought from iTunes or GooglePlay and store on your mobile device. But it would be considered prehistoric to tell people you carry around CDs for listening in your car – because you surely don’t own a portable CD player.
As the chart shows, CD sales exploded from nothing in 1983 to nearly 1B units in 2000. Now sales are less than 1/10th that number, due to the market shift expanded bandwidth allowed.
Do you still carry a laptop? If so, you are a dying minority. As PCs became more portable they became indispensable. Nobody left the office, or attended a meeting, without their laptop. That trend exploded until 2011, when PC sales peaked at 365M units. As the chart shows, in the 6 years since, PC sales have dropped by over 100M units, a 30% decline. The advent of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) coupled with expanded connectivity and growing cloud services allowed mobility to reach entirely new levels – and people stopped carrying their PCs. And just like CDs are disappearing, so will PCs.
These charts dramatically show how quickly a new technology, or package of technologies, can change the way we behave. Simultaneously, they change the competitive landscape. Sony dominated the music industry, as a producer and supplier of hardware, when CDs dominated. But, as I wrote in 2012, the shift to more portable music caused Sony to fall into a rapid decline, and the company suffered 6 consecutive years (24 quarters) of falling sales and losses. The one-time giant was crippled by a technology shift they did not adopt. And they weren’t alone, as big box retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City also faltered when these sales disappeared.
Once, Microsoft was synonymous with personal technology. Nobody maximized the value in PC growth more than Microsoft. But changing technology altered the competitive landscape, with Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon emerging as the leaders. Microsoft, as the almost unnoticed launch of Windows 10 demonstrated, is struggling to maintain relevancy.
Too often we discount trends. Like Sony and Microsoft we think historical growth will continue, unabated. We find ways to discount market shifts, saying the products are “niche” and denigrating their quality. We will express our view that the market has “hiccuped” and will return to growth again. By the time we admit the shift is permanent new competitors have overtaken the lead, and we risk becoming totally obsolete. Like Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, Sears and Motorola.
Aircraft stalls when not enough power to climb
The time for action is when the very first signs of shift happened. I’ve written a lot about “Growth Stalls” and they occur in just 2 quarters. 93% of the time a stalled company never again grows at a mere 2%/year. Look at how fast GE went from the best company in America to the worst. It is incredibly important that leadership react FAST when trends push customers toward new solutions, because it often takes very little time for the trend to make dying markets completely untenable.
Do you remember the songs, and videos, from 2008 “United Breaks Guitars?” After United Airlines destroyed musician Dave Carroll’s guitar he chronicled the months-long journey he took trying to replace it. In the end, United told him “F**k you” as customer service blew him off completely. He went on to make a few million dollars with his songs and parody about the horrible experience. Because so many people felt they were abused like Mr. Carroll.
“United Breaks Guitars” was a hit because so many people related to the terrible customer experience on United. “The Unfriendly Skies” was the motto of customers, mocking the airlines “Friendly Skies” ads. It was clear that by 2008 United did not care about customers. Moving headlong to constantly lower operating costs, United built a culture that focused solely on efficiency, leading to terrible customer service, unhappy customers and employees that were a lot more worried about being yelled at by their bosses for not cutting costs than creating any customer satisfaction.
Things certainly haven’t changed. In 2017, United ejected a 69 year old physician from a plane, breaking his nose, knocking out his teeth and giving him a concussion. That created an uproar. Yet within a week United killed the world’s largest bunny rabbit in an airplane holding bin. But, even worse, last week United actually killed a puppy by forcing it be placed in an overhead bin. At least the dog United sent on a 1,000 mile unexpected flight to Japan survived, and the interviewed owner said he felt lucky the airline hadn’t killed his pet. Of course United refunded their money – which as you can imagine was a slap in the face to all these people who were so abused.
Unfortunately, United is just the worst of a bunch of bad airlines. Customer service really isn’t any better on Delta, American, JetBlue or Southwest. Saying these other airlines are better is just picking out a less heinous member of the Khmer Rouge Army.
This all goes back to deregulation. When President Carter allowed the airlines to charge as they like the industry really had no idea what it was going to do. There was chaos for years. But eventually consolidation kicked-in, and cutting cost was the only thing all 3 majors agreed upon. Buy more market share, as opposed to winning it with customer service, then slash the costs. This did the wonderfulness of leading all of them to file bankruptcy! Some twice! What a grand industry strategy!
Then Chairman of American Airlines received Wall Street Journal front-page coverage for realizing people weren’t eating their olives in first class, so he ordered olives removed from the first class meals. He was cheered for saving $100K. But what folks missed was that he, and his peers leading the airlines, were systematically trying to figure out “how do we offer the least possible service.” By focusing on a strategy of lowering cost, and being doggedly determined in that strategy, soon nothing else mattered.
Today, there are no free meals in coach, and terrible meals in first class. Management angered employees into strikes and multi-year negotiations, beating down compensation and eliminating benefits leading to unhappiness so bad that in 2010 a Jet Blue flight attendant pulled the emergency exit and jumped out of the plane as he quit.
So, all the airlines in America stink. And, many domestic airlines in Europe, such as Ryan Air, have followed suit. The execs keep saying “all customers care about is price.” They use that excuse to create a culture so hostile to employees, and customers, that pretty soon employees are beating up customers and killing family pets (after charging extra to take the pet on the plane) and actually not caring.
Employees have become gestapos for the leadership – which has created a culture in which nobody wins. So flight attendants do as little as possible, because they don’t care about customers any more than leadership does. In 2017, a JetBlue attendant threw a family off flight because their toddler kicked the seat. When a woman complains about a child in seat next to her a Delta attendant throws her off the plane. And just last week when a 2 year old cries during boarding a Southwest attendant throws the child and her father off the plane.
Deregulation led to an oligopoly. Now, customers have no choice. Some of us fly almost every week on business, and it is pure hell. Nobody we deal with, from TSA to airport vendors to airline staff like customers. The culture has become “I’m abused, so you will be abused.” To fly is to succumb to being obsequious to ALL employees in your effort to not anger anyone, for fear they will deny you service. Or, worse, beat you up or kill your pet. But, honestly, there is nothing customers can do about it.
The leadership of the airlines, lacking regulation, implemented a strategy of “be low cost.” The result was creating a culture where employees routinely abuse customers in the process of trying to save a few dimes. If the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Reed Hastings showed up, do you think HR would hire them? Would the Board of Directors, so focused on the wrong strategy, consider any of them as CEO? The wrong strategy has led to the ruination of an entire industry, miserable employees, unhappy customers and marginal returns. It is a terrible culture.
So what is your strategy? Is your strategy creating the culture you want? Are you headed toward happy customers who want more of your product or service, and create growth? Or are you letting your lack of a forward-thinking strategy default you into operational cost cutting, and the movement toward a culture of misery that drives away employees, vendors and eventually customers?
In February, Berkshire Hathaway revealed it had dumped its IBM position. Good riddance to a stock that has gone down for 5 years while the S&P went up! What did Buffett do with the money? He loaded up on Apple – making that high-flyer Berkshire’s #1 holding. So, isn’t the smart thing now to buy Apple?
First, don’t confuse your investing goals with Berkshire Hathaway’s. It may seem that everyone has the same objective, to buy stocks that go up. But Berkshire is a very special case. As I pointed out in 2014, we mere mortals can’t invest like Buffett, and shouldn’t try. Berkshire Hathaway has the opportunity to make investments in special situations with tremendous return potential that we don’t have. Berkshire’s investment strategy is to invest where it can create cash to prepare for special situations, or to park money where it can make a decent return, and hopefully generate cash while it waits.
Apple is the #1 most cash-rich company on the planet, and with the new tax laws it can repatriate that cash. This is an opportunity for a “special dividend” to investors, and that is the kind of thing that Buffett loves. He isn’t a venture capitalist looking for a 10x price appreciation. He wants a decent 5% rate of return, and hopefully dividends, so he can grow cash for his special situation opportunities. Apple, the most valuable company on any exchange, is exactly the kind of company where he can place a few billion dollars without driving up the price and let it sit making a solid 5-6%, collect dividends and maybe get a few kickers from things like the cash repatriation.
Second, let’s not forget that Buffett’s IBM buying spree lost money. If he was a great tech investor, he never would have bought IBM. He bought it for the same reason he’s buying Apple, only he was wrong about what was going to happen to IBM as it continued to lose relevancy.
I pointed out in May, 2016 that Apple was showing us all a lot of sustaining innovations, with new rev levels of existing products, but almost no new disruptive innovations. The company that once gave us iPods, iTunes, iPhones and iPads was increasingly relying on the next version of everything to drive sales. Lots of incremental improvement. But little discussion about any breakthrough products, like iBeacon, ApplePay or even the Apple Watch. In a real way, Apple was looking a lot more like the old Microsoft with its Windows and Office fascination than the old Apple.
By October, 2016 Apple hit a Growth Stall. While this may have seemed like “no big deal,” recall that only 7% of the time do companies maintain a 2% growth rate after stalling. Is Apple going to be in that 7%? With the launch of the less-than-overwhelming iPhone X, and the actual drop in iPhone sales in Q4, 2017 it looks increasingly like Apple is on the same road as all other stalled companies.
In the short term Apple has said it is milking its installed base. By constantly bringing out new apps it has raised iTunes sales to over $30B/quarter. And it has a dedicated cadre of developers making over $25B/year creating new apps. So Apple is doing its best to get as much revenue out of that installed base of iPhones as it can, even if device sales slow (or decline.) For Buffett, this is no big deal. After all, he’s parking cash and hoping to get dividends. Milking the base is a cash generation strategy he would love – like a railroad, or Coca-Cola.
But if you’re interested in maintaining high returns in your portfolio, be aware of what’s happening. Apple is changing. It’s not going to falter and fail any time soon. But don’t be lulled by Berkshire’s big purchases into thinking Apple in 2018 is anything like it was in 2012 – or through 2014. Instead, keep your eyes on game changers like Netflix, Tesla and Amazon.
On February 20, 2018 Walmart’s stock had its biggest price drop ever. And the second biggest percentage decline ever. Even though same store sales improved, investors sold off the stock in droves. And after a pretty healthy recent valuation run-up.
What happened? Simply put, Walmart said its on-line sales slowed and its cost of operations rose, slowing growth and cramping margins. In other words, even though it bought Jet.com Walmart is still a long, long way from coming close to matching the customer relationship and growth of Amazon.com. And (surprise, surprise) margins in on-line aren’t an easy thing — as Amazon’s thin margins for 15 years have demonstrated.
In other words, this was completely to be expected. Walmart is a behemoth with no adaptability. For decades the company has been focused on how to operate its warehouses and stores, and beat up its suppliers. Management had to be drug, kicking and screaming, into e-commerce. And failing regularly it finally made an acquisition. But to think that Jet.com was going to change WalMart’s business model into a growing, high profit operation any time soon was foolish. Management still wants people in the store, first and foremost, and really doesn’t understand how to do anything else.
All the way back in 2005, I wrote that Walmart was too big to learn, and was unwilling to create white space teams to really explore growing e-commerce (hence the belated Jet-com acquisition.) In 2007, I wrote that calling Walmart a “mature” competitor with huge advantages was the wrong way to view the company already under attack by all the e-commerce players. In July, 2015 Amazon’s market cap exceeded Walmart’s, showing the importance of retail transformation on investor expectations. By February, 2016 there were 10 telltale signs Walmart was in big trouble by a changing retail market. And by October, 2017 it was clear the Waltons were cashing out of Walmart, questioning why any investor should remain holding the stock.
It really is possible to watch trends and predict future markets. And that can lead to good predictions about the fates of companies. The signs were all there that Walmart shouldn’t be going up in value. Hope had too many investors thinking that Walmart was too big to stumble – or fail. But hope is not how you should invest. Not for your portfolio, and not for your business. Walmart should have dedicated huge sums to e-commerce 15 years ago, now it is playing catch up with Amazon.com, and that’s a race it simply won’t win. Are you making the right investment decisions for your business early enough? Or will you stumble like Walmart?
This February, Warren Buffett admitted he had no faith in IBM. After accumulating a huge position, by 4th quarter of 2017 he sold out almost the entire Berkshire Hathaway position. He lost faith in the IBM CEO Virginia (Ginni) Rometty, who talked big about a turnaround, but it never happened.
Mr. Buffett would have been wise to stopped having “faith” long ago. All the way back in May, 2014 I wrote that IBM was not going to be a turnaround. CEO Rommetty was spending ALL its money on share buybacks, rather than growing its business. The Washington Post made IBM the “poster child” for stupid share buybacks, pointing out that spending over $8B on repurchases had maintained earnings-per-share, and propped up the stock price, but giving IBM the largest debt-to-equity ratio of comparable companies.
IBM was already in a Growth Stall, something about which I’ve written often. Once a company stalls, its odds of growing at 2%/year fall to a mere 7%. But it was clear then that the CEO was more interested in financial machinations, borrowing money to repurchase shares and prop up the stock, rather than actually investing in growing the company. The once great IBM was out of step with the tech market, and had no programs in place to make it an industry leader in the future.
By April, 2017 it was clear IBM was a disaster. By then we had 20 consecutive quarters of declining revenue. Amazing. How Rometty kept her job was completely unclear. Five years of shrinkage, while all investments were in buying the stock of its shrinking enterprise – intended to hide the shrink! CEO Rometty continued promising a turnaround, with vague references to the “wonderful” Watson program. But it was clear, Buffett (and everyone else) needed to get out in 2014. So Berkshire ate its losses, took the money and ran.
Have you learned your lesson? As an investor are you holding onto stocks long after leadership has shown they have no idea how to grow revenues? If so, why? Hope is not a strategy.
As a leader, are you still forecasting hockey stick turnarounds, while continuing to invest in outdated products and businesses? Are you hoping your past will somehow create your future, even though competitors and markets have moved on? Are you leading like Rometty, hoping you can hide your failures with financial machinations and Powerpoint presentations about how things will turn your way in the future – even though those assumptions are made out of hole cloth?
It’s time to get real about your investments, and your business. When revenues are challenged, something bad is happening. It’s time to do something. Fast. Before a bad quarter becomes 20, and everyone is giving up.
Tesla has stuck a deal to put solar panels and Powerwall batteries on 50,000 homes in Southern Australia. The homeowners will not pay for the equipment. They won’t even own it. Instead the equipment will be owned by the utility company, and the 50,000 homes will become a “virtual” power plant – operating as independent pieces of a giant grid. For everyone in the system this will lower power costs by over 30%, and improve the performance where outages are a big problem.
This is really, really smart. The old way of thinking about power generation was a big plant, usually coal, gas or oil powered. Or, a giant group of solar panels in a desert, or a giant group of windmills. Or, a nuclear-powered plant. This centralized generation is then shipped over power lines to homes and businesses.
The problem is that transmission can lose anywhere from 20% to 80% of the power. Thus, the bigger the plant in theory the lower the power cost – but that is only for generation. After factoring in the cost of transmission losses, and the cost of building and maintaining transmission lines, the cost can be quite high. And thus the resulting never-ending increases in electricity prices even as traditional feedstocks go down in cost. Decentralized power generation, in a grid of small production, nearly eliminates transmission losses and uses renewable sources in the most favorable way.
Nobody should be surprised that Tesla is a leader in this program. Back in September, 2016 when Tesla took over (or merged) with Solar City I strongly made the case that this would be a good move. The ability to make solar shingles, solar panels and store large power amounts in whole-building batteries is a game changer for how we make, and consume, electricity. As utility commissions keep realizing the problems with building ever-larger centralized plants, decentralized systems that truly utilize grid management are simply a smarter, cheaper, better way to power our homes and offices.
Most people think of Solar City as “just another home solar system.” That would be wrong. Solar City has the ability to power entire towns and regions with their system of production, storage and grid management. And that is great for Tesla shareholders. Tesla has shown it is a game changer with products like the Model 3, and the combination with Solar City actually creates a utility industry game changer, as well as auto industry game changer, that could put a hurt on companies like Exxon. Now, like when I recommended buying Tesla in January, 2015, you should be thinking long term about the opportunity for outsized returns a game-changing company like Tesla provides.
On January 23 Netflix’ value rose to $100B. The stock is now trading north of $250/share. A year ago it was $139/share. An 80% increase in just 12 months. And long-term investors have done very well. Five years ago (January, 2013) the stock was trading at $24/share – so the valuation has increased 10-fold in 5 years! A decade ago it was trading for $3/share – so if you got in early (NFLX went public in June, 2002) you are up 83X your initial investment (meaning $1,000 would be worth $83,000.)
Back in 2004 I wrote that Blockbuster was dead meat – because by going after streaming Netflix would make Blockbuster obsolete. Netflix was using external data to project its future, and thus its strategy was not to defend & extend its DVD rental business but to spend strongly to grow the replacement. In 2010 I wrote that Netflix had projected the complete demise of DVDs by 2013, and was thus investing all its resources into streaming in order to be the market leader. At the time NFLX was $15.68. Over the next year it took off, tripling in value to $42.16. By cannibalizing DVDs it’s strategy was to leave its competition in a dying marketplace.
But, investors weren’t as sure of the Netflix strategy as I was. They feared cannibalizing DVDs would cut out the “core” of Netflix and kill the company. By October, 2011 the stock had tumbled to $12 (a drop of over 70%.) But, with the stock at new lows after a year of declines I optimistically wrote “The Case for Buying Netflix. Really.” I told readers the stock analysts were wrong, and the Netflix strategy was spot-on.
Netflix went nowhere for the next year, trading between $9 and $12. But then in December, 2012 investors started seeing the results of Netflix strategy, with fast growing streaming subscriber rates. By January, 2014 the stock was trading north of $52, so those who bought when my article published made a 400% return in just over 2 years! By March, 2015 NFLX was up another 23%, to $62 when I told readers “Netflix Valuation Was Not a House of Cards.” The Netflix strategy to dominate streaming by offering its own content may have shocked a lot of people, due to the investment size, but it was the strategy that would allow Netflix to grow subscribers globally. That has driven the last jump, to $250 in just under 3 years – another 400%+ return!
Strategy matters- to company performance, and thus long-term investor returns. Netflix has been a volatile stock, and it has had plenty of naysayers. These were people looking only short-term, and fearful of strategic pivots that have proven highly valuable. If you want your company, and your investment portfolio, to succeed it is imperative you understand external trends and use them to develop the right strategy. And heed my forecasts.
Business Insider is projecting a “tsunami” of retail store closings in 2018 — 12,000 (up from 9,000 in 2017.) Also, the expect several more retailers will file bankruptcy, including Sears.
Duh. Nothing surprising about those projections. In mid-2016, Wharton Radio interviewed me about Sears, and I made sure everyone clearly understood I expect it to fail. Soon. In December, 2016 I overviewed Sears’ demise, predicted its inevitable failure, and warned everyone that all traditional retail was going to get a lot smaller. I again recommended dis-investing your portfolio of retail. By March, 2017 the handwriting was so clear I made sure investors knew that there were NO traditional retailers worthy of owning, including Walmart. By October, 2017 I wrote about the Waltons cashing out their Walmart ownership, indicating nobody should be in the stock – or any other retailer.
The trend is unmistakable, and undeniable. The question is – what are you going to do about it? In July, 2015 Amazon became more valuable than Walmart, even though much smaller. I explained why that made sense – because the former is growing and the latter is shrinking. Companies that leverage trends are always worth more. And that fact impacts YOU! As I wrote in February, 2017 the “Amazon Effect” will change not only your investments, but how you shop, the value of retail real estate (and thus all commercial real estate,) employment opportunities for low-skilled workers, property and sales tax revenues for all cities impacting school and infrastructure funding, and all supply chain logistics. These trends are far-reaching, and no business will be untouched.
Don’t just say “oh my, retailers are crumbling” and go to the next web page. You need to make sure your strategy is leveraging the “Amazon Effect” in ways that will help you grow revenues and profits. Because your competition is making plans to use these trends to hurt your business if you don’t make the first move. Need help?
Facebook shareholders should be cheering. And if you don’t own FB, you should be asking yourself why not. The company’s platform investments continue to draw users, and advertisers, in unprecedented numbers.
With permission: Statista
People over 40 still might text. But for most younger people, messaging happens via FB Messenger or WhatsApp. Text messages have thus been declining in the USA. Internationally, where carriers still frequently charge for text messages, the use of both Facebook products dominates over texting. Both Facebook products now are leaders in internet usage.
And as their use grows, so do the ad dollars.
With permission: Statista
As this chart shows, in 2017 ad spending on digital outpaced money spent on TV ads. And TV spending, like print and radio, is flat to declining. While digital spending accelerates. And the big winner here is the platform getting the most eyeballs – which would be Facebook (and Google.)
Looking at the trends, Facebook investors should feel really good about future returns. And if you don’t own Facebook shares, why not?