Wal-Mart market value took a huge drop on Wednesday. In fact, the worst valuation decline in its history. That decline continued on Thursday. Since the beginning of 2015 Wal-Mart has lost 1/3 of its value. That is an enormous ouch.
But, if you were surprised, you should not have been. The telltale signs that this was going to happen have been there for years. Like most stock market moves, this one just happened really fast. The “herd behavior” of investors means that most people don’t move until some event happens, and then everyone moves at once carrying out the implications of a sea change in thinking about a company’s future.
All the way back in October, 2010 I wrote about “The Wal-Mart Disease.” This is the disease of constantly focusing on improving your “core” business, while market shifts around you increasingly make that “core” less relevant, and less valuable. In the case of Wal-Mart I pointed out that an absolute maniacal focus on retail stores and low-cost operations, in an effort to be the low price retailer, was being made obsolete by on-line retailers who had costs that are a fraction of Wal-Mart’s expensive real estate and armies of employees.
At that time WMT was about $54/share. I recommended nobody own the stock.
In May, 2011 I reiterated this problem at Wal-Mart in a column that paralleled the retailer with software giant Microsoft, and pointed out that because of financial machinations not all earnings are equal. I continued to say that this disease would cripple Wal-Mart. Six months had passed, and the stock was about $55.
By February, 2012 I pointed out that the big reorganization at Wal-Mart was akin to re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship and said nobody should own the stock. It was up, however, trading at $61.
At the end of April, 2012 the Wal-Mart Mexican bribery scandal made the press, and I warned investors that this was a telltale sign of a company scrambling to make its numbers – and pushing the ethical (if not legal) envelope in trying to defend and extend its worn out success formula. The stock was $59.
Then in July, 2014 a lawsuit was filed after an overworked Wal-Mart truck driver ran into a car killing James McNair and seriously injuring comedian Tracy Morgan. Again, I pointed out that this was a telltale sign of an organization stretching to try and make money out of a business model that was losing its ability to sustain profits. Market shifts were making it ever harder to keep up with emerging on-line competitors, and accidents like this were visible cracks in the business model. But the stock was now $77. Most investors focused on short-term numbers rather than the telltale signs of distress.
In January, 2015 I pointed out that retail sales were actually down 1% for December, 2014. But Amazon.com had grown considerably. The telltale indication of a rotting traditional retail brick-and-mortar approach was showing itself clearly. Wal-Mart was hitting all time highs of around $87, but I reiterated my recommendation that investors escape the stock.
By July, 2015 we learned that the market cap of Amazon now exceeded that of Wal-Mart. Traditional retail struggles were apparent on several fronts, while on-line growth remained strong. Bigger was not better in the case of Wal-Mart vs. Amazon, because bigger blinded Wal-Mart to the absolute necessity for changing its business model. The stock had fallen back to $72.
Now Wal-Mart is back to $60/share. Where it was in January, 2012 and only 10% higher than when I first said to avoid the stock in 2010. Five years up, then down the roller coaster.
From October of 2010 through January, 2015 I looked dead wrong on Wal-Mart. And the folks who commented on my columns here at this journal and on my web site, or emailed me, were profuse in pointing out that my warnings seemed misguided. Wal-Mart was huge, it was strong and it would dominate was the feedback.
But I kept reiterating the point that long-term investors must look beyond short-term reported sales and earnings. Those numbers are subject to considerable manipulation by management. Further, short-term operating actions, like shorter hours, lower pay, reduced benefits, layoffs and gouging suppliers can all prop up short-term financials at the expense of recognizing the devaluation of the company’s long-term strategy.
Investors buy and hold. They hold until they see telltale signs of a company not adjusting to market shifts. Short-term traders will say you could have bought in 2010, or 2012, and held into 2014, and then jumped out and made a profit. But, who really can do that with forethought? Market timing is a fools game. The herd will always stay too long, then run out too late. Timers get trampled in the stampede more often than book gains.
In this week’s announcement Wal-Mart executives provided more telltale signs of their problems, and the fact that they don’t know how to fix them, and therefore won’t.
- Wal-Mart is going to spend $20B to buy back stock in order to prop up the price. This is the most obvious sign of a company that doesn’t know how to keep up its valuation by growing profits.
- Wal-Mart will spend $11B on sprucing up and opening stores. Really. The demand for retail space has been declining at 4-6%/year for a decade, and retail business growth is all on-line, yet Wal-Mart is still massively investing in its old “core” business.
- Wal-Mart will spend $1.1B on e-commerce. That is the proverbial “drop in the competitors bucket.” Amazon.com alone spent $8.9B in 2014 growing its on-line business.
- Wal-Mart admits profits will decline in the next year. It is planning for a growth stall. Yet, we know that statistically only 7% of companies that have a growth stall ever go on to maintain a consistent growth rate of a mere 2%. In other words, Wal-Mart is projecting the classic “hockey stick” forecast. And investors are to believe it?
The telltale signs of an obsolete business model have been present at Wal-Mart for years, and continue.
In 2003 Sears Holdings was $25/share. In 2004 Sears bought K-Mart, and the stock was $40. I said don’t go near it, as all the signs were bad and the merger was ill-conceived. Despite revenue declines, consistent losses, a revolving door at the executive offices and no sign of any plan to transform the battered, outdated retail giant against growing on-line competition investors believed in CEO Ed Lampert and bid the stock up to $77 in early 2011. (I consistently pointed out the telltale signs of trouble and recommended selling the stock.)
By the end of 2012 it was clear Sears was irrelevant to holiday shoppers, and the stock was trading again at $40. Now, SHLD is $25 – where it was 12 years ago when Mr. Lampert started his machinations. Again, only a market timer could have made money in this company. For long-term investors, the signs were all there that this was not a place to put your money if you want to have capital growth for retirement.
There will be plenty who will call Wal-Mart a “value” stock and recommend investors “buy on weakness.” But Wal-Mart is no value. It is becoming obsolete, irrelevant – increasingly looking like Sears. The likelihood of Wal-Mart falling to $20 (where it was at the beginning of 1998 before it made an 18 month run to $50 more than doubling its value) is far higher than ever trading anywhere near its 2015 highs.
Most analysts, and especially “chartists,” put a lot of emphasis on earnings per share (EPS) and stock price movements when determining whether to buy a stock. Unfortunately, these are not good predictors of company performance, and investors should beware.
Most analysts are focused on short-term, meaning quarter-to-quarter, performance. Their idea of long-term is looking back 1 year, comparing this quarter to same quarter last year. As a result, they fixate on how EPS has done, and will talk about whether improvements in EPS will cause the “multiple” (meaning stock price divided by EPS) will “expand.” They forecast stock price based upon future EPS times the industry multiple. If EPS is growing, they expect the stock to trade at the industry multple, or possibly somewhat better. Grow EPS, hope to grow the multiple, and project a higher valuation.
Analysts will also discuss the “momentum” (meaning direction and volume) of a stock. They look at charts, usually less than one year, and if price is going up they will say the momentum is good for a higher price. They determine the “strength of momentum” by looking at trading volume. Movements up or down on high volume are considered more meaningful than on low volume.
But, unfortunately, these indicators are purely short-term, and are easily manipulated so that they do not reflect the actual performance of the company.
At any given time, a CEO can decide to sell assets and use that cash to buy shares. For example, McDonald’s sold Chipotle and Boston Market. Then leadership took a big chunk of that money and repurchased company shares. That meant McDonalds took its two fastest growing, and highest value, assets and sold them for short-term cash. They traded growth for cash. Then leadership spent that cash to buy shares, rather than invest in in another growth vehicle.
This is where short-term manipulation happens. Say a company is earning $1,000 and has 1,000 shares outstanding, so its EPS is $1. The industry multiple is 10, so the share price is $10. The company sells assets for $1,000 (for purposes of this exercise, let’s assume the book value on those assets is $1,000 so there is no gain, no earnings impact and no tax impact.)
Company leadership says its shares are undervalued, so to help out shareholders it will “return the money to shareholders via a share repurchase” (note, it is not giving money to shareholders, just buying shares. $1,000 buys 100 shares. The number of shares outstanding now falls to 900. Earnings are still $1,000 (flat, no gain,) but dividing $1,000 by 900 now creates an EPS of $1.11 – a greater than 10% gain! Using the same industry multiple, the analysts now say the stock is worth $1.11 x 10 = $11.10!
Even though the company is smaller, and has weaker growth prospects, somehow this “refocusing” of the company on its “core” business and cutting extraneous noise (and growth opportunities) has led to a price increase.
Worse, the company hires a very good investment banker to manage this share repurchase. The investment banker watches stock buys and sells, and any time he sees the stock starting to soften he jumps in and buys some shares, so that momentum remains strong. As time goes by, and the repurchase program is not completed, selectively he will make large purchases on light trading days, thus adding to the stock’s price momentum.
The analysts look at these momentum indicators, now driven by the share repurchase program, and deem the momentum to be strong. “Investors love the stock” the analysts say (even though the marginal investors making the momentum strong are really company management) and start recommending to investors they should anticipate this company achieving a multiple of 11 based on earnings and stock momentum. The price now goes to $1.11 x 11 = $12.21.
Yet the underlying company is no stronger. In fact one could make the case it is weaker. But, due to the higher EPS, better multiple and higher share price the CEO and her team are rewarded with outsized multi-million dollar bonuses.
But, companies the last several years did not even have to sell assets to undertake this kind of manipulation. They could just spend cash from earnings. Earnings have been at record highs, and growing, for several years. Yet most company leaders have not reinvested those earnings in plant, equipment or even people to drive further growth. Instead they have built huge cash hoards, and then spent that cash on share buybacks – creating the EPS/Multiple expansion – and higher valuations – described above.
This has been so successful that in the last quarter untethered corporations have spent $238B on buybacks, while earning only $228B. The short-term benefits are like corporate crack, and companies are spending all the money they have on buybacks rather than reinvesting in growth.
Where does the extra money originate? Many companies have borrowed money to undertake buybacks. Corporate interest rates have been at generational (if not multi-generational) lows for several years. Interest rates were kept low by the Federal Reserve hoping to spur borrowing and reinvestment in new products, plant, etc to drive economic growth, more jobs and higher wages. The goal was to encourage companies to take on more debt, and its associated risk, in order to generate higher future revenues.
Many companies have chosen to borrow money, but rather than investing in growth projects they have bought shares. They borrow money at 2-3%, then buy shares – which can have a much higher immediate impact on valuation – and drive up executive compensation.
This has been wildly prevalent. Since the Fed started its low-interest policy it has added $2.37trillion in cash to the economy. Corporate buybacks have totaled $2.41trillion.
This is why a company can actually have a crummy business, and look ill-positioned for the future, yet have growing EPS and stock price. For example, McDonald’s has gone through rounds of store closures since 2005, sold major assets, now has more stores closing than opening, and has its largest franchisees despondent over future prospects. Yet, the stock has tripled since 2005! Leadership has greatly weakened the company, put it into a growth stall (since 2012,) and yet its value has gone up!
Microsoft has seen its “core” PC market shrink, had terrible new product launches of Vista and Windows 8, wholly failed to succeed with a successful mobile device, written off billions in failed acquisitions, and consistently lost money in its gaming division. Yet, in the last 10 years it has seen EPS grow and its share price double through the power of share buybacks from its enormous cash hoard and ability to grow debt. While it is undoubtedly true that 10 years ago Microsoft was far stronger, as a PC monopolist, than it is today – its value today is now higher.
Share buybacks can go on for several years. Especially in big companies. But they add no value to a company, and if not exceeded by re-investments in growth markets they weaken the company. Long term a company’s value will relate to its ability to grow revenues, and real profits. If a company does not have a viable, competitive business model with real revenue growth prospects, it cannot survive.
Look no further than HP, which has had massive buybacks but is today worth only what it was worth 10 years ago as it prepares to split. Or Sears Holdings which is now worth 15% of its value a decade ago. Short term manipulative actions can fool any investor, and actually artificially keep stock prices high, so make sure you understand the long-term revenue trends, and prospects, of any investment. Regardless of analyst recommendations.
It is that time of year when many of us celebrate with an alcoholic beverage. But increasingly in America, that beverage is not beer. Since 2008, American beer sales have fallen about 4%.
But that decline has not been equally applied to all brands. The biggest, old line brands have suffered terribly. Nearly gone are old brands like Milwaukee’s Best, which were best known for being low priced – and certainly not focused on taste. But the most hurt, based on volume declines, have been what were once the largest brands; Budweiser, Miller Lite and Miller High Life. These have lost more than a quarter of their volume, losing a whopping 13million barrels/year of demand. These 3 brand declines account for 6% reduction in the entire beer market.
The popular myth is that this has been due to the rise of craft beers. And there is no doubt, craft beer sales have done well. Sales are up 80%. Many articles (including the WSJ)tout the growth of craft beers, which are ostensibly more tasty and appealing, as being the reason old-line brands have declined. It is an easy explanation to accept, and has largely gone unchallenged. Even the brewer of Budweiser, Annheuser-Busch InBev, has reacted to this argument by taking the incredible action of dropping clydesdale horses from their ads after 81 years – in an effort to woo craft beer drinkers, which are thought to be younger and less sentimental about large horses.
This all makes sense. Too bad it’s the wrong conclusion – and the wrong actions being taken.
Realize that craft beer sales are up from a small base, and today ALL craft beer sales still account for only 7.6% of the market. In fact, ALL craft beers combined sell only the same volume as the now smaller Budweiser. The problem with Budweiser sales – and sales of other big name brand beers – is a change in demographics.
Drinkers of Budweiser and Lite are simply older. These brands rose to tremendous dominance in the 1970s. Many of those who loved this brand are simply older – or dead. Where a hard working fellow in his 30s or 40s might enjoy a six pack after work, today that Boomer (if still alive) is somewhere between late 50s and 70s. Now, a single beer, or maybe two, will suffice thank you very much. And, equally challenging for sales, today’s Boomer is more often drinking a hard liquor cocktail, and a glass of wine with dinner. Beer drinking has its place, but less often and in lower quantities.
Meanwhile, Hispanics are a growing demographic. Hispanics are the largest non-white population in America, at 54million, and represent over 17% of all Americans. With a growth rate of 2.1%, Hispanics are also one of the fastest growing demographic segments – and increasingly important given their already large size. Hispanics are truly becoming a powerful buying group in American economics.
So, just as decline in Boomer population and consumption has hurt the once great beer brands, we can look at the growth in Hispanic demographics and see a link to sales of growing brands. Two significant (non-craft volume) beer brands that more than doubled sales since 2008 are Modelo Especial and Dos Equis. In fact, these were the 2 fastest growing brands in America, even though the first does no English language advertising at all, and the latter only lightly funds advertising with an iconic multi-year campaign. Together their sales total almost 5.4M barrels – which makes these 2 brands equal to 1/3 the ENTIRE craft beer marketplace. And growing 33% faster!
Chasing the myth of craft sales is doing nothing for InBev and MillerCoors as they try to defend and extend outdated brands. On the other hand, Heineken controls Dos Equis, and Constellation Brands controls Modello Especial. These two companies are squarely aligned with demographic trends, and well positioned for growth.
So, be careful the next time you hear some simple explanation for why a product or service is declining. The answer might sound appealing, but have little economic basis. Instead, it is much smarter to look at big trends and you’ll likely see why in the same market one product is growing, while another is declining. Trends – such as demographics – often explain a lot about what is happening, and lead you to invest much smarter.
The trend toward the death of broadcast TV as we’ve known it keeps moving forward. This trend may not happen as fast as the death of desktop computers, but it is a lot faster than glacier melting.
This television season (through October) Magna Global has reported that even the oldest viewers (the TV Generation 55-64) watched 3% less TV. Those 35-54 watched 5% less. Gen Xers (25-34) watched 8% less, and Millenials (18-24) watched a whopping 14% less TV. Live sports viewing is not even able to maintain its TV audience, with NFL viewership across all networks down 10-19%.
Everyone knows what is happening. People are turning to downloaded entertainment, mostly on their mobile devices. With a trend this obvious, you’d think everyone in the media/TV and consumer goods industries would be rethinking strategy and retooling for a new future.
But, you would be wrong. Because despite the obviousness of the trend, emotional ties to hoping the old business sticks around are stronger than logic when it comes to forecasting.
CBS predicted at the beginning of 2014 TV ad revenue would grow 4%. Oops. Now CBS’s lead forecaster is admitting he was way off, and adjusted revenues were down 1% for the year. But, despite the trend in viewer behavior and ad expenditures in 2014, he now predicts a growth of 2% for 2015.
That, my young friends, is how “hockey stick” forecasts are created. A lot of old assumptions, combined with a willingness to hope trends will be delayed, and you can ignore real data while promising people that the future will indeed look like the past – even when it defies common sense.
To compensate for fewer ads the networks have raised prices on all ads. But how long can that continue? This requires a really committed buyer (read more about CMO weaknesses below) who simply refuses to acknowledge the market has shifted and the dollars need to shift with it. That cannot last forever.
Meanwhile, us old folks can remember the days when Nielsen ratings determined what was programmed on TV, as well as what advertisers paid. Nielsen had a lock on measuring TV audience viewing, and wielded tremendous power in the media and CPG world.
But now AC Nielsen is struggling to remain relevant. With TV viewership down, time shifting of shows common and streaming growing like the proverbial weed Nielsen has no idea what entertainment the public watches. They don’t know what, nor when, nor where. Unwilling to move quickly to develop tools for catching all the second screen viewing, Nielsen has no plan for telling advertisers what the market really looks like – and the company looks to become a victim of changing markets.
Which then takes us to looking at those folks who actually buy ads that drive media companies. The Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) of CPG companies. Surely these titans of industry are on top of these trends, and rapidly shifting their spending to catch the viewers with the most ads placed for the lowest cost.
You would wish.
Unfortunately, because these senior executives are in the oldest age groups, they are a victim of their own behavior. They still watch TV, so assume others must as well. If there is cyber-data saying they are wrong, well they simply discount that data. The Nielsen’s aren’t accurate, but these execs still watch the ratings “because it’s the best info we have” – a blatant untruth by the way. But Nielsen does conveniently reinforce their built in assumptions, and their hope that they won’t have to change their media spend plans any time soon.
Further, very few of these CMOs actually use social media. The vast majority watch their children, grandchildren and young employees use mobile devices constantly – and they bemoan all the activity on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – or for the most part even Linked-in. But they don’t actually USE these products. They don’t post information. They don’t set up and follow channels. They don’t connect with people, share information, exchange photos or tell stories on social media. Truthfully, they ignore these trends in their own lives. Which leaves them woefully inept at figuring out how to change their company marketing so it can be more relevant.
The trend is obvious. The answer, equally so. Any modern marketer should be an avid user of social media. Most network heads and media leaders are farther removed from social media than the Pope! They don’t constantly download entertainment, and exchanging with others on all the platforms. They can’t manage the use of these channels when they don’t have a clue how they work, or how other people use them, or understand why they are actually really valuable tools.
Are you using these modern tools? Are you actually living, breathing, participating in the trends? Or are you, like these outdated execs, biding your time wasting money on old programs while you look forward to retirement? And likely killing your company.
When trends emerge it is imperative we become part of that trend. You can’t simply observe it, because your biases will lead you to hope the trend reverts as you continue doing more of the same. A leader has to adopt the trend as a leader, be a practicing participant, and learn how that trend will make a substantial difference in the business. And then apply some vision to remain relevant and successful.
Remember the RAZR phone? Whatever happened to that company?
Motorola has a great tradition. Motorola pioneered the development of wireless communications, and was once a leader in all things radio – as well as made TVs. In an earlier era Motorola was the company that provided 2-way radios (and walkie-talkies for those old enough to remember them) not only for the military, police and fire departments, but connected taxies to dispatchers, and businesses from electricians to plumbers to their “home office.”
Motorola was the company that developed not only the thing in a customer’s hand, but the base stations in offices and even the towers (and equipment on those towers) to allow for wireless communication to work. Motorola even invented mobile telephony, developing the cellular infrastructure as well as the mobile devices. And, for many years, Motorola was the market share leader in cellular phones, first with analog phones and later with digital phones like the RAZR.
But that was the former Motorola, not the renamed Motorola Solutions of today. The last few years most news about Motorola has been about layoffs, downsizings, cost reductions, real estate sales, seeking tenants for underused buildings and now looking for a real estate partner to help the company find a use for its dramatically under-utilized corporate headquarters campus in suburban Chicago.
How did Motorola Solutions become a mere shell of its former self?
Unfortunately, several years ago Motorola was a victim of disruptive innovation, and leadership reacted by deciding to “focus” on its “core” markets. Focus and core are two words often used by leadership when they don’t know what to do next. Too often investment analysts like the sound of these two words, and trumpet management’s decision – knowing that the code implies cost reductions to prop up profits.
But smart investors know that the real implication of “focusing on our core” is the company will soon lose relevancy as markets advance. This will lead to significant sales declines, margin compression, draconian actions to create short-term P&L benefits and eventually the company will disappear.
Motorola’s market decline started when Blackberry used its server software to help corporations more securely use mobile devices for instant communications. The mobile phone transitioned from a consumer device to a business device, and Blackberry quickly grabbed market share as Motorola focused on trying to defend RAZR sales with price reductions while extending the RAZR platform with new gimmicks like additional colors for cases, and adding an MP3 player (called the ROKR.) The Blackberry was a game changer for mobile phones, and Motorola missed this disruptive innovation as it focused on trying to make sustaining improvements in its historical products.
Of course, it did not take long before Apple brought out the iPhone and with all those thousands of apps changed the game on Blackberry. This left Motorola completely out of the market, and the company abandoned its old platform hoping it could use Google’s Android to get back in the game. But, unfortunately, Motorola brought nothing really new to users and its market share dropped to nearly nothing.
The mobile phone business quickly overtook much of the old Motorola 2-way radio business. No electrician or plumber, or any other business person, needed the old-fashioned radios upon which Motorola built its original business. Even police officers used mobile phones for much of their communication, making the demand for those old-style devices rarer with each passing quarter.
But rather than develop a new game changer that would make it once again competitive, Motorola decided to split the company into 2 parts. One would be the very old, and diminishing, radio business still sold to government agencies and niche business applications. This business was profitable, if shrinking. The reason was so that leadership could “focus” on this historical “core” market. Even if it was rapidly becoming obsolete.
The mobile phone business was put out on its own, and lacking anything more than an historical patent portfolio, with no relevant market position, it racked up quarter after quarter of losses. Lacking any innovation to change the market, and desperate to get rid of the losses, in 2011 Motorola sold the mobile phone business – formerly the industry creator and dominant supplier – to Google. Again, the claim was this would allow leadership to even better “focus” on its historical “core” markets.
But the money from the Google sale was invested in trying to defend that old market, which is clearly headed for obsolescence. Profit pressures intensify every quarter as sales are harder to find when people have alternative solutions available from ever improving mobile technology.
As the historical market continued to weaken, and leadership learned it had under-invested in innovation while overspending to try to defend aging solutions, Motorola again cut the business substantially by selling a chunk of its assets – called its “enterprise business” – to a much smaller Zebra Technologies. The ostensible benefit was it would now allow Motorola leadership to even further “focus” on its ever smaller “core” business in government and niche market sales of aging radio technology.
But, of course, this ongoing “focus” on its “core” has failed to produce any revenue growth. So the company has been forced to undertake wave after wave of layoffs. As buildings empty they go for lease, or sale. And nobody cares, any longer, about Motorola. There are no news articles about new products, or new innovations, or new markets. Motorola has lost all market relevancy as its leaders used “focus” on its “core” business to decimate the company’s R&D, product development, sales and employment.
Retrenchment to focus on a core market is not a strategy which can benefit shareholders, customers, employees or the community in which a business operates. It is an admission that the leaders missed a major market shift, and have no idea how to respond. It is the language adopted by leaders that lack any vision of how to grow, lack any innovation, and are quickly going to reduce the company to insignificance. It is the first step on the road to irrelevancy.
Straight from Dr. Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” we now have another brand name to add to the list of those which were once great and meaningful, but now are relegated to Wikipedia historical memorabilia – victims of their inability to react to disruptive innovations while trying to sustain aging market positions – Motorola, Sears, Montgomery Wards, Circuit City, Sony, Compaq, DEC, American Motors, Coleman, Piper, Sara Lee………..
IBM had a tough week this week. After announcing earnings on Wednesday IBM fell 2%, dragging the Dow down over 100 points. And as the Dow reversed course to end up 2% on the week, IBM continued to drag, ending down almost 3% for the week.
Of course, one bad week – even one bad earnings announcement – is no reason to dump a good company’s stock. The short term vicissitudes of short-term stock trading should not greatly influence long-term investors. But in IBM’s case, we now have 8 straight quarters of weaker revenues. And that HAS to be disconcerting. Managing earnings upward, such as the previous quarter, looks increasingly to be a short-term action, intended to overcome long-term revenues declines which portend much worse problems.
This revenue weakness roughly coincides with the tenure of CEO Virginia Rometty. And in interviews she increasingly is defending her leadership, and promising that a revenue turnaround will soon be happening. That it hasn’t, despite a raft of substantial acquisitions, indicates that the revenue growth problems are a lot deeper than she indicates.
CEO Rometty uses high-brow language to describe the growth problem, calling herself a company steward who is thinking long-term. But as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out in 1923, “in the long run we are all dead.” Today CEO Rometty takes great pride in the company’s legacy, pointing out that “Planes don’t fly, trains don’t run, banks don’t operate without much of what IBM does.”
But powerful as that legacy has been, in markets that move as fast as digital technology any company can be displaced very fast. Just ask the leadership at Sun Microsystems that once owned the telecom and enterprise markets for servers – before almost disappearing and being swallowed by Oracle in just 5 years (after losing $200B in market value.) Or ask former CEO Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, who’s delays at entering mobile have left the company struggling for relevancy as PC sales flounder and Windows 8 fails to recharge historical markets.
CEO Rometty may take pride in her earnings management. But we all know that came from large divestitures of the China business, and selling the PC and server business. As well as significant employee layoffs. All of which had short-term earnings benefits at the expense of long-term revenue growth. Literally $6B of revenues sold off just during her leadership.
Which in and of itself might be OK – if there was something to replace those lost sales. (Even if they didn’t have any profits – because at least we have faith in Amazon creating future profits as revenues zoom.)
What really worries me about IBM are two things that are public, but not discussed much behind the hoopla of earnings, acquisitions, divestitures and all the talk, talk, talk regarding a new future.
CNBC reported (again, this week,) that 121 companies in the S&P 500 (27.5%) cut R&D in the first quarter. And guess who was on the list? IBM, once an inveterate leader in R&D has been reducing R&D spending. The short-term impact? Better quarterly earnings. Long term impact????
The Washington Post reported this week about the huge sums of money pouring out of corporations into stock buybacks rather than investing in R&D, new products, new capacity, enhanced marketing, sales growth, etc. $500B in buybacks this year, 34% more than last year’s blistering buyback pace, flowed out of growth projects. To make matters worse, this isn’t just internal cash flow going for buybacks, but companies are actually borrowing money, increasing their debt levels, in order to buy their own stock!
And the Post labels as the “poster child” for this leveraged stock-propping behavior…. IBM. IBM
“in the first quarter bought back more than $8 billion of its own stock, almost all of it paid for by borrowing. By reducing the number of outstanding shares, IBM has been able to maintain its earnings per share and prop up its stock price even as sales and operating profits fall.
The result: What was once the bluest of blue-chip companies now has a debt-to-equity ratio that is the highest in its history. As Zero Hedge put it, IBM has embarked on a strategy to “postpone the day of income statement reckoning by unleashing record amounts of debt on what was once upon a time a pristine balance sheet.”
In the case of IBM, looking beyond the short-term trees at the long-term forest should give investors little faith in the CEO or the company’s future growth prospects. Much is being hidden in the morass of financial machinations surrounding acquisitions, divestitures, debt assumption and stock buybacks. Meanwhile, revenues are declining, and investments in R&D are falling. This cannot bode well for the company’s long-term investor prospects, regardless of the well scripted talking points offered last week.
There is a definite trend to raising the minimum wage. Regardless your political beliefs, the pressure to increase the minimum wage keeps growing. The important question for business leaders is, “Are we prepared for a $12 or $15 minimum wage?”
President Obama began his push for raising the minimum wage above $10 a year ago in his 2013 State of the Union. Since then, several articles have been written on income inequality and raising the minimum wage. Although the case to raise it is not clear cut, there is no doubt it has increased the rhetoric against the top 1% of earners. And now the President is mandating an increase in the minimum wage for federal workers and contractors to $10.10/hour, despite lack of congressional support and flak from conservatives.
Whether the economic case is provable, it appears that public sentiment is greatly in favor of a much higher minimum wage. And it will not affect all companies the same. Those that depend upon low priced labor, such as retailers like Wal-Mart and fast food companies like McDonald’s have a much higher concern. As should their employees, suppliers and investors.
A recent Federal Reserve report took a specific look at what happens to fast food companies when the minimum wage goes up, such as happened in Illinois, California and New Jersey. And the results were interesting. Because they discovered that a higher minimum wage really did hurt McDonald’s, causing stores to close. But….. and this is a big but…. those closed stores were rapidly replaced by competitors that could pay the higher wages, leading to no loss of jobs (and an overall increase in pay for labor.)
The implications for businesses that use low-priced labor are clear. It is time to change the business model – to adapt for a different future. A higher minimum wage does not doom McDonald’s – but it will force the company to adapt. If McDonald’s (and Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Dominos, Pizza Hut, and others) doesn’t adapt the future will be very ugly for their customers and the company. But if these companies do adapt there is no reason the minimum wage will hurt them particularly hard.
The chains that replaced McDonald’s closed stores were Five Guys, Chick-fil-A and Chipotle. You might remember that in 1998 McDonald’s started investing in Chipotle, and by 2001 McDonald’s owned the chain. And Chipotle’s grew rapidly, from a handful of restaurants to over 500. But then in 2006 McDonald’s sold all its Chipotle stock as the company went IPO, and used the proceeds to invest in upgrading McDonald’s stores and streamlining the supply chain toward higher profits on the “core” business.
Now, McDonald’s is shrinking while Chipotle is growing. Bloomberg/BusinessWeek headlined “Chipotle: The One That Got Away From McDonalds” (Oct. 3, 2013.) Investors were well served to trade in McDonald’s stock for Chipotle’s. And franchisees have suffered through sales problems as they raised prices off the old “dollar menu” while suffering higher food costs creating shrinking margins. Meanwhile Chipotle’s franchisees have been able to charge more, while keeping customers very happy, and maintain margins while paying higher wages. In a nutshell, Chipotle’s (and similar competitors) has captured the lost McDonald’s business as trends favor their business.
So McDonald’s obviously made a mistake. But that does not mean “game over.” All McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s need to do is adapt. Fighting the higher minimum wage will lead to a lot of grief. There is no doubt wages will go up. So the smart thing to do is figure out what these stores will look like when minimum wages double. What changes must happen to the menu, to the store look, to the brand image in order for the company to continue attracting customers profitably.
This will undoubtedly include changes to the existing brands. But, these companies also will benefit from revisiting the kind of strategy McDonald’s used in the 1990s when buying Chipotle’s. Namely, buying chains with a different brand and value proposition which can flourish in a higher wage economy. These old-line restaurants don’t have to forever remain dominated by the old brands, but rather can transition along with trends into companies with new brands and new products that are more desirable, and profitable, as trends change the game. Like The Limited did when selling its stores and converting into L Brands to remain a viable company.
Now is the time to take action. Waiting until forced to take action will be too late. If McDonald’s and its brethren (and Wal-Mart and its minimum-wage-paying retail brethren) remain locked-in to the old way of doing business, and do everything possible to defend-and-extend the old success formula, they will follow Howard Johnson’s, Bennigan’s, Circuit City, Sears and a plethora of other companies into brand, and profitability, failure. Fighting trends is a route to disaster.
However, by embracing the trend and taking action to be successful in a future scenario of higher labor these companies can be very successful. There is nothing which dictates they have to follow the road to irrelevance while smarter brands take their place. Rather, they need to begin extensive scenario planning, understand how these competitors succeed and take action to disrupt their old approach in order to create a new, more profitable business that will succeed.
Disruptions happen all the time. In the 1970s and 1980s gasoline prices skyrocketed, allowing offshore competitors to upend the locked-in Detroit companies that refused to adapt. On-line services allowed Google Maps to wipe out Rand-McNally, Travelocity to kill OAG and Wikipedia to kill bury Encyclopedia Britannica. These outcomes were not dictated by events. Rather, they reflect an inability of an existing leader to adapt to market changes. An inability to embrace disruptions killed the old competitors, while opening doors for new competitors which embraced the trend.
Now is the time to embrace a higher minimum wage. Every business will be impacted. Those who wait to see the impact will struggle. But those who embrace the trend, develop future scenarios that incorporate the trend and design new business opportunities can turn this disruption into a big win.
On 11 October Safeway announced it was going to either sell or close its 79 Dominick's brand grocery stores in Chicago. After 80 years in Chicago, San Francisco based Safeway leadership felt it was simply time for Dominick's to call it quits.
The grocery industry is truly global, because everyone eats and almost nobody grows their own food. It moves like a giant crude oil carrier, much slower than technology, so identifying trends takes more patience than, say, monitoring annual smartphone cycles. Yet, there are clearly pronounced trends which make a huge difference in performance.
Good for those who recognize them. Bad for those who don't.
Safeway, like a lot of the dominant grocers from the 1970s-1990s, clearly missed the trends.
Coming out of WWII large grocers replaced independent neighborhood corner grocers by partnering with emerging consumer goods giants (Kraft, P&G, Coke, etc.) to bring customers an enormous range of products very efficiently. They offered a larger selection at lower prices. Even though margins were under 10% (think 2% often) volume helped these new grocery chains make good returns on their assets. Dillon's (originally of Hutchinson, Kansas and later purchased by Kroger) became a 1970s textbook, case study model of effective financial management for superior returns by Harvard Business School guru William Fruhan.
But times changed.
Looking at the trend toward low prices, Aldi from Germany came to the U.S. market with a strategy that defines the ultimate in low cost. Often there is only one brand of any product in the store, and that is likely to be the chain's private label. And often it is only available in one size. And customers must be ready to use a quarter to borrow the shopping cart (returned if you replace the cart.) And customers pay for their sacks. Stores are remarkably small and efficient, frequently with only 2 or 3 employees. And with execution so well done that the Aldi brand became #1 in "simple brands" according to a study by brand consultancy Seigal+Gale.
Of course, we also know that big discount chains like WalMart and Target started cherry picking the traditional grocer's enormous SKU (stock keeping units) list, limiting selection but offering lower prices due to lower cost.
Looking at the quality trend, Whole Foods and its brethren demonstrated that people would pay more for better perceived quality. Even though filling the aisles with organic
products and the ultimate in freshness led to higher prices, and someone nicknaming the chain
"whole paycheck," customers payed up to shop there, leading to superior
Connected to quality has been the trend, which began 30 years ago, to "artisanal" products. Shoppers pay more to buy what are considered limited edition products that are perceived as superior due to a range of "artisanal quality" features; from ingredients used to age of product (or "freshness,") location of manufacture ("local,") extent to which it is considered "organic," quantity of added ingredients for preservation or vitamin enhancement ("less is more,") ecological friendliness of packaging and even producer policies regarding corporate social and ecological responsibility.
But after decades of partnership, traditional grocers today remain dependant on large consumer goods companies to survive. Large CPGs supply a massive number of SKUs in a limited number of contracts, making life easy for grocery store buyers. Big CPGs pay grocers for shelf space, coupons to promote customer purchases, rebates, ads in local store circulars, discounts for local market promotions, sales volumes exceeding commitments and even planograms which instruct employees how to place products on shelves — all saving money for the traditional grocer. In some cases payments and rebates equalling more than total grocer profits.
Additionally, in some cases big CPG firms even deliver their products into the store and stock shelves at no charge to the grocer (called store-door-delivery as a substitute for grocer warehouse and distribution.) And the big CPG firms spend billions of dollars on product advertising to seemingly assure sales for the traditional grocer.
These practices emerged to support the bi-directionally beneficial historically which tied the traditional grocer to the large CPG companies. For decades they made money for both the CPG suppliers and their distributors. Customers were happy.
But the market shifted, and Safeway (including its employees, customers, suppliers and investors) is the loser.
The old retail adage "location, location, location" is no longer enough in grocery. Traditional grocery stores can be located next to good neighborhoods, and execute that old business model really well, and, unfortunately, not make any money. New trends gutted the old Safeway/Dominick's business model (and most of the other traditional grocers) even though that model was based on decades of successful history.
The trend to low price for customers with the least funds led them to shop at the new low-price leaders. And companies that followed this trend, like Aldi, WalMart and Target are the winners.
The trend to higher perceived quality and artisanal products led other customers to retailers offering a different range of products. In Chicago the winners include fast growing Whole Foods, but additionally the highly successful Marianno's division of Roundy's (out of Milwaukee.) And even some independents have become astutely profitable competitors. Such as Joe Caputo & Sons, with only 3 stores in suburban Chicago, which packs its parking lots daily by offering products appealing to these trendy shoppers.
And then there's the Trader Joe's brand. Instead of being all things to all people, Aldi created a new store chain designed to appeal to customers desiring upscale products, and named it Trader Joe's. It bares scance resemblance to an Aldi store. Because it is focused on the other trend toward artisinal and quality. And it too brings in more customers, at higher margin, than Dominick's.
When you miss a trend, it is very, very painful. Even if your model worked for 75 years, and is tightly linked to other giant corporations, new trends lead to market shifts making your old success formula obsolete.
Simultaneously, new trends create opportunities. Even in enormous industries with historically razor-thin margins – or even losses. Building on trends allows even small start-up companies to compete, and make good profits, in cutthroat industries – like groceries.
Trends really matter. Leaders who ignore the trends will have companies that suffer. Meanwhile, leaders who identify and build on trends become the new winners.
In 1985 there was universal agreement that investors should
be heavily in pharmaceuticals.
Companies like Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Sanofi, Roche, Glaxo and Abbott
were touted as the surest route to high portfolio returns.
Today, not so much.
Merck, once a leader in antibiotics, is laying off 20% of
its staff. Half in R&D; the
lifeblood of future products and profits.
Lilly is undertaking
another round of 2013 cost cuts. Over
the last year about 100,000 jobs have been eliminated in big pharma companies,
which have implemented spin-outs and split-ups as well as RIFs.
What happened? In the old days pharma companies had to demonstrate
their drug worked; called product efficacy. It did not have to be better than existing drugs. If the drug worked, without big safety
issues, the company could launch it.
Then the business folks took over with ads, distribution,
salespeople and convention booths, convincing doctors to prescribe and us to
Big pharma companies grew into large, masterful consumer
products companies. Leadership’s view of the market changed, as it was
perceived safer to invest in Pepsi vs. Coke marketing tactics and sales warfare
to dominate a blockbuster category than product development. Think of the marketing cost in the
Celebrex vs. Vioxx war. Or Viagra
But the market shifted when the FDA decided new drugs had to
be not only efficacious, they had to enhance the standard of care. New drugs actually had to prove better in clinical trials than existing
drugs. And often safer, too.
Hurrumph. Big pharma’s enormous scale advantages in
marketing and communication weren’t enough to assure new product success. It actually took new products. But that meant bigger R&D investments,
perceived as more risky, than the new consumer-oriented pharma companies could
tolerate. Shortly pipelines
thinned, generics emerged and much lower margins ensued.
In some disease areas, this evolution was disastrous for
patients. In antibiotics,
development of new drugs had halted.
Doctors repeatedly prescribed (some say overprescribed) the same antibiotics. As the bacteria evolved, infections
became more difficult to treat.
With no new antibiotics on the market the risk of death from
bacterial infections grew, leading to a national public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) there are over 2 million cases of antibiotic resistant infections
annually. Today just one type of
resistant “staph infection,” known as MRSA, kills more people in the USA than
HIV/AIDs – killing more people every year than polio did at its peak. The most
difficult to treat pathogens (called ESKAPE) are the cause of 66% of hospital
And that led to an important market shift – via regulation
With help from the CDC and NIH, the Infectious Diseases
Society of America pushed through the GAIN (Generating Antibiotic Incentives
Now) Act (H.R. 2182.) This gave
creators of new antibiotics the opportunity for new, faster pathways through
clinical trials and review in order to expedite approvals and market launch.
Additionally new product market exclusivity was lengthened an additional 5
years (beyond the normal 5 years) to enhance investor returns.
Which allowed new game changers like Melinta Therapeutics
into the game.
Melinta (formerly Rib-X) was once considered a “biopharma science
company” with Nobel Prize-winning technology, but little hope of commercial
product launch. But now the large
unmet need is far clearer, the playing field has few to no large company
competitors, the commercialization process has been shortened and cheapened,
and the opportunity for extended returns is greater!
Venture firm Vatera Healthcare Partners, with a history of investing in game changers (especially transformational technology,) entered the picture as lead investor. Vatera's founder Michael Jaharis quickly hired Mary Szela, the former head of U.S.
Pharmaceuticals for Abbott (now Abbvie) as CEO. Her resume includes leading the growth of Humira, one of
the world’s largest pharma brands with multi-billion dollar annual sales.
Under her guidance Melinta has taken fast action to work
with the FDA on a much quicker clinical trials pathway of under 18 months for
commercializing delafloxacin. In layman’s
language, early trials of delafloxacin appeared to provide better performance
for a broad spectrum of resistant bacteria in skin infections. And as a one-dose oral (or IV)
application it could be a simpler, high quality solution for gonorrhea.
Melinta continues adding key management resources as it
seeks “breakthrough product” designation under GAIN from the FDA for its RX-04
product. RX-04 is an entirely
different scientific approach to infectious disease control, based on that previously
mentioned proprietary, Nobel-winning ribosome science. It’s a potential product category
game changer that could open the door for a pipeline of follow-on products.
Melinta is using GAIN to do something big pharma, with its
shrinking R&D and commercial staff, is unable to accomplish. Melinta is helping
redefine the rules for approving antibiotics, in order to push through new,
The best news is that this game change is great for investors.
Those companies who understand the
trend (in this case, the urgent need for new antibiotics) and how the market
has shifted (GAIN,) are putting in place teams to leverage newly invented drugs
working with the FDA. Investment timelines and dollars are looking
far more manageable – and less risky.
Twenty-five years ago pharma looked like a big-company-only
market with little competition and huge returns for a handful of companies. But things changed. Now companies (like Melinta) with new
solutions have the opportunity to move much faster to prove efficacy and safety
– and save lives. They are the
game changers, and the ones more likely to provide not only solutions to the
market but high investor returns.
Forbes republished its annual "Most Miserable Cities" list. It looks at employment/unemployment, inflation, incomes and cost of living, crime, weather, commute times – a pretty good overview of things tied to living somewhere. Detroit ranked first, as the most miserable city, with Flint, MI second. And my home-sweet-home Chicago came in fourth. Ouch!
There is an important lesson here for every city – and for our country.
Detroit was a thriving city during the industrial revolution. Innovation in all things mechanical led to the modern automobile; a marvelous innovation which, literally, everyone wanted. As demand skyrocketed, Henry Ford's management team developed the modern assembly line which allowed production volumes to skyrocket as well. Detroit was a hotbed of industrial innovation.
This fueled growth in jobs, which led to massive immigration to Detroit. With growth the tax base expanded, and quickly Detroit was a leading city with all the best things people could want. In the 1950s and 1960s Detroit reaped the benefits of the local auto companies, and their suppliers, as ongoing innovations drove better cars, more sales, more revenue taxes, higher property values and higher property taxes. It was a glorious virtuous circle.
But things changed.
Offshore competitors came into the market creating different kinds of autos appealing to different customers. Initially they had lower costs, and less expensive designs. Their cars weren't as good as GM, Ford or Chrysler – but they were cheap. And when gasoline prices took off in the 1970s people suddenly realized these cars were also more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain. As these offshore competitors gained more sales they invested in making better cars, until they had quality as good as the Detroit companies, plus better fuel efficiency.
But the Detroit companies had become stuck in their processes that worked in earlier days. Even though the market shifted, they didn't. What passed for innovations were increasingly simple appearance changes as bottom-line focus reduced willingness to do new things, and offered fewer new things to do. GM and its brethren didn't shift with the market, and by the 1980s the seeds of big problems already were showing. By the 1990s profits were increasingly variable and elusive.
The formerly weak and small competitors now were more competitive in a changed market favoring smaller cars with more, and better, technology. The market had changed, but the big American auto companies had not. They kept doing more of the same – hopefully better, faster and striving for cheaper. But they were falling further behind. By the 2000s decade failure had become the viable option, with both Chrysler and GM going bankrupt.
As this cycle played out, the impact on Detroit was clear. Less success in the business base meant fewer revenue tax dollars from less profitable companies. Cost reductions meant employment stagnated, then started falling. Incomes stagnated, and people left Detroit to find better paying jobs. Property values began to fall. Income and property taxes declined. Governments had to borrow more, and cut costs, leading to declines in services. What had been a virtuous circle became a violently destructive whirlpool.
Detroit's business leaders failed to invest in programs to drive more new jobs in non-auto, non-industrial, business development. As competitors hurt the local industry, Detroit (and Michigan's) leaders kept trying to invest in saving the historical business, while the economy was shifting from an industrial base to an information one. It wasn't just autos that were less valuable as companies, but everything industrial. Yet, leaders failed at attracting new technology companies. The economic shift – the market shift – was unaddressed, and now Detroit is bankrupt.
Much as I like living in Chicago, unfortunately the story is far too similar in my town. Long an industrial hub, Chicago (and Illinois) enjoyed the benefits of growing companies, employment and taxes during the heyday of industrialism. This led to well paid, and very well pensioned, government employees providing services. The suburbs around Chicago exploded as people migrated to the Windy City for jobs – despite the brutal winters.
But Chicago has been dramatically affected by the shift to an information economy. The old machine shops, tool and dye makers and myriad parts manufacturers were decimated as that work often went offshore to cheaper manufacturers. Large manufacturers like Western Electric and International Harvester (renamed Navistar) failed. Big retailers like Montgomery Wards disappeared, and even Sears has diminished to a ghost of its former self. All businesses killed by market shifts.
And as a result, people quit moving to Chicago – and actually started leaving. There are now fewer jobs in Illinois than in the year 2000, and as a result people have left town. They've gone to cities (and states) where they could find jobs in growth industries allowing for more opportunity, and rising incomes.
Just like Detroit, Chicago shows early signs of big problems. Crime is up, with an unpleasantly large increase in murders. Insufficient income and property tax revenues led to budget crises across the board. Dramatic actions like selling city parking meters to shore up finances has led to Chicago having the most expensive parking in the country – despite far from the highest incomes. Property taxes in suburbs have escalated, with taxes in collar Lake county higher than Los Angeles! Yet the state pension system is bankrupt, causing the legislature to put in place a 50% state income tax increase! Meanwhile the infrastructure is showing signs of needing desperate work, but there is no money.
Like Detroit, Chicago's businesses (and governments) have invested insufficiently in innovation. Recent Chicago Tribune columns on local consumer goods behemoth Kraft emphasized (and typified) the lack of new product development and stalled revenue growth. Where Bay Area tech companies expect 50% of revenues (or more) from new products (or variations), Kraft has admitted it has relied on stalwarts like Velveeta and Mac & Cheese so much that fewer than 10% of revenues come from anything new.
Culturally, too many decisions in the executive suites of both the companies, and the governments, are focused on what worked in the past rather than investing in innovation. Even though the vaunted University of Illinois has one of the world's top 5 engineering schools, the majority of graduates find they leave the state for better paying jobs. And a dearth of angel or venture funding means that start-ups simply are forced coastal if they hope to succeed.
And this reaches to our national policies as well. Plenty of arguments abound for cutting costs – but are we effectively investing in innovation? Do our tax policies, as well as our expenditures, drive innovation – or constrict it? It was government programs which unleashed nuclear power and gave us a rash of innovations from putting a man on the moon. Yet, today, we seem obsessed with cutting budgets, cutting costs and doing less – not even more – of the same.
Growth is a wonderful thing. But growth does not happen without investment in innovation. When companies, or industries, stop investing in innovation growth slows – and eventually stops. Communities, states and even nations cannot thrive unless there is a robust program of investing for, and implementing, innovation.
With innovation you create renewal. Without it you create Detroit.