PC Sales drop >10% Q1 2016. Surprised? Do You Care?

PC Sales drop >10% Q1 2016. Surprised? Do You Care?

Leading tech tracking companies IDC and Gartner both announced Q1, 2016 PC sales results, and they were horrible.  Sales were down 9.5%-11.5% depending on which tracker you asked.  And that’s after a horrible Q4, 2015 when sales were off more than 10%.  PC sales have now declined for 6 straight quarters, and sales are roughly where they were in 2007, 9 years ago.

Oh yeah, that was when the iPhone launched – June, 2007.  And just a couple of years before the iPad launched.  Correlation, or causation?

Amazingly, when Q4 ended the forecasters were still optimistic of a stabilization and turnaround in PC sales.  Typical analyst verbage was like this from IDC, “Commercial adoption of Windows 10 is expected to accelerate, and consumer buying should also stabilize by the second half of the year.  Most PC users have delayed an upgrade, but can only maintain this for so long before facing security and performance issues.”  And just to prove that hope springs eternal from the analyst breast, here is IDC’s forecast for 2016 after the horrible Q1, “In the short term, the PC market must still grapple with limited consumer interest and competition from other infrastructure upgrades in the commercial market. Nevertheless….things should start picking up in terms of Windows 10 pilots turning into actual PC purchases.”

Fascinating.  Once again, the upturn is just around the corner.  People have always looked forward to upgrading their PCs, there has always been a “PC upgrade cycle” and one will again emerge.  Someday.  At least, the analysts hope so.  Maybe?

Microsoft investors must hope so.  The company is selling at a price/earnings multiple of 40 on hopes that Windows 10 sales will soon boom, and re-energize PC growth. Surely. Hopefully. Maybe?

death-of-the-pcThe world has shifted, and far too many people don’t like to recognize the shift.  When Windows 8 launched it was clear that interest in PC software was diminishing.  What was once a major front page event, a Windows upgrade, was unimportant.  By the time Windows 10 came along there was so little interest that its launch barely made any news at all.  This market, these products, are really no longer relevant to the growth of personal technology.

Back when I predicted that Windows 8 would be a flop I was inundated with hate mail.  It was clear that Ballmer was a terrible CEO, and would soon be replaced by the board.  Same when I predicted that Surface tablets would not sell well, and that all Windows devices would not achieve significant share. People called me “an Apple Fanboy” or a “Microsoft hater.”  Actually, neither was true.  It was just clear that a major market shift was happening in computing.  The world was rapidly going mobile, and cloud-based, and the PC just wasn’t going to be relevant.  As the PC lost relevancy, so too would Microsoft because it completely missed the market, and its entries were far too tied to old ways of thinking about personal and corporate computing – not to mention the big lead competitors had in devices, apps and cloud services.

I’ve never said that modern PCs are bad products.  I have a son half way through a PhD in Neurobiological Engineering.  He builds all kinds of brain models and 3 dimensional brain images and cell structure plots — and he does all kinds of very exotic math.  His world is built on incredibly powerful, fast PCs.  He loves Windows 10, and he loves PCs — and he really “doesn’t get” tablets.  And I truly understand why.  His work requires local computational power and storage, and he loves Windows 10 over all other platforms.

But he is not a trend.  His deep understanding of the benefits of Windows 10, and some of the PC manufacturers as well as those who sell upgrade componentry, is very much a niche.  While he depends heavily on Microsoft and Wintel manufacturers to do his work, he is a niche user.  (BTW he uses a Nexus phone and absolutely loves it, as well. And he can wax eloquently about the advantages he achieves by using an Android device.)

Today, I doubt I will receive hardly any comments to this column.  Because to most people, the PC is nearly irrelevant. People don’t actually care about PC sales results, or forecasts.  Not nearly as much as, say, care about whether or not the iPhone 6se advances the mobile phone market in a meaningful way.

Most people do their work, almost if not all their work, on a mobile device.  They depend on cloud and SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers and get a lot done on apps.  What they can’t do on a phone, they do on a tablet, by and large.  They may, or may not, use a PC of some kind (Mac included in that reference) but it is not terribly important to them.  PCs are now truly generic, like a refrigerator, and if they need one they don’t much care who made it or anything else – they just want it to do whatever task they have yet to migrate to their mobile world.

The amazing thing is not that PC sales have fallen for 6 quarters.  That was easy to predict back in 2013.  The amazing thing is that some people still don’t want to accept that this trend will never reverse.  And many people, even though they haven’t carried around a laptop for months (years?) and don’t use a Windows mobile device, still think Microsoft is a market leader, and has a great future.  PCs, and for the most part Microsoft, are simply no more relevant than Sears, Blackberry, or the Encyclopedia Britannica.   Yet it is somewhat startling that some people have failed to think about the impact this has on their company, companies that make PC software and hardware – and the impact this will have on their lives – and likely their portfolios.

Tesla Model 3 – This is What a “Game Changer” Looks Like

Tesla Model 3 – This is What a “Game Changer” Looks Like

Tesla started taking orders for the Model 3 last week, and the results were remarkable.  In 24 hours the company took $1,000 deposits for 198,000 vehicles.  By end of Saturday the $1,000 deposits topped 276,000 units.  And for a car not expected to be available in any sort of volume until 2017.  Compare that with the top selling autos in the U.S. in 2015:

U.S.-Auto-Sales1Remarkably, the Model 3 would rank as the 6th best selling vehicle all of last year!  And with just a few more orders, it will likely make the top 5 – or possibly top 3! And those are orders placed in just one week, versus an entire year of sales for the other models.  And every buyer is putting up a $1,000 deposit, something none of the buyers of top 10 cars did as they purchased product widely available in inventory. [Update 7 April – Tesla reports sales exceed 325,000, which would make the Model 3 the second best selling car in the USA for the entire year 2015 – accomplished in less than one week.]

Even more astonishing is the average selling price.  Note that top 10 cars are not highly priced, mostly in the $17,000 to $25,000 price range.  But the Tesla is base priced at $35,000, and expected with options to sell closer to $42,000.  That is almost twice as expensive as the typical top 10 selling auto in the U.S.

Tesla has historically been selling much more expensive cars, the Model S being its big seller in 2015.  So if we classify Tesla as a “luxury” brand and compare it to like-priced Mercedes Benz C-Class autos we see the volumes are, again, remarkable.  In under 1 week the Model 3 took orders for 3 times the volume of all C-Class vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2015.

[Car and Driver top 10 cars; Mercedes Benz 2015 unit sales; Tesla 2015 unit sales; Model 3 pricing]

Although this has surprised a large number of people, the signs were all pointing to something extraordinary happening.  The Tesla Model S sold 50,000 vehicles in 2015 at an average price of $70,000 to $80,000.  That is the same number of the Mercedes E-Class autos, which are priced much lower in the $50,000 range.  And if you compare to the  top line Mercedes S-Class, which is only slightly more expensive at an average $90,0000, the Model S sold over 2 times the 22,000 units Mercedes sold.  And while other manufacturers are happy with single digit percentage volume growth, in Q4 Tesla shipments were 75% greater in 2015 than 2014.

In other words, people like this brand, like these cars and are buying them in unprecedented numbers.  They are willing to plunk down deposits months, possibly years, in advance of delivery.  And they are paying the highest prices ever for cars sold in these volumes.  And demand clearly outstrips supply.

Yet, Tesla is not without detractors.  From the beginning some analysts have said that high prices would relegate  the brand to a small niche of customers.  But by outselling all other manufacturers in its price point, Tesla has demonstrated its cars are clearly not a niche market.  Likewise many analysts argued that electric cars were dependent on high gasoline prices so that “economic buyers” could justify higher prices.  Yet, as gasoline prices have declined to prices not seen for nearly a decade Tesla sales keep going up.  Clearly Tesla demand is based on more than just economic analysis of petroleum prices.

People really like, and want, Tesla cars.  Even if the prices are higher, and if gasoline prices are low.

Emerging is a new group of detractors.  They point to the volume of cars produced in 2015, and first quarter output of just under 15,000 vehicles, then note that Tesla has not “scaled up” manufacturing at anywhere near the necessary rate to keep customers happy.  Meanwhile, constructing the “gigafactory” in Nevada to build batteries has slowed and won’t meet earlier expectations for 2016 construction and jobs. Even at 20,000 cars/quarter, current demand for Model S and Model 3 They project lots of order cancellations would take 4.5 years to fulfill.

Which leads us to the beauty of sales growth.  When products tap an under- or unfilled need they frequently far outsell projections.  Think about the iPod, iPhone and iPad.  There is naturally concern about scaling up production.  Will the money be there?  Can the capacity come online fast enough?

Of course, of all the problems in business this is one every leader should want.  It is certainly a lot more fun to worry about selling too much rather than selling too little.  Especially when you are commanding a significant price premium for your product, and thus can be sure that demand is not an artificial, price-induced variance.

With rare exceptions, investors understand the value of high sales at high prices.  When gross margins are good, and capacity is low, then it is time to expand capacity because good returns are in the future.  The Model 3 release projects a backlog of almost $12B.  Booked orders at that level are extremely rare.  Further, short-term those orders have produced nearly $300million of short-term cash.  Thus, it is a great time for an additional equity offering, possibly augmented with bond sales, to invest rapidly in expansion.  Problematic, yes.  Insolvable, highly unlikely.

On the face of it Tesla appears to be another car company.  But something much more significant is afoot.  This sales level, at these prices, when the underlying economics of use seem to be moving in the opposite direction indicates that Tesla has tapped into an unmet need.  It’s products are impressing a large number of people, and they are buying at premium prices.  Based on recent orders Tesla is vastly outselling competitive electric automobiles made by competitors, all of whom are much bigger and better resourced.  And those are all the signs of a real Game Changer.

 

Why Activists Succeed – and Will Change Yahoo

Why Activists Succeed – and Will Change Yahoo

Starboard Value last week sent a letter to Yahoo’s Board of Directors announcing its intention to ask shareholders to replace the entire Board.  That is why Starboard is called an “activist” fund. It is not shy about seeking action at the Board level to change the direction of a company – by changing the CEO, seeking downsizings and reogranizations, changing dividend policy, seeking share buybacks, recommending asset sales, or changing other resource allocations.  They are different than other large investors, such as pension funds or mutual funds, who purchase lots of a company’s equity but don’t seek to overtly change the direction, and management, of a company.

Activists have been around a long time.  And for years, they were despised.  Carl Icahn made  himself famous by buying company shares, then pressuring management into decisions which damaged the company long-term while he made money fast.  For example, he bought TWA shares then pushed the company to add huge additional debt and repurchase equity (including buying his position via something called “green mail”)  in order to short-term push up the earnings per share.  This made Icahn billions, but ended up killing the company.

Similarly, Mr. Icahn bought a big position in Motorola right after it successfully launched the RAZR phone.  He pushed the board to shut down expensive R&D and product development to improve short-term earnings.  Then borrow a lot of money to repurchase shares, improving earnings per share but making the company over-leveraged.  He then sold out and split with his cash.  But Motorola never launched another successful phone, the technology changed, and Motorola had to sell its cell phone business (that pioneered the industry) in order to pay off debt and avoid bankruptcy.  Motorola is now a fragment of its former self, and no longer relevant in the tech marketplace.

So now you understand why many people hate activists.  They are famous for

  • cutting long-term investments on new products leaving future sales pipelines weakened,
  • selling assets to increase cash while driving down margins as vendors take more,
  • selling whole businesses to raise cash but leave the company smaller and less competitive,
  • cutting headcount to improve short-term earnings but leaving management and employees decimated and overworked,
  • increasing debt massively to repurchase shares, but leaving the company financially vulnerable to the slightest problem,
  • doing pretty much anything to make the short-term look better with no concern for long-term viability.

Yet, they keep buying shares, and they have defenders among shareholders.  Many big investors say that activists are the only way shareholders can do anything about lousy management teams that fail to deliver, and Boards of Directors that let management be lazy and ineffective.

bad yahooWhich takes us to Yahoo.  Yahoo was an internet advertising pioneer. Yet, for several years Yahoo has been eclipsed by competitors from Google to Facebook and even Microsoft that have grown their user base and revenues as Yahoo has shrunk.  In the 4 years since becoming CEO Marissa Mayer has watched Yahoo’s revenues stagnate or decline in all core sectors, while its costs have increased – thus deteriorating margins.  And to prop up the stock price she sold Alibaba shares, the only asset at Yahoo increasing in value, and used the proceeds to purchase Yahoo shares. There are very, very few defenders of Ms. Mayer in the investment community, or in the company, and increasingly even the Board of Directors is at odds with her leadership.

The biggest event in digital marketing is the Digital Content NewFronts in New York City this time every year.  Big digital platforms spend heavily to promote themselves and their content to big advertisers.  But in the last year Yahoo closed several verticals, and discontinued original programming efforts taking a $42M charge.  It also shut is online video hub, Screen.  Smaller, and less competitive than ever, Yahoo this year has cut its spending and customer acquisition efforts at NewFronts, a decision sure to make it even harder to reverse its declining fortunes.  Not pleasant news to investors.

And Yahoo keeps going down in value.  Looking at the market the value of Yahoo and Alibaba, and the Alibaba shares held in Yahoo, the theoretical value of Yahoo’s core business is now zero.  But that is an oversimplification.  Potential buyers have valued the business at $6B, while management has said it is worth $10B.  Only in 2008 Ballmer-led Microsoft made an offer to buy it for $45B!  That’s value destruction to the amount of $35B-$39B!

Yet management and the Board remains removed from the impact of that value destruction.  And the risk remains that Yahoo leadership will continue selling off Alibaba value to keep the other businesses alive, thus bleeding additional investor value out of the company.  There are reports that CEO Mayer never took seriously the threat of an activist involving himself in changing the company, and removing her as CEO.  Ensconced in the CEO’s office there was apparently little concern about shareholder value while she remained fixated on Quixotic efforts to compete with much better positioned, growing and more profitable competitors Google and Facebook.  Losing customers, losing sales, and losing margin as her efforts proved reasonable fruitless amidst product line shutdowns, bad acquisitions, layoffs and questionable micro-management decisions like eliminating work from home policies.

There appear to be real buyers interested in Yahoo.  There are those who think they can create value out of what is left.  And they will give the Yahoo shareholders something for the opportunity to take over those business lines.  Some want it as part of a bigger business, such as Verizon, and others see independent routes.  Even Microsoft is reportedly interested in funding a purchase of Yahoo’s core.  But there is no sign that management, or the Board, are moving quickly to redirect the company.

And that is why Starboard Value wants to change the Board of Directors.  If they won’t make changes, then Starboard will make changes.  And investors, long weary of existing leadership and its inability to take positive action, see Starboard’s activism as the best way to unlock what value remains in Yahoo for them.  After years of mismanagement and underperformance what else should investors do?

Activists are easy to pick at, but they play a vital role in forcing management teams and Boards of Directors to face up to market challenges and internal weaknesses.  In cases like Yahoo the activist investor is the last remaining player to try and save the company from weak leadership.

 

The 4 Reasons Verizon Should Buy Yahoo

The 4 Reasons Verizon Should Buy Yahoo

Verizon tipped its hand that it would be interested to buy Yahoo back in December.  In the last few days this possibility drew more attention as Verizon’s CFO confirmed interest on CNBC, and Bloomberg reported that AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong is investigating a potential acquisition.  There are some very good reasons this deal makes sense:

AOLHooFirst, this acquisition has the opportunity to make Verizon distinctive.  Think about all those ads you see for mobile phone service.  Pretty much alike.  All of them  trying to say that their service is better than competitors, in a world where customers don’t see any real difference.  3G, 4G – pretty soon it feels like they’ll be talking about 10G – but users mostly don’t care.  The service is usually good enough, and all competitors seem the same.

So, that leads to the second element they advertise – price.  How many different price programs can anyone invent?  And how many phone or tablet give-aways.  What is clear is that the competition is about price.  And that means the product has become generic.  And when products are generic, and price is the #1 discussion, it leads to low margins and lousy investor returns.

But a Yahoo acquisition would make Verizon differentiated.  Verizon could offer its own unique programming, at a meaningful level, and make it available only on their network.  And this could offer price advantages.  Like with Go90 streaming, Verizon customers could have free downloads of Verizon content, while having to pay data fees for downloads from other sites like YouTube, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, Amazon Prime, etc.  The Verizon customer could have a unique experience, and this could allow Verizon to move away from generic selling and potentially capture higher margins as a differentiated competitor.

Second, Yahoo will never be a lead competitor and has more value as a supporting player.  Yahoo has lost its lead in every major competitive market, and it will never catch up.  Google is #1 in search, and always will be.  Google is #1 in video, with Facebook #2, and Yahoo will never catch either.  Ad sales are now dominated by adwords and social media ads – and Yahoo is increasingly an afterthought.  Yahoo’s relevance in digital advertising is at risk, and as a weak competitor it could easily disappear.

But, Verizon doesn’t need the #1 player to put together a bundled solution where the #2 is a big improvement from nothing.  By integrating Yahoo services and capabilities into its  unique platform Verizon could take something that will never be #1 and make it important as part of a new bundle to users and advertisers.  As supporting technology and products Yahoo is worth quite a bit more to Verizon than it will ever be as an independent competitor to investors – who likely cannot keep up the investment rates necessary to keep Yahoo alive.

Third, Yahoo is incredibly cheap.  For about a year Yahoo investors have put no value on the independent Yahoo.  The company’s value has been only its stake in Alibaba.  So investors inherently have said they would take nothing for the traditional “core” Yahoo assets.

Additionally, Yahoo investors are stuck trying to capture the Alibaba value currently locked-up in Yahoo.  If they try to spin out or sell the stake then a $10-12Billion tax bill likely kicks in.  By getting rid of Yahoo’s outdated business what’s left is “YaBaba” as a tracking stock on the NASDAQ for the Chinese Alibaba shares.  Or, possibly Alibaba buys the remaining “YaBaba” shares, putting cash into the shareholder pockets — or giving them Alibaba shares which they may  prefer.  Etiher way, the tax bill is avoided and the Alibaba value is unlocked.  And that is worth considerably more than Yahoo’s “core” business.

So it is highly unlikely a deal is made for free.  But lacking another likely buyer Verizon is in a good position to buy these assets for a pretty low value.  And that gives them the opportunity to turn those assets into something worth quite a lot more without the overhang of huge goodwill charges left over from buying an overpriced asset – as usually happens in tech.

Fourth, Yahoo finally gets rid of an ineffectual Board and leadership team.  The company’s Board has been trying to find a successful leader since the day it hired Carol Bartz.  A string of CEOs have been unable to define a competitive positioning that works for Yahoo, leading to the current lack of investor enthusiasm.

The current CEO Mayer and her team, after months of accomplishing nothing to improve Yahoo’s competitiveness and growth prospects, is now out of ideas.  Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has been brought in to engineer yet another turnaround effort.  Last week we learned there will be more layoffs and business closings as Yahoo again cannot find any growth prospects.  This was the turnaround that didn’t, and now additional value destruction is brought on by weak leadership.

Most of the time when leaders fail the company fails.  Yahoo is interesting because there is a way to capture value from what is currently a failing situation.  Due to dramatic value declines over the last few years, most long-term investors have thrown in the towel.  Now the remaining owners are very short-term, oriented on capturing the most they can from the Alibaba holdings.  They are happy to be rid of what the company once was.  Additionally, there is a possible buyer who is uniquely positioned to actually take those second-tier assets and create value out of them, and has the resources to acquire the assets and make something of them.  A real “win/win” is now possible.

 

How Google Stole the Show from Apple

How Google Stole the Show from Apple

The three highest valued publicly traded companies today (2/3/16) are Google/Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft.  All 3 are tech companies, and they compete – although with different business models – in multiple markets. However, investor views as to their futures are wildly different.  And that has everything to do with how the leadership teams of these 3 companies have explained their recent results, and described their futures.

Slide1

Looking at the financial performance of these companies, it is impossible to understand the price/earnings multiple assigned to each. Apple clearly had better revenue and earnings performance in all but the most recent year.  Yet, both Alphabet and Microsoft have price to earnings (P/E) multiples that are 3-4 times that of Apple.

 

Slide2

Much was made this week about Alphabet’s valuation exceeding that of Apple’s.  But the really big story is the difference in multiples. If Apple had a multiple even half that of Alphabet or Microsoft it’s value would be much, much higher.

But, as we can see, investors did the best over both 2 years and 5 years by investing in Microsoft.  And Apple investors have fared the poorest of all 3 companies regardless of time frame.  Looking at investment performance, one would think that the revenue and earnings performance of these companies would be the reverse of what’s seen in the first chart.Apple-Google-MSFT

The missing piece, of course, is future expectations.  In this column a few days ago, I pointed out that Apple has done a terrible job explaining its future.  In that column I pointed out how Facebook and Amazon both had stratospheric P/E multiples because they were able to keep investors focused on their future growth story, even more than their historical financial performance.

Alphabet stole the show, and at least briefly the #1 valuation spot, from Apple by convincing investors they will see significant, profitable growth.  Starting even before earnings announcements the company was making sure investors knew that revenues and profits would be up.  But even more they touted the notion that Alphabet has a lot of growth in non-monetized assets.  For example, vastly greater ad sales should be expected from YouTube and Google Maps, as well as app sales for Android phones through Google Play.  And someday on the short horizon profits will emerge from Fiber transmission revenues, smart home revenues via Nest, and even auto market sales now that the company has logged over 1million driverless miles.

This messaging clearly worked, as Alphabet’s value shot up.  Even though 99% of the company’s growth was in “core” products that have been around for a decade!  Yes, ad revenue was up 15%, but most of that was actually on the company’s own web sites.  And most was driven by further price erosion.  The number of paid clicks were up 30%, but price/click was actually down yet another 15% – a negative price trend that has been happening for years. Eventually prices will erode enough that volume will not make up the difference – and what will investors do then?  Rely on the “moonshot” projects which still have almost no revenue, and no proven market performance!

But, the best performer has been Microsoft.  Investors know that PC sales have been eroding for years, that PC sales will continue eroding as users go mobile, and that PC’s are the core of Microsoft’s revenue.  Investors also knows that Microsoft missed the move to mobile, and has practically no market share in the war between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.  Further, investors have known forever that gaming (xBox,) search and entertainment products have always been a money-loser for Microsoft.  Yet, Microsoft investors have done far better than Apple investors, and long-term better than Google investors!

Microsoft has done an absolutely terrific job of constantly trumpeting itself as a company with a huge installed base of users that it can leverage into the future.  Even when investors don’t know how that eroding base will be leveraged, Microsoft continually makes the case that the base is there, that Microsoft is the “enterprise” brand and that those users will stay loyal to Microsoft products.

Forget that Windows 8 was a failure, that despite the billions spent on development Win8 never reached even 10% of the installed base and the company is even dropping support for the product.  Forget that Windows 10 is a free upgrade (meaning no revenue.)  Just believe in that installed base.

Microsoft trumpeted that its Surface tablet sales rose 22% in the last quarter!  Yay! Of course there was no mention that in just the last 6 weeks of the quarter Apple’s newly released iPad Pro actually sold more units than all Surface tablets did for the entire quarter!  Or that Microsoft’s tablet market share is barely registerable, not even close to a top 5 player, while Apple still maintains 25% share.  And investors are so used to the Microsoft failure in mobile phones that the 49% further decline in sales was considered acceptable.

Instead Microsoft kept investors focused on improvements to Windows 10 (that’s the one you can upgrade to for free.)  And they made sure investors knew that Office 365 revenue was up 70%, as 20million consumers now use the product.  Of course, that is a cumulative 20million – compared to the 75million iPhones Apple sold in just one quarter.  And Azure revenue was up 140% – to something that is almost a drop in the bucket that is AWS which is over 10 times the size of all its competitors combined.

To many, this author included, the “growth story” at Microsoft is more than a little implausible.  Sales of its core products are declining, and the company has missed the wave to mobile.  Developers are writing for iOS first and foremost, because it has the really important installed base for today and tomorrow.  And they are working secondarily on Android, because it is in some flavor the rest of the market.  Windows 10 is a very, very distant third and largely overlooked.  xBox still loses money, and the new businesses are all relatively quite small.  Yet, investors in Microsoft have been richly rewarded the last 5 years.

Meanwhile, investors remain fearful of Apple.  Too many recall the 1980s when Apple Macs were in a share war with Wintel (Microsoft Windows on Intel processors) PCs.  Apple lost that war as business customers traded off the Macs ease of use for the lower purchase cost of Windows-based machines.  Will Apple make the same mistake?  Will iPad sales keep declining, as they have for 2 years now?  Will the market shift to mobile favor lower-priced Android-based products?  Will app purchases swing from iTunes to Google Play as people buy lower cost Android-based tablets?  Have iPhone sales really peaked, and are they preparing to fall?  What’s going to happen with Apple now?  Will the huge Apple mobile share be eroded to nothing, causing Apple’s revenues, profits and share price to collapse?

This would be an interesting academic discussion were the stakes not so incredibly high.  As I said in the opening paragraph, these are the 3 highest valued public companies in America.  Small share price changes have huge impacts on the wealth of individual and institutional investors.  It is rather quite important that companies tell their stories as good as possible (which Apple clearly has not, and Microsoft has done extremely well.)  And likewise it is crucial that investors do their homework, to understand not only what companies say, but what they don’t say.

 

 

 

Apple’s Debacle – Why Growth is All That Matters

Apple’s Debacle – Why Growth is All That Matters

Apple announced earnings for the 4th quarter this week, and the company was creamed.  Almost universally industry analysts and stock analysts had nothing good to say about the company’s reports, and forecast.  The stock ended the week down about 5%, and down a whopping 27.8% from its 52 week high.

Wow, how could the world’s #1 mobile device company be so hammered?  After all, sales and earnings were both up – again!  Apple’s brand is still one of the top worldwide brands, and Apple stores are full of customers.  It’s PC sales are doing better than the overall market, as are its tablet sales.  And it is the big leader in wearable devices with Apple Watch.

Yet, let’s compare the  stock price to earnings (P/E) multiple of some well known companies (according to CNN Money 1/29/16 end of day):

  • Apple – 10.3
  • Used car dealer AutoNation – 10.7
  • Food company Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) – 12.2
  • Industrial equipment maker Caterpillar Tractor – 12.9
  • Farm equipment maker John Deere – 13.3
  • Defense equipment maker General Dynamics – 15.1
  • Utility American Electric Power – 16.9
  • Industrial product company Illinois Tool Works (ITW) – 17.7
  • Industrial product company 3M – 19.5

isadWhat’s wrong with this picture?  It all goes to future expectations.  Investors watched Apple’s meteoric rise, and many wonder if it will have a similar, meteoric fall.  Remember the rise and fall of Digital Equipment? Wang? Sun Microsystems? Palm? Blackberry (Research in Motion)?  Investors don’t like companies where they fear growth has stalled.

And Apple’s presentation created growth stall fears.  While iPhone sales are enormous (75million units/quarter,) there was little percentage growth in Q4. And CEO Tim Cook actually predicted a sales decline next quarter!  iPod sales took off like a rocket years ago, but they have now declined for 6 straight quarters and there was no prediction of a return to higher sales volumes.  And as for future products, the company seems only capable of talking about Apple Watch, and so far few people have seen any reason to buy one.  Amidst this gloom, Apple presented an unclear story about a future based on services – a market that is at the very least vague, where Apple has no market presence, little experience and no brand position.  And wasn’t that IBM’s story some 2.5 decades ago?

In other words, Apple fed investor’s worst fears.  That growth had stopped.  And usually, like in the examples above, when growth stops – especially in tech companies – it presages a dramatic reversal in sales and profits.  Sales have been known to fall far, far faster than management predicts.  Although Apple has not yet entered a Growth Stall (which is 2 consecutive quarters of declining sales and/or profits, or 2 consecutive quarters  than the previous year’s sales or profits) investors are now worried that one is just around the corner.

Contrast this with Facebook.  P/E – 113.3.  Facebook said ad revenues rose 57%, and net income was up 2.2x the previous year’s quarter.  But what was really important was Facebook’s story about its future:

  • Facebook is now a “must buy” for advertisers
  • Mobile is the #1 ad trend, and 80% of revenues are from mobile
  • Revenue/user is up 33%, and growing
  • There are multiple unmonetized new markets that Facebook is just developing – Instagram, WhatsApp, FB Messenger and Oculus

In other words, the past was great – but the future will be even better.  The short-term result?  FB stock rose 7.4% for the week, and intraday hit a new 52 week high.  Facebook might have seemed like a fad 3 years ago, especially to older folks.  But now the company’s story is all about market trends, and how Facebook is offering products on those trends that will drive future revenue and profit growth.

Amazon may be an even better example of smart communications.  As everyone knows, Amazon makes no profit.  So it sells for an astonishing P/E of 846.9.  Amazon sales increased 22% in Q4, and Amazon continued gaining share of the fast growing, #1 trend in retail — ecommerce.  While WalMart and Macy’s are closing stores, Amazon is expanding and even creating its own logistics system.

Profits were up, but only 2/3 of expectations – ouch!  Anticipating higher sales and earnings announcements the stock had run up $40/share. But the earnings miss took all that away and more as the stock crashed about $70/share!  A wild 12.5% peak-to-trough swing was capped at end of week down a mere 2.5%.

But, Amazon did a great job, once again, of selling its future.  In addition to the good news on retail sales, there was ongoing spectacular growth in cloud services – meaning Amazon Web Services (AWS.)  JPMorganChase, Wells Fargo, Raymond James and Benchmark all raised their future price forecasts after the announcement, based on future performance expectations.  Even analysts who cut their price targets still kept price targets higher than where Amazon actually ended the week.  And almost all analysts expect Amazon one year from now to be worth more than its historical 52 week high, which is 19% higher than current pricing.

So, despite bad earnings news, Amazon continued to sell its growth story.  Growth can heal all wounds, if investors continue to believe.  We’ll see how it plays out, but for now things appear at least stable.

Steve Jobs was, by most accounts, an excellent showman.  But what he did particularly well was tell a great growth story.  No matter Apple’s past results, or concerns about the company, when Steve Jobs took the stage his team had crafted a story about Apple’s future growth.  It wasn’t about cash flow, cash in the bank, assets in place, market share or historical success – boring, boring.  There was an Apple growth story. There was always a reason for investor’s to believe that competitors will falter, markets will turn to Apple, and growth will increase!

Should investors think Apple is without future growth?  Unfortunately, the communications team at Apple last week let investors think so.  It is impossible to believe this is true, but the communicators this week simply blew it.  Because what they said led to nothing but headlines questioning the company’s future.

What should Apple have said?

  • Give investors a great news story about wearables.  Show applications in health care, retail, etc. that really makes investors think all those people with a Timex or Rolex will wear an AppleWatch in the future.  Apple sold investors the future of iPhone apps long before most of people used anything other than maps and weather – and the story led investors to believe if people didn’t have an iPhone they would miss out on something important, so they were bound to go buy one.  Where’s that story when it comes to wearables?
  • ApplePay is going to change the world.  While ApplePay is #1, investors are wondering if mobile payments is ever going to be big.  What will make it big, when, and what is Apple doing to make this a multi-billion dollar business?  ApplePay launched to a lot of hype, but very little has been said since.  Is this going to be the Apple version of Microsoft’s Zune?  Make investors believers in ApplePay.  Convince them this is worth a lot of future value.
  • iBeacons are one of the most important technology products in retail and inventory control.  iBeacons were launched as a great tool for local businesses, but since then Apple has said almost nothing.  B2B may not be as sexy as consumer markets, but Microsoft made investors believers in the value of enterprise products.  Demonstrate that Apple’s technology is the best, and give investors some stories about how companies are winning.  Most investors have forgotten about beacons and thus they no longer plan for substantial revenues.
  • Apple has the #1 mobile developer community, and the best products are yet to come – so sales are far from stalling.  Honestly, the developer war is critical.  The platform with the most developers wins the most customers.  Microsoft taught investors that.  But Apple never talks about its developer community.  IBM has made a huge commitment to develop iOS enterprise apps that should drive substantial future sales, but Apple isn’t exciting investors about that opportunity.  Tell investors more stories about how Apple is king of the developer world, and will remain in the top spot – better than Android or anyone – for years.  Tell investors this will turn users toward tablets from PCs faster, and iPod sales will start growing again as smartphone and wearable sales join suit.
  • Apple will win big revenues in auto markets.  There was lots of rumors about hiring people to design a car, and now firing the lead guy. What is going on?  Google has been pretty clear about its plans, but Apple offers investors no encouragement to think the company will succeed at even winning the war to be in other manufacturer’s cars, much less build its own.  Given that the story sounds limited for Apple’s “core” products, investors need some stories about Apple’s own “moonshot” projects.
  • Apple is not a 1-pony, iPhone story.  Make investors believe it.

Tim Cook and the rest of Apple leadership are obviously competent.  But when it comes to storytelling, this week their messaging looked like it was created as a high school communications project.  Growth is what matters, and Apple completely missed the target.  And investors are moving on to better stories – fast.

 

Why Cheating is Prevalent – and We Can’t Stop It

Why Cheating is Prevalent – and We Can’t Stop It

Cheating in sports is now officially prevalent.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last week issued its report, and confirmed that across the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) athletes were cheating.  And very frequently doing so under the supervision of those leading major sports operations at a national, and international level.

Quite simply, those responsible for the future of various sports were responsible for organizing and enabling the illegal doping of athletes.  This behavior is now so commonplace that corruption is embedded in the IAAF, making cheating by far the norm rather than the exception.

Wow, we all thought that after Lance Armstrong was found guilty of doping this had all passed.  Sounds like, to the contrary, Lance was just the poor guy who got caught.  Perhaps he was pilloried because he was an early doping innovator, at a time when few others lacked access.  As a result of his very visible take-down for doping, today’s competitors, their coaches and sponsors have become a lot more sophisticated about implementation and cover-ups.

Accusations of steroid use for superior performance have been around a long time.  Major league baseball held hearings, and accused several players of doping.  The long list of MLB players accused of cheating includes several thought destined for the Hall of Fame including Barry Bonds, Jose Conseco, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Even golf has had its doping accusations,  with at least one top player, Vijay Sing, locked in a multi-year legal battle due to admitting using deer antler spray to improve his performance.

The reason is, of course, obvious.  The stakes are, absolutely, so incredibly high.  If you are at the top the rewards are in the hundreds of millions of dollars (or euros.)  Due to not only enormously high salaries, but also the incredible sums paid by manufacturers for product endorsements, being at the top of all sports is worth 10 to 100 times as much as being second.

For example – name any other modern golfer besides Tiger Woods. Bet you even know his primary sponsor – Nike.  Yet, he didn’t even play much in 2015.  Name any other Tour de France rider other than Lance Armstrong. And he made the U.S. Postal Service recognizable as a brand.  I travel the world and people ask me, often in their native language or broken English, where I live.  When I say “Chicago” the #1 response – by a HUGE margin is “Michael Jordan.”  And everyone knows Air Nike.

We know today that some competitors are blessed with enormous genetic gifts.  Regardless of what you may have heard about practicing, in reality it is chromosomes that separate the natural athletes from those who are merely extremely good.  Practicing does not hurt, but as the good doctor described to Lance Armstrong, if he wanted to be great he had to overcome mother nature.  And that’s where drugs come in.  Regardless of the sport in which an athlete competes, greatness simply requires very good genes.

If the payoff is so huge why wouldn’t you cheat? If mother nature didn’t give you the perfect genes, why not alter them? It is not hard to imagine anyone realizing that they are very, very, very good – after years of competing from childhood through their early 20s – but not quite as good as the other guy.  The lifetime payoff between the other guy and you could be $1Billion.  A billion dollars!  If someone told you that they could help, and it might take a few years off your life some time in the distant future, would you really hesitate?  Would the daily pain of drugs be worse than the pain of constant training?

Gold-medal-Olympian-talks-contamination-and-doping-scandals_strict_xxlThe real question is, should we call it cheating?  If lots and lots of people are doing it, as the WADA report and multiple investigations tell us, is it really cheating?

After all, isn’t this a personal decision? Where should regulators draw the line?

We allow athletes to drink sports drinks. Once there was only Gatorade, and it was only available to Florida athletes.  Because they didn’t dehydrate as quickly as other teams these athletes performed better.  But obviously sports drinks were considered OK.  How many cups of coffee should be allowed?  How about taking vitamins?

Exactly who should make these decisions?  And why?  Why “outlaw” some products, and not others?  How do you draw the line?

After watching “The Program” about Lance Armstrong’s doping routine it was clear to me I would never do it, and I would hope those I love would never do it.  But I also hope they don’t smoke cigarettes, drink too much liquor or make a porno movie.  Yet, those are all personal decisions we allow.  And the first two can certainly lead to an early grave.  As painful as doping was to biker Armstrong and his team, it was their decision to do it.  As bad as it was, why isn’t it their decision?  Why is someone put in a position to say it is cheating?

After all, we love winners.  When Lance was winning the Tour de France he was very, very popular.  Even as allegations swirled around him fans, and sponsors, pretty much ignored them.  Even the reporter who chased the story was shunned by his colleagues, and degraded by his publisher, as he systematically built the undeniable case that Armstrong was cheating.  Nobody wanted to hear that Lance was cheating – even if he was.

Fans and sponsors really don’t care how athletes win, just that they win.  If athletes do something wrong fans pretty much just hope they don’t get caught.  Just look at how fans overwhelming supported Armstrong for years.  Or how football fans have overwhelming supported Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and ridiculed the NFL’s commissioner Roger Goodall, over the Deflategate cheating charges and investigation.  Fans support a winner, regardless how they win.

So, now we know performance enhancing drugs are endemic in professional sports.  Why do we still make them against the rules?  If they are common, should we be trying to change behavior, or change the rules?

Go back 150 years in sports and frequently the best were those born to upper middle class families.  They had the luck to receive good, healthy food.  They had time to actually practice.  So when these athletes were able to be paid for their play, we called them professionals.  As professionals we would not allow them to compete with the local amateurs.  Nor could they compete in international competitions, such as the Olympics.

Jim Thorpe won 2 Olympic gold medals in 1912, received a ticker-tape Broadway parade for his performance and was considered “the greatest athlete of all time.” He was also stripped years later of his medals because it was determined he had been paid to play in a couple of professional baseball games.  He was considered a cheater because he had the luxury of practicing, as a professional, while other Olympic athletes did not.  Today we consider this preposterous, as professional athletes compete freely in the Olympics.  But what really changed? Primarily the rules.

It is impossible to think that we will ever roll back the great rewards given to modern athletes.  Too many people love their top athletes, and relish in seeing them earn superstar incomes.  Too many people love to buy products these athletes endorse, and too many companies obtain brand advantage with those highly paid endorsements.  In other words, the huge prize will never go away.

What is next?  Genetic engineering, of course.  The good geneticists will continue to figure out how to build stronger bodies, and their results will be out there for athletes to use.  Splice a gorilla gene into a wrestler, or a gazelle gene into a long-distance runner.  It’s not pure fantasy.  This will likely be illegal.  But, over time, won’t those gene-altering programs become as common to professional athletes as steroids and human growth hormone are today?  Exactly when does anyone think performance enhancement will stop?

And if the drugs keep becoming better, and athletes have such a huge incentive to use them, how are we ever to think a line can be drawn — or ever enforced?

Thus, the effort to stop doping would appear, at best, Quixotic.

Instead, why not simply say that at the professional level, anything goes?  No more testing.  If you are a pro, you can do whatever you want to win.  “It’s your life brother and sister,” the decision is up to you.

If you are an amateur then you will be subjected to intense testing, and you will be caught.  Testing will go up dramatically, and you will be caught if you cross any line we draw.  And banned from competition for life.  If you want to go that extra mile, just go pro.

Of course, one could imagine that there could be 2 pro circuits.  One that allows all performance enhancing drugs, and one that does not.  But we all know that will fail.  Like minor league competition, nobody really cares about the second stringers.  Fans want to see real amateurs, often competing locally and reinforcing pride. And they like to see pros — the very best of the very best.  And in this latter category, the fans consistently tell us via their support and dollars, they don’t really care how those folks made it to the top.

So a difficult ethical dilemma now confronts sports fans – and those who monitor athletics:

1 – Do we pretend doping doesn’t exist and keep lying about it, but realize what we’re doing is a sham and waste of time?

2 – Do we spend millions of dollars in an upgraded “war on drugs” that is surely going to fail (and who will pay for this increased vigilance, by the way?)

3 – Do we realize that with the incentives that exist today, we need to change the rules on doping?  Allow it, educate about its use, but give up trying to stop it.  Just like pros now compete in the Olympics, enhancement drugs would no longer be banned.

This one’s above my pay grade.  What do you readers think?

The 5 Stocks You Should Buy This Week

The 5 Stocks You Should Buy This Week

Stocks are starting 2016 horribly.  To put it mildly.  From a Dow (DJIA or Dow Jones Industrial Average) at 18,000 in early November values of leading companies have fallen to under 16,000 – a decline of over 11%.  Worse, in many regards, has been the free-fall of 2016, with the Dow falling from end-of-year close 17,425 to Friday’s 15,988 – almost 8.5% – in just 10 trading days!

With the bottom apparently disappearing, it is easy to be fearful and not buy stocks.  After all, we’re clearly seeing that one can easily lose value in a short time owning equities.

But if you are a long-term investor, then none of this should really make any difference.  Because if you are a long-term investor you do not need to turn those equities into cash today – and thus their value today really isn’t important.  Instead, what care about is the value in the future when you do plan to sell those equities.

Investors, as opposed to traders, buy only equities of companies they think will go up in value, and thus don’t need to worry about short-term volatility created by headline news, short-term politics or rumors.  For investors the most important issue is the major trends which drive the revenues of those companies in which they invest.  If those trends have not changed, then there is no reason to sell, and every reason to keep buying.

(1) Buy Amazon

Take for example Amazon.  Amazon has fallen from its high of about $700/share to Friday’s close of $570/share in just a few weeks – an astonishing drop of over 18.5%.  Yet, there is really no change in the fundamental market situation facing Amazon.  Either (a) something dramatic has changed in the world of retail, or (b) investors are over-reacting to some largely irrelevant news and dumping Amazon shares.

Everyone knows that the #1 retail trend is sales moving from brick-and-mortar stores to on-line.  And that trend is still clearly in place.  Black Friday sales in traditional retail stores declined in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – down 10.4% over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend.  For all December, 2015 retail sales actually declined from 2014.  Due to this trend, mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced last week it is closing 269 stores.  Beleaguered KMart also announced more store closings as it, and parent Sears, continues the march to non-existence.  Nothing in traditional retail is on a growth trend.

However, on-line sales are on a serious growth trend. In what might well be the retail inflection point, the National Retail Federation reported that more people shopped on line Black Friday weekend than those who went to physical stores (and that counts shoppers in categories like autos and groceries which are almost entirely physical store based.)  In direct opposition to physical stores, on-line sales jumped 10.4% Black Friday.

And Amazon thoroughly dominated on-line retail sales this holiday season.  On Black Friday Amazon sales tripled versus 2014.  Amazon scored an amazing 35% market share in e-commerce, wildly outperforming number 2 Best Buy (8%) and ten-fold numbers 3 and 4 Macy’s and WalMart that accomplished just over 3% market share each.

Clearly the market trend toward on-line sales is intact.  Perhaps accelerating.  And Amazon is the huge leader.  Despite the recent route in value, had you bought Amazon one year ago you would still be up 97% (almost double your money.)  Reflecting market trends, Wal-Mart has declined 28.5% over the last year, while the Dow dropped 8.7%.

Amazon may not have bottomed in this recent swoon.  But, if you are a long-term investor, this drop is not important.  And, as a long-term investor you should be gratified that these prices offer an opportunity to buy Amazon at a valuation not available since October – before all that holiday good news happened.  If you have money to invest, the case is still quite clear to keep buying Amazon.

FANGs(2) Buy Facebook

The trend toward using social media has not abated, and Facebook continues to be the gorilla in the room.  Nobody comes close to matching the user base size, or marketing/advertising opportunities Facebook offers.  Facebook is down 13.5% from November highs, but is up 24.5% from where it was one year ago.  With the trend toward internet usage, and social media usage, growing at a phenomenal clip, the case to hold what you have – and add to your position – remains strong.  There is ample opportunity for Facebook to go up dramatically over the next few years for patient investors.

(3) Buy Netflix

When was the last time you bought a DVD?  Rented a DVD?  Streamed a movie?  How many movies or TV programs did you stream in 2015? In 2013?  Do you see any signs that the trend to streaming will revert?  Or even decelerate as more people in more countries have access to devices and high bandwidth?

Last week Netflix announced it is adding 130 new countries to its network in 2016, taking the total to 190 overall.  By 2017, about the only place in the world you won’t be able to access Netflix is China.  Go anywhere else, and you’ve got it.  Additionally, in 2016 Netflix will double the number of its original programs, to 31 from 16. Simultaneously keeping current customers in its network, while luring ever more demographics to the Netflix platform.

Netflix stock is known for its wild volatility, and that remains in force with the value down a whopping 21.8% from its November high.  Yet, had you bought 1 year ago even Friday’s close provided you a 109% gain, more than doubling your investment.  With all the trends continuing to go its way, and as Netflix holds onto its dominant position, investors should sleep well, and add to their position if funds are available.

(4) Buy Google

Ever since Google/Alphabet overwhelmed Yahoo, taking the lead in search and on-line advertising the company has never looked back.  Despite all attempts by competitors to catch up, Google continues to keep 2/3 of the search market.  Until the market for search starts declining, trends continue to support owning Google – which has amassed an enormous cash hoard it can use for dividends, share buybacks or growing new markets such as smart home electronics, expanded fiber-optic internet availability, sensing devices and analytics for public health, or autonomous cars (to name just a few.)

The Dow decline of 8.7% would be meaningless to a shareholder who bought one year ago, as GOOG is up 37% year-over year.  Given its knowledge of trends and its investment in new products, that Google is down 12% from its recent highs only presents the opportunity to buy more cheaply than one could 2 months ago.  There is no trend information that would warrant selling Google now.

(5) Buy Apple

Despite spending most of the last year outperforming the Dow, a one-year investor would today be down 10.7% in Apple vs. 8.7% for the Dow.  Apple is off 27.6% from its 52 week high.  With a P/E (price divided by earnings) ratio of 10.6 on historical earnings, and 9.3 based on forecasted earnings, Apple is selling at a lower valuation than WalMart (P/E – 13).  That is simply astounding given the discussion above about Wal-mart’s operations related to trends, and a difference in business model that has Apple producing revenues of over $2.1M/employee/year while Walmart only achieve $220K/employee/year.  Apple has a dividend yield of 2.3%, higher than Dow companies Home Depot, Goldman Sachs, American Express and Disney!

Apple has over $200B cash. That is $34.50/share.  Meaning the whole of Apple as an operating company is valued at only $62.50/share – for a remarkable 6 times earnings.  These are the kind of multiples historically reserved for “value companies” not expected to grow – like autos!  Even though Apple grew revenues by 26% in fyscal 2015, and at the compounded rate of 22%/year from 2011- 2015.

Apple has a very strong base market, as the world leader today in smartphones, tablets and wearables.  Additionally, while the PC market declined by over 10% in 2015, Apple’s Mac sales rose 3% – making Apple the only company to grow PC sales.  And Apple continues to move forward with new enterprise products for retail such as iBeacon and ApplePay.  Meanwhile, in 2016 there will be ongoing demand growth via new development partnerships with large companies such as IBM.

Unfortunately, Apple is now valued as if all bad news imaginable could occur, causing the company to dramatically lose revenues, sustain an enormous downfall in earnings and have its cash dissipated.  Yet, Apple rose to become America’s most valuable publicly traded company by not only understanding trends, but creating them, along with entirely new markets.  Apple’s ability to understand trends and generate profitable revenues from that ability seems to be completely discounted, making it a good long-term investment.

In August, 2015 I recommended FANG investing.  This remains the best opportunity for investors in 2016 – with the addition of Apple.  These companies are well positioned on long-term trends to grow revenues and create value for several additional years, thereby creating above-market returns for investors that overlook short-term market turbulence and invest for long-term gains.

Is Yahoo Doomed?  Probably

Is Yahoo Doomed? Probably

Marissa Mayer’s reign as head of Yahoo looks to be ending like her predecessors.  With a serious flop.  Only this may well be the last flop – and the end of the internet pioneer.

It didn’t have to happen this way, but an inability to manage Status Quo Risk doomed Ms. Mayer’s leadership – as it has too many others.  And once again bad leadership will see a lot of people – investors, employees and even customers – pay the price.

Yahoo was in big trouble when Ms. Mayer arrived.  Growth had stalled, and its market was being chopped up by Google and Facebook.  It’s very relevancy was questionable as people no longer needed news consolidation sites – which had ended AOL, for example – and search had long gone to Google.  The intense internet users were already clearly mobile social media fans, and Yahoo simply did not compete in that space.

In other words, Yahoo desperately needed a change of direction and an entirely new strategy the day Ms. Mayer showed up.  Only, unfortunately, she didn’t provide either.  Instead Ms. Meyer offered, at best, a series of fairly meaningless tactical actions.  Changing Yahoo’s home page layout, cancelling the company’s work-from-home policy and hiring Katie Couric, amidst a string of small and meaningless acquisitions, were the business equivalent of fiddling while Rome burned.  Tinkering with the tactics of an outdated success formula simply ignored the fact that Yahoo was already well on the road to irrelevancy and needed to change, dramatically, quickly.

The saving grace for Yahoo was when Alibaba went public.  Suddenly a long-ago decision to invest in the Chinese company created a vast valuation increase for Yahoo.  This was the opportunity of a lifetime to shift the business fast and hard into something new, different and much more relevant than the worn out Yahoo strategy.  But, unfortunately, Ms. Mayer used this as a curtain to hide the crumbling former internet leader.  She did nothing to make Yahoo relevant, as fights erupted over how to carve up the Alibaba windfall.

When it became public that Ms. Mayer had hired famed strategy firm McKinsey & Co. to decide what businesses to close in its next “restructuring” it lit up the internet with cries to possibly just get rid of the whole thing! After 3 years, and more than one layoff, it now appears that Ms. Mayer has no better idea for creating value out of Yahoo than doing another big layoff to, once again, improve “focus on core offerings.”  Additional layoffs, after 3 years of declining sales, is not the way to grow and increase shareholder value.

Analysts are pointing out that Yahoo’s core business today is valueless.  The company is valued at less than its remaining Alibaba stake.  And this is not outrageous, since in the ad world Yahoo has become close to irrelevant.  Nobody would build an on-line ad campaign ignoring Google or Facebook, and several other internet leaders.  But ignoring Yahoo as a media option is increasingly common.

Investors are rightly worried that the IRS will take much of the remaining Alibaba value as taxes in any spinoff, leaving them with far less money.  Giving up on the CEO, and its increasingly irrelevant “core business” they are asking if it wouldn’t be smarter to sell what we think of as Yahoo to Softbank so the Japanese company can obtain the rest of Yahoo Japan it does not already own.  Ostensibly then Yahoo as it is known in the USA could simply start to disappear – like AOL and all the other on-line news consolidators.

PirateMarissaMayerIt really did not have to happen this way.  Yahoo’s troubles were clearly visible, and addressable.  But CEO Mayer simply chose to keep doing more of the same, making small improvements to Yahoo’s site and search tool.  By keeping Yahoo aligned with its historical Status Quo risk of irrelevance, obsolescence and failure grew quarter-by-quarter.

Now Status Quo Risk (the risk created by not adapting to shifting market needs) has most likely doomed Yahoo.  Investors are no longer interested in waiting for a turn-around.  They want their Alibaba valuation, and they could care less about Yahoo’s CEO, employees or customers.  Many have given up on Ms. Mayer, and simply want an exit strategy so they can move on.

Ms. Mayer’s leadership has shown us some important leadership lessons:

  • Hiring an executive from Google (or another tech company) does not magically mean success will emerge.  Like Ron Johnson from Apple to JCP, Ms. Mayer showed that even tech execs often lack an ability to understand market trends and the skills to adapt an organization.
  • It is incredibly easy for a new leader to buy into an historical success formula and keep tweaking it, rather than doing the hard work of creating a new strategy and adapting.  The lure of focusing on tactics and hoping the strategy will take care of itself is remarkably easy fall into.  But investors need to realize that tactics do not fix an outdated success formula.
  • Youth is not the answer.  Ms. Mayer was young, and identified with the youthfulness of Google and internet users.  But, in the end, she woefully lacked the strategy and leadership skills necessary to turn around the deeply troubled Yahoo.  Young, new and fresh is no substitute for critical thinking and knowing how to lead.
  • Boards give CEOs too much time to fail.  It was clear within months Ms. Mayer had no strategy for making Yahoo relevant.  Yet, the Board did not recognize its mistake and replace the CEOs.  There still are not sufficient safeguards to make sure Boards act when CEOs fail to lead effectively.
  • CEOs too often have too much hubris.  Ms. Mayer went from college to a rapid career acceleration in largely staff positions to CEO of Yahoo and a Board member of Wal-Mart.  It is easy to develop hubris, and an over-abundance of self-confidence.  Then it is easy to require your staff agree with you, and pledge so support you (as Ms. Mayer recently did.)  All of this indicates a leader running on hubris rather than critical thinking, open discourse and effective decision-making.  Hubris is not just a weakness of white male leaders.

Could there have been a different outcome.  Of course.  But for Yahoo’s employees, suppliers, customers and investors the company hired a string of CEOs that simply were not up to the job of redirecting the company into competitiveness.  Each one fell victim to trying to maintain the Status Quo. And, unfortunately, Ms. Mayer will be seen as the most recent – and possibly last – CEO to lead Yahoo into failure.  Ms. Mayer simply was not up to the job – and now a lot of people will pay the price.

 

Poor Microsoft – How Good Decisions, Made Too Late, Bode Poorly for the Future

Poor Microsoft – How Good Decisions, Made Too Late, Bode Poorly for the Future

Microsoft recently announced it was offering Windows 10 on xBox, thus unifying all its hardware products on a single operating system – PCs, mobile devices, gaming devices and 3D devices.  This means that application developers can create solutions that can run on all devices, with extensions that can take advantage of inherent special capabilities of each device.  Given the enormous base of PCs and xBox machines, plus sales of mobile devices, this is a great move that expands the Windows 10 platform.

Only it is probably too late to make much difference.  PC sales continue falling – quickly. Q3 PC sales were down over 10% versus a year ago. Q2 saw an 11% decline vs year ago. The PC market has been steadily shrinking since 2012In Q2 there were 68M PCs sold, and 66M iPhones.  Hope springs eternal for a PC turnaround – but that would seem increasingly unrealistic.

BallmerThe big market shift to mobile devices started back in 2007 when the iPhone began challenging Blackberry.  By 2010 when the iPad launched, the shift was in full swing.  And that’s when Microsoft’s current problems really began.  Previous CEO Steve Ballmer went “all-in” on trying to defend and extend the PC platform with Windows 8 which began development in 2010.  But by October, 2012 it was clear the design had so many trade-offs that it was destined to be an Edsel-like flop – a compromised product unable to please anyone.

By January, 2013 sales results were showing the abysmal failure of Windows 8 to slow the wholesale shift into mobile devices.  Ballmer had played “bet the company” on Windows 8 and the returns were not good.  It was the failure of Windows 8, and the ill-fated Surface tablet which became a notorious billion dollar write-off, that set the stage for the rapid demise of PCs.

And that demise is clear in the ecosystem.  Microsoft has long depended on OEM manufacturers selling PCs as the driver of most sales.  But now Lenovo, formerly the #1 PC manufacturer, is losing money – lots of money – putting its future in jeopardy.  And Dell, one of the other top 3 manufacturers, recently pivoted from being a PC manufacturer into becoming a supplier of cloud storage by spending $67B to buy EMC. The other big PC manufacturer, HP, spun off its PC business so it could focus on non-PC growth markets.

Windows deadAnd, worse, the entire OEM market is collapsing.  For the largest 4 PC manufacturers sales last quarter were down 4.5%, while sales for the remaining smaller manufacturers dropped over 20%!  With fewer and fewer sales, consolidation is wiping out many companies, and leaving those remaining in margin killing to-the-death competition.

Which means for Microsoft to grow it desperately needs Windows 10 to succeed on devices other than PCs.  But here Microsoft struggles, because it long eschewed its “channel suppliers,” who create vertical market applications, as it relied on OEM box sales for revenue growth.  Microsoft did little to spur app development, and rather wanted its developers to focus on installing standard PC units with minor tweaks to fit vertical needs.

Today Apple and Google have both built very large, profitable developer networks.  Thus iOS offers 1.5M apps, and Google offers 1.6M. But Microsoft only has 500K apps largely because it entered the world of mobile too late, and without a commitment to success as it tried to defend and extend the PC.  Worse, Microsoft has quietly delayed Project Astoria which was to offer tools for easily porting Android apps into the Windows 10 market.

Microsoft realized it needed more developers all the way back in 2013 when it began offering bonuses of $100,000 and more to developers who would write for Windows.  But that had little success as developers were more keen to achieve long-term sales by building apps for all those iOS and Android devices now outselling PCs.  Today the situation is only exacerbated.

By summer of 2014 it was clear that leadership in the developer world was clearly not Microsoft.  Apple and IBM joined forces to build mobile enterprise apps on iOS, and eventually IBM shifted all its internal PCs from Windows to Macintosh.  Lacking a strong installed base of Windows mobile devices, Microsoft was without the cavalry to mount a strong fight for building a developer community.

In January, 2015 Microsoft started its release of Windows 10 – the product to unify all devices in one O/S.  But, largely, nobody cared.  Windows 10 is lots better than Win8, it has a great virtual assistant called Cortana, and it now links all those Microsoft devices.  But it is so incredibly late to market that there is little interest.

Although people keep talking about the huge installed base of PCs as some sort of valuable asset for Microsoft, it is clear that those are unlikely to be replaced by more PCs.  And in other devices, Microsoft’s decisions made years ago to put all its investment into Windows 8 are now showing up in complete apathy for Windows 10 – and the new hybrid devices being launched.

AM Multigraphics and ABDick once had printing presses in every company in America, and much of the world.  But when Xerox taught people how to “one click” print on a copier, the market for presses began to die.  Many people thought the installed base would keep these press companies profitable forever.  And it took 30 years for those machines to eventually disappear.  But by 2000 both companies went bankrupt and the market disappeared.

Those who focus on Windows 10 and “universal windows apps” are correct in their assessment of product features, functions and benefits.  But, it probably doesn’t matter.  When Microsoft’s leadership missed the mobile market a decade ago it set the stage for a long-term demise. Now that Apple dominates the platform space with its phones and tablets, followed by a group of manufacturers selling Android devices, developers see that future sales rely on having apps for those products.  And Windows 10 is not much more relevant than Blackberry.