Hurts So Good

Near the later stages of a market cycle, if I don’t feel stupid and my portfolio doesn’t hurt, I’m probably not positioned appropriately. With short-term interest rates rising considerably over the past year, my patient positioning is beginning to feel a little too comfortable. At this stage of the cycle, I should be suffering more. As such, I recently reintroduced a painful position to my absolute return portfolio – a precious metal miner.

For asset managers who are currently experiencing shiny-happy performance and congratulatory client meetings, a beaten-down miner may be just the thing needed to scratch that contrarian itch. From a personal perspective, I’ve found a good time to make uncomfortable changes to a portfolio is often when performance looks best. And there’s nothing like a precious metal miner to create the right amount of angst and discomfort!

For most of the current market cycle, the only thing more painful than holding cash has been the precious metal miners. I held several miners in 2014-mid 2016. The pain was excruciating. At one point, the miners I owned were down -30%+ after they had already declined 50-60% at the time of purchase! It was the most challenging and controversial position I’ve ever taken. Frankly, I hated it. But value is value. And as many seasoned investors will attest, the best values are rarely presented as beautiful bouquets.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel reluctant to readminister the pain. To help me cope, I started with a small weight and plan to add to the position slowly as the price declines and discount to value increases. My slow and steady approach to positioning is based on experience. Historically, once I’ve determined commodity stocks are cheap, they typically become much cheaper! Picking the bottom in commodity stocks is extremely difficult – at least for me – so I prefer buying small positions and averaging down.

Another thing I’ve learned about commodity stocks is investors love or hate them – rarely do they remain near their valuation equilibrium. With such wishy-washy investor psychology, one can expect volatility and violent booms and busts. While the commodity prices themselves are partially responsible, I believe popular valuation techniques also contribute to volatility.

Many analysts use cash flow metrics to value commodity businesses, such as EBITDAX. Although cash flow is important, when attempting to value a commodity business with a high degree of confidence, I’ve found future EBITDAX to be too uncertain and volatile.

Early in my career I decided to part ways with EBITDA valuations. Capitalizing depreciation or depletion has never made sense to me, especially for commodity businesses (reserves must be replaced to stay in business). Instead of cash flow, I prefer using a less volatile valuation technique for asset-heavy commodity businesses. Specifically, I use replacement cost. In effect, my goal is to buy a dollar of reserves (oil, natural gas, gold, timber, etc) at a discount to the cost required to replace those reserves.

For example, if it costs $300 to find and develop an ounce of gold and I can buy a proven and developed ounce for $150 in the equity market, I’m interested. Focusing on developed mines with a sufficient history in production and operating costs can also reduce risk. Accumulating reserves by building a new mine often comes with uncertain production, operating costs, and financing. In effect, instead of taking the risk of building a new mine, I’d rather buy the reserves of a developed and operationally efficient mine selling at a discount. And that’s what I’m finding today in the mining sector. Proven and funded mines that are selling below the cost to find and develop their reserves.

To be clear, commodity businesses, such as miners, are very risky and carry tremendous operating risks. As such, I focus on commodity businesses with strong balance sheets that I believe can survive a prolonged period of depressed commodity prices. It doesn’t matter if you can buy an asset-heavy business at a large discount if the company doesn’t have the balance sheet required to survive the cycle. I’ve seen many commodity companies worth much more than their stock price go bankrupt in commodity bear markets. They simply ran out of time and liquidity. Ideally, I prefer commodity stocks and miners with no debt, but they’re almost as rare as the metals themselves!

With extreme pain and discomfort, I’m back in the precious metal miners (or I should say miner). Similar to past experiences with commodity stocks, I’m assuming the miners will continue to fall and I will not be able to time their bottom perfectly. My plan is to gradually add to the position during the decline, but will not exceed my pain threshold (during the last miner bear market the weight in the absolute return portfolio peaked between 10%-15%). In addition to my pain threshold, my weight will likely be limited by the number of small cap miners that pass my balance sheet requirements and other guidelines (mine locations, all-in costs, reserve life, etc.).

While the introduction of miners will likely hurt in the near-term, given my patient positioning, I like the idea of owning asset-heavy businesses at a discount. In effect, I view my recent miner purchase as an investment and a hedge. A hedge against the Fed falling behind the curve (before the cycle ends) and a hedge against future central bank asset purchases (after the cycle ends).

Inflation Hits the Headlines

As I discussed in recent posts and podcasts, I began noticing a growing number of companies reporting rising costs and pricing power in Q2 2017. At that time, I wasn’t sure if these trends were temporary or sustainable. In my Q2 2017 quarterly update I wrote,

“Despite reports of tame consumer and producer inflation, many businesses reported cost pressures and pricing action in Q2. I’m not certain if or when these increases make it into the government data, but I listed dozens of examples of cost and price increases in my quarterly management commentary. Although inflation isn’t spiking higher, it was definitely noticeable in Q2 and certainly isn’t dead.”

By the end of 2017, it was becoming clear to me that the uptick in corporate costs and pricing was not temporary and was in fact a new trend. In my Q4 2017 quarterly update I wrote,

“Rising costs, especially wages, are becoming increasingly noticeable. Frequent discussions on strategy to pass on price increases. In addition to labor, freight and commodity increases mentioned frequently. The shift from deflationary tone (2015-2016) to inflationary (2017-2018) is becoming more evident with costs and wages accelerating in Q4. Based on results and outlooks, this trend does not appear transitory.”

Evidence of rising inflation continued to build in Q1 2018. I wrote several posts discussing these trends, including a post that included a long list of company-specific examples (Inflation Subsiding or Accelerating). I also participated in an hour-long podcast with Jesse Felder, specifically devoted to inflation (podcast link). More recently, as I plow through Q2 2018 earnings reports and conference calls, I continue to notice and document numerous examples of rising corporate costs and price increases.

In summary, the bottom-up data I’ve accumulated over the past several quarters supports my belief that the disinflationary environment (most noticeable in 2015-2016) has passed and has been replaced with rising rates of inflation. And while the shift in narrative from deflation to inflation has been slow to develop, it appears others, including the media, are beginning to take note and are currently reporting on the change in trend. In fact, last week I noticed several articles highlighting inflation.

The first article, “Kraft Heinz Tops Estimates with Higher Pricing, Shares Surge” discusses packaged food companies and how they’ve been forced to raise prices to offset rising costs. While there is often a lag, recent price increases appear to be sticking for many businesses, restoring profit margins and earnings growth. As a result, investors are celebrating and rewarding companies with the ability to pass on price increases. While pricing power is certainly a positive business attribute, I can’t help but wonder if the broader implications of price increases – as it relates to interest rates, balance sheets, and required rates of return – are being ignored (good topic for future post).

Another article published last week, “Inflation, Gas Prices, Tariffs, Squeeze Consumers”, documents rising corporate costs and how inflation is influencing consumer behavior. The article provides several examples of recent corporate price increases and inflationary pressure, stating,

“Procter & Gamble…said Tuesday that Pampers prices will increase by an average of 4 percent in North America, while the Bounty, Charmin and Puffs brands could see 5 percent increases. Gas prices have already surged more than 24 percent in the past year. Rent and other housing costs were up 3.4 percent in June compared to a year earlier, and auto insurance has jumped more than 7 percent.”

And while I don’t rely on government data to form my macro opinion, for those who do, the article states,

“The consumer price index, the government’s primary measure of inflation, rose 2.9 percent in June from a year earlier, the fastest increase in six years.”

In effect, the government’s inflation data and my bottom-up assessment are in agreement – inflation has arrived.

And finally, the title of the Bloomberg article, “How U.S. Companies are Coping with Inflation and Scarce Labor” caught my attention yesterday. While I thought the title was a good summary of my recent posts on inflation, I was less enthusiastic about the article’s assertion regarding the sustainability of current trends. Specifically, the article states inflation “may prove to be temporary.” While this could prove to be true, I currently see little evidence suggesting inflationary pressures are subsiding. That said, the article did provide a quote from Clorox’s CEO supporting its view. Specifically, Clorox’s CEO stated he “expects increases in transportation costs to ease to a mid to high-single-digit pace from high double-digit.”

While I agree high double-digit increases in transportation costs should moderate (mainly due to comparisons), high-single-digit increases remain above average and inflationary. Unless the Federal Reserve can print 50,000 truck drivers in the near-future, (also known as QT – Quantitative Truckers 🙂 ), I’m not expecting elevated transportation costs to subside in the near-future.

As I sort through Q2 2018 operating results and conference calls, I’m growing increasingly confident in my belief that there has been a shift in inflation psychology. There appears to be a growing understanding between businesses that price increases are necessary. In effect, pricing requests have become more acceptable and in many cases expected. And as businesses discover price increases are sticking and becoming more acceptable, it’s logical to assume managements will be more comfortable requesting further increases. In fact, I’ve noticed several instances of companies announcing multiple price increases over the past year (pricing decisions are typically limited to once a year). And finally, with tariff concerns increasing, several executives stated they are prepared for further increases in costs and pricing. Based on management commentary, I suspect a growing number of corporations will use tariffs to justify additional price increases.

In summary, the rising trend in corporate costs and pricing I began noticing and documenting in 2017 continues today. How long current trends persist remains uncertain, but to claim the uptick in inflation is temporary seems premature. In fact, based on recent corporate operating results and outlooks, I believe inflationary pressures will remain elevated in Q3 2018. Given the tightness in many areas of the economy and labor market, I expect pricing pressure to persist until asset inflation or demand subsides. In the meantime, I will remain alert for signs that market participants are beginning to recognize inflation and its growing threat to elevated asset prices.

As last week’s articles on inflation illustrate, the inflation narrative appears to be in transition and is gradually becoming more aligned with my bottom-up analysis and views. I’m beginning to wonder if the market’s inflation recognition moment I’ve been expecting is a process, not an event. If so, I believe the process has begun and its momentum is building.

Cliff Hangers

With earnings season in full swing, I was unable to write a post last week. While it remains very early, so far Q2 2018 looks similar to Q1 2018, but with a more favorable weather comparison and tariff concerns sprinkled on top. I plan to get through the remaining quarterly reports and calls over the next two weeks.

Once the excitement of earnings season comes to an end, it will be interesting to see where the market turns its attention. Although I don’t have a strong opinion on Wall Street’s next narrative, the recent rise in interest rates would be on top of my list. In fact, I can’t keep my eyes off the 2-year Treasury yield as it continues to rise like a FANG stock (or at least before last week)!

To illustrate, below are two charts (both two years). One is a chart of the 2-Year U.S. Treasury yield and the other is a chart of QQQ. Which one is a portfolio of popular growth stocks and which one is the yield of a boring short-term USTN? They’re very similar, aren’t they?

  

If you guessed chart 1 was QQQ and chart 2 was the 2-year USTN yield, you are correct. Now which one is more exciting and enticing? I’d go with chart #2, or the 2-year Treasury yield!

  

Given where we are in the profit, credit, and economic cycle, I continue to believe the 2-year Treasury yield and equity markets will remain correlated. However, I also believe there is an eventual breaking point in these charts – they cannot rise together indefinitely. At what rate will the 2-year yield reach before asset prices crack? I wish I knew, but I find the equity market’s lack of concern fascinating. It reminds me of the game Cliff Hangers on the Price is Right. The mountain climber marches higher and higher until the contestant makes a large valuation mistake, resulting in the climber falling off the cliff (Cliff Hangers video).

I plan to continue watching the sharp rise in short-term yields with amazement and an opportunistic mindset. Although the timing remains uncertain, I remain prepared for the mountain climber’s (risk assets) fall.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful earnings season! I have a growing backlog of topics I want to discuss and will hopefully be posting again in a couple weeks.

Cyclically Non-Adjusted Earnings

Last week I played tennis with a mortgage broker I’ve known for over twenty years. In addition to being a good friend and tennis player, he often provides me with a timely and accurate assessment of the Florida housing market. Since we hadn’t talked in several months, I was eager to hear what he had to say.

As I drove up to the tennis court, I watched my friend step out of a shiny new $100,000+ luxury vehicle. I knew immediately an update of the Florida housing market wasn’t necessary! I greeted him by saying, “If this isn’t a sign of the top, I don’t know what is!” We both laughed. He proceeded to show me all the different features and gadgets on his new ride. It was impressive.

While not as shiny and new as my friend’s luxury car, the current profit cycle has also been impressive. Approaching its 10-year anniversary, today’s profit cycle has shown considerable persistence and strength since its 2009 beginnings. As the current expansion marches on, I’ve been thinking more and more about business cycles and how I incorporate cyclicality into my valuation process.

Historically, I’ve used a normalized cash flow assumption when calculating the value of most businesses. My preference for normalizing is based on my belief profit margins and earnings for most businesses are cyclical, albeit to differing degrees. In effect, normalizing enables me to avoid valuing businesses on peak or trough cash flows, in addition to the large valuation errors that can accompany extrapolation.

Normalizing was essential in helping me navigate through the tech and housing bubbles. It allowed me to avoid becoming too optimistic during the booms and too pessimistic during the busts. The results of normalizing during the current cycle have been less conclusive. While normalizing was beneficial during the earlier years of the current cycle, it has appeared unnecessary and even counterproductive in later years.

The extended duration of the current profit cycle – currently twice as long as the average cycle – has challenged the value and usefulness of normalizing. This cycle’s length is also affecting normalized valuation metrics, such as the Shiller PE. As a reminder, the Shiller PE uses a 10-year earnings average in its attempt to smooth or cyclically adjust earnings. As discussed in the post “Normalizing Earnings and Real Rates,” assuming the U.S. economy does not enter a recession in the near future, the Shiller PE’s 10-year earnings average will soon consist of all economic boom and no bust. As the depressed earnings of 2008 and 2009 roll out of its calculation, average earnings will increase and the Shiller PE will likely appear less expensive.

The 10-year anniversary of the current profit cycle raises an important question. How useful is a cyclically adjusted PE (CAPE) that only includes a period of profit expansion? While I don’t know Robert Shiller personally, I suspect when he developed his CAPE, he didn’t envision a 10-year profit cycle without a recession. I know I didn’t!

The longevity of the current profit cycle is also influencing how investors perceive the cyclical nature of operating businesses and the economy. Based on equity valuations, investors appear to be dismissing the risks associated with recession and profit reversion. In effect, the longer the current cycle persists, the greater the temptation to abandon normalizing and embrace extrapolation.

There are many examples of extrapolation in today’s market and business environment. From an individual perspective, look no further than my friend’s new luxury vehicle (after asking his permission to write about our conversation, he reminded me that he also recently bought “another” house!). Would he have made such an extravagant purchase if he believed a decline in Florida real estate was forthcoming? Probably not. Instead of normalizing over an entire cycle, I suspect he extrapolated current business trends well into the future. While I’m not certain if there has ever been a real estate boom in Florida without a bust, I suppose it’s possible. That said, if it were me, I would have normalized and went with the Toyota. 🙂

In addition to individuals, there are many examples of investors assuming extrapolation risk. The most obvious is the use of recent earnings results and forecasts to calculate the value of equities. One of the most popular methods of equity valuation is to simply apply an earnings multiple to next year’s earnings estimate, with many estimates assuming current trends will persist without interruption. In effect, earnings predictions are based on the past several quarters of operating results (extrapolation), not full-cycle margin dispersion and scenario analysis (normalizing).

A less obvious, but interesting example of investor extrapolation, appeared when the corporate tax rate declined from 35% to 21%. The response to the lower tax rate was overwhelmingly positive as earnings estimates and equity prices rose considerably. Instead of normalizing historical tax rates (according to Trading Economics the average corporate tax rate from 1909 through 2018 was 33%), investors appear to be extrapolating the lower rate well into the future. This is despite the fact that tax rates have historically fluctuated with shifts in fiscal policy and political leadership – a near certain future event.

Business leaders also appear to be extrapolating recent profit trends as many companies aggressively pursue acquisitions, buy back stock, and issue debt. Corporate decisions based on extrapolation are often responsible for the eventual industry or economic bust. The energy industry is a good example. When oil was trading over $100 a barrel, energy companies extrapolated boom-time operating results and expanded aggressively – the future appeared certain. Instead of certainty, the energy industry experienced supply increases, price declines, and bankruptcies.

As analysts and portfolio managers, it is not our job to know the future with certainty, but to properly incorporate uncertainty in our valuations and investment processes. While current equity valuations imply a high degree of certainty in future profits, abundant examples of extrapolation and boom-time decision making support my belief that human behavior and profit cycles remain cyclical. As such, I believe normalizing, not extrapolating, remains the preferred method of business valuation. The future will be different from today – guaranteed. So why not value businesses accordingly?

The Inflation Recognition Moment

Before I dive into the topic of the day, I’d like to briefly discuss my recent spite trade (Growth, Value, and Spite). Specifically, I closed out my Russell 2000 put position last week after making enough to pay the electric bill 🙂 . It’s another example of why I’m not a successful short seller or put option speculator. Even when I get lucky on the timing, I tend to close the position too early, making it difficult to achieve an adequate return relative to risk assumed.

Instead of short selling and timing when stocks will fall, I prefer patience and investing after prices decline and opportunities reappear. This is not meant to disparage the art of short selling. It simply means as an investor, and over many years, I’ve gotten to know my strengths and weaknesses well. Historically I’ve achieved my absolute return goals by owning attractively priced small cap stocks and holding them until my calculated valuations are reached. It’s not as exciting as short selling, but it’s a process I’m confident and comfortable implementing — it’s what has worked for me.

With my put option speculation behind me, I’d like to focus on the labor market and tomorrow’s jobs report. I’m going to take an unusual position on this all-important economic data point by stating I believe the report is irrelevant. In my opinion, the bottom-up evidence is convincing – the labor market is very tight and wages are increasing. In fact, I feel the bottom-up evidence has become so convincing, I do not foresee anything from tomorrow’s report that will alter my views. And similar to the last time I remember labor being this tight (1999), I’m not expecting a meaningful change until asset prices decline and we enter a recession. In effect, I believe we’ve reached full employment this cycle and will remain here until the next cycle begins.

As we proceed through this cycle’s phase of full employment, I plan to continue to monitor the labor market through my bottom-up lens, with particular interest on wage gains and labor availability. In addition to monitoring the labor market through the analysis of my opportunity set, I’ll continue to accumulate anecdotal evidence and other real world examples. Some of my favorite labor market examples and updates come from reader emails.

Below is an email from an experienced investor who understands the economy and financial markets well. His recent experience while staying at a hotel emphasizes a topic that is becoming increasingly important for many businesses (especially for those attempting to grow) – labor availability.

He writes, “There were two stories that I felt I had to share. First involves our hotel. Despite having made reservations 6 months in advance, none of our rooms were ready upon arrival. We waited into the night when some families just offered to take their rooms as is so they could get some rest. The poor staff was nice enough about it but they simply didn’t have the bodies to clean rooms. Some creative manager had a brilliant idea at checkout though. They offered rewards points to guests who would clean their own rooms upon leaving!”

If reward points in exchange for customers cleaning their hotel rooms isn’t a sign of a tight labor market, I’m not sure what is! His other encounter with insufficient labor came while visiting a local pizza shop. Again, it’s not just about wages, it’s about labor availability.

“On that same trip, we went to a local pizza place for dinner one night. One of the parents was talking about how his folks had owned a pizza place when he was a kid. One of the servers overheard the conversation and offered us all the beer we could drink if this guy would jump over the counter and help make pizzas. After the rest of the place had cleared out the server/manager explained that she was on the verge of losing all of her employees as everyone was massively over-worked and they simply couldn’t find help.”

Another reader sent an article about a convenience store chain in Texas called Buc-ee’s. The company hangs a board advertising its positions and wages in its stores (see picture in article: link). It’s a good article illustrating how companies are aggressively competing for labor and being forced to pay wages well above state minimums. For example, the minimum wage at Buc-ee’s starts at $14 an hour versus Texas’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

As Q2 earnings season approaches, I will be monitoring business labor and wage trends closely. Based on Q1 operating results and earnings reports released in June, I believe the labor market remains tight. While tomorrow’s jobs report will not alter my views, I’m well aware many investors will be paying very close attention. And I suppose even I’ll tune in to learn if tomorrow’s report will be the catalyst that causes investors to finally acknowledge wages and inflationary pressures are rising. I call it the inflation recognition moment. What exactly causes it remains a mystery, but barring a sharp decline in asset prices, I’m expecting and prepared for its arrival.

Style Boxes: Growth, Value, and Spite

It’s been two years since I recommended returning capital and interrupted my eighteen year track record. Although it was a difficult decision, in hindsight it appears to have been the right course of action. Since 2016, valuations have become even more expensive, making it challenging to find a sufficient number of undervalued equities to build an absolute return portfolio. Furthermore, while I worked with very sophisticated clients who understood my process well, holding an equity fund invested in T-bills would have been difficult for most advisors and consultants (especially over the last two years).

I never intended to recommend returning capital and go all-in on patience. My long-term goal was to manage an absolute return fund through as many market cycles as possible. However, the broadness of this cycle’s overvaluation, along with my determination to remain disciplined, caused me to pull myself out of the game. And of course I remain out of the game and on the bench today (literally – as I write this I’m sitting on a bench at Starbucks next to a guy trying to sell commercial real estate loans 🙂 ).

During my final days of employment I had some time to reflect on my career and decision to recommend returning capital. I remember staring out my office window wondering if I made the right career choices. For most of my adult life my dream was to be an equity analyst and portfolio manager. And there I was, sitting alone in an empty office, days away from giving it all away.

Despite some initial regret and second guessing, deep down I knew it was the right move, or the only move. It was unfortunate, but as an absolute return investor, it’s what I signed up for. When getting paid to take risk, you take it and when you’re not, you don’t. It’s pretty simple and straightforward – never, ever, knowingly overpay, especially with other people’s money.

There are other things I remember about my final days at the office. I remember putting together an unemployment checklist, or things I wanted to accomplish and avoid during my time away.

First on my list was “stay busy”. I’m typically happiest when busy. To keep my mind active, I made a commitment to continue following my 300 name possible buy list and maintain my absolute return process. Furthermore, I decided to start a blog as a way to stay involved in investing, organize my thoughts, and document the profit and market cycles through the eyes of operating businesses. Throw on the additional duties of Mr. Mom and Uber Parenting, and I have far exceeded my goal of remaining busy.

Other items on my checklist include what you’d expect, such as: spend more time with the kids, clean and organize the garage (oops), exercise, avoid ice cream, avoid financial television, reduce expenses, and detox from the markets.

And finally, at the end of the list was a directive related to investing personal funds. I must have thought it was important as it was the only item on the list underlined and made bold. It said, “Do not short or buy put options!!!”

My advice to myself came from experiences I had with individual stocks and the markets over the past twenty-five years. During this period I learned important lessons related to valuation and its usefulness in timing asset prices. Specifically, while valuation is very effective in determining future returns, it provides little information on when those returns will be realized. In effect, knowing an investment is undervalued or overvalued tells us little about when the price of the investment will converge with its underlying value.

As the past three market cycles illustrate, asset prices can remain mispriced for many months and even years. Furthermore, as we experienced with the tech, housing, and “The Third Time is the Charm” bubbles, overvaluation is often an insufficient deterrent for investors determined to chase prices higher and higher. Therefore, while shorting overvalued assets makes sense to me intuitively, the risks associated with crowd psychology and the ineffectiveness of valuation-based shorting keep me away.

The decision to avoid shorting is not as easy as it sounds. As an investor guided by valuation, there is a natural desire to take advantage of asset mispricings. Furthermore, sometimes it just feels good shorting an overvalued stock or market. The feeling is difficult to explain, but resembles a sense of satisfaction that comes with voting against something irrational or something you don’t believe in. I call it spite investing.

While spite investing may feel good, there is a reason spite investing is not an investment category, style box, or ETF. Spite investing tends to be emotional and often requires precise timing to incur a profit – something I haven’t mastered. In fact, I have put options on tech stocks (1999) and homebuilders (2006) that expired worthless to prove it!

Today’s market, in my opinion, is filled with overvalued equities and potential spite trades, making it very tempting to short the high-flyers. However, for the most part I have stayed true to my goal of refraining from shorting and buying put options. That said, from time to time this cycle, I’ve fallen off the wagon and bought a very small amount of put options (nothing consequential) out of spite. Last week was one of those times.

As a result of a rotation into small cap stocks, the Russell 2000 exceeded 1700 last week (another all-time high). It’s my understanding the rotation is based on the belief small cap stocks will perform well during a trade war. While I’m not an expert in the asset allocation game, I’d be very reluctant to pay 73x earnings, 38x median earnings, and 18.9x EV/EBITDA (ex-financials) in an attempt to profit from a trade war. In fact, the belief that small caps, at today’s prices, are some sort of safe haven was too much for my mind to overcome. We all have a breaking point, right? As such, last week I implemented a small spite trade and bought puts on the Russell 2000.

As most of my spite trades end, I will not be surprised if I realize a loss on my put options. Incurring losses and investing on emotion are mistakes absolute return investors are expected to avoid. Even knowing this, I must admit, there’s a unique sense of satisfaction that comes from voting against the madness of crowds. Spite investing may not be smart, disciplined, or profitable, but it in very small doses, it sure can feel good!

The Investors Podcast

I recently joined Preston and Stig of The Investors Podcast for another discussion on small cap stocks, the current operating environment, and my absolute return process. I even mentioned a stock I’m considering for purchase! While I got the company right (Alamos Gold), I gave the symbol for another company on my possible buy list, Alamo Group (ALG). My apologies. The symbol for Alamos Gold is AGI, not ALG. Following 300 companies is like having 300 kids…sometimes you get their names and symbols mixed up! 🙂  For what it’s worth, I’ve owned both Alamo Group and Alamos Gold in the past and like their businesses; however, I do not own either currently. In any event, I really enjoyed our conversation and hope you will as well.

The Investors Podcast

Free College $$$ and Rising Average Prices

While driving to the office (Starbucks) last week, I noticed a McDonald’s sign advertising their new tuition assistance program. I thought it was interesting so I took a picture.

Yesterday I noticed the same sign, but its message was changed from “tuition assistance” to “free college $$$”. Hopefully the new wording is more effective in attracting potential employees. “Free” certainly sounds more enticing than “assistance”! 🙂

McDonald’s isn’t alone in offering tuition assistance. College aid is becoming an increasingly popular recruiting tool in today’s competitive labor market (Forbes article).

As companies roll out new and creative ways to attract employees, the gap between the labor market (extremely tight) and monetary policy (extremely loose) appears to be growing. This raises the question, where are all of the “Fed is Behind the Curve” articles?

Similar to many economists, I suppose journalists are also very dependent on government data when reporting on the economy. To be fair, I recently read several articles highlighting wage inflation and the difficulty companies are having finding sufficient labor (Perks for Plumbers and Bad Inflation).

While it’s encouraging wages and benefits are increasing, I believe it’s important to understand how corporations are responding (who pays?). Based on my observations of business results and outlooks, I expect higher corporate costs will be partially, if not fully, passed on to the consumer.

Recent consumer business operating results support my belief, with many companies reporting higher average unit prices and checks. Furthermore, I believe the decline in promotional activity I discussed in “Peak Promotions” is becoming increasingly apparent, along with lower inventories and higher full-priced sales. In effect, many consumer companies are choosing protecting margins over growing market share and traffic – good news for profits, bad news for consumers.

To help illustrate, below are several examples of consumer companies reporting higher average prices and lower promotional activity (my emphasis).

McDonald’s (MCD): Sales were fueled by higher average check, driven by two primary factors; menu price increases as part of a broader strategic pricing reset of the menu board, and favorable shifts in product mix, consisting of trade-up to new premium products and a higher number of items per order for $1, $2, $3 Dollar Menu transactions.”

Despite negative guest traffic, U.S. “operating margins increased 50 basis points to 15.8%, driven by positive comp sales, a lower advertising contribution rate, and refranchising activity, which helped us overcome higher wage rates and commodity costs this quarter.”

Cracker Barrel (CBRL): Cracker Barrel comparable store restaurant sales in the quarter increased 1.5% as average check increased 2.8% and traffic decreased 1.3%. The increase in average check reflected menu price increases of approximately 2.5% and a favorable menu mix impact of 0.3%.

Macy’s (M): Total transactions were up 1% in the quarter, with average unit retail up 5% and units per transaction down 2%. This increase in average unit retail reflects the higher regular price selling and distorted growth in our strategic businesses like fine jewelry, dresses, handbags and furniture. Additionally, as a result of having significantly less and also much fresher inventory this year, there was less selling in the quarter of deeply discounted clearance merchandise.

Gross margin as a percent of net sales for the quarter was 39%, up 70 basis points over last year. We benefited from the much improved inventory position during the quarter, and we ended the quarter with 5% less inventory on a comp basis.

Dollar General (DG): During the first quarter, we delivered 2.1% same-store sales growth, driven by fundamental improvement in customer productivity as illustrated by increases in both average units and dollars per basket.

While it’s always competitive in discount retail, we continue to see rational pricing activity across the industry.

Gross profit as a percent of sales was 30.5% in the first quarter, an increase of 17 basis points. This increase was primarily attributable to higher initial markups on inventory purchases and improved rate of inventory shrink.

Stein Mart (SMRT): Our average unit retail prices increased significantly during the quarter, driven by higher regular-priced selling but were offset by the impact of lower clearance selling.

Hibbett Sports (HIBB): So we’re selling less clearance product, more full-price product, which is helping leverage on freight cost and certainly on product margin.

Foot Locker (FL): Average selling prices in footwear were up, while units were down. In apparel, both ASPs and units were up, reflecting our customers’ steadily increasing demand for our more premium assortments.

Using constant currencies, inventory decreased 7.1% compared to a 1.5% sales decrease.

Shoe Carnival (SVCL): Traffic for the quarter declined mid-single digits while conversion and average dollars per transaction were up low-single digits. We ended the quarter with inventory down 1.6% on a per store basis.

Kohl’s (KSS): The comp sales increase was driven by an increase in average transaction value resulting from a strong increase in average unit retail. Transactions were relatively flat for the quarter.

Our inventory initiatives resulted in inventory per store decreasing 7% and our AP-to-inventory ratio increasing 195 basis points to 39.0%.

Ralph Lauren (RL): For fiscal ’18, revenue per SKU increased 16% and gross profit per SKU was up 22% to last year.

Our 4 key initiatives are delivering higher AURs, lower discounts, expanded gross margins, higher inventory turns and significant growth in free cash flow.

Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS): Product newness, strength in our private brands and a more refined assortment led to a much healthier business, with fewer promotions and cleaner inventory throughout the quarter.

Importantly, during this first quarter, our inventory levels declined 3.8% year-over-year compared to a 4.6% increase in sales. This reflects better execution and translates to better merchandising margin rates.

I think the majority of the inventory has been cleaned up, which we talked a little bit about in the last call. So that’s been cleaned up. I think there’s been less promotional activity out in the marketplace from some of our competitors as they’ve gotten their inventory more in line.

Big Lots (BIG):  So we certainly are seeing some of the prices in key categories being very competitive. But we’re also seeing in some cases, in certain commodities that where prices are going up, retails are also going up.

Lowe’s (LOW): As a result, we delivered first quarter comparable sales growth of 0.6%, driven by a 4.3% increase in comp average ticket. However, spring has finally arrived, and comps in May are double-digit positive.

DSW Inc. (DSW): And after 2 years of inventory destocking, we’re beginning to see the benefit of a more productive inventory position. Our key item program drove a higher regular price mix and gross margin improvements.

Lumber Liquidators (LL): The overall 2.9% comp growth was affected by average ticket expansion of 4.7% and traffic declines of 1.8% [partially due to mix].

Vitamin Shoppe (VSI): Product margin improvement represents a strong sequential improvement from the fourth quarter and we’re continuing to see benefits in the second quarter as we continue to improve our pricing and promotion mix.

In conclusion, as wages and benefits increase, consumer companies are not sitting idle watching margins contract. In fact, in some cases margins are actually rising as companies reduce promotions and increase average unit prices. Barring a sharp decline in asset inflation, or the economy, I expect current trends in pricing and promotions to continue. While I don’t know to what extent government inflation data will pick up these trends, I remain uninterested in being long duration (in equities or bonds) in a market increasingly susceptible to an “inflation recognition” moment.

Participation Trophies

Whoever said “You throw like a girl!” has obviously never been to a fastpitch softball game. I’ve attended many and have seen ten-year-old girls throw 50 mph fastballs from a close distance. It’s very impressive and very challenging for those at the plate. My daughter is one of the lucky players who gets to hit these fast balls. Although it’s been a significant time commitment for our family, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching her, along with her team, play and grow together.

Organized sports has come a long way since I was a kid. When I was growing up, the atmosphere was more like what you see in the movie The Bad News Bears. It was less formal and much less serious. Today many coaches are paid and there are a plethora of clinics and lessons to improve all the different skill sets. Organized sports, or travel ball, has turned into an industry. I call it the youth sports arms race. To grow, industry participants simply tell parents how much talent their kids have, and boom, we’re all in line signing up for lessons and new equipment! It’s not a bad business model 🙂

I could write several posts on the pros and cons of travel ball, but for now I’d like to talk about a recent exchange I had with my daughter. This is her team’s second season. Last year they were young, inexperienced, and lost most of their games. This season, they’re older and much more competitive. In fact, they recently won a tournament, with each player receiving a large gold – ok, possibly plastic – trophy.

After returning home, my daughter walked into her room and placed her trophy on her dresser, separate from the trophies on her bookshelf. I asked why she placed her new trophy away from the others. She looked up at me and said, “Because this one matters.” It was at that moment I realized her bookshelf was filled with participation trophies, or trophies received for simply showing up. I was proud of my daughter – she understood the difference between accomplishments that were earned versus provided.

The idea of participation trophies made me think of today’s prolonged market cycle. I can’t help but wonder how much of the current cycle’s gains were earned versus provided. With interest rates pegged at 0% and global central banks buying trillions of assets, all most investors needed to do was show up, buy an index fund, and receive extremely generous returns on their capital. For almost a decade, relentless asset inflation has consistently reinforced investor behavior and decision making – yes, you are a good investor, yes, you are a talented investor, here’s your trophy (above average returns with below average risk). Don’t forget to sign up for next season!

While showing up has been a very profitable strategy over the past decade, I believe the investment environment is changing. After reviewing Q1 2018 operating results, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the economy and labor markets are tightening. While the current economic cycle has been anything but traditional, it’s beginning to feel more and more like an environment in which many past cycles have matured and ultimately ended.

As investors celebrate elevated corporate profits and equity prices, I believe we may be approaching a point when further gains in the economy and asset prices become counterproductive. For example, additional gains in stocks and economic growth may amplify many of the late-cycle inefficiencies that are becoming increasingly noticeable in quarterly earnings reports and conference calls.

In my opinion, the days of unlimited investor participation trophies is over – going forward, there will be winners and losers. In fact, we have seen this with stocks and bonds over the past year, with stock prices increasing and many bonds declining. Based on my bottom-up macro observations and analysis (where we are in the cycle), I believe this relatively new and uncooperative relationship between stocks and bonds is likely to continue.

As a patient investor waiting for change, it’s been refreshing watching the bond market move freely again, with the short-end of the yield curve rising sharply over the past year. The 6-month T-bill is currently yielding 2.06%, up 100 bps from a year ago. Meanwhile, the 2-year USTN currently yields 2.48%, up 118 bps over the past year. After years of earning practically nothing, yields near the short-end of the curve are beginning to look much more attractive; especially relative to normalized earnings yields on equities (near 3%).

When I decided to go all-in on patience, I was hoping to eventually be rewarded with a more advantageous opportunity set in small cap stocks. To my surprise, my reward hasn’t been lower small cap prices, but higher yields on short-term T-bills and Treasuries. And while Mr. Market’s offering of higher rates wasn’t the perfect gift, I’m encouraged by the reemergence of late-cycle trends in the economy and bond market.

In conclusion, while I currently have no exposure to equities, I’m enjoying the recent increase in short-term interest rates. I’m hopeful patience continues to pay in the form of higher rates, and ultimately, end of the cycle opportunity. When the current cycle finally ends, I suspect many of the participation trophies handed out over the past several years will lose their shine. For me, the trophy awarded for full-cycle returns has always mattered more.

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Also in today’s post…a summary of Q1 2018 business trends I noticed during my quarterly review process (300-name possible buy list). I planned to send this out earlier, but had some unexpected travel this month. My apologies.

  • Inflationary pressures grew. I began to notice the shift from 2015-2016’s disinflation to inflation in Q2 2017. Each quarter since, rising corporate costs have become more noticeable. Discussions of reacting to higher costs via price increases have turned to action. Further price actions were also discussed and are in the process of being implemented (typically companies try to limit price increases to once a year). Other actions to protect margins, such as less couponing/promotions and lightweighting, also mentioned. Higher average selling prices very noticeable with many consumer companies.
  • Labor availability is becoming a growing concern – regardless of wages. Overtime mentioned. Capacity constraints was also discussed more frequently – relatively new topic. The economy appears to be tightening from labor and capacity perspective.
  • Adverse weather was mentioned frequently in Q1. On average weather was disruptive and reduced demand, especially relative to a year ago. A slight weather related bounce in Q2 would not be surprising. Business trends improved in May post poor weather. If there is a weather rebound, and it’s picked up by govt data, I’d expect to see improvement in June reports.
  • Freight costs increased substantially during the quarter. Capacity is becoming a growing issue. Companies being forced to pay spot prices for transportation are seeing very large increases in cost. New trucking regulations (electronic logs), in addition to driver shortages, are contributing. Demand strong as well. Does not appear to be a one-quarter issue – as long as demand is there.
  • Consumer companies sales trends improving on average. The promotional environment remains elevated in certain subsectors; however, deep discounting is less widespread with more full-pricing noticeable. Inventories are in good shape and fewer clearance sales mentioned. Bankruptcies continue, but some signs survivors are beginning to benefit from competitor closures. Higher average ticket noticeable for many retailers and restaurants. Weather hampered some results, but commentary suggest improvement in May. Tourism spending appears to be improving as well. QSR subsector is an exception – continues to promote aggressively and appears to be suffering from overcapacity.
  • Industrial businesses continue to perform well on average. Construction and aerospace strong. Material costs rising and pricing being passed on. Steel prices and tariffs a growing concern.
  • Energy continues to rebound. Capital available. Rig count up 30% year over year. Q2 should be strong. Labor costs and availability could become a growing issue as industry ramps up. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if the industry will drill within cash flow, or grow in excess. The energy industry’s growth is spilling over into other industries. It’s moved from a headwind to a tailwind for the economy. Permian booming. Offshore may finally be bottoming; slow improvement expected.
  • Auto slightly down. Little change expected with estimates for small decline in auto production in 2018.
  • Agriculture stabilizing, but concerns as it relates to tariffs mentioned.
  • Financial industry is performing well, on average. Bank loan and deposit growth healthy with low losses (as one would expect at this stage of the credit cycle). Credit remains easy, on average. Small caps continue to find capital; junk bond market also open for business.
  • Insurance industry tone improving. Premium pricing has firmed from declining to flat/increasing slightly. Despite increases in underwriting losses in 2017, there remains excess capital in the insurance industry. Interest income improving.
  • Technology results were mixed.
  • Currency, on average, was a positive for most businesses. Some companies noted currency increased international costs.
  • Housing and construction is strong. Labor availability and cost remains an issue to meeting demand. Homebuilders average unit prices increasing high single-digits. To date, higher interest rates have not slowed construction. Managements credit tight labor market and healthy wage gains. Weather was a drag in certain regions. Backlogs strong.
  • New tax law mentioned frequently. Sentiment is positive; however, few companies could point to specific examples of how the new law has increased demand – still too early to quantify.

Jesse Felder Podcast

Jesse Felder and I recently completed another podcast. Our discussion was focused on rising corporate costs and growing signs of inflation. In my opinion, inflation remains a difficult and unpopular topic to cover.  The bulls don’t like it as it interferes with the “rates will remain lower for longer” theme. Meanwhile, many of the bears don’t like inflation as it conflicts with the viewpoint that “the economy is weak and there’s too much debt” (both deflationary).

I’d like to thank Jesse for shedding light on what I believe remains a contrarian view — inflation is trending higher and does not appear transitory (at least until asset prices crack). I hope everyone enjoys our conversation!

Jesse Felder Podcast