It’s not just Amazon gutting retail

There’s so much talk of Amazon bringing doom to all things retail that I think it’s fair to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. A massive downsizing of US retail was inevitable. We have 600%+ more retail space in shops, malls and megastores than any other first world country. That’s a big tell.

Adding to that, as Americans we tend to overspend, beyond our means, and use debt to drive that consumption forward. That is to say, we can’t collectively always afford what we’re buying, so we tend borrow to buy. That cycle of debt-driven overconsumption did not end well in 2007-2008. Since then we’ve seen mid-tier and low-tier discretionary spending trends at many retail stores flat to down as consumers try to deleverage.

It’s also becoming more obvious that online shopping is driving sales away from brick and mortar companies who haven’t had the wherewithal to create a cohesive online shopping experience — or who have failed to effectively solidify customer loyalty. Further, as companies like Amazon grow and offer a sort of “Walmart of the Internet” approach to allow someone to do most of their shopping on a single website, ill prepared stores will suffer, losing more sales and customers.

But I feel that there are much bigger catalysts at work here as well. We’re confronting a generational shift from tangible consumerism to intangible consumerism. Retail stores have trouble selling intangibles. An example of that would be GameStop, who should be flourishing in the age of electronic sports and online gaming, but is instead collapsing in on itself due to its inability to execute online. Meanwhile, companies like Activision Blizzard, Valve, EA Games and others have created extremely lucrative online game distribution platforms, tying together the purchasing, social and gaming experience.

The same is true of application spending. Surely no customer is going to trek out to a store to download an application on to their phone, tablet or computer. That used to be the case, however, as software was too bulky to download and vendors were cautious to distribute online for fear of piracy. But much has changed since the early days of software distribution.

How we buy, what we buy and whom we buy it from are all changing. This appears to be a generational shift perhaps almost as much as it is a correction in retail overabundance to more normalized levels.

Full disclosure: Short the NASDAQ 100.

Trump threatens government shutdown over wall

First we were told Mexico would pay for it before the project started. Then we were told they would pay for it later after it was built. Now we’re told that our government will be shut down if we, the American tax payers, don’t fund this ridiculous and counterproductive project.

I don’t tend to post political content on here often, but since this administration seems dead set on creating intractable political turmoil I believe some attention is warranted.

President Trump has, at least in the initial 6 months of his presidency, provided a positive catalyst for US equities. Whereas the underlying theme was deregulation, tax cuts, corporate favoritism (as if we needed much more of that) and a promise of infrastructure spending.

Thus far just about none of that has materialized in any meaningful way. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the US equity, bond and global forex markets are beginning to realize this as volatility ratchets up.

I fear that President Trump has set the stage for a steep decline in equities due to the market disappointment of having his policies unrealized combined with the realization that in all likelihood he is unable to effectively execute his duties as President.

Full disclosure: Short NASDAQ 100.

Ad spending drops as majors pull back

Advertising isn’t what it used to be as spending is continuing to plunge. Earnings of large digital advertising companies, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Verizon are under threat (with the former two being the most concentrated risks due to their large exposure).

When major consumer staples pull back on hundreds of millions of dollars in ad spending I think it’s take to take notice. These trend setting marketing departments may just be the first dominoes to fall in the realization that advertising spending for well known brands may not actually lead to increased sales.

Further, there remains the question as to whether digital marketing is producing value for money spent. Personally I feel that in the last few years we’ve entered a period of hyperoptimism about the future of digital advertising. There are enormous problems that break the existing revenue model if they are to be realized by customers. Yet there is very little effort by large digital advertising companies to curb them because doing so would significantly impact earnings and growth. So it appears as though customers are departing en masse instead.

Full disclosure: Short NASDAQ 100.

Stock selling likely to turn in to correction

Equities in the US are expensive, so it wouldn’t be unheard of to see some selling build in to the recent down days. The record setting highs of late were set on ever decreasing buying volume, record margin debt and with stocks that were already priced to perfection. If I had to guess, the path of least resistance for the short term is lower.

It’s healthy in any bull market to see a correction. This particular bull market hasn’t had too many, which has been somewhat unusual. However, the buy the dip mentality is firmly baked in. So I would not be surprised to see a big dip aggressively bought. Whether that creates a higher high or a lower high (in technical terms) remains to be seen — and will be interesting to determine the trend from here.

Full disclosure: I am short the NASDAQ 100.

NASDAQ negative despite positive Apple earnings

At 10:31 am EST the NASDAQ is sinking lower, despite Apple’s massive rally following positive earnings. Other techs are notably soft and weakening. This, to me, is a very disconcerting sign for those who may be long growth technology stocks.

Meanwhile, the VIX started below $10 today, which seems to be relatively accurate gauge of market participant complacency. I don’t think enough money managers are hedging risk as the market continues to make all time highs.

I seem to remember a similar feeling of market euphoria where nothing could possibly go wrong back in 2007. I’m not saying that this is a market top, but there’s really no way to tell until later.

Full disclosure: Short NASDAQ 100. May increase short over next 48 hours.

Techs sold off at fastest pace since 2007

Outflows from PowerShares QQQ Trust Series 1, which tracks the Nasdaq 100 Index topped $3.7 billion for the five sessions ending July 28, the most since early November 2007. On Thursday [..] QQQ suffered an intraday selloff of more than 2 percent led by Amazon.com Inc., with investors dumping the e-commerce giant ahead of its quarterly earnings report. Also that afternoon, JPMorgan Chase & Co. quant Marko Kolanovic warned that investors had a “limited window” to position for a pickup in volatility.

In my humble view the markets are probably due for significantly more selling. Everything is expensive, hitting all time highs without much of a pullback between rallies. Most investment managers are bullish stocks, and margin debt (to borrow and buy stocks) is at record levels. Earnings expanded more due to buybacks of shares than actual sales improvement. As a result of this, and more, I think we’re due for a breather, if not an outright correction. But I could always be 100% wrong.

Full disclosure: Short NASDAQ 100.

Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-31/investors-flee-tech-giants-at-fastest-pace-since-november-2007

Proctor and Gamble slashes digital ad spend by over $100M

Procter & Gamble Co. (PG -0.52%) said that its move to cut more than $100 million in digital marketing spend in the June quarter had little impact on its business, proving that those digital ads were largely ineffective.

Almost all of the consumer product giant’s advertising cuts in the period came from digital, finance chief Jon Moeller said on its earnings call Thursday. The company targeted ads that could wind up on sites with fake traffic from software known as “bots,” or those with objectionable content.

The question here is whether or not this is the beginning of a larger reconsideration of digital advertising value — and its translation in to meaningful sales of products. Facebook targeted advertising, advertising directly on content producing websites and objectionable content websites were named specifically as areas where scaling back was occurring en masse.

The Proctor and Gamble cuts will probably send some shock waves that cause others to reconsider spending in similar ways. I think digital ad spending, especially on content producing sites and highly targeted ads, is an area that deserves attention as we keep our eyes on an expensive domestic stock market that was led higher in part by expansion of ad revenue in the tech sector.

Full disclosure: No position long or short in Proctor and Gamble. Short position against NASDAQ 100.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/p-g-cuts-more-than-100-million-in-largely-ineffective-digital-ads-1501191104

Big tobacco gets sold hard on FDA nicotine reduction talk

With U.S. officials pushing to cut the nicotine in cigarettes below addictive levels, there’s new urgency to switch to next-generation smoking products that are higher-tech — and purportedly lower-risk.

Philip Morris International Inc. and other big tobacco companies have been planning for this future for years, spending billions of dollars developing alternatives to combustible cigarettes. But a regulatory crackdown could force them to speed up those efforts — and convince investors that Americans are ready to ditch traditional smokes after more than a century of puffing away.

How unfortunate that companies who make their profits from destroying the health of addicted people are suffering. Perhaps they should have considered investing in e-cigarette technology rather than tobacco years ago. That market share has already been captured by other companies. Traditional tobacco cigarette producers are on life support. And reinvention seems unlikely given that they’re so late to the game.

Full disclosure: No positions in any tobacco companies long or short.

Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-28/altria-bat-routed-as-fda-seeks-tougher-cigarette-regulations

Are emerging markets a good bet right now?

US equities have a smoothed P/E of approximately 24 whereas emerging markets average P/E is 16. Combine that with the potential of the US dollar uptrend (which started in summer of 2014) unwinding (adding emerging market native currency appreciation potential) and higher yields in emerging markets (an average of about 6.5% based on my math).

It seems like there is an opportunity here, if even only for normalization of valuations. I would suspect that liquidity would continue to be drawn, perhaps at an even faster pace, to EM equities and bonds (as it has been since early 2016) as the US dollar rally unwinds.

Full disclosure: I have been investing in EM equities and bonds since January, 2016 when I felt an enormous opportunity was on the horizon.

Is digital marketing delivering its promise of value to clients?

Google’s earnings revealed that their advertising is worth less (per bid vs Q1), while Facebook also simultaneously said their ad bids are going up. Frankly I’m not so sure that indicates market share / value transfer or more funny accounting.

But I will say this: the world of digital marketing needs an enormous reboot of transparency and quality. Right now if I am advertising on a website and someone clicks my ad, but immediately leaves before seeing any content (less a pixel or two) that counts. That allows automated click farms to partially load content (to save bandwidth) and rapidly click on a multitude of ads around the web to generate revenue for content generators (websites that advertise with Google, Facebook, etc).

That wouldn’t seem like much of a problem, except that 60% of clicks behave that way. That doesn’t even account for what is described as detected click fraud. That’s about 20% of the digital ad spend. So, according to those metrics, about of remaining clicks 20% on ads are viewed by humans and of them perhaps 1%-2% lead to sales.

Now the math gets interesting. Recent studies claim at least $16.4B is lost to click fraud (probably an extremely low ball figure, but let’s roll with it). The smoothed P/E of techs in digital marketing (like Google) is about 33. Google has an average profit margin of about 20%. So $16.4B * 33 = $541.2 billion. 20% of that is $108.24 billion.

That means at least $108.24 billion of market capitalization in this concentrated tech sector is at risk if just click fraud is exposed and eliminated. That doesn’t address the other 60% of ad clicks that are effectively meaningless. That would add another $324 billion of market capitalization at risk. And again, I feel these are low ball figures.

The biggest advertising companies these days are Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Verizon. So I would be most concerned about their long term performance.

Full disclosure: I have a short position against the NASDAQ 100 at the time of writing this article.