Archive for the ‘America’ Category

(NOTE: I wrote this article last week when SKLZ hit $2.16. It was just published in Seek Alpha today. Of course it belongs in my blog, too. :)

SUMMARY

  • People like to bet. Skillz lets people legally bet on their video game play and win money. It’s an entirely new form of entertainment and growing like crazy.
  • In this volatile market, the SKLZ stock has suffered about a 95% drop in value and is now trading at “going-out-of-business” levels.
  • But Skillz is not going out of business. They have created valuable assets and their cash burn can be cut quickly (which has already started).
  • Skillz’s upcoming NFL deal merges two strong money-making themes — betting and playing video football games — and is a strong driver of future earnings.

A Strong Buy.

American Football Action
Thesis

Skillz (NYSE:SKLZ) is woefully misunderstood and undervalued. There, I said it, someone had to.

Misunderstood because investors think it’s a video game company, when it’s actually much more than that. It’s also an enterprise software company… and a legal bookmaker for video games.

Undervalued because investors think the company will run out of money and are pricing it at near-cash levels. But an analysis of their cash burn, combined with operating statements made by the company during their recent earnings announcement and Investor Day calls, suggests otherwise.

Fall From Grace

Skillz has had a painful decline, culminating in a dramatic fall the day after announcing Q4 2021 earnings, crashing just under 20%, but at one point heading to a 40% shellacking.

Sure, it’s not just SKLZ that has felt the pain. The whole market is down, with Nasdaq entering bear territory in early March. Gone are the days of easy money, where the market was handsomely rewarding “growth at any cost.” As long as you were continuing to grow, your stock kept appreciating and if you ran out of money, you just floated a secondary offering at your elevated stock prices and, voila, the market gave you more money.

Maybe it was the end of the trillion dollar giveaways reducing liquidity in the market; or maybe it was rising deficits and oil and inflation and interest rates; or maybe it was bombs dropping on Ukraine and Russia receiving sanctions that inevitably will send ripples through the world’s economy, but the market changed in Q1, and “growth at any cost” was now replaced with, “you better have everything you need to survive because you ain’t gettin’ anything more from us.”

The market doesn’t think so right now, but Skillz is one of the companies that has everything it needs to survive… and thrive.

Why This Company Is Special

Most investors think of Skillz as a video game company, and they do have several in-house games, but they are much more than this. Their primary focus is to provide an enterprise gaming platform for other software game developers. Making a game isn’t easy. But the technical requirements to create a scalable enterprise gaming platform – one that handles billions of games per year – goes way beyond simple game construction. Big barriers-to-entry here.

Further, the enterprise gaming platform that they’ve built has an innovative business model. Advertising networks created a massive digital ad industry arbitraging between a buyer and seller of digital ads. Likewise, Skillz acts as an intermediary between two similarly-skilled players in a video game competition and takes a percentage of their “entry” fees.

Said another way, Skillz allows two players to bet each other… with Skills acting as the “house”… a.k.a., the “bookie.” And as it turns out, there is more upside to being a bookmaker in this particular market than may meet the eye. Imagine an enterprise software company that figured out how to become THE bookmaker for the ENTIRE video game world. That’s Skillz.

Online Competition Content Much Larger Than Offline

While traditional sportsbooks allow you to bet on football, basketball, soccer, and maybe a handful of other physical-world sports, Skillz is the bookmaker for potentially every video game in the world. The content for their potential market dwarfs what a traditional sportsbook can ever hope to address.

For example, you might be familiar with a new game causing quite a sensation called Wordle. It didn’t exist several months ago. But now it has millions of players. It’s a game that was created out of digital bits & bytes, i.e., thin airthin air. And it’s only a matter of time when, with Skillz, you’ll be able to bet someone you can solve the secret word in fewer guesses than them.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, hit video games are created all the time. But when was the last time a new physical sport was created that you could wager on? Not for a while. Skillz is the only betting game in town that has the potential to take advantage of an ever-expanding universe of digital content.

What Everyone Missed From The Conference Call

One of the two most important statements in Skillz’s most recent conference call wasn’t when the company said they had a lot of money in the bank (gross almost three-fourths of a billion dollars); or solid revenues, almost $109 million for the quarter, up 61% from last year; or 610,000 paying players, up 56% from last year.

It was when the company said… and we’ve been listening to your feedback. Andrew Paradise, CEO, attributed this to shareholders. Maybe. But we also all know it was pretty hard not to hear the market crushing the life out of the stock price, too. Regardless, he continued with a welcomed statement for any public company operating today: “… we will transition from our strategy of revenue growth at all costs to increasing profitable growth and efficiency.

And the second most important statement… the one that everyone seems to have missed? Casey Chafkin, CRO, saying in context to reducing marketing spend, “… the result of that is going to be, and already is…”. That is, that the transition away from “growth at all costs” has already begun.

But can they really turn on a dime? Those that run businesses know they can. Because unlike headcount, facilities, or equipment costs – areas that are hard to cut and where it takes time to see savings – 73% of their 2021 costs were attributed to “Sales and marketing”… and many of these costs are straightforward to turn off.

You literally say, “stop,” and they simply stop. Chafkin even confirmed that on their March 15th Investor Day webcast.

Further, Skillz shared their exact new user acquisition costs for Q4 2021, $85.6 million. Compare that to their reported $99.0 million loss for the quarter. Knowing the bulk of this spending was ineffective and is now being cut, imagine what Q4 earnings could have looked like if they started cutting last quarter. Revenue would not have been impacted much, but instead of a ($0.25) per share loss – with a ($0.10) expectation miss – it might have been a $0.10 beat… and optically more important, a ($0.05) loss would have seemed tantalizingly near breakeven. That’s hardly a company going out of business.

Actually, that would be a company way ahead of plan.

A snippet of SKLZ P&L statement from their Q4 2021 Earnings Press Release.
Net Loss would have looked quite different if ineffective new user acquisition costs weren’t a part of the Sales and Marketing expense line. (Source: Skillz Q4 2021 Earnings Press Release)

Since Chafkin also confirmed in the Investor Day Q&A that the actual cutting started in early Feb, we now could see up to a $40 million savings, or up to a $0.10 per share beat in Q1 2022 results, too. That would be a nice surprise for a stock that could use a nice surprise.

Driving Future Earnings: The NFL
Actual screenshots from one of the new NFL games.
A winning combination: Betting and playing mobile football games. (Source: Actual screenshots from one of the new NFL games that is betting-enabled via Skillz.)

It’s no secret that people like to bet on football. And it’s also no secret that people like to play football video games like Madden. Capitalizing on these, SKLZ has forged a partnership with none other than the NFL and are working with game developers to create NFL-branded football games that let you bet your opponent. Seriously, can you think of a more perfect union than playing NFL video games and betting?

I know many have reported on this strategic partnership but not in this way: That this is an incredibly compelling betting proposition. Betting will go together with video football games like, well, real football and betting.

(Hot-Off-The-Presses: Skillz is offering a sneak peak of all of their NFL-branded games at the 36th Annual Game Developers Conference Mar 23-25. Just an FYI for those that might not believe these are real.)

All Bookies Are Not Created Equal

Thinking about SKLZ as a bookmaker invites new valuation comparisons. One of the monster sportsbooks is DraftKings (DKNG). Both DraftKings and Skillz are online bookmakers. But one takes book for physical-world games, the other for digital games. And while DKNG has about 3x the revenues – and only about 2x the cash – DKNG is valued about 7x greater than SKLZ.

This suggests that either DKNG is trading over twice what it should be or SKLZ is trading at less than half. Given DKNG has more than 3x the analyst coverage, it’s more likely they’re better understood and it is SKLZ’s valuation that’s amiss by half. But I don’t think this is a fair comparison because Skillz has material advantages over DraftKings. DKNG has limited physical-world gaming content they can monetize, while SKLZ’s has virtually unlimited content potential.

Both may be considered bookmakers, but DKNG’s action is considering gambling and thus they have vastly more regulatory requirements and legal expenses. However, SKLZ’s action is not considered gambling, so Skillz doesn’t bear those costs, a significant advantage.

And DraftKings has tons of competition. They have to spend heavily to get into a market and heavily to protect it. Skillz has zero competitors, they invented their market. An awesome – and rare – advantage in business. So comparing SKLZ to DKNG might provide an initial valuation adjustment, but the more you dig into the business details, the better SKLZ looks. Translation: SKLZ shouldn’t be trading at less than half the sales multiple of DKNG, it should be trading higher than DKNG’s sales multiple.

Did SKLZ Really Guide Revenue Downward?

Skillz guided 2022 revenue downward, from $550 million to $400 million. Seems to me, though, they were being extra conservative. Even with no new customers, the company – with just its existing player base – is on a $435 million run rate.

And, per the conference call, they’re working on improving existing player environment and social features. That’s company speak for getting more money out of each player. Typically they could see a 50% lift from these kinds of activities – in fact, SKLZ actually bought one of the domain experts in this space: Aarki, so it’s pretty conservative to project a small 10-15% bump to ARPPU (Average Revenue Per Playing User). That would jump revenues to about $480 million to $500 million.

And, as the company pointed out multiple times during their Investor Day, their guidance does not include the upcoming new NFL games. We can use existing data to help us project future potential here. Just three games accounted for almost 80% of SKLZ revenues in early 2021, or nearly an average of 27% each. It’s important to note that these games do not have household brand names… like the NFL has. So it’s not unreasonable for SKLZ’s NFL games to achieve at least a similar average acceptance within the Skillz player base. As such, and factoring in about half-a-year of contribution, betting on NFL video games could add another 10%-15% to the top line, which pushes potential 2022 revenues to a $525-$565 million range. Right back to the initial forecast, eh?

Yes, there will be some existing player churn. But not included in the analysis above are any additional players SKLZ brings on due to the NFL helping to promote. The NFL has a really BIG megaphone, so of course Skillz will see new players… in fact, the numbers could actually rip much higher. What I think the analysis above says, though, is even looking at it pretty conservatively, their 2022 revenues could still be closer to $550 million than $400 million. Which of course no one is now anticipating.

Revising Misunderstood Price Targets

A few analysts lowered the price targets for SKLZ after their earnings call. The low is now $2.50. My range is $9.00-$12.00. This may be disappointing to those that purchased at higher levels but please know I think this is just over the next six months, so SKLZ will go higher as the company continues to prove it can execute along its new path. And, at least in the short term, it’s a nice opportunity for everyone else. I get to my range by adjusting SKLZ sales multiple to that of DKNG, increasing by 50% to reflect my higher 2022 revenue estimate, and noting that SKLZ’s short % of near 20% is scary high… which inevitably means overshooting when everyone rushes in to cover.

Risks

I think Skillz has been misguided in their big picture customer acquisition strategy. I believe it would be more effective if they spent less time trying to acquire individual players and more time trying to acquire gaming partners and require them to market to their individual players. After all, money is flowing to their partners.

I know many investors may want me to claim that Skillz’s recent $300 million debt financing was misguided as well. After all, it was taken at an eyebrow-raising 10.25% rate. But given that the secondary market has now slammed shut, it feels more like management had a bit of foresight to sock away some extra $’s. With interest rates on the rise, who knows, we might look back and think the money is not all that expensive after all. Don’t forget, with the way they’re now operating the company, they may just surprise everyone and pay it back early.

Churn always worries me. It’s usually bigger for non-betting app games, but smaller for betting games like casino slots and such. If it’s close to the betting norm (1-2%), then I’m less worried.

The real lingering uncertainties I have revolve around the NFL. Are the new NFL games fun and competitive? And what is the business relationship with the NFL? Do the economics allow SKLZ to make a healthy profit; or did they have to sell their soul?

I’m actually OK with the first uncertainty because there are a lot of popular football games to serve as models… and I believe the added, all-important betting component will prove irresistible. People just like to bet on football and play football video games. I am worried about the second uncertainty, though. Having negotiated a partnership agreement with a professional sports franchise in the past, I know they can be quite one-sided. Since the NFL games are the key to the future, bad NFL economics could slow that future down.

Final Thoughts
Skillz corporate values
Skillz Corporate Values (Source: Skillz “About Us” )

Many investors are wondering if SKLZ can turn things around. Here’s something interesting to consider: Skillz actually has the word “frugality” in its corporate values statement. This should give all investors an idea of what kind of guy Paradise is… because that’s not a very glamorous word (i.e., who wants to work for a frugal company?). So if he put it in such a visible place as the “About Us,” it’s genuine. I’ll go even farther and say running a tight ship is in the CEO’s wheelhouse… because he’s a repeat, successful entrepreneur, so none of this is new to him.

So I don’t think the company is going to run out of money like most analysts think, which, ultimately, has created the opportunity here. From trading at about 50x sales about a year ago, SKLZ is now trading at near gross cash levels. What that says is the market is valuing all the rest of the stuff in this enterprise software company – a proven model, scalable, sophisticated technology and infrastructure, an established base of paying players, great multi-year growth, an achievable path to profitability, and a deal with the all-powerful NFL that is also sure to attract other top brands – at just about nothing.

Honestly, at these levels, and with these assets, I don’t know why some enterprise, gaming, or sportsbook outfit is just not trying to acquire them… in the same way I scratched my head that no one picked up Apple when its stock was depressed in 1996. And we all know how AAPL eventually did.

The CEO uses more acceptable language when describing the mission he’s on: To become the “competition layer” of the Internet. That’s fancy but I think investors might like my description even better: To become the bookmaker for every video game on the planet.

That sounds less like a bet and more like a winning investment.

I think every American was heartened at the speed that the U.S., and the free world, levied sanctions on the totalitarian regime of Russia.

A few weeks ago, many said we couldn’t turn off Russia’s access to Swift, that would be the equivalent of an economic nuclear strike.

Then BAM! The EU said, “we’re doing this NOW, please join us.”

Many said we couldn’t stop buying Russian oil, because that would hurt the world, including the EU, way too much.

Then BAM! We stopped buying Russian oil.

Just a few weeks ago, who would have thought so many company would join the battle? Google. Facebook. Twitter. Visa. MasterCard. American Express. PayPal. Nike. Adidas. McDonald’s. Starbucks. Coke. Pepsi. Hundreds and hundreds more… all flipping the middle finger to Putin. In fact, if you haven’t stop doing business with Russia yet, something is wrong with you.

China’s reaction to all of this? Silence in the beginning. A lot of folks say that’s just their way, “to observe.”

I think it’s something different. That they originally thought what Putin thought: “No way the U.S. and the EU can ever get their stuff together to act in concert… and certainly whatever they do won’t have teeth.”

But both Putin and China were oh so wrong. The outpouring of support for Ukraine? STUNNING. BLINDING.

UNANIMOUS.

So China went from quiet cockiness to silent terror… now knowing that the free world has a NEW weapon against oppressors: We’ll just turn you off.

It couldn’t have happened 20 years ago… maybe not even 10… but now the world is really so interconnected, that it really is possible to, say, strangle Russia-the-dictatorship-that-oppresses-people to economic death.

With all this momentum, China realized it had to do something.

Of course they didn’t do what would have been truly helpful to peace… and that is whisper in Putin’s ear, “wtf, it didn’t work, stop acting like a madman!”

Instead it’s s-l-o-w-l-y been rolling out support for Russia over the last week or so. Essentially “reminding” everyone we need to de-escalate because it will further mess up global supply chains and such.

Boy, did Xi miscalculate on that one, too.

Talk turned today of “secondary sanctions” against China. If they’re still doing business with a murderous dictator that wants to take away others’ freedom, then maybe we’ll just turn China off, too.

My reaction?

YES! LET’S DO THAT! NOW!!

Then I got to thinking, why wouldn’t we do this? China is mostly a one-way relationship: They economically abuse us. And every time we ask them to play fair, they cry about it.

Then I got to thinking some more: Which American companies would get hurt by this?

And then it hit me: Apple. The world’s most valuable company. The company that derives 19% of its revenue from China. The company that makes almost HALF of their iPhones in China.

This would be an economic disaster of epic proportions for Apple stock.

And since virtually EVERY person on the planet either has money directly in Apple… or their mutual fund does… or their 401K does… or their bank does where they save their money… and so on…

… hurting Apple stock is akin to hurting every person on the planet.

I kid you not.

Remember the dotcom crash? It started (imho) because Microsoft and Intel, the two companies that used to financially represent everyone in the world, missed earnings numbers and sent shock waves through the financial markets. A history-making crash.

So it’s happened before.

We survived… but remember it was awfully rough for a while… and Microsoft stock price, literally, flat-lined for about the next decade.

If sanctions move to China — whether it’s for their support of Russia — or they start moving on Taiwan — I know every American will feel the way I do: YES! LET’S DO THAT! F*ck China. You sell to your oppressed people… and we’ll sell to the FREE world.

If that happens, I’m not sure Apple wouldn’t get caught in an awfully bloody crossfire.

Oil prices are going through the roof.

Certainly all the uncertainty in the world isn’t helping.

But gas prices have skyrocketed. Which means inflation is skyrocketing, since the price of a unit of energy affects everything we purchase.

It’s killing me that all the DRILL DRILL DRILL folks are coming out of the woodwork and screaming, “we told you so!”

It’s killing me because, lest we forget, climate change is absolutely an existential threat to our very existence, too.

Seriously. Next time we get back-to-back “once in a century” storms, you’ll remember how much climate change sucks.

Or, just look at pictures of Beijing at noon to remember just how disgusting pollution is.

Now, we’re contemplating banning the import of Russian oil. And for some reason, this has spooked the oil market even higher.

Really? They supply about 5% of the world’s oil. Only about 1/2 million barrels a day to us. Why the hell do we need to drill more? We’re already exporting 17 TIMES that amount every day!

Maybe we should ask our national oil producers to keep U.S. oil in the U.S.? Or maybe they should just know to do that, as in, knowing the right thing to do in this situation?

AND… maybe the entire world doesn’t have to freak out about a lousy 5% of oil… how about we all just use 5% less energy? Walk to the store? Ride a bike to school? Use public transportation? Carpool? Take one car to a restaurant rather than two?

Seriously, simply combining weekly errands into just one or two trips a week would probably do it.

C’mon, America. We can tell Putin where to shove it AND help clean up the environment with so little effort… it will hardly feel like the WARTIME we’re in.

I’m not suggesting we go into lock down, but there certainly were a few unintended yet welcomed consequences from the early days of Covid.

We learned that we could work remotely, at least those in corporate America.

We learned that we could hold meetings — work or personal — quite reasonably on Zoom.

We learned that even a month of reduced driving made a big impact on our environment. CO2 levels started coming down. You could see fish in the Venetian waters again. And all kinds of other miraculous things, too.

Most importantly, we learned that even a month of reduced driving made a big impact on oil supplies and gas prices…

… and since the price of a unit of energy affects the price of everything else in our world, we were reminded that the price of everything in the world comes down as oil prices come down.

So if I were the President of the United States, here’s what I’d do:

(1) I’d gather the top 50 employers in the country to an emergency meeting at the White House… hey, I can do that, I’m POTUS! :) I’d remind everyone that we’re in a time of extraordinary crisis… whether it’s Ukraine, Russia, China, inflation, deficits, interest rates, supply shortages, pandemics, whatever. I’d ask the CEO’s of all of these companies if they would consider voluntarily having their workforces work at home, just like they did during the early days of Covid. I’d suggest 90 days, to correspond during the spring, where temperatures would not be too cold nor too hot, so easy on home heating and/or cooling needs.

(2) I’d address the nation… and remind all Americans that we’re in facing multiple, life-changing crises… and just like great Americans have done through difficult times, we all can make a contribution. Nothing is locked down. But walk to a local restaurant or shop. Ride your bike to school. Take public transportation. If you have multiple cars and have to drive, take the one that gets the best gas mileage. Plan trips better, do all your errands in one trip rather than three. Get together with your friends and neighbors and carpool when possible. Want to show solidarity with the Ukrainians? Want to stop run-away inflation and pay less money for everything? Want to put a lid on pollution? Want to sock it to Russia (and the Middle East while we’re at it) where it hurts, in their oil pocketbook? For the next 90 days, let’s make a wartime-effort to reduce or eliminate driving if we can.

(3) I’d met with the leaders of other countries, talk about what we’re doing in the United States, and ask each and every country if they would join the battle.

Here’s what I love about this plan: It literally has a huge impact ON DAY ONE.

And it shows that we control our situation… our situation does NOT control us.

This is not a Reuters headline you want to wake up to… being put on a Chinese “unreliable entity list.”

Looks like we’re heading for a showdown between everyone’s favorite American president and everyone’s favorite Chinese Communist Party.

And, unfortunately, Apple (AAPL) may be caught in the middle.

Ouch.

Many years ago, someone termed the new leadership in NASDAQ “FANG”… Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google.  Essentially the best of the new tech.

Over the last few years, that morphed into “FAAMG”… Apple and Microsoft got let into the group.  While elder statesmen, there is no doubt that they deserve to be part of tech’s elite.

So powerful is this group that just those five stocks represent 20% of NASDAQ movements.  That is incredible, if not incredibly unbalanced.

And it’s the performance of these five companies that have kept the NASDAQ index from falling like other popular indexes around the world.

For four out of the five companies, the performance has been merited.

We all have to stay at home and have things delivered to us?  Geez, could it get any better for Amazon (AMZN)?

We all have to stay at home and use the cloud to do pretty much everything in our lives… like work… school… socializing… entertainment?  That’s great news for cloud-based leaders like Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), and Google (GOOG).

So why am I separating Apple (AAPL) from the herd?  After all, our mobile device is absolutely indispensable, right?

Yes, but will people without jobswithout income… scared and uncertain when the crisis will be over… line up for new iPhones come this fall?

I don’t think so.

That is, if there’s even an Apple Store open to line up in front of.

But it’s not just me.  The other day I shared a KeyBanc’s report that iPhone sales in April have declined -77%.

-77%!

No other FAAMG’s business is taking a hit like this… to the contrary, all the other FAAMG’s businesses are being helped by the crisis.

It’s not Apple’s fault that the entire world just stopped.  But it is investors’ fault if they invest in Apple right now.  Because — right now — Apple is getting gutted.

So why is AAPL enjoying the same stock success as these others?  To borrow a phrase from a past crisis:  Irrational exuberance.  

Ultimately reality wins.

I’m a contrarian. It’s my observation that when everyone thinks one thing, the real, outsized opportunity is the other.

But what happens when everyone thinks one thing… but the market is thinking quite another?

Take AAPL. From a low of around $212 a month ago, it’s powered its way to almost $290. More impressively, just about 12% from its all-time high.

Heck, if you went way out on a limb, you could probably say that’s even within a normal trading range.  “Has the whole world stopped?  We didn’t notice!”

But all through this romp upwards, most Apple analysts have been decidedly negative.

Out of about 30 analyst moves in the last two months, a whopping 80% of them were downgrades.

To put this in context, Intel analysts were split 50/50 between upgrades and downgrades going into their earnings last Thursday.  So, relatively speaking, 80/20 to the negative side is a big spread.

 

 

As important, some of the AAPL downgrades were double downgrades… that is, a second price-target cut within just a few weeks.

So what’s the contrarian play here? Go against analysts and buy?  Or go against the market and short?

I think you go against the market. That’s the bigger “everyone” in this case.

Going against the market also seems, well, more rational to me.  I love Apple but I think the current market enthusiasm seems excessive given our uncertain environment:  Uncertain when lock-downs will end… uncertain that people will want to congregate at Apple Stores when they do… uncertain when we’ll see a vaccine… uncertain that a 2nd, or even 3rd, inflection wave may hit… and so on.

This uncertain environment is awesome for a select number of businesses… say Amazon and Netflix… but could be less kind to a (mostly) consumer hardware company like Apple.  Not that I’m not saying people can live without their iPhones — they can’t — but I am saying they may be less quick to buy $1,000 upgrades.

No doubt, what makes going against Apple scary is it’s one of a handful of companies that has the business levers to manage its way around a crisis like this.  And they are notorious for pulling rabbits-out-of-hats.

Still, a V-shaped recovery?  THE ENTIRE WORLD HAS SHUT DOWN.  Does a (mostly) consumer hardware company merit trading anywhere near an all-time high?  Does the market merit trading anywhere near an all-time high?  Somewhere in this equation there has to be some p-a-i-n.

I’m not the first person to say there’s a good chance we’ll see another downdraft.  So if Apple does surprise to the upside, AAPL could still take a tumble along with the rest of the market.  Nice to have a backup scenario in this situation.

P.S. A couple of other quick AAPL trading comments:

  • While Apple has done a terrific job moving into services, these are still only about 20% of company’s revenues. Meaning, Apple is still mostly a hardware company.
  • Intel, also a hardware company, has had a similar run-up as AAPL. Last Thursday INTC blew away their numbers, benefitting from the Coronavirus “work at home” situation. Apparently, with mobile being such a huge focus the last few years, home desktop machines have been ignored and needed updating.
  • In contrast, you don’t need to upgrade your iPhone to work at home.
  • One last data point: Even though Intel blew out numbers, INTC finished flat for the day.

There should be no doubt that greed makes people do funny things.

Take investing in oil.

Sure, there’s a lot of companies that truly want to buy oil.  To create gas.  Asphalt.  Lubricants, paint thinners, and dry-cleaning solvents.  Charcoal briquettes.  Wax birthday candles and crayons.  Polyester shirts.  Plastic drinking cups, toothbrushes, and hair combs.  And so on.

But there are also a lot of people that simply want to trade in oil… without never, ever taking delivery of oil.

These traders have played a rather interesting game.  They buy oil contracts.  But these contracts actually oblige them to take delivery of oil, because, after all, that’s what they’re buying.

But remember they never, ever really want to take delivery of oil… I mean, where are they going to put it, in their swimming pool?

So the plan is always to sell the contracts before having to take delivery.

That’s the way it’s worked for a long time.

Until this week.

Hoping for a last minute Hail Mary (i.e., something that would spike the price of oil higher), it looks like a group of oil contract holders held on to their contracts a bit too long.

Normally this isn’t a problem.  There’s always a buyer at the right price, right?

Not if there isn’t readily available storage for that purchased oil!

And that’s what happened this week.  There was no readily available storage… which caught a group of traders with their proverbial pants down.  Faced with the prospect of actually having to fill their swimming pools with black oil, these traders literally had to pay companies to take it off their hands.

And, thus, we saw the first NEGATIVE oil prices ever.

It didn’t last long.  And it wasn’t for that many contracts.  But it was a spectacular flame-out… an absolute spectacle to watch.

The lesson?  If you’re an oil trader and there isn’t any oil storage, DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE TO GET RID OF YOUR CONTRACTS.

And, except for a few isolated cases, chances are most oil traders won’t come anywhere close to doing that again.

Duh, right?

But, you never know.  :)

Anyone that reads this blog knows I root for oil to go down, down, down… because, while that doesn’t benefit an outdated oil industry, it does benefit every other person on the planet… and, oh by the way, it benefits the planet, too.

The facts all virtually guarantee oil will keep driving lower… because of lack of demand (remember the world has shut down!)… because of geopolitical bickering… and because — go figure — the world is really, truly almost out of oil storage.

Ha, those are some pretty great facts!

So why would anyone take a flyer on oil going up now, with oil trading in the low teens?

Because that’s what contrarians do… the opposite from what everyone else thinks.

Case in point:  After oil getting absolutely crushed over the last few days, it had a rather big pop today.

So oil can go up, if no other reason than a dead-cat bounce.

Or, let’s say there’s a threat of war… like what may have happened this morning given Trump told the military to shoot at any harassing Iranian gunboats they want.  Military disruption like that tends to spike oil prices.

Or, let’s say Trump just can’t help himself and he starts levying tariffs on foreign oil.  The U.S. is (sadly) the world’s biggest consumer — by a wide margin — so tariffs would mean the price of oil would be artificially raised in a rather meaningful way.

Or, let’s say that the world gets unbelievably creative and somehow finds a lot more storage space… like old train storage containers… or old storage silos or such… because it’s the lack of storage space that caused the extreme oil pricing mania yesterday.  (“What do you mean I have to keep all the oil in my swimming pool?!”)

Or, let’s say of the 70 vaccines in testing right now, one of them makes it to the finish line relatively soon.  The real possibility of the world reopening for business would also cause oil to spike.

Or, let’s say OPEC decides that their 9.7m barrels a day cut from a week or two ago was completely and utterly insufficient… and so they call another “emergency” session and cut oil by 30, no, 40 MILLION barrels a day… way more than anyone would expect… because they know the time for horse-shitting around is over.  That would send oil prices skyrocketing.

And, let’s say Trump can’t stand being out of the spotlight for more than 12 seconds and he politically forces the Saudis and Russians to cut supply… by offering guaranteed cuts from U.S. producers (something that was left off the table the last time OPEC got together).  With oil at perceived negative prices, he just might have the go-ahead to make that type of commitment.

Note that nothing above is, “when aliens invade the planet” crazy.

So, call it contrarian or whatever, but I just don’t trust that something, ANYTHING won’t happen to interrupt the greatest “fuck oil!” party ever.

Sadly.

Dow is a hair away from 24,000 as I write this.  Nasdaq a shade over 8,500.  We’re back to being closer to the top than the recent bottom.

Today’s action felt like it’s really, truly going to be a V-shaped recovery… that we should be back at our old highs in no time at all.

But… b-e-w-a-r-e.

Because it was just a few weeks ago that it felt like the crashing would really, truly never end.

And that’s what happens during a crisis… the mania swings in both directions.

Don’t get me wrong:  We have a lot going for us in this crash.  Oil is really low… and that’s my #1 requirement for an advancing economy.  Companies headed into this crisis with a lot more going for them, too (i.e., real growth, real revenues, and real profits).  And lots of technology companies are going to absolutely thrive in this crisis, for example, Amazon, Netflix, DoorDash… anything to do with the cloud… and so on.

And, critically, the government has backstopped everything with TRILLIONS in bailout money.  (“Oh, yeah, that.”)

But let’s call a few spades spades here:  THE ENTIRE WORLD JUST STOPPED!  That’s going to affect many, many more companies than will benefit.  Stocks ran up waaay too much before the crash, too, so even without a crash, they needed a 10-20% correction just to whack them back in line.  And — most significantly — no one really knows when we go back to normal.

This last point is the key.

This V-shaped rally — where stocks go straight down, then go straight back up, forming a “V” pattern — is almost entirely predicated on us getting back to normal soon.

As in, investors already know this quarter is going to be a disaster, but they think they might have the next one in the bag.

But what about the next quarter?

If I’m the CEO or CFO responsible for offering public company forward guidance… in this environment… there’s no way I’m touching that with a 10-foot pole.  That’s a guaranteed lawsuit just waiting to happen.

So, unless I’m one of the handful of companies that are crushing it during this crisis, there’s no way I’m going to be even the slightest bit optimistic about the future.  Because everything is uncertain.  How long this will last.  What the 2nd wave looks like.  Or the 3rd.  Or if people really are developing immunity.  And so on.

So I either give the biggest low-ball guidance in history — or what is happening more and more — I simply refuse to offer any forward guidance.

That’s when the next shoe drops.

When analysts and investors see this negativity… then try to understand this negativity… then realize they’re now really, truly flying blind… that’s when the rug gets pulled out from under them…

… and the market, too.

Because that’s not going to feel like “soon.”  That will, for a period, feel just like FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

It’s inevitable.

Because mania is inevitable.

Oil — really the cost of a unit of energy — affects the cost of EVERYTHING on the planet.

Which means that when oil prices go up, that FINANCIALLY HURTS everyone on the planet…

… including EVERY AMERICAN.

So why is Trump actively trying to drive oil prices higher?  In fact, why do all American presidents feel the need to do this?

I know people will say, “to protect America’s oil producers” … and so that we’re not strategically dependent on foreign oil.

Hogwash.

The way to do this is NOT to artificially raise set prices.  It’s to innovate.

Either we figure out a way to extract oil less expensively…

… or we figure out economically viable energy alternatives…

… say a conversion to natural gas, where we have a 100-year supply… or, electric cars… or solar-driven residential and commercial buildings.

And so on.

Anything but charging Americans MORE, which means we just end up FUNDING THE VERY PEOPLE THAT WANT TO DO US HARM MORE.

Sorry, energy industry.  Innovate or die.  Just like every other industry has had to do.  But don’t drag the rest of the country down with you.

Unless you’re short — and other than the great St. Patrick’s Day holiday where we all get to be green — not many silverlinings these days.

Except one big one:  The planet Earth is happier.

Maybe shutting down everything will give the planet a chance to breathe again?

After all, in terms of our stewardship of Earth, we’ve all acting like kindergarteners…

… so it’s fitting that the solution to climate change might very well be a global time out! 

Everyone is weighing in on Coronavirus prognostications.

I will try to keep mine to just the ones I feel are fairly unique.

My theme?  We couldn’t be better prepared for exactly the crisis we’re going to be going through.

*  This isn’t like the last two great crashes.

The 2001 “Dotcom Crash” was based on massive valuations with zero profits — and in many cases, zero revenues.

The 2008 “Great Recession” crash was based on artificially pumped up real estate prices, not real productivity gains.  (It was also exacerbated by skyrocketing oil prices, due to political, not fundamental, issues… and had twice the unemployment we have now.)

Whatever we’re calling 2020 — The Corona Crash? — we’re starting with real businesses, with real revenue growth, making real profits, involved in real productivity gains, historically low unemployment, and extraordinarily low oil prices.

In other words, we’re already starting with a much stronger hand.

*  Ironically, many of the productivity gains of the last decade involve remote technologies, i.e., letting employees work from home, ordering pretty much anything online, and, as important, socializing from a far.

So, in many ways, the last decade or two has been great practice for this exact situation:  Remote working, remote living, and social distancing.

*  Not only are the remote technologies in place, but the entire millennial generation prefers to socially distance.

Half the time millennials have their heads buried in their phones — even when they’re sitting right next to each other.  So do you really think they care whether they’re in the same room or a different state?  Not at all.

*  While older generations panic about bailouts and handouts and such, the entire millennial generation knows nothing but bailouts and handouts.

So do millennials think we’re in a crisis?  Absolutely not.  Feels pretty normal to them, like it’s just something we go through every once in a while.  What’s the fuss?

*  And finally:  The market needed to be popped.  Markets aren’t supposed to go straight up, like they did almost the entire month of February.

So we’re down 20%?  I can easily make the case we were 30% overvalued.  Because markets aren’t supposed to go straight up.

I’m not saying it’s not going to be rough, but I am saying we seem to be particularly prepared for this crisis.  It’s like a lot of what we need to do is already done.

We’ll see.

I’m fascinated by the events unfolding between China and the NBA.

Yesterday CNBC ran this headline:

China Silver Will Face Retribution

… and then inside the article this quote:

What Does This Even Mean China

Ha!  China really doesn’t get it:  THAT’S WHAT FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS ALL ABOUT!

My respect for the NBA — and Mark Cuban who has also been chiming in — just went through the roof.

Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to get the rest of his wall built.

The democrats warned if the republicans want to play that game, they could declare gun violence a national emergency, too, when a democrat gets elected next.

Do both parties think these are threats? 

I say this is AWESOME, let’s get them both fixed!

I love more ways to bypass the Washington D.C. political swamp.

(Well, uhm, until we actually have a dictator.)

There is a lot I don’t like about our president.

However, his tweet this morning reveals one of the things I love about the guy… that with new data, he can bypass a bunch of time-wasting politics and thrust a critical issue into the limelight in a moment’s notice:

I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!

What’s the new data?  Maybe someone told Trump the deficit projections… driven in large part by almost $6 TRILLION in military spending since 2001?

I’ve long thought we spend a ridiculous, INSANE amount of money on the military.

We can pretty much bury the entire planet knee deep in nukes… do we really need to spend some 20% of budget on more superfluous weaponry?

Spending half as much… even a third as much… would still make us the biggest military spender in the world.

Good for Trump to bring this issue front & center…

… which is sure to confound both his greatest skeptics AND supporters!  :)

Apple announced earnings today… they beat on top and bottom lines… and even though iPhone unit sales missed by a tad, average sales price crushed expectations.

Sounds good, right?

Not so fast.  Apple is DOWN almost 6.5% in the after market.

Yikes!

Turns out guidance came in a bit light.

And, Apple said it was going to stop reporting on unit sales, which — supposedly — signals to analysts less volume going forward.

Here’s what I think:

WHAT IS EVERYONE CRAZY?!

Apple just reported 40% earnings growth.  That’s right — 40%.  That’s spectacular for any company… but a company Apple’s size?  That’s p-h-e-n-o-m-e-n-a-l.

To put valuation in perspective:  Usually your P/E matches your earnings growth.  So if you are growing at 10%, you have a 10 P/E.  So if you’ve grown earnings by 40%, you should have a P/E of 40.

But that’s not the case for AAPL.  Apple has a trailing 20 P/E… or, even more amazing, just a forward 14 P/E.  Which means there is a case to be made that AAPL is undervalued… it could be trading 100% higher… or even 200% higher in some circles.

Further, with a company like Apple — that is, consistent… steady… predictable — is light guidance really an issue?  Especially given that Apple usually gives lighter guidance… and has been doing so since the days Steve ran the company?

I think not sharing iPhone unit totals is the real issue… and it’s not with investors… but with analysts that are tasked to create projection models.

Fair enough, it will make their job harder.

But, seriously, Apple is consistent… steady… predictable… AND growing earnings at 40%… and, btw, growing revenues at a whopping 20%, too… their job is already pretty straightforward.

So here’s what I also think:  AAPL may initially go lower… but at some point the investment community is going to say, “It’s the #1 product in the world, produced by the #1 brand in the world.  40% earnings growth means they continue to knock the cover off the ball.  Most of the macro economic indicators are still intact.  Uhm, are we daft?!”

That’s when the momentum will shift… and we’ll see AAPL move higher.

And, despite what will seem like a stock-crushing open, I think it could happen sometime tomorrow.

UPDATE:  Well, uhm, maybe next week.  :)

There’s a lot of noise in the market.

But there’s usually a lot of noise.

By definition — at any point in time — 50% of people think there’s enough bad in the market to sell their shares to the other 50% who thinks there’s good.

Can’t have a market otherwise.  That’s why I always scoff when someone refers to “easy” trading periods.  It’s never easy.

What helps guide you through the noise is whether your fundamental investment thesis is still intact.

Is mine?  I think the two biggest drivers of corporate profits — which drive the market — are the price of oil and interest rates.  Let’s see where they stand:

* While oil took a little run to the upside, I wouldn’t call it misbehaving.  In fact, it’s shed much of its 2018 gain

* Interest rates are spooking everyone… but 10-year is sneaking back down… and Trump’s on fire about the Fed messing things up — so much so that a few Fed governors have had to reiterate that they won’t, uhm, mess things up (i.e., “will still be accommodative for quite a while”)

* Sentiment is negative.  While that’s not comfortable, as a contrarian I prefer this

So, for me, at least right now, the noise is… just noise… and what we’re seeing is some healthy “letting some air out of the balloon”… which we like… so it doesn’t pop.

 

P.S.  A great example of “noise” was Caterpillar earnings.  They beat top & bottom line.  But everyone was fretting about China and tariffs… and the stock got pounded… even though if you read their commentary, you find CAT itself wasn’t so worried about the effect of China or tariffs on its business.  Here’s some commentary from their 10/23/18 earnings call:

* CATERPILLAR SAYS FEEL GOOD ABOUT EQUIPMENT DEMAND IN CHINA NEXT YEAR

* CATERPILLAR SAYS EXPECT BUSINESS TO CONTINUE TO IMPROVE IN 2019 VERSUS 2018

* CATERPILLAR SAYS CONTINUE TO EXPECT INDUSTRY SALES IN CHINA FOR 10-TON-AND-ABOVE EXCAVATORS TO BE UP ABOUT 40 PERCENT FOR THE FULL YEAR

* CATERPILLAR SAYS EXPECT IMPACT OF 25 PERCENT IMPORT TARIFF ON ADDITIONAL $200 BILLION CHINESE GOODS TO BE ‘QUITE MINOR’

These are all good things, right?!

I was OVERJOYED by this headline:

Trump says each Cabinet secretary should slash 5% of their budgets after he pledges to cut spending

Remarkably, even one of the slipperiest* figures in politics, Kellyanne Conway, said something COMPLETELY INTELLIGENT:

“He’s asking them to cut the fraud, the waste, the abuse,” White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox Business Network. “Cut the fat, not the essentials.”

I think Trump should have asked for 10% — in business that’s considering an easy and smart cut as it forces you to really examine all of your projects and cut the worst performing one — but 5% is fine to get this party started.

 

*  Sorry for tongue-tying word but that describes her perfectly.

This shouldn’t be news.  On CNBC, no less.  It’s an embarrassment.  Grow up and be presidential, Donnie.

Trump-Stormy News

A few years ago a proposition went on the ballot to add a $1 tax per pack of cigarettes… with 100% of the tax going to support medical research for smokers.

The logic was simple:  If you choose to smoke, you should also be responsible for the health care costs you will inevitably have.

The tobacco industry fought this by creating an ad that had nothing to do with the issue at hand.  It was like an ad that read, “aw, but don’t we all like puppies and kittens?”

It’s happening again.

The California Teachers Association — one of the largest lobbyist groups in California — has created a shell organization called “Kids Not Profits”… in order to disguise their efforts to torpedo anyone that challenges their dominance…

… a dominance that corresponds with California schools going from one of the top systems in the country to one of the worst.

The ads the Teachers Association are running make it sound like the non-union people trying to fix our school problem are all “greedy billionaires who want to kill puppies and kittens!”

P-l-e-a-s-e!  Come on, people… let’s use some common sense… the last thing anyone interested in making a profit would want to do is get into the education business, especially at the grade school and high school levels.  It’s just not a good money investment.

It is, however, a great people investment… which ultimate corresponds with a great community investment… which is why it’s called philanthropy:

the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.

On the other hand, let’s call a spade a spade:  The Teachers Association DOESN’T protect teachers… it protects the massive layer of administrative bureaucracy above teachers… those same administrators that now control one of the largest educational budgets in the United States… and those same administrators that have — literally — DESTROYED public education in California.

The California Teachers Association should call their new organization “Administrators NOT Teachers or Kids”…

… because all the money goes to the incompetent administrators, leaving bare nothings for kids and teachers.

Apparently California is using tax dollars to advertise against a proposition on the California ballot to repeal a gas tax.

Yes, that’s right:  Using more tax money to make sure we can tax more.

Sorry but that just doesn’t sound right.

Politics.  UGH!  Just fix the problem instead of throwing more money at it!

Dear President Trump–

I may be the only guy in American that loves what you are doing with tariffs.  (Please see here and here and here.)

And I love that you’re turning up the heat.

But, if you want to win this in our lifetimes OR until another president takes office (whichever comes first), you need to enlist the support of the rest of the commercialized world.

This might be difficult since you’re trying to create a level playing field with them, too…

… or, said another way, you’re hammering the rest of the world into submission as well.

But maybe you can pitch a win here.  Something like, “look at what we’re doing to China… so you know we can easily do that to you, too.  Net-net is you’re going to lose a little to us, it’s inevitable.  But opening up China isn’t… unless we go to China together… and if we do go together, we’ll both really, truly gain a huge new market, second largest in the world!”

To make this work, though, it has to be China vs. THE ENTIRE WORLD.

That’s because China is too proud to be “defeated” by just the U.S… and going it alone only forces them to act more defiantly… which includes them dragging things out in hopes of a political regime change… regardless of how long that takes.

So the only way to get this done in a reasonable time frame is to turn up the heat on the rest of the world… THEN, as a group, approach China.  This will allow China to compromise with dignity… because it won’t be perceived as a fight, rather, that “everyone” came together and “mutually” agreed to change, uhm, all the rules.

No loss of face for the Chinese.  100% victory for the world (and the U.S.).  Wrapped up before the next presidential election.

Tough timing but that’s what you have to do to bring this home.

Break a leg–

–Royal.

I read a business headline that almost made me cry with happiness:

“Federal workers’ raises canceled.  Trump says pay should be based on performance.”

(Source:  Palo Alto Daily Post, August 31, 2018)

I read some more on this and I almost cried in agony with the statistics that were cited:

When salaries and benefits are combined and averaged, public-sector workers earned $129,200 in 2016 while private-sector employees earned only a combined $70,700.

(Source:  AMI Newswire, September 12, 2018)

That’s a lot of crying!

Federal workers earn almost TWICE as much as private counterparts… and don’t even get me started on the productivity of the public sector vs. the private sector.  

And people wonder why our country is in such debt.  Jeez.

I also read where Trump may be reconsidering this wage freeze — because of the upcoming elections — for political considerations.

DON’T BACK DOWN, DONALD!  Automatic pay raises… that have nothing to do with job performance… that have been going on for year after year after year… while our national debt continues to spiral out-of-control… IS INSANE!

Future raises absolutely, positively should be earned, jut like they are for the rest of us in the real world.  I am now officially pissed that my tax dollars are going to fund such an idiotic compensation plan.

DON’T BACK DOWN, DONALD!

I like guns.  But I don’t like the NRA… in the same way I don’t like most lobbyist groups.

I also like the military.  But I don’t like military spending… by some estimates a whopping 20% of our deficit-growing American budget.

To put that in perspective, we have enough nukes to bury the world many times over.

To put that in more practical terms, we spend more money on the military than the next SEVEN countries COMBINED.

So the last thing we need is more hawks in government.

Yet, Jeff Bezos just donated $10 million to a relatively new organization called “With Honor,” dedicated to electing military vets to office.

As our budget spirals out-of-control, I can’t think of a worse time to elect a more biased group of government officials.