outliers


wall2I know what you are thinking.  I’m not talking about that wall.  I’m talking about this wall, the one Blue Buffalo, post-acquisition, seems hurtling towards.  Recently, we received further evidence that the risk of gravity catching up with the brand may be more likely than not.

General Mills released first quarter earnings (note: for GIS, fiscal 1Q aligns with calendar 3Q), which include a decline in North American sales, across all sources of revenue, of 2.1%.  While pet food sales rose 14% in quarter, sales at retailers (sell-in) increased only 9%.  These numbers are optically appealing, but represent a slowdown of Blue Buffalo’s growth rate pre-acquisition.  Also factoring into the equation was that the quarter had an extra selling week, which, when considered, means the business grew mid-single-digits.  Adding to the woes was reported input cost inflation as well as continued expenses associated with the new production plant.

To rewind, prior to the acquisition Blue was growing at a healthy clip, delivering quarterly sales growth of 18.4% in 3Q17 and 14.2% in 4Q17, the two quarters immediately preceding the acquisition. The company had effectively explained away the performance malaise that it is experienced in 1H2018 (7.9% in 1Q and 2.8% in 2Q), as a failure on behalf of major pet specialty to execute and leveraged that narrative to move a subset of their product line into FDM. The size and timing of the FDM rollout masked issues with the company’s business in several ways.  Of greatest significance, it gave the company a greenfield revenue opportunity which juiced their comps, making comparisons between historical and current periods to be akin to comparing apples and oranges.  However, the size and scope of the rollout, in combination, with the stealth nature of the lead-up to launch, obscured the fact that the initial velocity growth was heavily aided by promotions and discounts.  It’s quite common for this to be the case, but it was also not something Blue Buffalo drew out in its narrative to the street.  It’s notable, the brands data, as tracked by IRI in the weeks leading up to the deal dropped off the table, declining from 13.4% to 1.9%.

What was unknown at the time of the deal, was what impact, if any, retaliatory action taken by retailers would have on the business.  Petco and PetSmart sales and traffic, have continued to flag.  However, PetSmart has completed a major reset of its consumables aisle and its bond prices have appreciated materially, in part based on 22% sales growth at Chewy.com. Additionally, based on my store visits in various geographies ranging from major coastal cities to smaller towns in middle America (certainly not scientific by any means) there is some de-emphasizing of the brand in terms of placement, promotion, and mind share.

Further, post deal, Amazon launched its own private label pet food, Wag. While the Wag rollout, has not been seamless, the product generally enjoys 4-star reviews from an increasing number of verified purchases. Approximately 50% of customers have given the product 5-stars on both the 5-lb. and 30-lb. bags, though the 5-lb. bags experienced some problems with product delivery during the initial rollout, according to One Click Retail.  Amazon experienced 30% growth in pet products sales in the first half of 2018.

What the future holds here is unknown, but the bloom seems to be off the bull case. Analysts have taken their estimates of Blue Buffalo organic sales down to mid-single-digits from low-double-digits, despite management re-affirming the sales guidance for the higher amount.  The brand starts to lap the initial FDM rollout in the back half of the year, so comps get tougher.  Further, management stressed that it sees opportunities to repair their relationships with Petco and PetSmart, enhance in-store execution, and increase visibility of channel exclusive innovation in pet specialty. Given that the leadership of major pet specialty chains learned about the FDM rollout just prior to the general public, I am not sure enough time has passed to heal those wounds, though both entities now have new CEOs. Finally, while the China trade war tariffs are not impacting food, they are touching a broad range of pet products, which may reduce store visits, especially in major pet specialty.  This should factor into the calculus.

While Blue Buffalo may have a softer landing than we expect, it is clear that the stakes for General Mills are already higher than anyone expected them to be. How high can a buffalo jump?

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change. While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

 

 

 

 

 

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freddieThe fate of Champion Pet Foods has long been a source of speculation among industry insiders.  While most deal rumors in the industry spread like wildfire, over the past three years rumors about Champion have been without peer. Not a show goes by without speculation. We’ve heard, and have bought into at some level, various iterations — IPO, Canadian pension fund buyouts, Blue Buffalo/Mars/Nestle acquisition.  Knowledgeable people, including myself, have been hoodwinked many a time.  As such, when acquisition rumors hit the media in early July, the reaction was met by many with a shrug of the shoulders – “oh good, now we know.” However, should an acquisition of Champion by Nestle Purina PetCare in fact be consummated, it feels like there will be no winners.

Shortly after the Nestle rumor hit with pages of the Wall Street Journal, Champion issued a statement that could only be characterized as a “non-denial denial”.  There was no, “we are not for sale” but rather a “of course people should want to buy us.” If the rumor needed any credence, it was received.  What is most notable to me is that while a deal might happen, I am not sure anyone, even those on both sides of the transaction, want it to. To better assess this statement, let’s consider the transaction from all sides.

From Champion’s perspective, and those of its primary backers, a sale to Nestle would bring a financial windfall; of that, we can be certain. With a potential $2 billion price tag, we can only assume that Champion would be selling for a multiple that is aligned to recent sales of Blue Buffalo and Ainsworth.  While industry websites report Champion’s sales in 2017 at $170 million, we believe it to be significantly higher.  If you sell pet food in 80 countries, and are in the process of building a $200 million production facility (see details here) you better be selling a lot more kibble than that.  However, or greater importance is that historically Champion has pursued a moral high ground with respect to its formulation and production (see here) and its channel strategy.  When Pet360 and, later, Chewy were acquired by PetSmart, Champion exited both platforms, supporting the independent retailers in their battle with major pet specialty and leading online sites they control.  Champion grew on the backs of independent pet retail, greatly benefiting from this channel’s reduction in exposure to Blue Buffalo through various brand dilutive events.  As such, a sale to Nestle would seem antithetical to much that Champion stands for.  Further, a financial windfall for the sellers seems available through a myriad of other avenues that don’t involve a perceived selling out.

On the other side of the coin is Nestle’s pet food subsidiary.  If you have been following closely, Nestle’s core food business, like many of its peers, has been under siege.  Large food companies, as a class of competitors, have been struggling to adapt to changing demographics and consumer preferences and the associated evolving channel dynamics.  Activist investors are pressuring these companies to evolve their brand portfolios faster and seek mergers to rationalize costs.  Against this backdrop, Purina has been performing.  If you dig deep in the back of Nestle’s Half-Yearly Report 2018 (page 28), you will notice Purina was a top performing segment, generating 3.8% growth in the first half of the year.  Now consider what handcuffs Champion as a premium seller might extract in a transaction — No PetSmart, Petco or Chewy? No FDM? No formulation changes? No management changes?  If you are Purina management, you are likely to inherit a business at very high price tag that is unlikely to realize the necessary return profile to be attractive in the near to medium term.  The deal appears to be a Daniel Loeb pet food aisle clean-up special, as opposed to a good organic M&A idea.  For Purina management, you can sense the apathy from afar, especially if the deal curtails your ability to pursue transactions for which you have a higher degree of conviction.

Finally, let’s consider the independent retailers. Many operators in this class of retail have benefited greatly from the growth of Orijen, Acanca, and, to a lesser extent, Heritage, as well as Champion’s conviction to this channel, at the expense of growth.  Champion provides these retailers a recurring high price point sale opportunity.  Many of them have become reliant on the company’s product offerings at multiple premium price points, and, in turn, Champion benefited from these retailers recommending their product and scaling back on Blue Buffalo considering its politics.  While we don’t know what constraints might be a byproduct of any deal negotiation, these retailers could potentially lose exclusivity to one of the backbones in their pet food merchandising mix.  A blow of this magnitude will reverberate across the channel.

When a brand seeks to take the moral high ground in a product category, it is lauded, and it often should be.  However, capitalism never stops calling, and when you take outsiders money you eventually take the next call. I’m not privy to Champion’s financials, but it would seem they possess a myriad of options outside of this contemplated transaction. If consummated, its repercussions, mostly negative, will be felt by all directly and indirectly involved.  In turn, consumers will get more jaded about what we expect from the companies we rely on to keep our companion animals healthy and happy.  Emerging brands will in turn inherit those expectations and the cycle will begin anew.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change. While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

 

 

 

dwarfEarlier this week it was announced that Mars Petcare had acquired Whistle Labs, designer and marketer of activity monitoring and asset tracking solutions for small companion animals.  The deal was valued at $117 million (or $119 million depending on the source of information).  Whistle had raised $25 million in outside capital, including $21 million in two institutional rounds, including a $15 million Series B round in January 2015, led by Nokia Growth Partners.  The Series B also including participation from, among others,  Melo7 Tech Ventures (the equity fund of Carmelo Anthony, NBA superstar) and QueensBridge Venture Partner (the equity fund of Nasir Jones, world famous rapper).  The post-money on the Series B was reported to be $26.65 million, meaning these investors made a ~ 4.5x cash-on-cash return on the sale and triple digit internal rate of return based on the short duration.

When Whistle launched its solution set the market was bifurcated between activity monitoring and asset tracking.  The asset tracking side was being addressed largely by companies that were re-purposing technology that had been deployed in more traditional markets, such as logistics, automobile tracking, or human tracking (yes these do exist).  However, these companies did not necessarily recognize the emotional engagement aspects of the pet space, and did little to build community.  The network costs of these businesses were high, and the user base was small.  Given that the initial hardware purchase was subsidized, these businesses lost money, sometimes large amounts of it.  Further, there was no effective retail channel for this class of products as the major pet specialty retailers were not well situated to sell a $200 device with a monthly subscription attached thereto or explain the value proposition effectively to customers, and therefore the market was slow to emerge. Traditional channels, such as consumer electronics and mobile phone centers, were no more effective at attracting pet owners let alone articulating the purchase rationale.  It did not help that most of these solutions had large form factors and minimal visual appeal.

In contrast, Whistle brought to market an activity tracker with a high level of aesthetic appeal at a much lower cost.  Of significance, gone were the monthly subscriptions.  The problem was the market wanted asset tracking as the linkage between the activity monitor and the benefits use case was just not obvious to pet owners.  In short, there was data but not much to do with it and sharing it was cumbersome.  Much like the early human activity tracking sector, the real value of these devices did not emerge until the ecosystem and community aspect developed. Whistle would use part of its Series B financing to acquire Snaptracs, the Qualcomm based asset tracking solution that it spun out in 2013.  Using their industrial engineering acumen, Whistle combined the two solution sets into a best of breed offering and the business began to accelerate.

About the time of the Series B, Whistle began collaborating with Mars on the use cases of its device.  The challenge became how do you balance the venture capitalists agenda — drive brand, drive sales, drive community — with the Mars agenda around linking the data to wellness outcomes and product sales.  In the end, we believe Mars acquired Whistle to enable its agenda to become central to the future of the business.  Given that the lifetime value of a subscriber was high as the revenue was recurring, shareholder value increased exponentially.

While the acquisition and the prevailing purchase price will certainly give momentum to the connected pet space, the perceived rationale is somewhat vexing to rationalize.  Connected pet solutions that have been funded and launched into the market over the past few years have focused more on emotive connections (remote viewing, remote treating, automated feeding) than wellness outcomes, and here we have an acquisition rationale that we believe is tied more to healthcare outcomes than humanization. That is not to say the deal won’t be effective in catalyzing more investment and further M&A; the return profile will ensure that happens.

This deal very much validates the space, and we have been on record suggesting more large consolidators get into connected pet since 2013, when we marketed the Snaptracs business for sale.  We believe other large players will have to take notice and find avenues to take a position in connected pet. Further, we think the Mars acquisition rationale is specific to them and does not require a pivot by other operators to enhance their focus on wellness.  Mars is unique in that it is the only enterprise that has both veterinary hospitals and branded companion animal consumables, and therefore could view Whistle in a unique way and justify the purchase price as a result. It does help that they are a very large private enterprise and do not have to kowtow to outside shareholders.

One of the key themes we witnessed at the most recent Global Pet Expo was a proliferation of solutions aimed at connecting owners to their pets wherever they were resident at the time — the home, the grooming salon, the daycare or dog walker, the boarding facility. etc.  Expect the Whistle deal to give them all more conviction and attract a host of new entrants seeking to capitalize on the market opportunity. Ultimately, pet owners stand to benefit most.

/bryan

Note: This blog is for informational purposes only. The opinions expressed reflect my view as of the publishing date, which are subject to change.  While this post utilizes data sources I consider reliable, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third party cited herein.

 

 

They say there are two certainties in life, death and taxes.  That’s not entirely accurate since death comes at the end of life, but that is probably just quibbling.  Taxes are a certainty however, whether of not you choose to pay them.  If the 2012 presidential campaign has illuminated anything definitive to date, it is that not all income streams are equal from a tax standpoint; those who make the majority of their income through buying and selling investments (the Mitt Romney’s and Warren Buffet’s of the world) have much lower effective tax rates because their income is treated as capital gains instead of ordinary income — 15% versus 35% at the highest level.  Some form of equity is looming on the horizon.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration sought to tackle a $300 billion federal deficit through government spending cuts and increasing personal income taxes on top earners.  This resulted in a budget surplus in 1998, which grew to $230 billion by 2000. The surplus was a central discussion point in the 2000 presidential campaign.  George W. Bush suggested America was “owed a refund” and campaigned under a promise to lower taxes on the wealthy if elected.  The net result was the 2001 Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and 2003 Growth Tax Relied Reconciliation Act, collectively referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts”.

The Bush Tax Cuts lowered ordinary income tax rates 3%-5%, phased out the estate tax, reduced the marriage penalty, lowered rates on income from dividends and capital gains, and increased exemptions.   Critics argue over the long term impact of these changes, but two things are hard to dispute: a) the Bush Tax Cuts resulted in U.S. government losing billions of dollars of revenue over a 10 year period and b) keeping the cuts in place have become a central political platform for the Republican party.   While I am no political handicapper, the combination of a swelling U.S. deficit (and therefore the need for more revenue streams), the growing income gap between the wealthy and the middle class (as evidenced by the “Occupy” movement), and the clear improbability of the GOP winning both the White House and the Senate, mean the Bush Tax cuts are all but dead on the stroke of midnight December 31, 2012.

The implications of Cinderella leaving the ball are meaningful, as evidenced by the table below:

Estimated Changes Upon Expiration of Current Tax Program
2012 2013E % Increase
Ordinary Income 35% 43.4% 24%
Long-Term Capital Gains 15% 23.8% 59%
Qualified Dividends 15% 43.4% 189%
Estate and Gift 35% 55% 57%
Source: Moss Adams LLP Year-End Tax Planning Guide, November 2011

The question many are asking is whether these changes may light a fire under M&A for family owned businesses in 2012.   After all, if you own a business worth $100 million and  you sell in 2012 versus 2013 you save yourself at least 8.8%, but possibly much more if the”Buffet Rule” is enacted into law, which would put a minimum tax rate of 30% on all income streams if you make over $1 million annually.

History would tell us that taxes alone are not sufficient enough to push people towards transactions they would otherwise defer.  However, history has not seen this level of increase in the capital gains rate since the 1967 – 1972 period when rates increased 11.5%, but over a period of five years.  Here we are talking about 8.8% over night.  Further, the market has never enjoyed the levels of liquidity currently in the marketplace, from both strategic acquirors and private equity firms.  Excess liquidity tends to correlate with rising purchase prices.  Throw in a pinch of uncertainty regarding Europe over the next 24 months and you might have a convergence of circumstance strong enough to call some to action.

Despite the stars aligning only a subset of the market should be interested in this reality, and that would be companies on the larger end of the spectrum.  Yes, as enterprise value increases the impact of the capital gains rate changes increases, but more importantly so do transaction market multiples.  According to GF Data Resources, the spread between the multiples garnered by businesses worth greater than $50 million is a fully 2.0x in a leveraged buyout versus those with lower enterprise values.  The data shows that the “size premium”, so to speak, increased a full 1.0x in 2011.  Absent attractive purchase prices, people tend to sit on the sideline no matter how their tax bill changes from one year to the next.

Net net, I think 2012 will be a strong year for M&A because of the total market dynamics, but I don’t think taxes alone are going to stimulate a plethora of activity that would not otherwise be there on other merits.

/bryan

Some 15 years ago (maybe more) I read “Diet For A New America”, the expose of America’s factory farms, written by John Robbins, the then heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune.  The book opened both my eyes and mind with respect to the agriculture industry in the U.S.    While the book did little, at the time, to change my dietary habits, it was central to shaping my relationship with food, for the better, in the long run.    This blog post is unlikely to do much to actually change our circumstance in the short term, but, like Robbins,  I believe we need to begin with a recognition and acceptance of the problem; from there change can emanate over a realistic time horizon.   With that I offer up my plan for saving capitalism as we know it:

1.  Tort Reform – I suspect you are now scratching your head.   This plan begins here? Yes it does.   I  don’t purport to know who is telling to truth when Rep. Tom Price says the cost of unnecessary litigation taxes the health care system $650 billion annually or if this figure is only $56 billion as Harvard Public Health Professor Michelle Mello estimates, and in fact I don’t really care.  What I do know is your unhindered ability to bring a lawsuit drives up the cost of nearly everything.   More significantly, it undermines all sense of accountability in our society.   We have become a nation that expects something for nothing; our sense of entitlement is, for lack of a better word, gross.   Procedural limits and damage caps would not only reduce costs but it would change the way we view ourselves.   Tort reform would restore the concept of work ethic in America.  Consider it the end of the free lunch, with apologies to Harry Butler (you can Wikipedia that one).

2. Address Obesity – The cost of obesity to the American economy is huge — hundreds of billions of dollars.   However,  for me it is less about the direct cost to the health care system (again), and more about the indirect cost, which are borne by employers in the form of higher costs and lost worker productivity.  Let’s face it, the average American is going to have to work both harder and longer in the future to pay for our nations debt.    We can’t do that if society is unable to return to a reasonable health standard.   Further, the high cost of health care dissuades innovation and new company formation.   We will not solve obesity as its roots are genetic, but we can promote industry and incent individuals to address the problem.  Maybe if we, as a nation, can reduce our dependency on processed foods, it will provide a necessary injection to our domestic agriculture base let alone help us do our jobs better.  Productive workers are happy workers.

3. Term Limits/Return of the Welfare State – I have a political science minor, but I am no expert on government; I haven’t lived through enough political regimes to be credible.  However, our political system has clearly become a soap opera that is equal parts partisan politics and tomfoolery.   The net effect is we end up with policies that address the lowest common denominator.   Further, long standing incumbents in key positions of power act like they know what is in the best interest of the people who are telling them to do just the opposite.   Our life has been reduced to 90-days of negative campaign ads every other year.   We need new ideas and responsive political representatives in government.  Term limits favor meritocracy, encourage competition, reduce bureaucracy, and control the influence of interest groups.   However, term limits are not enough, we also need to return significant rights to our states.   We are no longer a homogenized population whose needs can be universally addressed by policies at the national level.  States are better situated to devise and implement policies that meet the needs of its residents.   By empowering people to deal with problems locally you build a sense of community.

4. Underwrite the New Manufacturing Economy – Currently, capital flows follow collateral and cost effective business models.   Without ties to a deep pocket, capital intensive businesses have little hope of getting off the ground.   Capital expenditure has become a “dirty word”.  However, the manufacturing base is a critical employer of our middle class population, and it is vanishing because of our adversity to invest in real assets.   Our need for instant gratification limits our growth.   Further, the current labyrinth of federal grants currently funding the manufacturing industry favors those who are well enough off to pay for lobbyist to influence policy development and employees to process the paperwork to garner it.  The rich are simply getting richer.  The poster child of the current regime is Tesla Motors, hardly a start-up manufacturing business but your tax dollars are paying to build their manufacturing facility and Tesla’s venture investors thank you.  We need real venture capital for fundamental manufacturing innovation and micro-lending to leverage the available equity investment.   Re-energize manufacturing and you begin to address America’s unemployment problem and restore our sense of self worth.

5. Reign in Consumer Credit – Let’s face it, we are a consumer driven economy and one that is prone to spending beyond our means, well beyond our means.    In fact, as a nation we have over $950 billion in credit card debt and  14% of disposable income goes to service that debt — just service it, not repay the principal.  The average household with credit card debt has a revolving balance of $15,788.  Credit card companies and consumer lending organizations help facilitate over indulgence by enabling people to borrow beyond levels that they can reasonably pay — zero down mortgages anyone?   Further, credit card fees and adjustable rate mortgages penalize low wage earners who do not have collateral or the track record to get the most cost effective credit or refinance.  Reign in credit and you increase accountability, you also reduce a regressive economic force in our society thereby narrowing the  wealth gap.   Cheap credit also creates asset bubbles which influence our economic cycle to the negative when they burst.  Finally, the fees that would no longer be going to pay for monthly interest charges could go to actually paying the backlog of unpaid taxes ($300 billion annually).  When you care about your country, you actually don’t mind paying your fair share for what it provides you.

If we boil this down my Rx for America comes down to restoring our nation’s pride.  Pride in yourself, your family, your role in your community, your role in society, and your ability to positively impact the economic system.   Pride that comes from doing an honest days work and receiving a fair and honest wage in return.  Pride from doing the right thing for society by accepting responsibility for your own health and actions.  Pride in paying your own freight.  Pride from the fact that your elected officials actually represent your interests.  From pride comes trust and from trust comes a sense of purpose that extends beyond the individual and to the collective.  Together we can move mountains.

Pie in the sky?  In totality yes, but saving our economic system a trillion dollars annually is not easy.  If you look at each of these issues in isolation, they are winnable battles.  Win them all and you save America.  And no I am not running for office.

/bryan

 

I’ll readily admit that I don’t know much about inflation.  It’s hard for my generation to appreciate the concept since the majority of our wage earning years have been characterized by a general absence of an inflationary cycle.   Since I graduated from business school in 2000, inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U)  has not breached 5%.   In fact, over the course of 2009, we experienced considerable deflation, with negative growth in the CPI-U for eight months of the year.

So why is it that I am holding inflation indexed bonds in my portfolio?  That is a good question.   The reason I went into TIPS six months ago, was my belief that inflation was inevitable.   The unprecedented amount of liquidity that has been injected by the U.S. government in an effort to stabilize and re-energize the economy requires it.   Or does it?

As a general rule, when excessive liquidity is injected into the market place with an rapidity it leads to an inflationary cycle.  The logic equation is that the recipients of that cash will find themselves with an excess inventory of funds and bid up the prices of goods and services.  The sellers of those goods and services find themselves cash rich and pass along the favor.  The declining value of the currency causes people to part with these excess funds as opposed to holding on to them.   As evidenced by the graphs below — M1 (the money supply) and a trade weight currency exchange index (DTWEXM) — these very conditions are in play right now.  The money supply expanded by more than $1.7 trillion in 2009, more money than is necessary for transaction purposes.

So why is it that we find ourselves with sustained low inflation despite excess liquidity?  Notably, the process of inflation is not precipitous, especially in a complex economy and during a period of economic decline.  It is not hard to fathom an entity, be it a person, business, fund, etc., holding excess liquidity (read: hoard cash) out of fear despite the erosion of value resulting from falling currency rates, because the alternatives are less attractive.   The media often refers to this as the “money on the sidelines”.   Despite a strong economic recovery as measured by the stock market, people remain fearful of future problems stemming from the bloated balance sheet of our economy, and, as a result, they continue to be more than happy to hold onto their monies, even if they are less precious tomorrow than today.    One only needs to look at consumer spending figures and read about wage stagnation to see evidence of this pattern of behavior.

Additionally, economic meddling exacerbates the realization of inflation by delaying capital outlays.  Bailouts of individuals and institutions mean they can postpone deleveraging events and calls on collateral.   Notably stimulus packages spread out spending over a longer time horizon which prolongs the effect.   Further, much of the current stimulus sits on bank balance sheets in the form of excess reserves — money that provides savers assurance that their collateral is safe.  Because this money is sitting idle, since banks are not lending, the drop in the velocity of money has offset the dramatic increase in the supply of funds.

Despite these realities, the conundrum will not last.  We are talking monetary physics here after all.   If one is to believe the great economist Milton Friedman, the peak effect of on economic growth of excess liquidity will be felt between 18 – 30 months after the rapid expansion of the money supply.  Further, the impact on consumer prices will then be felt a further 12 – 18 months downstream, meaning, in monetarist terms, the inevitable spike in inflation would occur sometime in late 2011.

Whether you subscribe to Freidman’s paradigm or not, it is easy to conclude that that when banks start to lend, the velocity of money will increase and inflation will follow as a result.  Since the recovery is expected to be slow and bumpy, it is not hard to envision that the velocity of money will remain low throughout 2010, keeping inflation in check until late 2011 at the earliest.   Further, high unemployment and excess production capacity will keep wage growth in check (not hard to imagine) further muting inflationary pressure.   Finally, if you believe Bernanke the government could, at its discretion, unwind the special lending programs, pull back the reserves and sell of the securities it has purchased, thereby avoiding the problem of monetary expansion all together.

However, in my opinion inflation will likely be realized sooner than Freidman would  have predicted.    Notably, the Fed cannot put the brakes on the program as contemplated without risking pushing us back into a recession.  This is highly political, so nothing will be done until it is clear that we are out of the woods.   As a result, the money will remain in the system allowing for velocity to increase sooner than anticipated.  Further, I expect there to be political pressure both from within and abroad for us to inflate our way out of our current deficit.   This would be achieved by the Fed allowing inflation to increase while holding interest rates low.  The net impact would be negative cost of borrowing on an inflation adjusted basis.  This would stimulate both borrowing and spending.  Further, wages would increase, which in turn would increase the tax base, thereby enabling the government to pay off its massive deficits.   This is too seductive a solution for politicos to keep their hands off, especially if the President’s approval ratings continue to dwindle.   However, this program is hard to enact in a periods of high unemployment, so the recipe is not ideal.

That all being said, it seems clear we are not headed for double digit inflation anytime soon.   Our current deflationary cycle is still in effect and the combination of other factors — falling commodity prices currency valuations, fear, low velocity of money, high unemployment, etc. — will insulate us from significant systemic shocks.  However, expect modest inflation to return in the medium term and be seen in markets were capacity is constrained first.

/bryan

poohIt’s hot, too hot for my liking.  I’m sleeping in my basement with my dogs, while my hometown enjoys a record heat wave.  While laying awake at night stewing in my own juices I began running through some old blog posts in my head and thought it might be worth revisiting the status of the financial markets.

Over the past three weeks, we have seen another unprecedented run in the DOW and S&P 500.   On July 10th, I began to ask myself if we were headed back into the abyss as the DOW seemed intent on testing the 8,000 barrier once again.   On its way there, it apparently got spooked and went the other direction, breaking through 9,000 with ease.   On a percentage basis, the DOW ran 12.6% from July 10th to July 31st.   This move is rather consistent with the way stocks behave during significant economic contractions, in that they are prone to high levels of volatility and can swing excessively.

To understand the reason why that is, we need to review what a stock price really is.  We know it is the discounted value of all the future earnings associated with that ownership instrument.   Those projected streams are subject to two main risks — macroeconomic risk and company execution (let’s exclude investor sentiment for the moment), to be revisited in another entry).  When stocks as a herd run down, the causation is usually macroeconomic uncertainty, as opposed to company specific factors.   Since the impact of macroeconomic conditions on forward earnings is a science lacking a high level of precision, corrections can be significant as clarity increases.   Said differently, as our financial system was melting down with great rapidity last winter you had an over correction to the downside as equity analysts predicted a massive impact of our structural problems on forward corporate earnings.   As second quarter (2009) earnings were released these past two weeks they came with a number of “positive surprises”.  However, these were not surprises at all in my estimation, but rather poor forecasting to begin with.   Coupled with some positives on the consumer confidence (consumer confidence index has doubled off the lows; new home sales increased 11% in June), treasury spreads have increased (spread between 10-year and 3-month increased nearly a full percentage point, meaning people were beginning to favor longer term instruments) , unemployment (job loss increased, but the pace of job loss slowed), economic growth (ISM manufacturing index topped 50, above which means growth) and banking system stability, the market ran quickly to its current position — aided of course by the media.

With that explanation behind us, we can no turn our attention to where does the DOW go from here.   The truth is, I don’t know, but my inkling is that we don’t have much room for upside right now.   My basic premise rests upon the reality that corporate earnings surprises were largely based on the realignment of costs with revenue opportunities; there was no real growth of the top line.  As such, we continue to contract, albeit at a slower rate.  Until we can truly rightsize consumer sentiment, we will struggle with generating real growth.

Further, there are significant structural hurdles.

  • Industrial Production.  Based on Federal Reserve disclosures, nearly one-third of our manufacturing capacity remains idle.   This is the lowest rate of production since the Fed started to record this data.  The last parallel we can find was 70.9% in December 1982.   The picture is just as bleak on a global level.  Such excess capacity cannot be rationalized quickly and is more likely to result in price based competition, which can only lead to further calamity.   On the plus side there appears to be very little inventory in the channel, as companies have moved aggressively to cut cost.  However, until trade and inventory credit loosens further, it will not rebound.
  • Tax Base.   Across the board the domestic economic system is facing an economic shortfall of catastrophic proportions.  The U.S. government has spent nearly $2.7 trillion this year, versus collections of $1.6 trillion.   In cumulative, state government deficits total $120 billion.   Forty nine states require balance budgets however. (Vermont is your holdout).  Personal income taxes have dropped by over 25%, with no quick path to renewal.   Yet, we somehow need to find ways to underwrite huge government programs and keep the lights on at the local level.  The imbalance is massive and budget gaps will result in further market disruption.
  • Consumer Sentiment.  As the consumer goes, so goes the economy given our asset lite service based model.   The problem is the consumer is underwater and expected to remain so for some time.   Jobless rates have reached double digits and it will take years for reabsorbtion.   Over 4 million Americans have been looking for work for more than six months, an unprecedented level.   Retails sales were down a further 5.1% in June versus a projected 4.5%.    We have yet to experience the wave of personal bankruptcies that will surely arrive as people walk away from their mortgages and face the music on their mountain of personal credit card debt.
  • Banks.  The banking system remains unhealthy, though the risks of a full scale collapse remains unlikely.   Deep skepticism with respect to real estate will result in regional and local market lending dislocation.   Rather than facing loan losses head on, banks are preferring to extend and pretend on the consumer level.   Without dependable credit consumers and businesses cannot grow.

Net net, it is not at all clear where growth is going to come from.   However, it is clear that we have found bottom, as evidenced by the slowing declines.  More than likely we are in for an extended period of sideways, with growth coming from stimulus and government programs (e.g., cash for clunkers, health care reform).     This will be jobless recovery with  companies surviving on lean diet of capital expenditures.   No one is forecasting robust growth.   In short I can’t see much upside.  Further, if this downturn has fundamentally changed consumer behavior, than the market will continue to shrink and stock prices will follow it down.

/bryan

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