I don’t think I could ever work for a macro-strategy investment company. When I hear about investment ideas centered around relative currency strength, anticipated interest rate movement, commodity prices, and yes, world-wide oil supply/ demand, my head starts to spin and I have trouble seeing the forest from the trees. I’m much more comfortable opining on whether I think people would prefer to eat a Big Mac or Whopper (and who has a better balance sheet) than what’s going to happen to worldwide beef prices because of the political situation in Brazil. That doesn’t mean that I don’t at least try to understand macro issues and their implications; rather, I try to know my limitations and keep the faith that my investment strategy will eventually weather various macro storms I don’t fully understand if I can find good value in great long-term businesses.
With oil prices down almost 50% in the last six months alone, every investment expert is weighing in with their view on how this will affect the market. It’s a complicated issue- obviously lower gas prices for consumers is great in that people can spend their money on other things and great for countries that rely on importing gas, but it’s not so great if energy-related loans start defaulting and impacting banks or the U.S. loses a big chunk of the previous job gains over the past 5 years that were energy related.
My conclusion on this whole issue is that I simply don’t know what’s going to happen with oil prices and how it will affect the overall market, so I’d like to explore opportunities within the market that are less impacted by oil prices (or ideally not at all impacted).
Below are some of my thoughts on stocks/ themes that meet two criteria: (i) I think they are good stand-alone investments ideas for 2015 and (ii) I don’t think that oil price movement (good or bad) will have a huge impact on their success or failure.
Battered down brand names/ re-positioning stories:
Weight Watchers (WTW): After a fantastic 50% run-up in the second half of 2014 due to new leadership, improved technology, earnings beats, and revised upward earnings estimates, the stock has mysteriously lost 30% in value over the past 3 weeks alone with no material news other than the fact that some people didn’t “like their new magazine layout”. I’m still a believer in what the new management team is doing and am looking forward to another nice run.
Hertz (HTZ): Despite being transportation related, I don’t think oil prices will swing the dial much for Hertz; it all comes down to whether the new leadership can execute a successful turnaround and restore investor confidence in their operations, strategy, and reporting. If they can, this stock has tremendous upside. If they can’t, you are at least left with an iconic brand name and infrastructure that is near impossible to replicate.
Lower-end consumer product and food companies:
YUM Brands (YUM): People might eat a little more junk food with lower oil prices, but a larger driver of growth for companies like YUM (parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) is their ability to grow into new markets and take share from competitors. moMANon wrote a great piece on YUM and why he feels that the Pizza Hut re-branding has the potential to take some meaningful market share from its competitors and move the earnings dial for YUM.
Health/ organic oriented food companies:
Whitewave Foods (WWAV): The other day at the grocery store I was shocked to have paid more for a gallon of organic milk for my kids than I typically pay for a gallon of dairy alternatives like soy or almond milk. Oil prices won’t dictate whether people drink milk or diary alternatives, and Whitewave has been on fire with 10 straight quarters of beating earnings expectations, year-over-year revenue growth exceeding 40% and encouraging new partnerships in china to expand their reach. ATG is going long again on lactose intolerance.
My personal favorite play here is probably Corning (GLW), the leading manufacturer of durable glass for tv’s, phones, and tablets. I don’t have a great “ATG” theory of why they will outperform other than I just love the company, their market dominance, and ability to continue innovating over the past 100+ years. Google (GOOGL) also feels cheap to me right now, but if oil prices cause an overall market shock downwards for some reason, I could see the mega-cap, high trading volume companies getting crushed simply from investor fund withdrawals.
Non-equity income and dividend plays (non-energy related of course!):
There’s nothing wrong with parking some money in non-equity dividend plays if you are nervous about energy prices rocking the market. Within the ATG portfolio we have increased our allocation to iShares U.S. Preferred Stock ETF (PFF), a large basket of predominantly bank-related preferred shares that are currently yielding 6.33%. If low oil prices were to trigger bank defaults, PFF would certainly be impacted, but not nearly as much as the underlying equities would be impacted.
With over 3,000 publicly traded companies in the U.S. alone and who knows how many mutual funds and ETF’s, investors have plenty of opportunities to pick their spots and limit exposure to certain factors of their choosing. I’m not staying away from the market, but I am staring away from big oil price bets in my personal portfolio for now.
I suppose it’s my turn to provide a quick take on the current make-up of ATG’s portfolio and thoughts on specific equities. While I have a few regrets (such as not buying Royal Caribbean at moMANon’s behest in hopes of buying a little cheaper and not picking up a larger entry position of Whitewave Foods), overall I’m happy with the current makeup of our portfolio and the various trades over its first 6 months.
OZM- At 16% of invested capital, Och-Ziff is our largest holding in the portfolio, more as a result of picking up more shares on weakness than overt confidence. I am extremely interested to see how their third quarter earnings pan out on November 4- the beauty of this stock is that they distribute most of their earnings as a dividend and it’s priced so cheap that their funds only need to gain a few ticks above 0% to generate adequate profits. The downside is that that they primarily play in international alternative investments, an area where getting a few ticks above 0% is no easy task in today’s environment. I’m a HOLD on this one.
ESV- Admittedly, I keep getting this stock wrong. It has been the worst performer of the ATG portfolio, with an unrealized loss of 13.5% to date. Plummeting oil prices coupled with concerns about over supply in the offshore rig industry have outweighed positive earnings results, a stable balance sheet, attractive dividend yields, and continued backlog of revenue for the company. Perhaps this is my version of the Ackman-Herbalife complex, but I’m convinced that ESV is destined to turn around- today’s earnings announcement of a solid beat and 3.2% gain is a good start. It’s hard to find a best-in-class company that generates ample profit, cash flow, and trades at a price below net book value of assets, even after excluding intangibles. I’m a believer in Ensco, but keeping a HOLD rating relative to the ATG portfolio given our large position.
GOOGL- I like monopolies, low leverage, strong revenue growth, and cutting edge technology investments at a price equal to the average S&P P/E ratio. STRONG BUY. We’ll be adding more soon.
VNM- Vietnam index, this is a tough one. I like this play a lot in the long run, but I’m annoyed by the nature of emerging market ETF’s like this where local players can anticipate the ETF buys for particular stocks in advance and move the market (increasing the ETF basis); I’m also cautious about emerging markets in general over the next couple of years. I think we’ll see a lot of volatility here and will need to buy on dips/ maybe sell on big upswings over the next year or so, hence the HOLD/ WATCHING WITH CAUTION rating.
HTZ- Hertz is a fascinating story, not too dissimilar to WTW: incredible overall market demand drivers for the industry but company-specific misteps and under-performance. If you missed my prior post on Hertz, check it out for more detail on why I’m intrigued, including how Carl Icahn bailed my ass out of the initial trade. We’re back in now that the stock has plummeted from $31/ share to around $20 share and has removed their CEO. While there may be some short-term turbulence as they eventually re-state their earnings and name a new permanent CEO, I’m extremely bullish on this stock over the next 12 months. STRONG BUY.
DE, PHM, DNOW, CLNY- I’m going to pull a Bill Simmons and group all these stocks together because (i) I’m lazy and (ii) they all share the similar characteristic of being what I consider relatively safer, industry leading stocks at attractive P/E ratios that I don’t lose any sleep over. We’ll buy on dips but they also aren’t likely to sky-rocket any time soon. The overall theme is increased importance on agricultural equipment/ farming efficiency, eventual millennial movement towards starting families and moving into new homes, continued energy/ oil industry growth in the US via a Warren Buffet supported spin-off, and attractive risk-adjusted real estate returns via a super smart shop that plays in both debt and equity (including rental residential).
WTW- In the last 3 months, Weight Watchers notched a staggering 53% gain from $19.25/ share to $29.42/ share before dropping 13% today despite a healthy earnings and revenue beat (but a 12% reported loss in overall membership). We’ve done well on this stock, and any reader of this blog knows that I’ve been cheer-leading it for over a year (admittedly more in bad times than good).
After reading the earnings transcript, the clear strategy set by new CEO Jim Chambers, and witnessing the measureable improvement of Weight Watcher’s technology presence (app integration with fitbit, iphone6, jawbone, etc.) I remain a steadfast believer in the stock.
The only caveat is that I actually did a little “gonzo investment research” and joined a new weight watchers group through my company to see what the program was like from the inside. I lasted one meeting- out of the total 18 people in attendance, there were literally 17 women staring down the 1 man with total disdain. I knew that Weight Watchers was overwhelmingly women, but I never fully appreciated the company’s challenge in attracting men to their onsite meetings until being there in person and feeling the awkwardness. I was very impressed by the initial Simple Start program and could immediately see the benefit of their group weight loss approach, but I think the programs need to be separated by gender if they ever hope to gain critical mass from the dudes. They also need a dude sponsor that men can actually relate to: Jonah Hill or Seth Rogan need to get fat again!!
The last two days have been extremely humbling for me. Yesterday afternoon I was watching the movie “Her” during the earnings call for Weight Watchers. As I watched the (fantastic) near-future sci-fi tale of a man falling in love with his artificial-intelligence powered operating system, the management of Weight Watchers slashed their 2014 profit guidance IN HALF due to pressure from free apps and “wearable fitness” devices. I suppose the parallel is evident in the un-avoidable trend of people living more and more in isolation with their devices than in the company of fellow humans…despite the common wisdom of what a disaster that will eventually be.
As one of my larger investment holdings, you can imagine my pain in seeing the stock drop by 27% in a single day. In my 15 year investing life, I’ve never had a stock move that dramatically in a single day, nor seen management slash their forecasts by 50% from the prior quarter.
I get the concept of technology disruption and appeal of a cheap app over the financial and time commitment of weight watchers. But the fact remains that Weight Watcher is more effective than the alternatives and the overall obesity market is growing fast! Perhaps I’m ignorant to the distinction between what people pay for vs. what actually works, but there’s a big part of me that wants to believe that ultimately overweight people want and will pay for a program that actually works better than the cheap apps or virtual assistance.
MoMANon spoke recently on his blog about battered brand names and their attractiveness. I continue to believe that WTW is a prime target given the recent drop. As the most recognizable brand name in weight loss, there is a floor to WTW’s brand value regardless of their potential incompetence in keeping up with technological trends, not to mention the impact of a new CEO who likely has incentives to set the bar low early in his term. I’m still a believer that the rapidly growing obesity market and brand power of Weight of Watchers will overcome the onslaught of cheap apps and wearable devices that ” talk the talk” and fail to meaningfully help people lose weight and improve their health.