Clearly wrong

Back at the end of July, in this post on artificial intelligence (AI), I highlighted a few technology stocks related to AI that may be worth looking at in a market downturn. I named Nvidia (NVDA), Google/Alphabet (GOOG) and Baidu (BIDU). Well, I followed through on two of these calls at the end of October and bought into GOOGL and NVDA. I am just still too nervous about investing in a Chinese firm like BIDU given the geopolitical and trade tensions. I am reasonably happy about the GOOGL trade but after their awful results last night I quickly got out of NVDA this morning, taking a 17% hit.

Last quarter CEO Jensen Huang said the following:

A lot of gamers at night, they could — while they’re sleeping, they could do some mining. And so, do they buy it for mining or did they buy it for gaming, it’s kind of hard to say. And some miners were unable to buy our OEM products, and so they jumped on to the market to buy it from retail, and that probably happened a great deal as well. And that all happened in the last — the previous several quarters, probably starting from late Q3, Q4, Q1, and very little last quarter, and we’re projecting no crypto-mining going forward.

Last night, they guided their Q4 gaming revenue down sequentially by a massive $600 million, about a third, to clear inventory of their mid-range Pascal GPU chips and warned that the crypto hangover could take a few quarters to clear. CEO Jensen Huang said “we were surprised, obviously. I mean, we’re surprised by it, as anybody else. The crypto hangover lasted longer than we expected.” That was some surprise!!

All the bull analyst calls on NVDA have been shown up badly here. Goldman Sachs, who only recently put the stock on their high conviction list, quickly withdrew them from the list with the comment that they were “clearly wrong”! My back of the envelop calculations suggest that the 2019 and 2020 consensus EPS estimates of $7.00 and $8.00 pre-last night’s Q3 results could be impacted down by 15% and 20% respectively. Many analysts are only taking their price targets down to the mid to low $200’s. With the stock now trading around the $160s, I could see it going lower, possibly into the $120’s if this horrible market continues. And that’s why I just admitted defeat and got out.

All bad trades, like this NVDA one, teach you something. For me, its don’t get catch up in the hype about a strong secular trend like AI, particularly as we are clearly in a late market cycle. NVDA is a remarkable firm and its positioning in non-gaming markets like data-centres and auto as well as the potential of its new Turing gaming chips mean that it could well be a star of the future. But I really don’t understand the semi-conductor market and investing in a market you really don’t understand means you have to be extremely careful. Risk management and sizing of positions is critical. So, don’t get caught up in hype (here is an outrageous example of AI hype on Micron).

Strangely, I find it a physiological relief to sell a losing position: it means I don’t have to be reminded of the mistake every time I look at my portfolio and I can be more unemotional about ever considering re-entering a stock. I don’t think I will have to consider NVDA again for several quarters!

Lesson learned. Be careful out there.

CTL: Pain before gain?

Before I unleash my musings on the latest Centurylink (CTL) results, building on this recent CTL post, I will touch on some industry trends and some CTL specific items that are relevant in my opinion. As regular readers will know, the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) by businesses, particularly in business processes, is an area that fascinates me (as per this post). How such process improvements will change a capital- and labour-intensive sector such as telecom (as per this post) is one of the reasons I see such potential for CTL.

Whilst reading some recent articles on digital developments (such as this and this and this), I cannot but be struck by the expanded networking needs of this future. All this vast amount of new data will have to be crunched by machines, likely in data centres, and updated constantly by real time data from the field. Networks in this era (see this post on 5G) will need to be highly efficient, fluid and scalable, and have a deep reach. Very different from the fixed cost dumb pipe telecoms of old!

CTL have outlined their ambition to be such a network provider and are undertaking a digital transformation programme of their business to achieve that goal. CEO Jeff Storey has gone as far as saying that CTL “is not a telecom company, but that we are a technology company”. Time will tell on that one!

Today, industry trends from business telecom revenues (i.e. enterprises from SME to global giants plus wholesale business) are flat to declining, as highlighted in this post. Deciphering recent trends has not been made any easier by the introduction of the new revenue recognition accounting standard ASC606. Where possible, the updated graph below shows revenues under the new standard from Q1 2018.

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This data shows an estimated annual decline in overall annual revenues for 2018 of 1.5%, compared to 1.2% in 2017 and 2% for each of the preceding 2 years. Over the past 8 quarters, that’s about a 33-basis point sequential quarterly drop on average. Different firms are showing differing impacts from the accounting change on their business revenue. Comcast showed a 6.5% jump in Q1 2018 before returning to trend whilst AT&T showed a 4% drop in Q1 2018 before returning to more normal quarterly changes. Rather than trying to dismantle the impact of the accounting change, its easier to simply accept the change as its obvious the underlying trends remain, as the bottom graph above illustrates. Whilst accepting these 5 firms do not make up all the US, let alone the global, telecom market, some interesting statistics from this data are shown below.

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Although the accounting change has likely skewed figures in the short term, the exhibit above shows that AT&T is losing market share whilst the cable firms are growing their business revenues albeit from lower bases than the big players. Verizon and the new CTL have performed slightly below market trends (i.e. 50 basis point average quarterly sequential declines versus overall at 33 basis points).

Before I get onto CTL’s Q3 results, this article from Light Reading illustrates some of the changes underway at the firm to transform its business. The changes are centred around 4 themes – increasing network visibility, delivering business-owned automation, encouraging a lean mindset, and skills transformation.

On network viability, CTL is layering federation tools on top of its existing systems. Federated architecture (FA) is a pattern in enterprise architecture that allows interoperability and information sharing between semi-autonomous de-centrally organized lines of business, information technology systems and applications. The initial phase of this federation was with customer and sales systems such as those used for quoting, order entry, order status, inventory management and ticketing. The goal is to move towards a common sales ecosystem and standard portals that automate customer’s journeys from order to activation and beyond. A common narrative of CTL’s transformation is to give customers the tools to manage their networking capabilities like they do using the cloud. This is more of a network as a service or network on demand that CTL say is the future for telecom providers. This interview with the newly appointed CTO of CTL gives further insight into what the firm is doing in this on demand area, including changes underway to meet the increased SD-WAN demand and the upcoming deluge of data in the 5G era.

Business owned automation is allowing different business units to own their own automation projects, whilst been supported by centralised centres of excellence in areas such as robotic process automation (RPA), digital collaboration, mobility and analytics. Training is provided by the centralised units. Empowering the business units encourages a key cultural change in adopting a lean mindset across the firm. Ensuring that people in the firm are retrained and motivated is a core part of CTL’s plans as change only comes from within and as the firm continues to downsize (they have already reduced headcount by 12%) its important that staff morale and skills transformation is a focus as the business changes.

So, moving on to CTL’s Q3 results. The market has not reacted well to the Q on Q drop of 3.6% in revenues, with weakness seen across all business segments, and the stock is trading down around $19 as a result. The trends highlighted above have been exasperated by CTL dropping or renegotiating lower margin business such as contracts involving customer premises equipment (so called CPE). Of the $80 million quarterly revenue drop (under ASC606) in Q3, $30 million was attributed to the culling of low margin business. The remaining $50 million drop is about twice the average drop in recent times, thereby raising analyst concerns about an increase in trend revenue declines.

However, there are two points to note here. Firstly, using revenue figures before the application of ASC606, the net drop was more in line at $37 million (i.e. $67-$30) and comparable with the Q2 non-ASC606 drop of $40 million. Secondly, and more importantly, the trend is lumpy and given CTL’s transformation focus, it makes total sense to me for CTL to cull low margin non-network centric revenues. Management were explicit in stating their intention “to focus on the network-centric things” and that this business is “distracting our organization and it’s not giving us anything, so we’ll stop it”. To me, that demonstrates confidence in the direction of the business. As Storey emphasised, when referring to culling low margin business, “we manage this business for free cash flow, free cash flow per share, these are good things to be doing”.

Analysts concern that cutting expenses longer term cannot be a sustainable business plan without revenue growth at some point is certainly valid (and is one of the key risks with CTL). Indeed, I estimate that there is about $900 million and $500 million of quarterly legacy business and consumer revenues respectively (about 15% and 10% of total quarterly revenues) that could fall off at an accelerated pace as CTL refocuses the business over the medium term. CTL’s return to top line growth could be several years off yet. More on this later.

Another area of concern from analysts was the fact that CTL will spend approx. $500 million less on capex in 2018 compared to original projections (with levels projected to return to a more normal 16% of revenues for 2019 and beyond). This could be interrupted as a desire not to invest in the business to inflate free cash-flow, never a good sign for any company. However, again management explained this as a desire to refocus capital spending away from items like copper upgrades and towards strategic areas. They cited the approval to bring on-net another 7,000 to 8,000 buildings and the use of strategic targeting of capex (using AI) across consumer and business geographies to maximise returns in urban areas where 5G infrastructure will be needed in the future. Again, a more disciplined approach to capex makes total sense to me and demonstrates the discipline this management team is imposing on the business.

What seems to have been missed in the reaction to Q3 results is the extraordinary progress they have made on margin improvements. The EBITDA margin again grew to 39.3% with the projected operational synergies of $850 million now targeted to be achieved by year end. Management are keen to move the focus from integration to digital transformation from 2019. Achieving the targeted operational synergies so soon, particularly when we know that network expense synergies do not come through until 2 to 3 years after a merger, is an amazing achievement. It also highlights that their projected cost synergies of $850 million were way way under-baked. As I highlighted in this recent CTL post, I suspected this under-baking was to protect against the risk of any further acceleration in the underling margin erosion at the old CTL business as legacy business declined.

CTL’s discipline in extracting costs, as seen by actions such as the (painful) 12% headcount reduction, is central to my confidence in CTL’s management achieving their strategic aims. I do not believe that a further $250 million and $200 million of cost synergies in 2019 and 2020 respectfully through further synergies, network grooming efforts and the digital transformation initiative is unreasonable. That would bring overall cost synergies to $1.3 billion, a level consistent to what LVLT achieved in the TWTC merger.

So, given the likelihood of an increased purposeful erosion in low margin legacy business over the next several years combined with a higher level of cost extraction, I have recalculated my base and pessimistic scenarios from my previous post.

My base scenario, as per the graph below, shows annual revenues effectively flatlining over the next 3 years (2019 to 2021) around $23.3 to $23.6 billion before returning to modest top-line growth thereafter (i.e. between 1% and 1.5% annual growth) with an EBITDA margin of 42% achieved by the end of 2021 and maintained thereafter. This revenue profile mirrors that of previous LVLT mergers, albeit a longer period of flatlining revenues due to the amount of old legacy CTL to burn off. Capex is assumed at 16% of revenue from 2019 onwards. My projections also include further interest rate increases in 2019 and 2020 (as a reminder every 25-basis point change in interest rate results in an 8.5 basis point change in CTL’s blended rate). The current dividend rate is maintained throughout with FCF coverage ratio reducing from the low 70’s in 2019 to around 60% by the end of 2021. My DCF valuation for CTL under these base projections is $23 per share. That’s about 20% above its current level around $19 plus a 11% dividend yield.

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My pessimistic scenario, as per the graph below, assumes that the hoped-for revival of CTL into an on-demand service provider in the 5G age does not result in revenue growth after the legacy business has eroded for whatever reason (other technological advances over the need for a deep fiber network optic been the most likely). Annual revenue continues to decline to below $22 billion by 2021 and does not get above that level again until 2025. Although this scenario would be extreme, its not unknown in the telecom industry for future jumps in data traffic to result in falling revenues (eh, remember the telecom winter!). EBITDA margin levels get to 41% by the end of 2021 and slowly rise to 41.5% thereafter on further cost cutting. Capex and interest rate assumptions are as per the base scenario.

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In the pessimistic scenario the dividend level of $2.16 per share must be cut by 50% from 2020 to reflect the new reality and to deleverage the balance sheet. Although the share price would likely suffer greatly in such a scenario, my DCF valuation is $14 per share, 26% below the current $19 share price, not forgetting the reduced dividend yield after the 50% cut.

As per my previous post on CTL, I see little point in contemplating an optimistic scenario until such time as revenue trends are clearer. A buy-out at a juicy premium is the most likely upside case.

Consideration should be given in any projections over the medium term on the impact and timing of the next recession which is certain to happen over the 2019 to 2025 period. Jeff Storey has argued in the past that recession is good for firms like CTL as enterprises look to save money through switching from legacy services to more efficient on demand services. Although there is an element of truth to this argument, the next recession will likely put further pressures on CTL’s top-line (alternatively, an outbreak of inflation may help pricing pressures!!). Higher interest rates and lower multiples are a risk to the valuation of firms like CTL and the uncertainty over the future macro-economic environment make CTL a risky investment. Notwithstanding the inevitability of a recession at some time, I do feel that the revenue projections above are already conservative given the explosion in network demand that is likely over the next decade, although increased signs of recession in late 2019 or 2020 would temper my risk appetite on CTL.

To me, one of the biggest risks to CTL is the CEO’s health. Given Sunit Patel has left for T-Mobile (who I hope may be a potential buyer of CTL after they get the Sprint deal embedded and/or abandoned) and the new CFO will take some time to get accepted in the role, any potential for CTL not to have Jeff Storey at the helm over the next 2 years would be very damaging. Identifying and publicly promoting a successor to Jeff Storey is something the Board should be actively considering in their contingency planning.

For now, though, I am reasonably comfortable with the risk reward profile on CTL here, absent any significant slow down in the US economy.

Peak iPhone

This will be a very interesting week on the stock market, not least the US mid-terms and the ongoing US/China trade saga, which will likely determine the short-term direction of the market. Apple (AAPL) reported last week and another stellar report was hoped for to calm technology weakness. Instead of a stellar report the market got weak Q1 guidance and the news that AAPL would drop detailed product reporting for their FY2019. Given that there is a massive industry dedicated to examining iPhone trends, the lack of specific numbers being disclosed has caused consternation amongst commentators.

It has been about a year since I last posted on AAPL (here) when it traded around $170. Of course, it has since traded up to a high of $230 before falling back to just above $200 currently. There is no doubt that the smartphone market is saturated with IDC estimating global smartphone shipments falling in Q3 by 6% to 355 million unit. In this environment, it makes sense to me for AAPL to focus on higher value smartphones and to extracting increased fees from services on their installed base. Extrapolating on the iPhone installed base analysis from my last post, I estimate that the iPhone installed base will peak around 650 units based upon iPhone unit sales fall to 200 million and 190 million in FY2019 and FY2020 respectively from 218/217 million in FY2018/2017. The active installed base, excluding non-core users, peaks around 570 million. My projections are shown below.

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I have also assumed that the ASP for FY2019 and FY2020 increases to $819 and $847 respectively from $759 in FY2018. I further assumed that service revenue increases as a percentage of total revenue to 18% for FY2020 from 14% in FY2018. I suspect this may be too light given AAPL’s decision to move its reporting focus away from products to services. Although AAPL’s net cash pile is slowly dwindling (approx. $120 billion at end September from $170 billion at the end of December 2017), I think a more focused move by AAPL into the home and content to take on Netflix and Amazon will be a feature of the next few years (bring on the NFLX rumours, again!). My resulting quarterly revenue estimates into FY2020 are shown below.

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As you can see, these estimates do show overall revenue moderating with revenue for FY2019 and FY2020 at $270 billion and $273 billion respectively from $266 billion in FY2018. My diluted EPS estimates, assuming the same trend of share buy-backs, for FY2019 and FY2020 are $13.30 and $14.80, representing EPS growth of 12% and 11% respectively. These EPS estimates are consistent with current consensus. At a share price of $200, the forward PE would be 15 and 13.5 for FY2019 and FY2020 respectively.

My usual forward PE excluding cash graph, at an AAPL stock price of $200, is below. If AAPL were to return to its historical average multiple since 2009 of 9, then AAPL’s stock could fall back to $160 or below if the market gets really spooked about peak iPhone.

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The question therefore is how the market is going to react to AAPL’s attempt to move the focus from its hardware results and more towards its service business from its massive and loyal installed base. Changing the market’s obsession from iPhone sales will be no easy task. AAPL is an emotive stock, not only because of its products but for its incredible historical value creation. It is the one stock that I have always regretted selling any of. I do not think now is the time to sell AAPL but I will wait for the stock price to settle, particularly in the current volatility, to consider buying more. A fall towards $170 would be too tempting to ignore for this wonderful firm. Mr Buffet and the firm’s own buy-back programme make such a fall unlikely in my view but one can only hope!

Peak Earnings?

With the S&P500 down 9% off its high this month after last week, the question everybody is asking is whether this is a buying opportunity or the beginning of a new phase in the market. I have no idea. Nobody really does. I suspect this week will be bumpy but will rally off Fridays’ lows as there is some cheap names who have been hit hard. I have been modestly dipping my toe in on some names but am waiting before making any big moves. I hope to post on a few of the stocks regularly mentioned in this blog in the coming weeks.

The underlying concerns about the global economy and trade, the impact of US rate increases and quantitative tightening, Italy, to name but a few, have been and continue to be real issues to consider. The fact that the market has turned on a penny and is now all worried about the issues it shrugged off a few weeks ago is, well just how markets are!

What I do know is that this bull market has all been about earnings and margin growth, nothing else matters. So, I took the latest operating EPS and sales estimates for 2019 from S&P, extrapolated them into 2020, assuming a modest slowing of the EPS growth. These operating margin figures and assumed sales figures form the basis of Scenario 1. Stressed operating margin and sales formed the basis for Scenarios 2 and 3, with Scenario 2 falling back to the 2013-17 average operating margin of 9.5% and Scenario 3 falling more severely to the 2008-18 average of 8.75%. The graph below shows the operating margin assumptions in a historical context for each scenario.

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Assuming a price for the S&P500 as per Friday’s close of 2,659, the EPS figures with respective trailing and future 12-month PEs are as per the graphs below.

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So, if the current operating estimates for 2019 stand up and continue into 2020 as per Scenario 1, then I would say the current dip is a buying opportunity with a forward 2019 and 2020 PE of 15 and 14 respectively. If, however, you feel that we have reached peak earnings and a modest enough EPS retrenchment over 2019 and 2020 is likely as per Scenario 2, then the current S&P500 level looks vulnerable to further downside as the implied forward PEs of 17.5 and 18.7 for 2019 and 2020 look rich in a downward trending EPS environment. If, as per Scenario 3, the EPS retrenchment is more severe, then we are in for a very bumpy ride with another 15% to 25% downside possible.

To state the obvious, the current market focus is all about the earnings outlook for 2019 and 2020. The mid-terms over the next few weeks will be another factor to consider. It will be interesting to see if the market focus moves away from the economic prospects over the next few years and more towards 2018 bonuses and end of year window dressing as this quarter progresses!

Crises Chronicles

Ray Dalio is on a mission to share insights gained over 40 years at the helm of the vastly successful Brightwater Associates. After the financial crisis, Dalio published an excellent article on the workings of the economy. In 2017, he expanded on his previously published philosophy in a book called Principles (as per this summary). More recently he published a free downloadable book called A Template for Understanding Big Debt Crises, available here.

I have a copy of Principles but I must admit I have yet to finish reading it (on my to do list!). I have read the first section of the latest Big Debt Crises book and would highly recommend it. The second section of the book has detailed case studies (the US 2007-11, the US 1928-37, and Germany 1918-24) and the third section is a compendium of 48 other case studies.

Two graphs below from the Big Debt Crises book are worth reproducing, reflecting key factors behind our economy today.

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Dalio is an astute student of history. He recently commented that “the biggest mistake that most people make is to judge what will be good by what has been good lately”.

Amen to that.