Practical analysis for investment professionals
01 June 2016

The C-Suite Speaks: The Sky Isn’t Falling

Each week our team at Avondale Asset Management reads dozens of transcripts from earnings calls and presentations as part of our investment process. Below is a weekly post which contains some of the most important quotes about the economy and industry trends from those transcripts as well as other forums.


Earnings season slowed down last week, but conference presentations took up some of the slack. Presentations are a nice change of pace, because they tend to focus more on strategy and long-term plans. There was some positive macro commentary though coming out of these presentations: Conditions didn’t change much in May.

In addition to the transcripts we read online, we also attended the B. Riley & Co.’s 17th Annual Investor Conference in Los Angeles. At B. Riley, we had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a number of management teams to ask our own questions. Notes (usually paraphrases) from our meetings are included in this week’s edition. Thanks to the team at B. Riley, and especially Ken Tang, for hosting us.

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The Macro Outlook

Visa and MasterCard agree that there hasn’t been any dramatic change in the consumer during the month of May.

“What we are seeing . . . it’s very much more of the same. . . . We don’t see that weakening environment, but in the same respect we also don’t see a strengthening of commerce, and obviously that’s something that we’d like to see. But I would say in every developed market around the world, volumes continue to perform at levels like we saw last quarter.” — Visa director and CEO Charles Scharf (Payments)

“I don’t think we see anything different really than what we said back when we had our last earnings call . . . in April . . . So from a US perspective . . . We don’t see that the consumer had a step-down in spend.” — MasterCard CFO Martina Hund-Mejean (Payments)

Costco is encouraged that discretionary categories performed relatively well.

“Well, in terms of the customer, so far so good. We don’t see any dramatic change. . . . Interestingly, when you look at nondiscretionary items . . . versus discretionary items . . . including big-ticket items like furniture, electronics, and the like, we’ve actually had, relatively speaking, a little more strength in some of those nonfood categories. So that I think allays some of any concerns that some people have had. But generally speaking, I’d have to say our customers are still pretty healthy.” — Costco EVP and CFO Richard Galanti (General Merchandise)

Toll Brothers still loves the luxury housing market.

“We don’t agree that there’s weakness at the high end. I think our results and our commentary confirms and supports that. . . . I would not accept the thesis that the high end has a bid-ask issue. We don’t have buyers coming in that are looking to negotiate. We are very comfortable with the business. There are plenty of buyers and we love the luxury end.” — Toll Brothers director and CEO Douglas Yearley, Jr. (Homebuilder)

There continue to be companies that see some weakness though. Demand for farm equipment under pressure.

“Low commodity prices, stagnant farm incomes, and elevated used equipment levels in US and Canada are continuing to pressure demand for farm equipment.” — Deere & Company manager, investor communications, Joshua Jepsen (Ag Equipment)

Jewelry sales are soft.

“We attribute the overall lower sales to softness in domestic customer spending in many US markets as well as lower spending by foreign tourists of many nationalities in New York and other high tourism markets.” — Tiffany VP, investor relations, Mark Aaron (Jewelry)

And IT spending is muted.

“And by geography and by segment and by technology, our view is all of that feels muted right now . . . muted is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the reality that we don’t see the strong growth that has existed in the IT spending environment.” — Tech Data Corporation director and CEO Bob Dutkowsky (Technology Distributor)

But overall, the sky isn’t falling (except in Brazil).

“I travel around the world a lot with our customers and I have seen nothing personally or heard of on my team that makes me think the sky is falling again anywhere, but Brazil.” — LinkedIn SVP Mike Gamson (Social Network)

Financials

Some financial engineering tricks may be reaching their limits. Companies can’t borrow and buyback forever.

“We are very committed to shareholders returns, cash returns. In fact, in the last year, we have returned 250% of free cash flow, so we can’t stay at that level.” — Applied Materials president and CEO Gary Dickerson (Semiconductor Equipment)

And GAAP profits are important.

“We’re very focused on GAAP profits, and I think all companies in our space who use both stock and cash are focused on it. And I think we’ve got a very clear commitment with our compensation committee about the goals that we’re moving towards, and I think so far so good on tracking towards them.” — LinkedIn SVP Mike Gamson (Social Network)

If the financial engineering doesn’t end, regulators could flex their muscles.

“The power has shifted towards regulators in this country. And I think that’s a risk for the economy. I don’t think that’s a coincidence that we’re seeing sub-par economic growth, I think it’s a burden. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to bankers, whether you talk to health care executives, or in business.” — Chevron chairman and CEO John Watson (Oil and Gas)

Financial companies think a lot about blockchain.

“Blockchain is . . . something I think that, from our standpoint, we certainly spend a lot of time thinking about, and we have our own investments in companies where we’re developing prototypes. . . . I think if you just ask me what the impact will be, I think the short-term on payments are not tremendously significant.” — Visa director and CEO Charles Scharf (Payments)

More and more people are filing tax returns via mobile phone.

“The number of completed returns through the mobile app and through mobile browsers doubled.” — Intuit chairman and CEO Brad Smith (Personal Finance Software)

Consumer

Flat is the new up for many old-line retailers.

“In our domestic business, we delivered better-than expected, essentially flat comparable sales, versus our guidance of 1% to 2% decline.” — Best Buy chairman and CEO Hubert Joly (Consumer Electronics)

Retailers are having to defend expansion plans.

“So we still believe in new stores. I mean, I think they create an incredible place for our customer to touch and feel the product. They make our digital platform more competitive and ultimately they create brand awareness. I think we have opportunities to leverage them perhaps differently than we do today to create different and unique experiences.” — DSW CEO Roger Rawlins (Retail)

Meanwhile, Amazon is making an even bigger push into fashion.

“Amazon definitely wants to be seen as a place where a customer can get fashion.” — Steve Madden director of finance Derek Browe (Shoes)

But the returns can “kill you” in online apparel.

“In the online channel, it’s the return and refund costs that kill you because of the high cost of shipping versus the ultimate price of the order. About 20% of overall apparel orders on e-commerce are returned.” — Destination XL Group president, CEO, and director David Levin (Big and Tall Apparel)

Technology

Jeff Bezos says that we’re embarking on “a golden age of machine learning.”

“It has been a dream for so long, a kind of science fiction scenario. The things we’re solving with machine learning today are extraordinary. We really are at a tipping point where the progress is accelerating. I think we’re entering a golden age of machine learning. We’re still a long ways away from being able to do things the way humans do things. Human-like intelligence is still pretty mysterious even to the most advanced AI research. If you think about the way humans learn, we are incredibly data efficient.” — Amazon president, CEO, and chairman Jeff Bezos (E-Commerce)

This isn’t the first time that Artificial Intelligence (AI) or the Internet of Things (IoT) have been talked about.

“I was around for the first AI wave . . . AI was a dirty word for a long time. . . . Grad students avoided the subject because you’d have your funding pulled right away.” — Digimarc EVP and CTO Tony Rodriguez (Digital Watermarks)

“So look, we’ve been talking about IoT, I think we talked about this a little bit at dinner last night. Back in the late ’80s when I started to get involved in cellular, we used to talk about IoT being a huge revenue driver. I finally think we’re on the cusp of that, but in the meantime the industry is exploded.” — Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam (Telecom)

IBM views cognitive technologies as complementary to human workers.

“We don’t see the application of cognitive technologies as replacing or automating anything away. What it really does is it provides a better basis by which people can make decisions.” — IBM SVP and CFO Martin Schroeter (Enterprise Technology)

The cloud allows companies to update applications more effectively.

“There’s certainly an economic element to this. But it’s really about agility . . . with our clients and the hybrid environment, we’re delivering new functions every day. And that’s why clients find that cloud, that model, so appealing.” — IBM SVP and CFO Martin Schroeter (Enterprise Technology)

E-mail can be a sticky product.

“There are still 700,000 subscribers to legacy EarthLink. There are a lot of people who in 1995 got an email like ‘scott@earthlink.com’ who love their address and don’t want to give it up.” — EarthLink VP, finance, Trey Huffman (Internet Service Provider)

Health Care

Increasingly doctors are becoming employees of hospitals as hospitals consolidate.

“Over the last couple years, a significant amount of consolidation in hospitals, and that will probably continue. We’ve also seen that . . . more and more physicians are becoming employees of the hospital than they have been in the past.” — Johnson and Johnson EVP Sandra Peterson (Diversified Healthcare)

Materials, Energy

Energy companies are running out of liquidity and will likely default despite higher oil prices.

“Further deterioration in the oil and gas producer portfolio occurred during the quarter. . . . This trend was expected as leverage borrowers exhaust available sources of liquidity. . . . The recent increase in oil prices, while encouraging, is not likely to have an immediate positive impact.” — TD Bank Group group head and CRO Mark Chauvin (Bank)

Miscellaneous Nuggets of Wisdom

Bring your team together.

“I’m always making sure it’s a special event and that people understand the importance of getting together. My point is that it’s important to me that people feel connected to something more than just their desk and computer. That they understand the purpose and have a sense of their role and how they contribute to things.” — Liberty Global president and CEO Mike Fries (Cable)

Be adaptive to change.

“The world is changing and you have to understand what’s around you, what you can and can’t control. If not, you’re not long for this business or any business really.” — Perry Ellis International vice chairman, CEO, and president Oscar Feldenkreis (Apparel)

Know your purpose.

“Life is what you make of it. You are dealt a pack of cards. Your DNA is fixed by your mother and your father. . . . Your job is to make the best of the cards that have been handed out to you. What can you do well? What can you not do well? What are you worse at? If you ask me to make my living as an artist, I’ll starve, because I just can’t draw. . . . But if you ask me to argue a point out, I’ll get by. Those are the cards I was handed out, and I make use of them. Don’t try and do something you are not favored by nature to do.” — Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/retrorocket

About the Author(s)
Scott Krisiloff, CFA

Scott Krisiloff, CFA, is the CEO of Avondale Asset Management, an independent investment advisory firm located in Los Angeles. Krisiloff is the author of the firm's blog, Company Notes.

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