Coca Cola Bottling Shares Surge 130% After Name Change: Could FinTech Be To Blame?

Hat tip to Upslope Capital for bringing this to people’s attention. It appears that do-it-yourself investors relying on tech platforms to invest need to be even more careful than some may have previously thought. Sure, having a computer decide your asset allocation could be problematic long term, but it turns out that even someone trying to buy Coca Cola stock might get into trouble if they don’t do their homework.

Whereas Coca Cola trades under the symbol KO, their largest bottler/distributor trades under the symbol COKE. The latter used to be called “Coca Cola Bottling Co Consolidated,” which made it easier to understand which stock was which (given that the “real” Coke did not trade under “COKE”). Then in January the bottler changed the company name to “Coca Cola Consolidated” and dropped the “Bottling” completely.

So what happened? COKE shares almost immediately surged more than 130%:

So much for being just a boring bottler of soft drinks… COKE shares rally from under $130 to a peak of $413 in just four months after a questionable name change.

What could possibly have prompted such a huge move in this once boring stock? Well, one theory was floated by Upslope Capital; the name change itself!

If you read through their report (linked to above at the outset), you will notice that users of the popular Robinhood investing app have gobbled up COKE stock this year, likely due to the fact that searches for “Coca Cola” bring up the name of the bottling company with the stock symbol COKE. If you were a young, amateur investor, you probably would not think twice about putting in a buy order thinking you were getting shares in the mega cap global beverage giant that counts Warren Buffett as an investor and sports a total market value of more than $200 billion (70 times bigger than the bottling company!). And then you would wind up with an investment in the far smaller bottling company. And worse, your fellow investors would be doing the same, helping to push the stock up more than 100% in a matter of months!

While the air has come out of the balloon in recent days, COKE is probably still overvalued at $316 per share. I suspect sometime over the next year the stock trade back to $200 or $250 and plenty of investors will wonder exactly how they lost so much money on such a dominant company’s stock.

While technology surely will play a role in evolving the investment process for many, the idea that hiring a human being to assist you with your savings and investment objectives is unlikely to become outdated for the majority of folks, for reasons exactly like this one. Sometimes the computers are going to be value-destructive, not value-additive as intended.

Full Disclosure: At the time of writing, I am short shares of COKE, but positions may change at any time.

Not Enough U.S. Cash Burning IPOs for You? Here Comes China’s Luckin Coffee

Just as U.S. investors are trying to make sense of the Uber (UBER) and Lyft (LYFT) IPOs, both disastrous for those buying at the offer prices, on Friday we will get a U.S. listing of Chinese-operated, Cayman Island-incorporated coffee upstart Luckin Coffee. How much should investors pay for this so-called Starbucks of China (even though its business model is not copying the Seattle-based giant)? Quite frankly, who the heck knows? If that is not a sign that one should pass for now, I don’t know what is.

Below is a summary of Luckin’s financials from the IPO prospectus, though keep in mind its operating history is short (having gone from zero to 2,370 stores between October 2017 and March 2019).

This income statement reads like a Silicon Valley cloud-computing start-up, not a Chinese bricks and mortar coffee chain

As you can see, Luckin’s stores are run at a loss, with Q1 2019 sales of $71 million dwarfed by direct store operating costs of $83 million and another $25 million of marketing expense.

Investors should not exactly be enamored with Luckin’s growth rate. After all, selling coffee at a loss is an easy way to rack up sales and there is no way that the company has a detailed, refined, and proven unit expansion plan in place given that they are opening these money-losing locations as fast as humanly possible (an average of more than 4 new stores a day since they launched 18 months ago!).

None of this says anything about the long-term odds of success for Luckin Coffee. They could very well become China’s largest coffee seller and make money doing it. There is simply no way to know at this point, so investors are left deciding whether they want to take a gamble or not. Many will given that the company will list on a U.S. exchange this week, but with no sound financial model to back up the prices being paid for the shares, there is really no fundamental case to be made for buying the stock.

All one can do is estimate what they think margins could ultimately be based on the business model, assume long-term success, and calculate an imputed price-to-sales ratio worth paying today given certain growth assumptions. That is how Uber and Lyft are likely to be valued (assuming people care to value it at all), and the same idea applies to Luckin Coffee and whatever the next cash-burning IPO waiting in the wings happens to be.

Author’s note: To give you an example, assume that Uber can ultimately earn 20% EBITDA margins over the long-term and one can justify paying 15x EV/EBITDA given their potential growth outlook. That valuation equates to an EV/sales ratio of 3x, which based on 2020 revenue projections could yield a per-share fair value in the $30 ballpark (vs today’s quote of $40). And don’t even ask me to guess what Luckin Coffee’s margins could be.

Gaming Update: Wynn Set for Boston Opening and Why Penn Looks Dirt Cheap

A lot has been going on with Wynn Resorts (WYNN) since my last post about six months ago so I figured it was time for an update. In addition, I recently significantly increased long holdings in regional gaming operator Penn National (PENN) and will share some brief thoughts there.

Shares of WYNN have continued in seesaw fashion, as the Massachusetts Gaming authorities held hearings to determine if it would allow the company to keep its gaming license in the state and open its Encore Boston Harbor property on schedule this summer. After a lot of tough talk, WYNN was fined $35 million for how it handled its former CEO amid inexcusable behavior, but got the green light for the Boston resort, and the stock has firmed up with the uncertainty cleared up.

It will take some time before we know exactly how profitable the new property will be, but I have been sticking with my $2 billion EBITDA target for 2020 throughout my holding period, and there is no reason to think that figure will be materially off base at this point.

If we apply an EV/EBITDA multiple of between 12x and 13x on that cash flow number, fair value for WYNN shares would be in the $155-$175 range, compared with the current price in the 130’s. On a free cash flow basis, a 15-18x multiple on my $1.1 billion estimate (once Boston has stabilized), gets us to a fair value range of $154-$185 per share.

As a result, the stock is still well priced for longs, but given that it moves up and down a lot quite quickly, there could be an exit point approaching near the bottom end of that range if one can find other opportunities with even more upside.

On that front, I really like shares of Penn National Gaming and have been buying a lot more at $18 and change this week. PENN is the nation’s leading operator of regional casinos, with more than 40 properties in nearly 20 states. Competition is typically intense, as jurisdictions often grant additional licenses in order to try and maximize tax revenue, but PENN has proven to be as solid an operator as they come, and does not shy away from accretive M&A deals when given the chance.

PENN shares have been cut in half from their 52-week highs despite a highly accretive merger with one of its largest peers (Pinnacle), and continued single property acquisitions – such as Greektown in Detroit.

The stock has been crushed lately and in the high teens fetches an EV/EBITDA multiple in the mid 6’s. The free cash flow multiple is even more extreme at sub-6 times. With sports betting now legal, the company should benefit over the long term, as more and more states pave the way for taking bets. While the margins on betting won’t be huge (the house takes a 10% cut and then gives a nice chunk to the state via taxes), it should be an incremental positive, and ancillary revenue such as food/beverage and hotel stays should get a nice bump as well.

Regional gaming assets typically fetch around 8x EV/EBITDA in private transactions and I see no reason a diversified operator like PENN, with a long track record of impressive capital allocation on behalf of shareholders, should not trade at a similar multiple, if not a slight premium. The market does not agree at the moment, but there is a great chance that at some point in the next couple of years that sentiment will change.

If we assume further deleveraging in 2019 and into 2020, my financial model shows a per-share fair value as high as $30 per share, assuming a valuation of 8x EV/EBITDA and a net leverage ratio of 2.5x excluding lease obligations.

Will A Barrage Of Tech Unicorn IPOs Mark The Top?

Back in the tech bubble of the 1998-2000 era investors were left holding the bag because they paid up mightily for small, fast-growing companies that were losing money but promising dominant long-term businesses based on fast growing end markets. Paying 15 or 20 times annual revenue became the norm because earnings were negligible. Sell side analyst recommendations went something like “we recommend shares of XYZ at 15x our forward 12-month revenue estimate, as peers are trading for 20x.”

During the current bull market there was not a lot of this kind of froth in the tech sector, even though it has once again grown to be the largest in the market (31% of the S&P 500 by market value today). Companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft were growing nicely and had a ton of GAAP profits and free cash flow to back up the valuations. There were some exceptions like Amazon and Netflix, but it is hard to argue that they will not achieve solid profit margins at some point, and they are likely going to dominate their sectors on a global basis (exactly what those margins ultimately will be is an open question, and certainly up for debate).



Over the last year or two, cloud-based software companies are copying the Amazon/Netflix model. Given annual growth rates of 20-30%, investors are giving them a pass, despite stock-based compensation costs that are well into the double-digits as a percentage of revenue, and with sales and marketing budgets of 40-60% of revenue (whereas something more like 20-30% used to be the norm). These stocks trade at 10 times sales or more, and for that reason I cannot justify investing in most of them, but given that they are software businesses with high gross margins, these firms could make nice money today if they wanted to (cut sales and marketing to 20% of revenue and viola, your margins explode).

But as long as the public markets are valuing your stock as if you were already at peak margins and still growing 20-30% per annum, there is no reason to change your behavior. And since they can pay their employees with lots of stock, most of these companies are not burning much cash, if any, so the balance sheets are in good shape.

This week I believe we are seeing the next phase of the tech cycle with the Lyft IPO. These tech “unicorns” (firms with private market valuations of at least $1 billion) are about to flood the market with initial public offerings in 2019 as venture capitalists seek to cash out.

But something is different with these unicorns like Lyft; the income statements are gut-wrenching and look a lot more like 1999. But don’t take my word for it, here are Lyft’s results for 2016, 2017, and 2018, taken right from their IPO prospectus:

Losing $911 million on sales of $2.15 billion is no small feat, yet it is one the marketplace deemed worthy of a $25 billion valuation at Lyft’s $72 IPO price. With the stock peaking at $88 on the first day of trading and now fetching just $71 on day #4, the jury is out on whether the public market will accept these businesses at these prices.

The biggest problem, though, is not Lyft per se. It is that there are plenty more of these unicorns coming. Let’s take a look at a list of 10 unicorns that have talked about, or already started the process, to go public in the next 12 months, along with recent private market valuations:

Uber $120B

WeWork $45B

Airbnb $30B

Palantir $20B

Pinterest $12B

Instacart $8B

Slack $7B

DoorDash $7B

Houzz $4B

Postmates $2B

That’s 10 companies worth one quarter of a trillion dollars in total (more than 1% of the entire S&P 500 index) and every single one of them is losing money hand over fist. Who is going to buy all of these IPOs? What assets are going to be sold to make room for them? How many money-losing companies really should be publicly traded? Will small investors be left holding the bag this time around too? Will a deluge of cash-burning tech stocks with “good stories” mark the top of this market cycle?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but as we look out at the rest of 2019, I do think this unicorn IPO frenzy is a material risk to market sentiment. And if Lyft traded below its offer price on day #2, what does that say about everyone else who decided not to “go first”? In the end, is Lyft really that much more than a taxi service? We’ll find out over the next few years, I guess.

If you are a do-it-yourself investor who is thinking about playing in these IPOs shortly after they debut, please tread carefully. Sure, there will likely be at least one or two big long-term winners mixed in, but I suspect many more will be quite disappointing.

Somebody mentioned on CNBC this week that Uber and Lyft feel a lot like Sirius and XM did in the satellite radio space. Once they reached scale they make good money, but they really are just media companies. And in the end, there was only room for one player so they merged to survive. I would say the same thing might be true for the food delivery services. Do I really need Amazon Restaurants, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Postmates, GrubHub, and Bite Squad to go along with apps from Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s? My head hurts just thinking about it.

Why I Am Selling Apple in the 180’s

While technology giant Apple (AAPL) has not been a large holding at my firm for a long time, until recently my clients did have some residual shares with a very cost basis as a result of paring back their legacy positions over time. In recent days I have been selling off those shares.

For many years Apple stock has gone through cycles whereby the valuation looks a lot like a hardware company (10-12x P/E ratio) at times when sentiment is skeptical, and a higher near-market multiple (mid teens) when investors are focused on services and other higher margin, recurring revenue streams.



Last year the shares got a boost from Warren Buffett’s purchases, sentiment was high, and the stock above $200 was sporting a market multiple. After an early January profit warning for Q4, the stock fell into the 140’s and the iPhone’s issues in emerging markets came into focus. Just two months later, the stock has regained momentum and now trades well above the level it stood before the Q4 disappointment. Why, exactly, is an interesting question.

What is clear to me is that the iPhone problem has not been resolved in the last 60 days. The device’s price continues to increase, which will serve to limit market share gains in emerging markets where household incomes are low and competing phones are close on features but priced much lower.

The notion that the iPhone will reach penetration rates globally in-line with those of its most successful regions, like North America, seems unrealistic to me. Given that the iPhone’s share in the United States remains below 50%, despite it feeling as though everyone here has one, it should not be surprising that Apple has 25% market share in China, or just 1% market share in India. And Apple’s decision to stop releasing unit sales figures for the iPhone only further reinforces the notion that material unit growth is over (iPhone unit sales actually peaked all the way back in 2015 at 231 million and have fallen more than 5% since) and revenue gains will be generated from pricing power, which will only serve to compress unit sales even more over time.

With iPhone having peaked, the next big thing for Apple was supposed to be recurring, high margin services revenue, but that thesis has played out only mildly in recent years. Services comprised 14% of Apple’s total revenue in 2018, versus 9% five years ago. In order for investors to genuinely view Apple as a subscription company, they probably need that figure to be at least 40%, and that will take many years, if it ever happens.

We will soon hear about the company’s newest services offering; a streaming video product, but that market is so crowded it is hard to see how they will be able to rival Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and the forthcoming Disney service. Press reports indicating that Apple CEO Tim Cook has been reading scripts and providing feedback for their shows in development should also worry investors. Should the CEO of Apple, who has no experience in the media content creation business, really be spending his time reading scripts? Doesn’t he have better things to be doing? I fear the answer right now is no, which also presents a problem in terms of future innovation breakthroughs at Apple.

We are left with a company that is seeing its largest product (the iPhone is >60% of revenue) hit a wall and has little in the way of exciting new stuff in the pipeline. I do not expect the video service to be a big winner (they should have just bought Netflix or Disney instead), they have abandoned the electric car project (which seemed like an odd match for them to begin with), and more obvious areas for them to tackle (the high-end television market) have long been rumored without any results. Why Apple hasn’t come out with a beautiful, premium priced all-in-one slim television device that integrates all video services seamlessly via voice control is beyond me. You can get one from Amazon at a bargain price, but the high end of the market remains untapped.

At the current price, Apple fetches about 16x times current year earnings estimates, versus the S&P 500 at around 17x. That valuation is high on a relative basis historically, and the company’s future growth prospects look more muted than in prior years. The iPhone’s competitive issues in emerging markets remain a problem without an easy solution (price cutting is not in Apple’s DNA), but the stock market has quickly forgotten about that and sent the stock up more than 30% from the January lows. Without material multiple expansion, or significant underlying revenue growth, it is hard to see much value in Apple’s shares in the 180’s (or extreme downside either, to be fair), and as a result, now seems to be a solid exit point.

For a replacement, I find Facebook (FB) quite interesting. Sentiment is weak, the valuation is quite attractive relative to future growth prospects (21x this year’s estimates, which are flat versus 2018 levels given the current spending cycle — which should be temporary). As a result, over the next three to five years I would be surprised if Apple outpaced Facebook in terms of stock price appreciation.

Full Disclosure: I have recently been selling client positions in Apple and replacing them with Facebook, but positions may change at any time.

What A Difference A Decade Makes!

There was a lot of talk on CNBC this week about the trailing 10-year returns of the S&P 500 index and what, if anything, they tell us about the duration of the current equity bull market. Interestingly, the U.S. stock market bottomed at 666 on March 6, 2009, and has since returned nearly 18% annually for a decade.

The consensus view is that periods of strong market returns are often bookended by low valuations on one side and high valuations on the other side. That is certainly the case in this instance, and I am not sure it tells us very much about the current bull market (in terms of when it loses steam). Using the intra-day bottom during the worst market environment in nearly 100 years, as a starting point, is almost assured to subsequently produce a decade of strong returns.



While we cannot use this data to predict the next bear market, it is noteworthy that the market does tend to go in cycles that last one or two decades. The last 10 years have been characterized by strong index returns, and the rise of the index fund as the go-to investment option for individual investors. But I would argue that recency bias is playing a large role in this trend.

Consider that from January 1, 2000 through December 31, 2009, the S&P 500 went from 1,469 to 1,115, a loss of 24%. Dividends made up for a lot of the decline, such that $1 invested in the index including dividends was worth 91 cents in the end, but still, that decade produced a cumulative loss of about 1% annually.

Perhaps that is why there were not nearly as many people piling into index funds 10 years ago. They work… until and unless they don’t. Just as the economy and the equity market are cyclical, so to will be the popularity of index funds.

Interestingly, even Warren Buffett (arguably the greatest active portfolio manager in history) has been bitten by the index fund bug, having recommended them many times in recent years.

Side note: I think the saying “do as I do, not as I say” is fitting here. While Buffett now praises the index fund category, it is important to note how the 88 year old plans to transition his stock picking duties at Berkshire Hathaway when he is no longer around. Move all of his investments into index funds? Hardly. Instead, he has hired two hedge fund managers, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, to take over management of Berkshire’s stock portfolio. Fascinating.

So what can we expect over the coming decade for the stock market? Well, it is not exactly going out on a limb to say that returns will likely average less than +18% and more than -1%, but that is a start. After all, the coming decade is unlikely to be as good as the go-go 1990’s, or as bad as the ten years immediately following them.

History would tell us that average returns will be somewhere in the single digits. I won’t hazard a guess as to whether we get 3%, 5%, or 7% a year, but I think mid single digits is as good of a guess as any based on historical data. It will be interesting to see if, in such an environment, index funds remain the asset of choice, or if tastes shift to something else (and if that something else is already in the marketplace or if it has yet to be created).

Chipotle Valuation Surging to Dizzying Heights, Surpassing Amazon!

It should not be surprising that hiring a veteran restaurant executive to replace an inexperienced founder will have a material impact on the business and its stock. Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) is a classic example, as Steve Ells stepping aside for Brian Niccol (formerly of Taco Bell) has launched CMG’s shares into the stratosphere:

CMG’s customer traffic has rebounded (+2% in Q4 2018) after flat lining earlier in the year and material price increases (+4% in Q4 2018), which were sidestepped after the e coli incidents, have same store sales rising 6% and profits surging even faster. The current analyst consensus estimate has CMG earning $12 per share in 2019 on a mid single digit same store sales increase and 5% unit growth. Those figures would place CMG near the top of the sector.

As is often the case, the biggest issue is the magnitude of CMG’s recent stock gains. At more than $600 per share, CMG’s forward price-earnings ratio is a stunning 50x. Why a casual dining chain with 2,500 locations already should trade at such a valuation is hard to understand, unless one believes they are going to steal a lot of market share going forward from here. Many folks believe that will happen, but I am less excited.



To give readers a sense as to how nutty this CMG valuation appears to be, let’s compare it to Amazon (AMZN). I know AMZN is not a dining stock, but I find it to be an interesting comparison because they are both loved consumer brand stocks right now. Not only that, I would venture to guess that an investor poll would conclude that Amazon’s business is better than Chipotle’s and is likely to grow revenue and profits faster over the coming decade. And yet, today we can invest in Amazon at a cheaper valuation:

Looking at 2018 reported financial results, CMG trades at 31x EV/EBITDA, versus 28x for Amazon. I used EV/EBITDA to account for balance sheet items as well, but on a P/E basis the numbers are also similar: 50x for CMG and 59x for AMZN.

For those who are intrigued by Chipotle stock, I would simply point out that Amazon has long been a loved growth stock for which investors are often willing to pay sky-high valuations for. Today an argument can be made that CMG is more expensive and you would have a hard time finding people who expect CMG’s business to outperform AMZN in coming years.

If that’s true, either CMG is overvalued quite a bit, or AMZN is relatively cheap, or both. I would bet that AMZN outperforms from here. For those who like paired trades, being short CMG against an AMZN long looks interesting.

Signs of Topping in the Consumer Credit Cycle

Don’t bother counting me in the camp that thinks they can predict when the next recession will hit. The current consensus from those who try to do such things seems to be sometime in 2020, but I don’t think anybody really knows.

But that does not mean that keeping an eye out for economic signals is not worth doing. If the consumer credit cycle, for instance, is nearing a top, it very well may impact what multiple of current earnings you are willing to pay for shares of financial services companies. When you see strong return on equity metrics for full year 2018 this earnings reporting season, you might consider the notion that further expansion could be minimal.



In recent months I have come across a couple of interesting press reports that help shed some light on where we are in the current consumer credit cycle, both from the Wall Street Journal.

First, we had a piece in mid December about how credit reporting giant Experian was going to start including cell phone bills in credit reports. The goal is to boost credit scores so that lenders can widen their pool of eligible borrowers:

“Most lenders tightened standards dramatically after the 2008 financial crisis, and have been in intense competition for the most creditworthy borrowers ever since. And while most large banks have limited appetite for the subprime borrowers they lent to in the runup to the financial crisis, some have been eyeing customers with thin borrowing histories as a new revenue stream, a sign the lenders believe the good economy still has room to run.”

So rather than scare their investors and regulators by accepting lower credit scores when considering new borrowers, why don’t we ask the credit scoring bureaus to find ways to raise credit scores so that more people qualify. Yikes.

And cell phone bills are not the full extent of the changes. The article goes on:

“Fair Isaac Corp. , creator of the widely used FICO credit score, is close to launching a new credit score in partnership with Experian that will factor in consumers’ history managing their checking and savings accounts, which will give a boost to most consumers who keep at least several hundred dollars in their accounts and don’t overdraw.”

Given that the credit reporting companies get paid by the lenders, not consumers, it stands to reason that when approached by their customers to refine their scoring methodologies, they were amenable to the idea. Kind of reminds me of the scene in the movie The Big Short when the Standard and Poor’s employee explains why they rated all of those sub-prime mortgage bonds triple A; “because if we didn’t give them the ratings they wanted, they would go down the street to our competitor.”

The signs of a topping credit cycle don’t end there, unfortunately. It appears unconventional mortgage underwriting is making a comeback as well:

“Aryanna Hering didn’t have pay stubs or tax forms to document her income when she shopped around for a mortgage last year—a problem that made it tough for her to get a loan. But the nursing student who works part time providing home care for children and the elderly eventually hit pay dirt: For a roughly $610,000 home loan, a mortgage company let her verify her earnings with 12 months of bank statements and letters from clients. Ms. Hering said money she collects from roommates and from renting to Airbnb guests covers more than two-thirds of her roughly $4,300 in monthly payments, and her earnings cover the rest.”

While not a large proportion of the overall home lending pool, these types of loans are growing quickly:

“Lenders issued $34 billion of these unconventional mortgages in the first three quarters of 2018, a 24% increase from the same period a year earlier, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry research group. While that makes up less than 3% of the $1.3 trillion of mortgage originations over that period, the growth is notable because it came as traditional home loans declined. Those originations fell 1.2% over the same period and were on track for a second down year in 2018.”

So what exactly were the terms of the loan Ms. Hering received? Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“Ms. Hering, who is 30 years old, received a loan at a rate of just over 6% for the first five years; it adjusts after that.”

Do these stories mean that the economy is about to collapse a la 2008? Of course not. All it means is that the business cycle is alive and well and that consumer lending has reached the point where prime borrowers have reached a level of debt they are happy with and lenders are now stretching a bit to grow. This happens every cycle, frankly. What it tells me is that delinquency rates are probably troughing out and overall credit quality and lender returns are probably peaking.

While these are important tidbits to consider when valuing financial services companies on multiples of book value or normalized return on equity, it is probably not going to help pinpoint the next recession. Leave that job to the economist community that has correctly called ten of the last five recessions, or the Federal Reserve, which has never (and will never) predicted one at all.

My Recent Target Experience and How The Chase for E-Commerce Market Share is Killing Retailer Margins

There is a Target (TGT) store very close to my house that my family visits frequently. We even keep a shopping list on the fridge labeled “TGT” to simplify our trips.

Given the vast selection of products Target carries, sometimes it is harder to find something in the store than you would think, even if you are very familiar with the layout. To minimize the time we meander up and down various aisles, I have the Target app installed on my phone, which will tell me which aisle each product is located at my local store.

In recent months I have noticed that the prices on the app for many categories are materially cheaper than they are in store. This becomes obvious when you lookup the location of something on the app, see the price, and then 30 seconds later you pick it off the shelf and see a clearly higher price. I would say the discounts average about 10% (just a guesstimate) and are focused on certain categories such as toiletries and cleaning products.



After several trips of noticing the pattern, I became pretty annoyed. If my bill totaled $100 I invariably felt like I was getting ripped off by shopping in-store, even if only to the tune of $10 or so. I looked up Target’s online price matching policy and sure enough, they will match their online pricing for in-store purchases.

The process for collecting the difference is far from helpful, though. Rather than visiting the customer service area and having them scan your receipt or something easy like that, you need to show evidence of the lower price online while the cashier rings up your purchases. So if you have a dozen items that are cheaper online, you need to show the cashier each item on your phone app individually and they will then manually enter the cheaper price for each item. Not only is this time consuming, but it will make the check-out experience awful for the people in line behind me, as they wait for me to bring up each and every item on my phone. As a result, I refuse to do this and am ticked off that I need to in the first place.

The other day I decided that I could have the best of both worlds. Even though the store is right down the street from my house, I can order the items online, have them delivered in 2 days, and save money on top of that by getting the lower online prices. So I fired up the app and began adding items to my cart.

Without a Target Red Card, there is a $35 minimum order to get free 2-day shipping. I was short of that level initially, so I decided to see if they would actually deliver cat litter for free (many retailers have weight limitations for free shipping). I thought it was a long shot since each box of litter weighs over 25 pounds, but sure enough, cat litter is eligible for free shipping. By adding 2 boxes I reached $36 and submitted my order.

Two days later a large flat shipping box was left on my porch by UPS. The box was nearly coming apart, as both boxes of litter had been placed flat/sideways in the shipping box, with some soap and toothpaste tossed in as well without much in the way of padding. I have no idea how much UPS charged Target to deliver this 50 pound box to me in 48 hours, but I would have to say somewhere between $5-10, right? There is no way Target made a profit on this online order and I am not paying them an annual membership fee (like Amazon Prime) to help cover the cost.

Why am I telling this boring retail story? Because when we consider the economics of the decisions Target is making here, it makes no sense. My local Target store has high fixed costs. They should want me to drive to the store, pick my own items off the shelves, go through the self-checkout lane, and drive home. That route will maximize their profit by leveraging their fixed costs and minimizing labor expense, which is only rising (and is now $15 per hour here in Seattle).

Instead, they are offering me higher prices if I visit the store, and that is made obvious to me when the lower online prices are shoved in my face whenever I use the smartphone app (which they encourage me to use in-store to boost the shopping experience). From an economic perspective, they should be trying to coax me into the store by offering perks for doing so. Instead, they are almost begging me to order online, where they will likely barely earn a profit on each order, if at all.

And on the flip side, they are offering cheaper prices online, with free 2-day shipping, and including products such as 25 pounds of cat litter in the free shipping offer. At least make me drive to the store to pick up the cat litter!!!

So, here I am planning to order more of my Target purchases online, which will crush their margins both on the retail side (as store traffic declines) and on the online side (where 2-day shipping via UPS will eat their already reduced margin).

The result is that Target succeeds in their goal of keeping my business and not donating it to Amazon (AMZN) or Wal-Mart/jet.com (WMT). Okay, great, your same store sales will hold up nicely in a very competitive retail world. And your margins will erode quickly, resulting in the same absolute profit dollars earned on higher volumes. Seems like the opposite of what should be happening (keep prices low and make it up on volume).

In fact, there are some items at Costco (COST) that are cheaper in store than they are online, even though this flies in the face of what chains like Target are doing. And that pricing strategy is from a company that chooses volume over per-item margin all the time. In fact, Costco marks up their items (from their cost) the least of any retailer I am aware of. Smartly, they are not getting sucked into this notion that to compete online and keep their stock price up, they need to give away products through the e-commerce channel.

Call me crazy, but some of these hybrid online/in-store business models don’t seem very well thought out, and surely won’t benefit shareholders much in the long run. I love shopping at Target, but it is hard to see how they are going to materially increase per-share profit.

Full Disclosure: No position in Target, long or short, just baffled by the pricing dynamics they currently have in place and believe it reinforces that we are now seeing retailers focus on same store sales and not profits, even at mature, established companies which clearly are not second-comings of Amazon.

U.S. Stock Market Seems Like An Obvious Buy For First Time In A Long Time

With the S&P 500 index now down roughly 18% from its peak reached about three month ago, for the first time in years it appears the U.S. stock market is severely oversold and pricing in worse than likely economic conditions. In the two weeks since my last post discussing valuation, the S&P trailing price-to-earnings ratio has dropped by more than a full point and now stands at just above 15x.

I have previously posted that we should expect P/E ratios of between 16x and 17x with the 10-year bond yielding in the 3-5% range (current yield: 2.75%). Given that 2018 corporate profits are pretty much in the books already, the current valuation of the S&P 500 assuming ~$157 of earnings is 15.3x (at 2,400 on the S&P 500).

Let’s consider what this valuation implies. First, it presumes no further earnings gains, or put another way, 2018 is the peak of the cycle for profits. Could that be possible? Sure it could, but right now that is the base case. And even with that base case, stocks are 5-10% below the 16-17x P/E we would expect to see.



One could also make the argument that U.S. stocks are pricing in a mild, normal recession. Let’s assume a typical 6-9 month recession occurs over the next 12-24 months, and as a result, S&P 500 profits drop 11% to $140. If a normalized P/E ratio would be 16-17x, I would guess stocks would fetch about 18x trough earnings during a recession (investors often pay higher multiples on depressed earnings). If we assign an 18x multiple on $140 of earnings, we get an S&P 500 target of 2,520, or 5% above current levels.

If we take a more bearish stance and assume a normalized P/E (16.5x at the midpoint, given low interest rates) on that $140 profit number, we would peg the S&P 500 at 2,310, or less than 4% below current levels.

I am not in the game of predicting short-term economic paths or stock market movements. All I can say now is that stock prices for the first time in many years are pricing in several of the most likely economic outcomes (normal recession or materially slowing GDP growth). Furthermore, it appears that the S&P 500 will close out 2018 at the lowest valuation since 2012.

Given those conditions, I am aggressively buying stocks with the majority of current cash balances in the accounts of those clients who are aiming for more aggressive, long-term, growth-oriented investment strategies. Put simply, I am seeing a ton of bargains right now and am not content waiting for further downside to pounce. For those who have excess cash on the sidelines, now could turn out to be a great time to add to your equity exposure, assuming that fits with your risk tolerance and investment goals.