Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tech Wreck

We've had ongoing weakness in profits for much of the technology sector so far this reporting season. But the sound of all the earnings misses has been drowned out by a handful of rapidly-growing companies with high multiples and even higher expectations. Jim Cramer of CNBC infamy has dubbed them the Four Horsemen. GOOG, RIMM and AAPL produced big numbers to feed the Nasdaq frenzy but the 4th horseman stumbled badly after the close today.

AMZN delivered strong revenue growth and beat profit expectations slightly - which was fine. Then they dropped a bombshell with their guidance.

Operating income is expected to be between $221 million and $291 million, or grow between 12% and 48% compared with fourth quarter 2006.
First problem is the range is wide enough to drive a truck through. That tells you they have no real idea what is going to happen - rarely a good sign. Second problem is that expected EPS growth for 4Q is 100% year over year. At the top of their guidance, they only fall short by half. At the bottom of the range, their profit growth will be one-eighth of expectations. That kind of miss is really bad and potentially disastrous for a high-flyer like AMZN.

What is important here is that the miss by Amazon will force people to look at what is actually happenning to earnings in technology and not just a few hyped up names. When they do look, they will see a rather ugly picture behind the hype. Almost every major technology company to report so far has had serious problems - either revenue shortfalls or forward-looking weakness as reflected in guidance. Many of them are big, even dominant players in their sector. Here's a partial list:

Texas Instruments - analog semis and digital signal processors
Broadcom - WiFi and other communications chips
Altera - PLDs (key components in telecom and networking gear)
Linear Tech - analog and mixed-signal semis
Microchip - microcontrollers for consumer and industrial applications

Ericsson - cellphones and cellular network gear
Alcatel/Lucent - communications equipment
IBM - weak hardware demand

Many of the semiconductor companies are telling us that 4th quarter revenues will be weaker than last quarter. That is the opposite of the normal seasonal pattern, suggesting a significant weakening of underlying demand. These chipmakers' customers are a very broad cross-section of the global technology sector and encompass tech's A-list, so the weakness is broad-based as well.

For months, the question has been "if a tech company falls in the forest, will it make a sound?" The answer has been a resounding NO. Now we're about to find out what happens when one falls in the front yard and crushes the house.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Reserves, Profits and Multiples

One of the key problems with valuation in the stock market today is the difficulty of determining actual profits are trying to compare the numbers that are reported to previous years where different standards were used. Many bulls have tried to tell me that I should buy because the S&P 500 is selling at a P/E of only 16x 2008 earnings. Well, there are a ton of problems with that statement so let's just cover the fatal flaws.

First, I don't know what 2008 earnings are going to be and neither do they. They are using a guess as the denominator to get that multiple. The number we do have is the historical reported numbers and based on that the multiple is 18x, significantly higher.

Second, 18x is very expensive and even 16x is far from cheap. 16x would be a normal peak multiple over the business cycle. 18x would be extreme territory normally. During the 20th century, the P/E for the S&P 500 has exceeded 18x on a sustained basis 3 times: the late 1920s, the mid 1960s and the late 1990s. Each of them was followed by epic bear markets. Not a good set of precedents.

Each of those periods also featured prolonged (multi-year) periods of high earnings growth. We had the same thing this time in 2004-05 but EPS growth has fallen from 18% to 0% while equity indexes make new highs. Dangerous? You bet! In the past stocks rolled over shortly after earnings growth started to slow down. This time they refuse to roll over even when the slowdown is about to go to negative growth.

Then there is the quality of the profits themselves. The financial sector and banks in particular are quite problematic. The NY Times has done excellent coverage on the severe depletion of loss reserves at the big banks.

Some investors seem to think that banks’ current share prices reflect whatever grim earnings news remains ahead for the sector. But anyone who thinks that we have hit bottom in the increasingly scary lending world is paying little mind to the remarkably low levels of reserves that the big banks have set aside for loan losses. Indeed, loss provisions as a percentage of total loans held for investment plummeted to a historic low in the second quarter of 2007, the most recent period for which comprehensive figures are available.

Yep, we're heading into a major default crisis and banks have the lowest reserves ever. That's not a problem or anything that the Fed and Treasury want us to worry about. But the weak reserves have allowed financials to over-report profits for the last several years. Time to correct that and the price will be weak profits and for some, losses instead for the forseeable future. And I'm supposed to be interested in paying extreme peak multiples for inflated financial sector profits? No thanks.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Global Reversal

It's been a few weeks and there's been a bit of excitement surrounding the Fed. But from an economic and credit standpoint, it's largely "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Risk spreads are still wide, lots of high-grade and few low-grade bonds are being issued, market rates (all but the shortest maturities) are higher not lower. Sure, stock markets are rallying on the promise of inflation but the Fed may not be able to deliver, especially since only the Bank of Japan is using the same playbook.

If you look closely, the recent past is very similar to the 1970s. We have rising inflation everywhere, though masked this time using statistical manipulation in the First World. Inflationary credit excess driving unsustainable demand for all kinds of stuff. This benefits rising industrial exporters (Japan then, China now) and commodities producers (OPEC, Chile, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Texas, Alberta and various African nations). We experienced a co-ordinated global boom then, just as now and for the same reasons. In fact, we are currently experiencing the highest sustained rate of global GDP growth since the early 1970s - not a terribly auspicious precedent.

Even with cuts in the Fed funds target rates, the US economy seems to be well along the road to a severe recession. Housing can only be described as collapsing. To those who argue that prices haven't come down much, you are correct - that comes later. Prices are sticky in housing since the average market participant is poorly informed. Price declines often continue well after a bottom in sales and construction. Just given what's happened already, we can look forward to 18-24 months of falling prices.

Predictably, lending against depreciating collateral isn't terribly popular and the initial effects of less EZ credit are being seen in the first small drops for consumer spending and retail sales. The declines would have been worse without rapid growth of credit card balances.

The Federal Reserve reported that consumer credit rose at an annual rate of 5.9 percent in August, the biggest increase since a 7.9 percent jump in May.

The increase was led by an 8.1 percent leap in revolving credit, the category that includes credit card loans.

This will get much worse for at least a year. With consumer spending now accounting for an unprecedented 72% of the economy, the vulnerability to a consumer spending slowdown is obvious. Of course American consumers have been spending money they don't have for the last 5 years and the engine for excess spending - the housing bubble has been sputtering and has now shut down.

What's fascinating is that similar dynamics are now being seen overseas. Many nations have experienced simultaneous housing bubbles and their associated wealth effects. A number of them are now rolling over in credible imitations of the US housing market of 2006. What ties them all together is credit. Live by the (credit) sword, die by the sword. It hasn't hit the inflation boom economies yet but it very likely will.

UK Builders
UK Lenders
New Zealand

There's evidence of housing rolling over in such diverse locations as Sri Lanka, the Baltic States and Thailand. Once again, the only common thread is a deflating global credit bubble.