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Investment Rodeos

"It's the broncs and the blood, it's the steers and the mud, and they call the thing rodeo." -Garth Brooks

It's rodeo season in Western Canada, and I've flown back to my hometown of Bassano, Alberta to participate in the local amateur rodeo. No, I won't be riding bulls, or wrestling steers, but rather I'll be participating in the Wild Cow Milking competition. Wild Cow Milking is one of the more gentlemanly sports in rodeo. As such, it involves a team of three cowboys and a wild cow. The team that fills a bottle with the cow's milk the quickest, and runs the bottle across the finish line first, wins.

So, what exactly does either a rodeo, or wild cow milking have to do with global macro investment risk management landscape? There are two basic parallels. First, in a Wild Cow Milking competition the team with the most coordinated effort usually wins. By comparison, in the investment world, usually the team that is most effective at analyzing and tying together both the macro information and company specific data points, wins.

Second, just like the current investment landscape, rodeos are chaotic. In Alberta, when things get a little nuts, we say they are getting "western". To say that things are little western in the investment rodeo these days is an understatement. To emphasize this, let's look at some of the global asset class moves in the year-to-date via their representative ETFs: Russia +60% (via RSX), SP500 +2.0% (via SPY), Natural Gas -37.2% (via UNG), and high yield bonds up +6.9% (via JNK).

Our investment process, which combines both bottoms up and top down research, has uncovered a number of relevant and incremental data points this week that support our conservative, though slightly long-biased model portfolio positioning. Some of the key callouts from the Research Edge Team this week to our clients are as follows:

1. In healthcare, Tom Tobin and his team have been analyzing the negative impact on President Obama's approval rating as a function of aggressively taking up the gauntlet of healthcare reform. The reality is, as President Obama continues with the healthcare push, his approval rating will continue to weaken. Tobin likes hospital stocks on the short side to play this theme, along with his expectation that their bad debt will ramp with heightening unemployment.

2. Our restaurant analyst, Howard Penney, in his weekly conversations with his restaurant companies, has noted that none of his companies are providing a view that business is getting better, which obviously has implications for the broader consumer discretionary landscape. As a result, we are short the consumer discretionary etf, XLY, in our model portfolio.

3. In technology land, Rebecca Runkle provided an update on Oracle earnings this week, which suggests that software spending is and may continue to be better than expected. She has also been uncovering increased activity in the PC supply chain due to the pending Microsoft upgrade cycle, which may be an investable theme heading into the back half of the year.

4. From the Gaming, Lodging and Leisure team, they are expecting a slowdown in regional gaming markets this quarter. According to Todd Jordan (who is currently in Macau): "Every 1% y-o-y change in gas prices results in an inverse 0.15% change in same store gaming revenues, holding all other factors constant. In thinking about organic growth in regional revenues, it is necessary to focus on the trend in gas prices." Our Macro Team is bullish on oil, and Todd has his sector, and our portfolio, positioned accordingly.

5. Brian McGough, and his retail, footwear and apparel team, have zigged while the rest of the Street has zagged. While people are getting caught up in the noise around near-term earnings revisions and 2H numbers being a 'slam dunk' (this call mattered in March, not now after a 40% run), his team has shifted gears to focus on quantifying the impact of changes in international trade policies around apparel, as well as the cadence of cash flow in 2H and its impact of the M&A cycle. Ultimately, the team's call is that there will be a massive bifurcation between winners and losers starting in 1Q10 based on decisions today that are misunderstood by the market.

6. In our Macro group, our research this week was focused on the continued evidence of loose monetary policies globally, as indicated by ECB, Fed, and Chinese banking action this week. The implication of these historically loose global monetary policies is that the reflation trade should continue, with a risk of morphing into inflation in the back half of the year. To position for this, we are long energy companies (XLE), long energy producing nations (EWC, EWZ), and long inflation protected treasuries (TIPS).

The manifestation of these recent data points, and the work we have been doing all year, is our model portfolio structure. Our current positioning in our model portfolio supports the interpretation that things are still a little "western" out there. We currently have 20 longs and 9 shorts, for a long / short ratio of just over 2:1. In our asset allocation model, we still only have a medium allocation to equities and commodities, with cash as our largest weighting.

Ultimately, investing is a much more civilized sport than rodeo. The board room of the typical investment firm is typically classy in décor (although I hear Julian Robertson does have a stuffed tiger in his!), while a rodeo arena is littered with bruised cowboys, crushed beer cans, and empty Copenhagen tins. Also, most money managers don't routinely break bones while competing, even if they do have bruised egos at times.

But the parallels remain and the point is, if you want to win the global macro investment rodeo this year, you need to operate like cowboy. So put on those chaps, give yourself a slap, and ride the bull . . . and at the end of this year if you've stayed on for 8 seconds you'll probably "hear the roar of the Sunday crowd", and get paid for your performance.

Have a great weekend,

Daryl G. Jones
Managing Director

 


FL: Japan No Longer?

So it looks like FL finally confirmed the speculation that started in April about Matt Serra retiring as CEO.  I celebrated a birthday a week ago - let's just say it was a number between 35 and 40. FL is one of the few stocks in retail that you could have bought circa 1970 (in a 'diworsified form' as Woolworth/Venetor etc...). Had I been gifted a share way back then, my return would be a big fat goose egg. Yes, Foot Locker is the retail equivalent of Japan.

 

This company's management culture is one that strives for mediocrity - whether it knows it or not.  In its best form, it succeeded in being slightly below average, but all along remained squarely on the investment community's 'least respected management team' list.

 

Come on McGough...give the guy a fair shake. Serra has only been at the helm since '00/'01, and should not be saddled with the mistakes of years past. Also, he saw the company through the recession and economic recovery in '01-'03, and generated decent returns in the ensuing years.

 

Agreed. I'll definitely give credit where it's due. But how much of this recovery came from management's efforts vs. a general economic rebound? I guess we'll never know. But what we do know is that the stock is DOWN 20% since he took control, and over the past 5 years, ROE has gone from 16% to -4%, and Return on Capital is off by 2/3 to 4%. My kids generated a better return on capital last weekend at their lemonade stand - in the rain.

 

My point here is that this team's credibility is SO low, that ANY change is positive. Not to mention bringing in Ken Hicks from JC Penney - formerly JCP's President and Chief Merchandising Officer. I can't make the call yet as to how effective he'll be. But what I can say is that the gent's resume is far better than a company the size of Foot Locker probably deserves.

 

This thing is officially in the zone where it will get a free pass on any bad news related to operations for a couple quarters, and the Street will only get more jazzed and imaginative as it concocts kool-aid around what the new CEO could do to unlock value.

 


S&P 500 SECTOR OPERATING EARNINGS ANALYSIS

It always nice to have some sort of fundamental perspective to explain the 33% move in the S&P 500 since March 9th! 

Since March 9th, the top five performing sectors have been Financials (XLF) up 88.5%, Industrials (XLI) up 29.3%, Materials (XLB) 39.3%, Consumer Discretionary (XLY) up 38.7% and Technology (XLK).  The reflation trade has pushed up the XLI and the XLB, while fundamental improvement has been a driver for the XLF, XLY and the XLK.

As of March 9th bottoms up consensus estimates for the XLY were estimating a 10.4% decline in operating EPS.  As of June 24th consensus estimates now have operating EPS only down 0.1%, an improvement of 10.3%.  The incremental news on the consumer continues to suggest that momentum is slowing in a number of key areas, which suggests that the big move in EPS to the upside has been made.  Over the past week, the Consumer Discretionary (XLY) is the fourth worst performing sector, declining 3.0% versus the S&P 500's 1.5% decline.  We remain short Consumer Discretionary (XLY).  

The numbers for the XLK are even more astounding.  Back in March, consensus bottom up operating EPS estimates for the XLK were down 20.6%; today it stands at -0.03%. 
 
While the benefit of the declining dollar has been reflected in the stock prices of the components of the XLI and the XLB, it's not reflected in the fundamentals.  In fact, things are looking worse for the XLI and the XLB since March 9th.  For the XLI and the XLB, current 2009 operating EPS are estimated to be down 27.3% and 37.6%, respectively.  This represents a decline of 12.8% and 19.6%, respectively, from March.
 
From a fundamental perspective, Energy looks interesting.  Since March 9th operating earnings estimates for the Energy sector have only improved 9.3%, despite a 33% move in the USO since March. 
 
Overall, despite the 33% move in the S&P 500 since March 9th, operating EPS estimates for the S&P 500 has declined to -10.5% from -8.3% in March.  As a fundamental analyst earnings matter most.  Stock are up earnings are down, and it's becoming consensus that the economy is going to recover in 2H09.  AT 917 in the S&P 500, the upcoming earning season takes on increased importance.      
 
Howard Penney
Managing Director

S&P 500 SECTOR OPERATING EARNINGS ANALYSIS - chart89


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BRAZILIAN EMPLOYMENT DATA

 

Research Edge Portfolio Position: Long EWZ

May unemployment data released by IBGE today showed the second modest sequential decline to 8.8%. As the Brazilian stimulus measures continue to be implemented, the stabilizing employment situation is a direct result of public sector job creation outpacing reduced headcounts in the manufacturing, mining and energy industries.  Unemployment levels still registered in double digits for several major urban areas, but are down across the board on a 3 year basis.

Average wages showed significant year-over-year increase with per capita household real income up 3.4% Y/Y; still trailing CPI by almost 1%, but providing the central bank with room to maneuver at their July meeting. Currently the benchmark Selic is still over 9%.

The positive data was a welcome relief to the equity market and the Bovespa finished the day up 3.7% while the EWZ ETF rose by 4%. With a cost basis of 53.83, we are still down by slightly over 1% in the long position we put on last week.

Although much needs to be done to eradicate pervasive poverty and to improve education levels we continue to be bullish on near term prospects for the Brazilian economy based on improving internal demand and global commodity dynamics.

Andrew Barber

Director

BRAZILIAN EMPLOYMENT DATA - brazil


CKR - MINCING WORDS

In the past, CKR management has been very clear about its menu strategy:

"While many of our competitors responded to the ongoing macroeconomic challenges by offering low priced margin impairing products, we continued to differentiate our brands by focusing on premium priced innovative products."

"So, while other places are hopping on the value bandwagon and, thus, promoting their smallest and lowest-quality menu items, we'll keep doing what we do best by giving our customers what they really crave: big, delicious, premium-quality burgers."

"I don't think the competitors can maintain this level of discounting and actual food giveaways for very long. So we're going to maintain our discipline and our profitability and try and address those issues in the short term."

"The two ways we will not deal with the issues are by trying to drive business through discounting our products, serving inferior products, or massively couponing."

CKR has stressed that it offers good "value" by selling premium $6 burgers that are comparable to the more expensive burgers found at casual dining restaurants. It has also said in recent past that it must also offer affordable items for its customers that have less money to spend, but that it would never risk hurting margins by selling items at a price lower than cost. Yet, today when discussing its more affordable items, management said that CKR has the best tasting burgers and chicken sandwiches for $0.99. This sounds a little like a dollar menu to me! And based on comments made by CKR CEO Andrew Puzder last year, the company is selling these items below cost.

"As long as we serve a burger that's as good or better, and I think better, particularly this Prime Rib burger, than the casual dining places serve, and as long as we approach it as a -- you know, we market value different than other companies. You've probably seen the fake restaurant ads but we're not saying come in and get a piece of gut fill for $0.99, when everybody knows you couldn't go to the grocery store and make something for $0.99 that was edible, and you're not paying labor and rent. Instead of doing that, we say look, here, you know, people are willing to pay $14 for this burger in a restaurant. You can get it at Carl's or Hardee's for $4, $5, or $6."

Last quarter, management acknowledged that it would be adding more affordable items to its menu but that it would not use media support to promote them. Today, the company said it would promote some of these lower priced items outside of its four walls to increase awareness of its value items. Specifically, the company will advertise its Teriyaki burger that will sell for $2.89 and its 2 for $4 Western Burgers. The company also said that it has begun testing a new snack menu to address its affordability issues. Using advertising dollars to promote these lower priced items for the first time and testing a new snack or lower priced menu sounded like a "value initiative" to me. However, when I asked management about these "value initiatives," the CEO seemed a bit confused as to what I was referring.

This company has spent so much time defending its position on keeping its focus on a premium menu strategy and maintaining industry-leading restaurant-level margins that the CEO seemed to question my use of the word "value," which in this industry, often goes hand in hand with discounting. Although he allocated a good portion of today's earnings call to a discussion around creating awareness of the value inherent in the company's $6 burgers and the affordability of some of CKR's products, such as the burger and chicken sandwich for $0.99, the company will most likely not go far enough with its promotion of these products to really drive traffic because management will not want to be accused of discounting.

After today's conference call, I was left questioning what direction CKR is headed? Will CKE only pursue premium products in an attempt to preserve the high margins to which investors have become accustomed while sacrificing traffic? Or will they begin to go after the bottom feeder customers with more advertising of its lower priced items? Management seems a little unsure as well, saying that it will manage for the long-term and not for short-term sales pops in one breath and that it will do what it can to adapt to the new consumer environment in another. Either way, margins are at risk, but CKR risks losing substantial market share at Carl's Jr. if it does not act fast with a coherent market strategy to drive traffic.

Making matters worse for CKR is the fact that McDonald's will likely roll out its Angus burger in August with significant couponing. This premium burger offering at McDonald's will only create more competition for Carl's Jr. in the coming months.

 

CKR - MINCING WORDS - ckrmargiins

 


Quick Call Out On Consumer Confidence

 

We put together the two charts below that outline consumer confidence levels at various income levels.  As might be expected, those that make more money generally have higher confidence based on this measure.  From mid-2006 to mid-2007, those that made more than $50,000 per annum had almost twice the confidence of those that made less than $15,000 per annum.  Beginning in mid-2007, this confidence gap began to narrow as the group that was making the most money saw a marked fall in their confidence level.

In Q4 of 2008 and Q1 2009, the confidence delta between the income groups narrowed to a point where confidence levels of the those making the least, or under $15,000, and those making the most, or over $50,000, was basically flat. That is, there was no difference in confidence levels  between these disparate income groups.  Since March we have seen confidence rebound sharply, albeit off of low levels, and have also seen the delta between high earners and low earners widen once again.  The most obvious interpretation is that those who make more money also have a large amount of their assets invested in the stock market, so as these market related investments decline, so too will their confidence, while the inverse is true, so as the stock market rebounds, as we have seen since March, the higher income earners should see a disproportionate rise in confidence.

For those that play the consumer stocks, being aware of this widening spread, as it sustains itself, will be a key driver of consumer spending patterns in the coming quarters.  As always, let us know if we can put you in touch with our consumer research teams (McGough, Penney, and Jordan) to take advantage of this trend on a stock specific basis.

Daryl G. Jones

Managing Director

Andrew Barber

Director

Quick Call Out On Consumer Confidence - MH1


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