This post will be more of a stream of consciousness rather than one of focus on a topic.
Sheltering in Place
My wife, Michelle, and I have obeyed the order to “shelter in place” by staying at home except for walks outside (avoiding going within 6 feet of anyone). The order started in San Mateo County at 12:01 AM on March 17. Our last time being in close proximity with anyone was Friday March 13, so we’re getting close to knowing we are virus free. We stocked up on food a day before the order began and have already had one “Instacart” delivery as well. Not sure what you are all doing but we have called a number of family members and friends to make sure they are ok – times like this make you want to verify the health of others! We also had to cancel vacation plans – which happened in steps as fear of the virus increased. We had scheduled a trip that included visiting Cabo followed by some time with good friends/cousins in Arizona.
I was scheduled to have my annual checkup before the trip, but 2 days before my doctor called to tell me not to come. It seems that the building he is located in is a center for virus testing and he thought it made no sense to have unneeded exposure. During the course of the conversation I mentioned we would be leaving for Cabo on Thursday, March 19 and he immediately warned me not to go. While I don’t want to be compared to the premier of Italy who initially told people to ignore the risk, at the time I felt the risk was overblown (as long as I was careful in Cabo). My doctor made an impossible to refute point saying: “What if you couldn’t get back because of a lockdown. Wouldn’t you rather be in the vicinity of Stanford Hospital if anything happened instead of in Mexico?” Hard to argue with that, so we decided to fly directly to Arizona instead. As flying became a risky option, we next thought we might drive to Arizona. Finally, we decided it was best to postpone the vacation. I’m guessing some of you went through a similar gradual awakening to the degree of risk.
Michelle and I truly enjoy the company of others. Staying at home precludes that, at least in the normal way…but then Zoom came to the rescue! We have had two “Zoom cocktail parties.” The first was more formal so everyone dressed up (I wore a wild Shinesty tuxedo and Michelle a matching outfit). Each couple at this virtual party had their drink of choice in front of them as well as appetizers. A few days later, Michelle and I hosted a similar party after becoming paying subscribers for Zoom. At our party we asked people to dress business casual. The benefit of requiring some higher level of dress than jeans is that it makes one feel (almost) like they are out partying. Each party lasted a little over one hour and the conversation was pretty lively. Of course, the first 10-15 minutes were all about the impact of the virus, but then the conversation rotated through a number of less depressing subjects.
We now have been invited to a virtual dinner party by the first group host and we are planning a winery hosted party for the second group. Not sure, but in all likelihood, we’ll also work on setting up a third group. If we are still in this situation when Passover arrives, we will have our traditional seder (for 20 people) via Zoom.
Our Crossword Puzzle Tradition Continues
My family has been jointly solving the NY Times crossword puzzles for many years. More recently our grandson has not only joined in but become pretty prolific. On a typical Sunday we meet our daughter, son-in-law and their two kids for brunch and do the famous NY Times Sunday puzzle. If our son is in town, he also joins us. The only difficulty is that we each have our own copy, either on an iPhone or physical printout, so coordinating is a bit more difficult. This past weekend that tradition was replaced by doing it together over brunch at each of our homes. Once again, a Zoom conference call was the method of joining together. An added benefit was that, using Zoom, the puzzle was up on each of our large screens for all of us to share one version, and we actually finished in one of our fastest times ever!
The Wild Stock Market
As you know, at the beginning of each year I select stocks to invest in. One point I continue to make is that my picks tend to be high beta stocks so they might depreciate disproportionately in a down market. With the S&P down about 25%, this is certainly bear territory, but this is not your ordinary down market as the virus impacts different companies in different ways. I have been most fortunate in that 3 of my 6 selections, Zoom, Amazon and Docusign, should benefit from the virus. Zoom is the most obvious and this has not been lost on investors, as the stock as of this writing (March 24) is up almost 90% year to date. Of course, given the substantial day to day fluctuations this might not be the case by the time this blog is posted. Docusign should also be a major beneficiary of an increase in the number of people who work at home as its electronic document signing technology increases in importance (I’ve already had a major increase in e-signing in this past week at home). Amazon is having trouble keeping up with demand since most people have decided to rely on home delivery for fulfilling their needs. A fourth stock, Tesla is also ahead 21% year to date, but its stock has been impacted by the virus as it was up over 100% before the virus impact was felt. The other 2 stocks in my picks, Facebook and Stitch Fix, are down quite a bit but I still expect them to recover by year end despite the fact that Facebook should have lower revenue than previously forecast (advertising budgets will be cut) and Stitch Fix likely will also miss prior forecasts since people not leaving their homes are less likely to be buying a lot of new clothes – but whatever they do buy will be online (partly offsetting a reduction of total spending on new clothes).
Is it a good time to be buying stocks and/or munis?
In my last post I reminded you that the best strategy for making money in the stock market is to “Buy Low Sell High”. While this seems silly to even say, people have difficulty buying low as that is when the most fear exists (or the market wouldn’t be low). While there is danger that the impact of the virus could trigger a weak economy for at least this year, I still believe this is now mostly factored into the market and have been buying after days of large market declines. Don’t do this indiscriminately, as some companies (think physical retailers for example) may be permanently impaired, but others may also benefit from what is taking place. Still others will recover and their stocks are now trading at attractive prices. What has surprised me is there has also been an opportunity to buy munis at good rates of return (3.8% to over 4% for A or better rated bonds with 8 or more years to call/maturity). But this was only available to me on Schwab (not on several large well-known brokerage houses I use). It seems the panic for liquidity has led to better than expected returns despite 10-year Treasuries dropping to 1.02% from 2.41% a year ago. However, it also seems that several of the larger brokerage firms are not passing these returns through to their customers. Once the current “panic” situation passes (say 3 months from now) tax-free bonds with 10 years or less to call should be yielding under 2% annualized return to call leading to substantial appreciation of munis acquired at a much higher rate.
We need a Sports Interlude
Since sports are at a standstill my usual analysis of performance seems out of context. Instead I wanted to suggest something I have been thinking about for the last few months – how to punish the Houston Astros for their cheating. Given the mounting disapproval of the Baseball Commissioners lack of action perhaps he will even adopt my suggestion (of course he may never even hear of it). It’s a simple one that is the mirror image of the advantage the Astros created by stealing signs (through use of technology) in their home playoff games for about 3 years. My answer is to take away at least one home game from them in every playoff series they are in (including the World Series) for the next 3 years. If it’s a one game series, they would always play at the other team’s park. If it’s a 5-game series, they would at most have one home game, and in a 7-game series at most 2 home games. While this would not totally make up for what they did, it would at least somewhat even the playing field (no pun intended).
Back to the Virus
Given all the sacrifices many are making by sheltering in place, it should be easy to expect an immediate decline in the number of new cases. Unfortunately, the incubation period for the virus is estimated to be up to 14 days. We also have under-tested so there are more people who have it than the statistics show. With increased testing more of the actual cases will be detected. When these two factoids are combined, even if there was zero spread of the virus once the stringent asks were put in place, we would still continue to see many new cases during the 14-day period and the number would be further increased by improved testing. Unfortunately, not everyone is behaving perfectly so while I would expect (hope) that in each geography we would see substantial reduction in the number of new cases after 2 weeks of sheltering in place, the number won’t get to zero. It should take a drop but getting to zero could take much longer especially considering that part of the process to fix things still exposes medical professionals, delivery people, and more to becoming carriers of the virus.
What should Companies do to Protect their Futures?
There are a number of steps every company needs to consider in reacting to the threat posed by the virus to both health and the economy. At Azure we have been advising our portfolio companies to consider all of them. They include:
- First and foremost, make sure you protect your employee’s health by having them work remotely if at all possible.
- Draw down bank lines completely to increase liquidity in the face of potential reduced revenue and earnings.
- Create new forecast models based on at least 3 scenarios of reduced revenue for varying periods of time. If you were anticipating a fundraise assume it will take longer to close.
- If modeling indicates additional risk, consider cutting whatever costs you possibly can including:
- A potential reduction in workforce – while this is unpleasant you need to think about insuring survival which means the remaining employees will have jobs
- Reduced compensation for founders and top executives possibly in exchange for additional options
- Negotiating with your landlord (for reduced or delayed rent) as well as other vendors
- Eliminating any unnecessary discretionary spending
- Evaluating the near-term ROAS (return on advertising spend). On the one hand, preserving capital may mean the need to cut if the payback period is more than a few months. On the other hand, since advertising cost is likely to be lower given reduced demand (for example the travel industry likely will completely shut down advertising as will physical retail) it is possible you may find that increasing marketing adds to cash flow!
- Think about how you might play offense – are there things you can offer new and/or existing customers to induce them to spend more time on your site or app (and perhaps increase buying) in this environment?
While I was a sceptic regarding how pandemic this pandemic would be, I eventually realized that there was little downside in being more cautious. So please follow the guidelines in your area. It is easy to order just about anything online so going out to shop is an unnecessary risk. As they said in the Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!” But, unlike the Hunger Games you can improve the odds.