Some thoughts on risk arbitrage

I promised a new post within 3 weeks of the last one. It’s here…but is different than originally planned! Several recent M&A events have motivated me to try to explain some basics on what happens to associated stocks in such a situation, the most recent being the Zoom acquisition of Five9. If the acquisition is a stock for stock transaction (as the Zoom one is), the acquirors stock will usually decline in price right after the announcement of the deal.  The reason for the inevitable next day decline of the acquirer’s stock can be misunderstood. In this post I will explain why the decline has little to do with investors reaction to the quality of the acquisition.

What happens when a stock for stock acquisition of a public company is announced?

When a public company offers to acquire another, it is quite usual for the offer to be at a premium to the current stock price of the target company. Without a premium there is little motivation for the target company to accept the offer, and it can create a legal issue – as class action attorneys are vigilant to find opportunities to sue and can claim that the target sold out too “cheaply”.

Assuming the number of shares involved is a material amount, then once the deal is made public, the stock of the acquirer will almost always decline the next day while the target’s price rises. The press often interprets this as “The Street” being negative on the acquisition, when in fact it has little to do with a critique of the deal. Instead, it stems from “Risk Arbitrage” where arbitragers will short the acquirer’s stock and buy the target’s stock to create a certain profit if the acquisition is consummated. To illustrate this, I will use an easy-to-understand example:

Suppose Company A is trading at $100/share and then offers to acquire Company B (trading at $60/share). Suppose the offer is one share of Company A stock for each share of Company B stock. At these prices an arbitrager can:

  1. Buy Company B stock at $60/share – this equates to buying Company A stock at a discount if and when the deal closes since each share of B will then convert to one share of A
  2. Short Company A stock and receive $100/share

The net result is a gain of $40/share assuming the deal consummates. This occurs because when the share of B is converted to a share of A it can be used to cover the short position without the arbitrager spending any money. The Arbitrager will continue to do this as long as there is a gap between the prices of the shares. Given the number of shares being sold, A’s stock price will usually fall (the next day) and B’s will rise until it is virtually equal to A’s price on an as converted basis. The difference once this reaches equilibrium is the “risk premium”.

The reason it’s called “Risk Arbitrage” is that if the deal falls apart money could be lost. Therefore, a smart arbitrager will assign a risk premium based on his or her assessment of the probability that the deal will break. Once the 2 stocks are in sync, they will continue to trade in sync with the difference in prices being the risk premium. This will probably mean that the acquirer’s stock will return to around its prior price a few days later plus or minus its normal fluctuation, and the premium or discount assigned by investors to the deal.

Using Zoom Acquisition of Five9 as a Real Example

For an actual example, lets review the Zoom acquisition of Five9 announced on Sunday July 18, 2021. The agreement was to exchange each share of Five9 for 0.5533 shares of Zoom. At the close of the market on Friday, July 16 (just before the announcement):

  1. Zoom shares were at $361.97 and Five9 shares were at $177.60
  2. The theoretic value of a Five9 share based on 0.5533 of a Zoom share was $200.28 a 13% premium to the July 16 Five9 share price.

By the close on Monday July 19, Zoom shares had declined to $354.20 and Five9 shares had increased in price to $188.12. I saw many articles interpreting the Zoom drop in price as investors being negative on the deal. However, I believe it was the result of the volume of Zoom stock shorted by arbitragers.

Since 0.5533 times the Zoom price of $354.20 is $195.98 there was still a discrepancy in the ratio between the two stocks versus the ultimate conversion multiple of 0.5533 since Five9 was trading at 4.01% lower than the exchange ratio implied it was worth. This meant that Arbitragers were initially assigning a 4.01% risk factor based on the odds the deal would close. Once the two stocks settled into the appropriate ratio they have traded in sync since (less the Risk Premium). The risk premium has declined slightly in the two weeks since the deal was announced as arbitragers began to assess a lower risk factor to the odds the deal would break.

This same pattern usually occurs each time a stock for stock transaction is announced. There is too much money to be made from the arbitrage if the two stocks don’t adjust based on the conversion ratio. Any time they get out of sync arbitragers will step in again. When they initiate a pair of transactions the combination of buying stock in the target and shorting stock in the acquirer generates an immediate profit in cash. In our example of Zoom if the stocks were still at the July 16 price a transaction could be:

  1. Buy 10,000 shares of Five9 at $177.60 at a cost of $1,776,000
  2. These shares would convert to 5,533 shares of Zoom when the acquisition closes
  3. Sell short 5,533 shares of Zoom at $361.97/share to receive $2,002,780
  4. Immediate cash to arbitrager = $2,002,780 – $1,776,000 = $226,780
  5. If and when the acquisition closes the arbitrager would net a profit of $226,780
  6. If the deal breaks there could be a loss as the Zoom share short would need to be covered and the Five9 shares sold. This is why there is a risk premium involved.

Of course, the July 16 prices disappeared quickly when the stocks opened on July 19 as the arbitragers begin to execute their transactions. But as long as the difference exceeded the risk premium, they continued to transact to realize an immediate cash return. Once equilibrium was reached arbitragers ceased transacting (unless the stocks were to get out of sync again).

Conclusion

If you own a stock making a major acquisition and its stock price drops the day after the transaction is announced, the drop is likely to be temporary. Of course, there are situations where investors actually are so negative towards the transaction that the acquirer stock does not recover, but the first day drop usually has little to do with that.   

Why spending on branding can be a key to long-term success

A friend called me the other day and inquired as to whether I was ok, as I had not posted in several months. While my goal has been to do about 10 blog posts per year, my frequency has always been erratic, and this year has really been sparse. To make things up, I am going to try for 2 new posts in the next 3 weeks or so that stem from the Azure Marketing Day, held each year for our portfolio companies to gain exposure to advanced techniques across multiple marketing areas. Since the speakers are truly knowledgeable of their arena, using one or two talks as a basis of a post makes me look good!

This post will focus on branding and how to measure whether it is working. The next will delve into direct (snail mail) marketing and how some companies are finding it quite effective.

How to measure the efficacy of brand campaign spend

Spending on branding is quite different than spending for customer acquisition. While many ads serve both purposes, the difference is based on whether there is a direct call for action…usually to buy something. For simplicity, I assume that if there is a call for action, the ad is for customer acquisition, if there is no call for action the ad is for branding.

By improving their brand, a company can experience:

  1. Higher conversion rates on its customer acquisition spend
  2. An increase in the number of people who visit their site
  3. An increase in the LTV (lifetime value) of customers

One method of measuring whether a branding campaign is effective is to determine whether people in the geography where the marketing takes place become more aware of the brand. This is done by measuring the awareness of the brand both before and after the campaign. The most common measure for younger companies is called “Aided Brand Awareness”. Aided brand awareness is determined by conducting a survey of a statistically significant random sample of the population of the geography. In the survey, each person is asked to say which of a list of products/companies they recognize. The percentage that picks the product or company as one they know of is designated as the Aided Brand Awareness.  Most TV ads are for improving brand awareness, whereas a large proportion of online ads are for customer acquisition.

While it may seem surprising now, when I was on Wall Street covering Microsoft (and others), Bob Herbold, Microsoft COO, believed a lack of universal brand awareness was limiting the company. So, Microsoft engaged in a significant spend to raise its brand awareness from well below 50% (as I recall) before the campaign. It was one of the many smart strategies the company used to become what they are today. An improved brand helped drive a massive gain in market share for Microsoft productivity applications.

At the Azure Marketing Day, Chris Bruzzo, EVP Marketing and Commercial at Electronic Arts, provided a session on the importance of branding. He outlined one method of testing the potential effectiveness of a branding campaign without breaking the bank. He suggested, if possible, to start by picking matched geographies for a test. You then conduct the branding campaign in the test location and compare results to the control (the second location). By limiting the test to a few geographies, the cost can be kept reasonable while acquiring information on how much impact a branding campaign could have on your company. EA found advertising to improve its brand was quite effective. While I can’t cite EA data due to a public company’s need for confidentiality, I can say it led to higher customer Life Time Value and an increase in the success of customer acquisition campaigns in the test geographies. I have been given permission to review a similar test conducted by Azure portfolio company Chairish.

Chairish recently conducted a test of whether spending on branding would prove beneficial. They decided to select 3 cities for the test. For confidentiality, I’ll refer to them as Test Cities 1, 2 and 3. Each was measured against a control city where no branding spend was done. The paired cities, control cities 1, 2 and 3, respectively, each had similar population demographics to the test city it was paired with. The first measurement of benefit was the change in Aided Brand Awareness. Pre-campaign the test cities averaged 6% awareness and the control cities 8%. Post campaign the test cities increased to 13% awareness and the control cities to 9%. So, the lift for the test cities was 7% and for the control cities 1%. I believe that the control cities represented the natural gain the company was getting without a branding campaign, while the branding campaign added an additional 6% of the population to those aware of its brand.

Comparing Test Cities to Control Cities for Branding Campaign  

The table shows the average benefit of the marketing campaign across the test cities when compared to their matched control. For example, during the test period the increase in average overall revenue was 23% greater in the test cities than in their paired control locations. A month later, the difference in gain had improved to 25.8%. The reason for such large revenue gains stems from some of the other metrics measured, especially the massive gain in registrations because of the branding campaign.

Given these results, Chairish will be increasing its spend on branding. For those of you who decide to try a branding campaign, it is important to make sure you can measure results. Once the results are in hand, the next step is to compare revenue and gross margin dollar gains to the cost of the campaign. This allows a company conducting a branding campaign to understand the initial incremental cost and the time to recover the investment. Having that in hand allows for a reasonable forecast of the cash flow implications of increasing the spend for branding. One caveat is, while hard to forecast, there is also often the benefit of an increase in customer LTV (life-time value) as greater awareness of the brand also spurs more visits (and spend) from existing customers but this is more difficult to measure in the short run.

While mature companies typically spend a portion of advertising on branding and conduct these types of Aided Brand Awareness measures many younger companies do not consider this. As companies cross the $20-30 million threshold, we believe they should consider experimenting with a brand spend in the manner discussed in this post. Many will find that it is another valuable tool to use as part of marketing spend.

Soundbytes

In our post on September 10, 2020, A Counter Theory to Potential Recession (during week 26 of Shelter in Place), we advocated a counter-theory to widespread predictions that there would be a recession as the pandemic ebbed, stating:

“Much of the public dialogue concerning the economic effect of Covid19 has centered around the large number of people who have lost income, with the conclusion that the US will potentially experience a continued recession going forward. What seems to be lost in the discussion is that the 90% of the labor force that is employed is saving money at an unprecedented rate. This has occurred partly through fear of future loss of income but mostly by a reduction in spending caused by the virus.”

We estimated that consumers would save trillions of incremental dollars if Covid lasted through year end. And that a large portion of it would subsequently be spent on furniture, luxury items, vacations and more. This is now occurring, leading to substantial increased demand for many goods and services and inflationary pressure.

The pressure of this increased spend coupled with continued supply chain issues due to Covid provides the opportunity to keep prices firm (or even increase them) as demand will outstrip supply in many sectors, possibly through year end. 

The Top 10 List for 2021

Professional Sports in a Covid World

I wanted to start this post by repeating something I discussed in my top ten lists in 2017, 2018 and 2020 which I learned while at Sanford Bernstein in my Wall Street days: “Owning companies that have strong competitive advantages and a great business model in a potentially mega-sized market can create the largest performance gains over time (assuming one is correct).” It does make my stock predictions somewhat boring (as they were on Wall Street where my top picks, Dell and Microsoft each appreciated over 100X over the ten years I was recommending them).

In the seven years we have been offering stock picks on this blog this strategy has worked quite well as the cumulative gains for my picks now exceeds 21X and the 7-year IRR is 55%. The two stocks that have been on the list every year, Tesla and Facebook, were at the end of 2020 at 77X and 11X, respectively, of the price I bought them in mid-2013. They both have been on our recommended list every year since but this is about to change.

In last year’s Top 10 list I pointed out that my target is to produce long-term returns at or above 26%. At that rate one would double their money every 3 years. Since the S&P has had compound growth of 10.88%/year for the past 7 years, and Soundbytes has been at 55%, I thought you might find it interesting to see how long a double takes at various levels of IRR and what multiple you would have after 10 years for each one.

Table: Compound Returns at Various Rates

The wonder of compounding is quite apparent in the table, but it also shows that patience is a virtue as holding the stocks of great companies longer can multiply your money significantly over time, while too many investors become inpatient and sell prematurely. In our last post of 2020 we outlined the thinking process to select great companies, but even great companies can have some periods where their returns are below par. Given that our picks were up an average of 259% last year, I’m back to a fearful mode that 2021 might be that period. Of course, I’m always fearful but sticking with great companies has worked out so far and trying to time when to sell and buy back those companies often leads to sub-optimization.

To some extent, over a 5-year period or longer, stock appreciation is correlated with a company’s growth. So, as I go through each of my 6 stock picks, I will discuss what that might mean for each company. With that in mind, as is my tendency (and was stated in my last post), I am continuing to recommend 5 of the 6 stocks from last year: Tesla, Zoom, Amazon, Stitch Fix and DocuSign. I am removing Facebook from the list and adding CrowdStrike. To be clear, I still believe Facebook will outperform the S&P (see Pick 7 below) but I also believe that over the next few years CrowdStrike and the 5 continuing stocks will experience greater appreciation.

2021 Stock Recommendations:

1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $706/share)

Tesla is the one stock in the group that is not trading in synch with revenue growth for a variety of reasons. This means it is likely to continue to be an extremely volatile stock, but it has so many positives in front of it that I believe it wise to continue to own it. The upward trend in units and revenue should be strong in 2021 because, in addition to continued high demand for the model 3:

  1. China Expansion: Tesla continues to ramp up production in China, the world’s largest market. In 2020 the company sold about 120,000 cars (which placed it a dominant number 1 in battery powered cars) there as its Giga Factory in Shanghai ramped up production. Trade Group China Passenger Car Association predicts that Tesla will sell as many as 280,000 vehicles there in 2021…an increase of about 133%. While that is significant growth it only would represent 20% of the number of battery powered vehicles forecast to be sold. The limitation appears to be production as the Shanghai factory is just nearing a volume of 5,000 vehicles per week. Tesla believes it can double that during this year. The Model Y has just been introduced in China and early press is calling it a major hit. Together with the Model 3, I believe this positions Tesla to be supply constrained. Should the company increase production earlier in the year, it has the opportunity to sell more than the forecast 280,000 vehicles. What is also important to note, is Tesla seems to be making greater profits on sales of its cars in China than in the U.S so as China becomes a larger portion of the mix Gross Margin could increase.
  • European Factory: Tesla has a cost disadvantage in Europe as its cars are not currently built there. So, while it established an early lead in market share, as others have launched battery powered vehicles at lower prices Tesla lost market share. That should all change when its Berlin Giga Factory begins production in July, 2021. This coupled with the Model Y introduction (it will be built in the Berlin factory) should mean a notable increase in sales as Europe returns to more normal times.
  • Model Y introduction: The Model Y, launched in early 2020 in the U.S., is already selling about 12,000 units a month here. This exceeds sales of crossover vehicles from every major brand (per GCBC which uses VIN reporting to calculate its numbers). It is expected to start being delivered in China in February.
  • Cybertruck: The Cybertruck (see our graphic here) was introduced to extremely mixed reactions. Traditionalists tended to hate it due to its radical departure from what they have come to expect for a pickup truck from companies like Ford, Toyota, etc. But it rang a cord with many and pre-orders are now up to 650,000 units according to Finbold. To give perspective on what this means, it is 30% higher than the total number of vehicles Tesla sold in 2020.  While a portion of these orders could be cancelled as they only required a $100 deposit, the magnitude does imply significant incremental demand when Tesla launches in this category. The launch is expected late this year.
  • Roadster: Tesla has plans to re-introduce a Roadster in 2021. You may recall that the first Tesla’s were sports cars and are now collectors’ cars mostly valued between $50,000 and $70,000 but now the last one built, having about 200 miles on it is up for sale at $1.5 million. This time around it will make it an ultra-premium vehicle in specifications and in price. The base price Tesla has indicated starts at $200,000. A “Founders Series” will be $50,000 higher (with only 1,000 of those available). At those prices, gross margins should be quite high.  The range Tesla initially indicated for this car was 620 miles and the speed from 0 to 60 of 1.9 seconds which would be much quicker than the McLaren 570S gas powered auto.
  • Tesla Semi: of all the vehicle categories that would benefit from being battery powered I believe the Semi is on top. That is because cost of ownership is one of the highest priorities for vehicles used in commerce. And Tesla claims that their semi will offer the lowest cost of ownership due to economic cost of fuel, less maintenance required as it has fewer parts, and easier repairs. According to Green Car Reports Musk has said it will begin being produced in 2021. Even assuming that Elon’s optimism is off, it appears that it could hit the market in early 2022. Once a definite date and specs are public, sales forecasts for Tesla could rise in 2022.

I’ve taken more time than usual to review my thoughts on Tesla as its astounding stock appreciation in 2020 make it vulnerable to stock pullbacks of some magnitude from time to time. But, its potential to achieve meaningful share of overall auto sales as various geographies shift to battery powered vehicles gives it the potential to achieve high growth in revenue for many years to come.  

2. DocuSign stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $222/share)

DocuSign is the runaway leader in e-signatures facilitating multiple parties signing documents in a secure, reliable way for board resolutions, mortgages, investment documents, etc. Being the early leader creates a network effect, as hundreds of millions of people are in the DocuSign e-signature database. The company has worked hard to expand its scope of usage for both enterprise and smaller companies by adding software for full life-cycle management of agreements. This includes the process of generating, redlining, and negotiating agreements in a multi-user environment, all under secure conditions. On the small business side, the DocuSign product is called DocuSign Negotiate and is integrated with Salesforce.

DocuSign was another beneficiary of the pandemic as it helped speed the use of eSignature technology. The acceleration boosted revenue growth to 53% YoY in Q3, 2021 (the quarter ended on October 31, 2020) from 39% in Fiscal 2020.  Total customers expanded by 46% to 822,000. At the same time Net Retention (dollars spent by year-ago customers in Q3 FY21 vs dollars spent by the same customers a year earlier) was 122% in the quarter. Non-GAAP gross margin remained at 79% as increased usage per customer (due to the pandemic) had minimal impact on cost. Given DocuSign’s strong Contribution Margin, operating profits increase faster than revenue and were up to $49 million from $17 million in the year ago quarter. What has happened represents an acceleration of the migration to eSignature technology which will be the base for DocuSign going forward. Once a company becomes a customer, they are likely to increase their spend, as evidenced by 122% Net Revenue growth. Finally, competition appeared to weaken as its biggest competitor, Adobe, lost considerable ground. This all led to a sizable stock gain of 200% to $222/share at year end.  In my view, the primary risk is around valuation but at 50% growth this gets mitigated as earnings should grow much faster than revenue. I continue to believe the stock will appreciate faster than the S&P.

3. Stitch Fix Stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $58.72/share)

Stitch Fix offers customers, who are primarily women (although its sales in Men’s clothing is rising), the ability to shop from home by sending them a box with several items selected based on sophisticated analysis of their profile and prior purchases. The customer pays a $20 “styling fee” for the box which can be applied towards purchasing anything in the box. The company is the strong leader in the space with revenue at nearly a $2 billion run rate. The stock had a strong finish to 2020 after declining substantially earlier in the year due to Covid negatively impacting performance. This occurred despite gaining market share as people simply weren’t buying a normal amount of clothes at the onset of the pandemic. When revenue growth rebounded in the October quarter to 10% YoY and 7% sequentially the stock gained significant ground and closed the year up 129%.

Stitch Fix continues to add higher-end brands and to increase its reach into men, plus sizes and kids. Its algorithms to personalize each box of clothes it ships keeps improving. It appears to be beyond the worst days of the pandemic and expects revenue growth to return to a more normal 20-25% for fiscal 2021 (ending in July). This is partially due to easy comps in Q3 and Q4 and partly due to clothing purchase behavior improving. The company will also be a beneficiary of a number of closures of retail stores.

Assuming it is a 20-25% growth company that is slightly profitable, it still appears under-valued at roughly 3X expected Q2 annualized revenue. As a result, I continue to recommend it.

4. Amazon stock will outpace the market (it closed last year at $3257/share).

Amazon shares increased by 76% last year while revenue in Q3 was up 37% year over year (versus 21% in 2019). This meant the stock performance exceeded revenue growth as its multiple of revenue expanded in concert with the increased revenue growth rate. Net Income grew 197% YoY in the quarter as the leverage in Amazon’s model became apparent despite the company continuing to have “above normal” expenditures related to Covid. We expect the company to continue at elevated revenue and earnings growth rates in Q4 and Q1 before reaching comps with last year’s Covid quarters. Once that happens growth will begin to decline towards the 20-25% level in the latter half of 2021.

What will remain in place post-Covid is Amazon’s dominance in retail, leading share in Web Services and control of the book industry. Additionally, Amazon now has a much larger number of customers for its Food Services than prior to the pandemic. All in all, it will likely mean that the company will have another strong year in 2021 with overall growth in the 25-30% range for the year and earnings growing much faster. But remember, the degree earnings grow is completely under Amazon’s control as they often increase spend at faster rates than expected, especially in R&D.

5. Zoom Video Communications will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $337/share)

When I began highlighting Zoom in my post on June 24, 2019, it was a relatively unknown company. Now, it is a household name. I’d like to be able to say I predicted that, but it came as a surprise. It was the pandemic that accelerated the move to video conferencing as people wanted more “personal contact” than a normal phone call and businesses found it enhanced communications in a “work at home world”. Let me remind you what I saw in Zoom when I added it to the list last year, while adding some updated comments in bold:

  1. At the time, Revenue retention of business customers with at least 10 employees was about 140%. In Q3, FY 2021 revenue retention of business customers was still 130% despite pandemic caused layoffs.
  2. It acquires customers very efficiently with a payback period of 7 months as the host of a Zoom call invites various people to participate in the call and those who are not already Zoom users can be readily targeted by the company at little cost. Now that Zoom is a household name, acquiring customers should be even less costly.
  3. At the time, Gross Margins were over 80% and I believed they could increase. In Q3, GM had declined to 68% as usage increased dramatically and Zoom made its products available to K-12 schools for free. Given that students were all mostly attending school virtually, this is a major increase in COGs without associated revenue. When the pandemic ends gross margins should return close to historic levels – adding to Zoom profits. 
  4. The product has been rated best in class numerous times
  5. Its compression technology (the key ingredient in making video high quality) appears to have a multi-year lead over the competition
  6. Adding to those reasons I noted at the time that ZM was improving earnings and was slightly profitable in its then most recent reported quarter. With the enormous growth Zoom experienced it has moved to significant profitability and multiplied its positive cash flow.

While ZM stock appreciated 369% in 2020, it actually was about equal to its revenue growth rate in Q3 2020, meaning that the price to revenue was the same as a year earlier before despite:

  • Moving to significant profitability
    • Becoming a Household name  
    • Having a huge built-in multiplier of earnings as schools re-open

6. CrowdStrike will outperform the market (it closed 2020 at $211/share and is now at 217.93)

When I evaluate companies, one of the first criteria is whether their sector has the wind behind its back. I expect the online security industry to not only grow at an accelerated pace but also face an upheaval as more modern technology will be used to detect increased attacks from those deploying viruses, spam, intrusions and identity theft. I suspect all of you have become increasingly aware of this as virus after virus makes the news and company after company reports “breaches” into their data on customers/users.

The U.S. cyber security market was about $67 billion in 2019 and is forecast to grow to about $111 billion by 2025 (per the Business Research Company’s report). Yet Cloud Security spend remains at only about 1.1% of total Cloud IT spend (per IDC who expects that percent to more than double). CrowdStrike is the player poised to take the most advantage of the shift to the cloud and the accompanying need for best-in-class cloud security. It is the first Cloud-Native Endpoint Security platform. As such it is able to monitor over 4 trillion signals across its base of over 8500 subscription customers. The companies leading technology for modern corporate systems has led to substantial growth (86% YoY in its October quarter). It now counts among its customers 49 of the Fortune 100 and 40 of the top global 100 companies.

Tactically, the company continues to add modules to its suite of products and 61% of its customers pay for 4 or more, driving solid revenue retention. The company targets exceeding 120% of the prior year’s revenue from last year’s cohort of customers. They have succeeded in this for 8 quarters in a row through upselling customers combined with retaining 97% – 98% of them. Because of its cloud approach, growing also has helped gross margins grow from 55% in FY 18 to 66% in FY 19 to 72% in FY 20 and further up to 76% in its most recent quarter. This, combined with substantial improvement in the cost of sales and marketing (as a % of revenue) has in turn led to the company going from a -100% operating margin in Fiscal 2018 to +8% in Q3, FY21. It seems clear to me that the profit percentage will increase dramatically in FY22 given the leverage in its model.  

Non-Stock Picks for 2021

7. Online Advertising Companies will Experience a Spike in Growth in the Second Half of 2021

The pandemic hit was devastating for the travel industry, in-person events and associated ticket sellers, brick and mortar retailers and clothing brands.  Rational behavior necessitated a dramatic reduction of advertising spend for all those impacted. U.S. advertising revenue declined by 4.3% to $213 billion, or around 17% according to MagnaGlobal, if one excludes the jump in political advertising (discussed in our last post), with Global spend down 7.2%. That firm believes digital formats grew revenue about 1% in 2020 (with TV, radio and print declining more than average). Digital formats would normally be up substantially as they continue to gain share, so the way to think about this is that they experienced 10-20% less revenue than would have occurred without Covid.

Assuming things return to normal in H2 2021, digital advertising will continue to gain share, total industry revenue will be higher than it would have been without Covid (even without the increased political spending in 2020) and comps will be easy ones in H2 of 2021.  While there will not be major political spending there could be Olympic games which typically boost ad spend. So, while we removed Facebook from our 6 stock picks, it and other online players should be beneficiaries.

8. Real Estate will Show Surprising Resiliency in 2021

The story lines for Real Estate during the pandemic have been:

  1. The flight to larger outside space has caved urban pricing while driving up suburban values
  2. Commercial real estate pricing (and profits) is collapsing, creating permanent impairment in their value for property owners with post-pandemic demand expected to continue to fall

My son Matthew is a real estate guru who has consulted to cities like New York and Austin, to entities like Burning Man and is also a Professor of Real Estate Economics at NYU. I asked him to share his thoughts on the real estate market.

Both Matthew (quoted below) and I disagree with the story lines. I believe a portion of the thinking regarding commercial real estate pricing relates to the collapse of WeWork. That company, once the darling of the temporary rental space, had a broken IPO followed by a decline in value of nearly 95%. But the truth is that WeWork had a model of committing to long term leases (or purchasing property without regard to obtaining lowest cost possible) and renting monthly. Such a company has extreme risk as it is exposed to downturns in the business cycle where much of their business can disappear. Traditional commercial property owners lease for terms of 5 to 25 years, with 10-15 years being most common, thus reducing or even eliminating that risk as leases tend to be across business cycles. The one area where both Matthew and I do believe real estate could be impacted, at least temporarily, is in Suburban Malls and retail outlets where Covid has already led to acceleration of bankruptcies of retailers a trend I expect to continue (see prediction 10).

The rest of this prediction is a direct quote from Matthew (which I agree with).

“Real estate in 2021 will go down as the year that those who do not study history will be doomed to repeat it. The vastly overblown sentiments of the “death of the city” and the flight to the suburbs of households and firms will be overshadowed by the facts. 

In the residential world, while the market for rentals may have somewhat softened, no urban owners have been quick to give up their places, in fact, they turned to rent them even as they buy or rent roomier locations within the city or additional places outside the cities, driving up suburban prices more quickly. In fact, even in markets such as NYC, per square foot housing sale prices are stable or rising. US homebuilding sentiment is the highest in 35 years, with several Y/Y growth statistics breaking decades long records leading up to a recent temporary fizzle due to political turmoil. 

The commercial office world, which many decry as imminently bust due to the work at home boom, has seen a slowdown of new leases signed in some areas. But because most commercial office leases are of a 10–15-year term, a single bad year has little effect. While some landlords will give concessions today for an extended term tomorrow, their overall NPV may remain stable or even rise. In the meantime, tech giants like Amazon are gobbling up available space in the Seattle and Bellevue markets, and Facebook announced a 730,000 square foot lease in midtown Manhattan late in the year. In the end, the persistence of cities as clusters of activity that provide productivity advantages to firms and exceptional quality of life, entertainment options, restaurants and mating markets to individuals will not diminish. The story of cities is the story of pandemic after pandemic, each predicting the death of the city and each resulting in a larger, denser, more successful one. 

The big story of real estate in 2021 will be the meteoric rise of industrial, which began pre-COVID and was super charged as former in-person sales moved to online and an entire holiday season was run from “dark stores” and warehouses. The continual build out of the last mile supply chain will continue to lower the cost of entry for retailers to accelerate cheaper delivery options. This rising demand for industrial will continue the trend of the creation of “dark stores” which exist solely as shopping locations for couriers, Instacart, Whole Foods and Amazon. Industrial is on the rise and the vaccine distribution problems will only accelerate that in 2021.”

9. Large Brick and Mortar Retailers will continue their downward trend with numerous bankruptcies and acquisitions by PE Firms as consumer behavior has permanently shifted

While bankruptcies are commonplace in the retail world, 2020 saw an acceleration and there was a notable demise of several iconic B&M (Brick & Mortar) brands, including:

It is important to understand that a bankruptcy does not necessarily mean the elimination of the entity, but instead often is a reorganization that allows it to try to survive. Remember many airlines and auto manufacturers went through a bankruptcy process and then returned stronger than before. Often, as part of the process, a PE firm will buy the company out of bankruptcy or buy the brand during the bankruptcy process. For example, JC Penny filed for bankruptcy protection in May, 2020 and was later acquired by the Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners in September, 2020. Nieman Marcus was able to emerge from bankruptcy protection without being acquired. However, in both cases, reorganizing meant closing numerous stores.

There are many who believe things will: “go back to normal” once the pandemic ends. I believe this could not be further from the truth as consumer behavior has been permanently impacted. During the pandemic, 150 million consumers shopped online for the first time and learned that it should now be part of how they buy. But, even more importantly, those who had shopped online previously became much more frequent purchasers as they came to rely on its advantages:

  1. Immediate accessibility to what you want (unlike out of stock issues in Brick and Mortar retail)
  2. Fast and Free shipping in most cases
  3. A more personalized experience than in store purchasing

As older Brick & Mortar brands add online shopping to their distribution strategy, most are unable to offer the same experience as online brands. For example, when you receive a package from Peloton the unboxing experience is an absolute delight, when you receive one from Amazon it is perfectly wrapped. On the other hand, I have bought products online from Nieman Marcus, an extremely high-end retailer, and the clothes seemed to be tossed into the box, were creased and somewhat unappealing when I opened the box. Additionally, a company like Amazon completely understands the importance of customer retention and its support is extraordinary, while those like Best Buy that offer online purchasing fall far of the bar set by Amazon.

What that all means is that many Brick and Mortar retailers will not solve their issues:

  • Adding more of an online push will not be enough
    • Customers that have experienced the benefits of online purchasing will continue to use it in much greater amounts than before the pandemic
    • Ecommerce will continue to take share from Brick and Mortar stores
    •  

As a result, we believe that in 2021 the strain on physical retail will continue, resulting in many more well-known (and lesser known) store chains and manufacturing brands filing for bankruptcy as the dual issues of eCommerce and of the pandemic keeping stores closed and/or operating at greatly diminished customer traction throughout most of the year. Coming on the heels of a disastrous 2020 it will be harder for many of them to even emerge from bankruptcy after reorganizing (including closing many stores). 

10. The Warriors will make the playoffs this Year

I couldn’t resist including one fun pick. We did speak about this in our last post but wanted to include it as an actual 2021 pick. Many pundits had the Warriors as dead before this season began once Klay Thompson was injured. And, of course, more piled on when the team lost its first 2 games by large margins. But they were mis-analyzing several significant factors:

  • Steph Curry is still Steph Curry at his peak no matter who the supporting cast
  • Andrew Wiggins is a superior talent who has the ability to shine on both offense and defense now that he is no longer in a sub-optimal Minnesota environment
  • Kelly Oubre Jr is also talented enough to be a great defender. His offense, while poor so far, is well above average and over the course of the season that should show well
  • Draymond Green is in his prime and remains one of the top defenders in the league. He is also a great facilitator on the offensive end of the floor.
  • James Wiseman is a phenomenon with the talent to be a star. As the season progresses, I expect him to continue to get better and become a major factor in Warrior success
  • Eric Pascal was on the all-rookie team last year and has gotten better

It is clear that the team needs more games to get Curry and Green back into peak playing condition, Wiseman to gain experience and the Warriors to become acclimated to playing together. They have started to show improved defense but still need time to develop offensive rhythm. I expect them to be a major surprise this year and make the playoffs.

SoundBytes

  • Please Wear A Mask: I recently read a terrific book describing the 1918 flu pandemic called The Great Influenza by John Barry. That pandemic was much deadlier than the current one, with estimates of the number of people it killed ranging from 35 million to 100 million when the world population was less than 25% of what it is today. What is so interesting is how much the current situation has replicated the progress of that one. One of the most important conclusions Barry draws from his extensive study of the past is that wearing a mask is a key weapon for reducing the spread.

Recap of 2020 Top Ten Predictions

Tesla’s new pickup truck due out late 2021

Bull Markets have Tended to Favor My Stock Picks

This may seem like a repeat of what you have heard from me in the past, but I enter each year with some trepidation as my favored stocks are high beta and usually had increased in value the prior year (in 2019 they were up about 46% or nearly double the S&P which also had a strong year). The fact is: I’m typically nervous that somehow my “luck” will run out. But, in 2020 I was actually pretty confident that my stock picks would perform well and would beat the market. I felt this confidence because the companies I liked were poised for another very strong growth year, had appreciated well under their growth over the prior 2-year period and were dominant players in each of their sub-sectors. Of course, no one could foresee the crazy year we would all face in 2020 as the worldwide pandemic radically changed society’s activities, purchasing behavior, and means of communication. As it turns out, of the 6 stocks I included in my top ten list 3 were beneficiaries of the pandemic, 2 were hurt by it and one was close to neutral. The pandemic beneficiaries experienced above normal revenue growth and each of the others faired reasonably well despite Covid’s impact. The market, after a major decline in March closed the year with double digit gains. Having said all that, I may never replicate my outperformance in 2020 as the 6 stocks had an average gain of an astounding 259% and every one of them outperformed the S&P gain of 14.6% quite handily.

Before reviewing each of my top ten from last year, I would like to once again reveal long term performance of the stock pick portion of the top ten list. I assume equal weighting for each stock in each year to come up with performance and then compound the yearly gains (or losses) to provide the 7-year performance. I’m comparing the S&P index at December 31 of each year to determine annual performance.  Soundbyte’s compound gain for the 7-year period is 2049% which equates to an IRR of 55.0%. The S&P was up 106.1% during the same 7-year period, an IRR of 10.9%.

2020 Non-Stock Top Ten Predictions also Impacted by Covid

The pandemic not only affected stock performance, it had serious impact on my non-stock predictions. In the extreme, my prediction regarding the Warriors 2020-2021 season essentially became moot as the season was postponed to start in late December…so had barely over a week of games in the current year! My other 3 predictions were all affected as well. I’ll discuss each after reviewing the stock picks.

The 2020 Stocks Picked to Outperform the Market (S&P 500)

  1. Tesla Stock which closed 2019 at $418/share and split 5 for 1 subsequently
  2. Facebook which closed 2019 at $205/share
  3. DocuSign which closed 2019 at $74/share
  4. Stitch Fix which closed 2019 at $25.66/share
  5. Amazon which closed 2019 at $1848/share
  6. Zoom Video Communications which closed 2019 at $72.20/share

In last year’s recap I noted 3 of my picks had “amazing performance” as they were up between 51% and 72%. That is indeed amazing in any year. However, 2020 was not “any year”. The 6 picks made 2019 gains look like chopped liver as 4 of my 6 picks were up well over 100%, a 5th was up over 70% and the last had gains of double the S&P. In the discussion below, I’ve listed in bold each of my ten predictions and give an evaluation of how I fared on each.

1. Tesla stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed last year at $418/share). Note that after the 5 for 1 split this adjusts to $84.50/share.

In 2020, Tesla provided one of the wildest rides I’ve ever seen. By all appearances, it was negatively impacted by the pandemic for three reasons: people reduced the amount they drove thereby lessening demand for buying a new vehicle, supply chains were disrupted, and Tesla’s Fremont plant was forced to be closed for seven weeks thereby limiting supply. Yet the company continued to establish itself as the dominant player in electronic, self-driving vehicles. It may have increased its lead in user software in its cars and it continued to maintain substantial advantages in battery technology. The environment was also quite favorable for a market share increase of eco-friendly vehicles.

Additionally, several other factors helped create demand for the stock. The 5 for 1 stock split, announced in August was clearly a factor in a 75% gain over a 3-week period. Inclusion in the S&P 500 helped cause an additional spike in the latter part of the year. Tesla expanded its product line into 2 new categories by launching the Model Y, a compact SUV, to rave reviews and demonstrating its planned pickup truck (due in late 2021) as well. While the truck demo had some snags, orders for it (with a small deposit) are currently over 650,000 units.

All in all, these factors led to Tesla closing the year at $706/share, post-split, an astounding gain of 744% making this the largest one year gain I’ve had in the 7 years of Soundbytes.

2. Facebook Stock will outpace the market (it closed 2019 at $205 per share)

Facebook was one of the companies that was hurt by the pandemic as major categories of advertising essentially disappeared for months. Among these were live events of any kind and associated ticketing company advertising, airlines and cruise lines, off-line retail, hotels, and much more. Combine this with the company’s continued issues with regulatory bodies, its stock faced an uphill battle in 2020. What enabled it to close the year at $273 per share, up 33% (over 2x the S&P), is that its valuation remains low by straight financial metrics.

3. DocuSign stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed 2019 at $74/share)

DocuSign was another beneficiary of the pandemic as it helped speed the use of eSignature technology. The acceleration boosted revenue growth to 53% YoY in Q3, 2021 (the quarter ended on October 31, 2020) from 39% in Fiscal 2020.  Since growth typically declines for high-growth companies this was significant. Investors also seemed to agree with me that the company would not lose the gains when the pandemic ends. Further, DocuSign expanded its product range into contract life-cycle management and several other categories thereby growing its TAM (total available market). Despite increased usage, DocuSign COGs did not rise (Gross Margin was 79% in Q3). Finally, competition appeared to weaken as its biggest competitor, Adobe, lost considerable ground. This all led to a sizable stock gain of 200% to $222/share at year end.

4. Stitch Fix stock appreciation will continue to outperform the market (it closed 2019 at $25.66/share)

Stitch Fix had a roller coaster year mostly due to the pandemic driving people to work from home, which led to a decline in purchasing of clothes. I’m guessing many of you, like me, wear jeans and a fleece or sweatshirt most days so our need for new clothes is reduced. This caused Stitch Fix to have negative growth earlier in the year and for its stock to drop in price over 50% by early April. But, the other side of the equation is that brick and mortar stores lost meaningful share to eMerchants like Stitch Fix. So, in the October quarter, Stitch Fix returned to growth after 2 weak quarters caused by the pandemic. The growth of revenue at 10% YoY was below their pre-pandemic level but represented a dramatic turn in its fortunes. Additionally, the CEO guided to 20-25% growth going forward. The stock reacted very positively and closed the year at $58.72/share up 129% for the year.

5. Amazon stock strategy will outpace the market (it closed last year at $1848/share)

Amazon had a banner year in 2020 with a jump in growth driven by the pandemic. Net sales grew 37% YoY in Q3 as compared to an approximate 20% level, pre-pandemic. Their gains were in every category and every geography but certainly eCommerce led the way as consumers shifted more of their buying to the web. Of course, such a shift also meant increased growth for AWS as well. Net Income in Q3 was up 197% YoY to over $6.3 billion. Given the increase in its growth rate and strong earnings the stock performed quite well in 2020 and was up 76% to $3257/share.

In our post we also recommended selling puts with a strike price of $1750 as an augmented strategy to boost returns. Had someone done that the return would have increased to 89%. For the purposes of blog performance, I will continue to use the stock price increase for performance. Regardless, this pick was another winner.

6. I added Zoom Media to the list of recommended stocks. It closed 2019 at $72.20

When I put Zoom on my list of recommended stocks, I had no idea we’d be going through a pandemic that would turn it into a household name. Instead, I was confident that the migration from audio calls to video conference calls would continue to accelerate and Zoom has the best product and pricing in the category. For its fiscal 2020-year (ending in January, 2020) Zoom grew revenue 78% with the final sequential quarter of the year growth at 13.0%. Once the pandemic hit, Zoom sales accelerated greatly with the April quarter up 74% sequentially and 169% YoY. The April quarter only had 5 weeks of pandemic benefit. The July quarter had a full 3 months of benefit and increased an astounding 102% sequentially and 355% YoY.  Q3, the October quarter continued the upward trend but now had a full quarter of the pandemic as a sequential compare. So, while the YoY growth was 367%, the sequential quarterly growth began to normalize. At over 17% it still exceeded what it was averaging for the quarters preceding the pandemic but was a disappointment to investors and the stock has been trading off since reporting Q3 numbers. Regardless of the pullback, the stock is ahead 369% in 2020, closing the year at $337/share .

In the post we also outlined a strategy that combined selling both put and call options with purchasing the stock. Later in the year we pointed out that buying back the calls and selling the stock made sense mid-year if one wanted to maximize IRR. If one had followed the strategy (including the buyback we suggested) the return would still have been well over a 100% IRR but clearly lower than the return without the options. As with Amazon, for blog performance, we are only focused on the straight stock strategy. And this recommendation turned out to be stellar.

Unusual Year for the Non-Stock Predictions

7. The major election year will cause a substantial increase in advertising dollars spent

This forecast proved quite valid. Michael Bloomberg alone spent over $1 billion during his primary run. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that they projected just under $11 billion in spending would take place between candidates for president, the Senate and the House in the general election. This was about 50% higher than in 2016. Additionally, there will be incremental dollars devoted to the runoff Senate races in Georgia. This increase helped advertising companies offset some of the lost revenue discussed above.

8. Automation of Retail will continue to gain momentum

Given the pandemic, most projects were suspended so this did not take place. And it may be a while before we have enough normalization for this trend to resume, but I am confident it will. However, the pandemic also caused an acceleration in eCommerce for brick and mortar supermarkets and restaurants. I’m guessing almost everyone reading this post has increased their use of one or more of: Instacart, Amazon Fresh, Walmart delivery, Safeway delivery, Uber Eats, GrubHub, Doordash, etc. My wife and I even started ordering specialty foods (like lox) from New York through either Goldbelly or Zabars. Restaurants that would not have dreamed of focusing on takeout through eCommerce are now immersed in it. While this was not the automation that I had contemplated it still represents a radical change.

9. The Warriors will come back strong in the 2020/2021 season

This was my fun prediction. Unfortunately, the combination of injuries and Covid eliminated fun for sports fans. I expected that there would be enough games in 2020 to evaluate whether my forecast was correct or not. Since the season started in late December its premature to evaluate it. Also, I pointed out that the team had to stay relatively healthy for the prediction to work. Guess what? The Warriors have already had 2 devastating injuries (Thompson the critical one, and Chriss, who I expected would help the second team as well).

Yet, several things I predicted in the post have occurred:

  1. The younger players did develop last season, especially Pascal
  2.  The Warriors did get a very high draft choice and at first blush he seems like a winner
  3. The Warriors did use the Iguodala cap space to sign a strong veteran, Oubre.

Given the absence of Thompson, the team will be successful if they make the playoffs. So, let’s suspend evaluating the forecast to see if that occurs in a packed Western Conference despite losing Thompson. Last year they started 4 and 16. For the 2020-2021 season  (as of January 3) they are 3 and 3 and appear to be a much better team that needs time to jell. But the jury is out as to how good (or bad) they will be. 

10. At least one of the major Unicorns will be acquired by a larger player

There were 9 Unicorns listed in the post. Eight are still going at it by themselves but the 9th, Slack, has recently been acquired by SalesForce making this an accurate prediction.

2021 Predictions coming soon

Stay tuned for my top ten predictions for 2021… but please note most of the 6 stocks from 2020 will continue on the list and as usual, for these stocks, we will use their 2020 closing prices as the start price for 2021. For any new stock we add, we will use the price of the stock as we are writing the post.

Soundbytes

I thought I would share something I saw elsewhere regarding New Year’s wishes. In the past most people wished for things like success for themselves and/or family members in one form or another. The pandemic has even transformed this. Today, I believe most people are more focused on wishing for health for them, their family, friends, and an end to this terrible pandemic. Please take care of yourselves, stay safe. We are getting closer to the end as vaccines are here and will get rolled out to all of us over the next 4-6 months.