Week Seven of Sheltering in Place

As hard as it would have been to believe back in the olden days (like in February) my wife and I are now in the 7th week of “Sheltering in Place” and it has just been extended another 4 weeks. The questions constantly being discussed among my colleagues, friends and family are:

  1. How long will this last?
  2. What will life be like at the beginning of the end of this initiative?
  3. When will things go back to normal?
  4. Who will the Warriors draft with their high pick this year (OK not everyone brings this one up)?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these as I’m sure you are all bombarded with potential answers and there are many who know more than I do regarding a pandemic. In this post I’ll try to grapple with 3 different questions, each of which deserves a section below.

Question 1: How will the long-term ramifications of Covid-19 impact success for companies and what can they do to enhance their opportunity?

This is a long-winded question and will get a long-winded answer. To begin, I believe this will only accelerate several trends that are already in place: online commerce gaining share, the use of video conferencing and the virtual workplace, as well as increased emphasis of companies being economically efficient. The pandemic has forced most people to be much more cautious at venturing out to accomplish such everyday tasks as shopping, eating in restaurants and going to the movies. Instead, they are learning that almost everything can be bought online (including food from some top restaurants), conferencing with Zoom provides a great experience at a low cost, and business efficiency will be correlated with survival.

My wife and I have long been online shoppers but as we shelter at home, we have increased the volume of purchases quite significantly. Department stores that were previously experiencing loss of share to online merchants but were resistant to devoting sufficient effort to their own online stores are in deep trouble. It appears likely that a number of well-known and not so well-known retailers will file for bankruptcy within the next few months. The combination of people becoming more comfortable with buying just about everything online and a major reduction in the number of physical outlets will open up more share for online players and for the online stores of multi-channel merchants.

During the current environment my board meetings (as well as everyone else’s) are being held as Zoom conference calls. For many companies, having such a meeting eliminates travel and hotel expenses for employees, board members and advisors. Replacing this with a Zoom conference call can mean lowering the cost to hundreds of dollars, from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, per meeting. While I am a big fan of the value of face to face, many companies will be re-evaluating whether having more of their meetings through video conferencing makes sense in an era when the technology has emerged as very viable and extremely cost effective. I’m not suggesting that all board meeting will be executed as video conference calls as face-face remains important, but perhaps companies will decide to do half of their meetings as a Zoom call. An interesting example is the NFL draft, where it was conducted through use of Zoom instead of renting a large stadium and paying for  travel expenses. Reviews have suggested that it was actually a better event than the prior year. I suspect the cost savings between all parties involved ran into the millions of dollars.

For many companies the pandemic has weakened revenue, putting pressure on survival. The government “bailout” PPP program helps, but by itself can prove insufficient to prop up companies with weak business models unless they have a very large cash reserve. The investment community was already shifting to focus more on efficient business models prior to Covid-19 but its disruption has helped to highlight the importance of building a profitable business.

Question 2: What should Companies do in the current environment?

What Azure has been suggesting for its portfolio companies is the following series of steps:

  1. If you are eligible, apply for government assistance through the PPP, SBA emergency loan or other programs.
  2. Create multiple models for your business under different scenarios (different dates that people will be back to normal, whether consumer spending will be reduced even after being back, whether customers will delay payments, etc.)
  3. If one or more of credible scenarios indicate that you will run out of cash, then cut costs as quickly as possible. For employees making over $100,000 per year (including founders) cutting them back to some amount that is still at $100,000 or more will have no impact on the forgiveness offered on the PPP loan.
  4. Make every attempt to extend any bank lines coming due as banks have been asked to cooperate with their customers.
  5. If you can afford it, be as kind as possible to your customers by extending terms, etc. Not all, but many, will remember your help and repay you with increased loyalty.
  6. While advertising seems an easy area to cut costs, make sure you evaluate the payback period for customer acquisition marketing as costs may be lower and online conversion may be higher (we have seen that with a number of our companies). In fact, if the payback is reasonably quick it may pay to play offense by being aggressive!
  7. If you have a strong cash position it may be a time to consider acquisitions as many companies will be struggling.
  8. If you have a product that customers are opting to purchase in this environment, think about trying to convert as many as possible to a subscription so that you can extend the relationship beyond the current situation. This can be done by offering attractive discounts for signing up for one or more years rather than month to month. For example, Zoom offers 2 months free if you opt for an annual plan versus a monthly plan. My wife and I decided the cost savings made it worth signing up for a full year.

Question 3: Who are the current and longer-term winners and losers as a result of Covid-19?

Winners

The biggest winners appear to be those that can leverage working at home, educating at home, buying at home, supplying infrastructure for increased online usage, and supplying products for increased cleanliness of surfaces and one’s self. In the public markets, I fortunately have 3 of my annual Blog recommendations included in these categories:

  • Zoom is the most obvious example of a beneficiary of people working and educating at home. It has reported that daily usage is up an astounding 30X between December and April. Its stock performance is just as astounding, up well over 100% year to date from the time of my pick in early January. The question for the company is whether they can harness this to make us permanently change how we communicate. For my wife and I, the number of Zoom calls we are on is now running between 5 and 10 per week. When I add my business calls the number is quite a bit higher. As they say: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That is, we are permanent customers as are many of our friends and colleagues.

 

  • DocuSign is another of my blog picks that should benefit in both the near term and longer term from the impact of the virus and sheltering at home. Its stock reflects higher expectation as it has increased in value by 41% year-to-date. If more meetings are going to be virtual then more documents will require esignatures and DocuSign is the runaway leader in the category

 

  • There are many other pure play beneficiaries of a future where more people entertain themselves, work and educate at home. This includes Netflix (stock up over 25%) who has seen a large spike in usage, Slack (stock up 30% since January 27), and online educational plays (our former company Education.com has seen a large spike in traffic and revenue as has our existing portfolio company Showbie)

 

  • Amazon is the poster child for purchasing online. It has announced hiring of 175,000 employees for increased warehouse and logistics operations which Wall Street interpreted as a massive increase in demand driving the stock to new highs (its currently up over 25% YTD). It should also benefit from increased purchases of eBooks and increased online usage of its Web Services (I haven’t seen much chatter about AWS benefit but it should be very large and is highly profitable). Azure portfolio company, Open Road is seeing a significant increase in its sales of eBooks since sheltering-at-home began.

 

  • Infrastructure Companies whose revenue varies with web usage should also benefit as volumes are increasing massively: Zoom announced that daily usage is up 3,000%; many others I’ve heard have ranged from 50% to 700% or more. Schools are converting to online classes with student usage increasing to 4-7 hours per day. Gaming companies are also beneficiaries and users. I believe that total web traffic is up at least 50% and perhaps a lot more versus where it would have been.

 

  • Clorox is one of the major beneficiaries of our new emphasis on cleanliness through disinfecting our environment and washing our hands many times a day, as recommended by the new folk hero Dr. Fauci. While its stock is up 20% year-to-date, the question is whether the increased demand for disinfectants is a permanent change. I’m guessing that increased usage is permanent… but not to the extent we are seeing today.

Long-Term Losers

Losers span several industries and the question for many of the companies in these industries is how permanent the loss of demand will be. Let’s look at them sector by sector.

  • Department Stores are currently shut down in most of the United States. Companies already struggling are now experiencing substantial losses every week. Those that have a pharmacy or grocery area (like Walmart) can stay open, but the real key to reducing the losses is the effectiveness of their online offering. In most cases this is pretty weak, both in percentage of the retailer’s sales and the level of profitability given inefficient distribution and high levels of returns. I expect multiple brand name players to file for bankruptcy before the year is over.

 

  • The Travel Industry is being hit very hard by the shelter-in-place requirements. Airlines are flying planes that are nearly empty but trying to maintain their cash by not cancelling flights until close to the date of departure so that passengers cancelling will get credits rather than rebates. One hotel I spoke to when cancelling my reservation told me that occupancy was down 90%. Many have already closed their properties. While I expect business to improve greatly for both of these arenas when we are back to normal, they are both accumulating massive losses which might pressure viability. Further, when we are back to normal (whatever that becomes) I suspect that airline traffic will be down through at least mid-2021 as fears are elevated and will take some time to subside. Cruise lines may be in worse shape as the publicity around the various ships that had large portions of passengers and crew get Covid-19 has definitely caused many to reconsider vacationing this way. I expect this sector to be impacted at least through the end of 2021. Also, cruises have had to refund most fares as opposed to providing a credit for future travel.

 

  • Arena Entertainment providers and entertainers have been hurt badly by the closure of their venues during this time period. This includes movie theaters as well as complexes like the Chase Center and other arenas. The question becomes when will they be able to be open for full occupancy? And when they are will people stay away for some time. I expect many of them to be at full occupancy by early 2021 as younger people (who make up the majority who attend concerts) will drive renewal of demand for concerts.

Short-term Losers that can Return to Success

  • Advertising Platforms (TV, Web, etc) have seen demand drop as the travel industry, live events and brick and mortar retailers have little reason to maintain prior spending. Additionally, those companies looking to cut cost view advertising (especially brand building advertising) as a prime candidate for cuts. However, I believe that demand will return to normal as stores reopen and travel is permitted. As of now this appears to be sometime in Q3. While many companies in sectors that take longer to return to normal will still have reduced budgets, online players will likely increase spend, as will those seeing this as an opportunity to gain share.

 

  • The Sports Industry consists of teams, leagues, arenas, ticket sellers (like Stubhub), equipment providers and betting. All of these are experiencing close to zero revenue (with the exception of some equipment being sold for home use). Leagues (and teams) with large TV contracts are likely to reinitiate games without live audiences by July as participants can be restricted to those having tested for no virus immediately before a game. Even without an audience the TV money will make this profitable to do. Once these are back in play, betting will resume. Equipment providers can still sell T-shirts and other paraphernalia online, but once games resume their sales will increase. By as early as the fall, but no later than early 2021, I expect that many states will allow live audiences for games and that arenas will be back to normal capacity for them. This would allow ticket sellers and sports betting to be at normal capacity. Equipment suppliers also depend on school purchases as well as little league, etc. So, while revenue will begin growing in the fall it may not be back to normal before early 2021.  A noted exception will be providers of at home equipment, like Peloton, which will lose business from gyms in the short run but should see a large increase in at-home purchases.

 

  • Non-Internet Service Providers (other than delivery services) have a particularly hard time as physical services cannot be provided online. Things like the Geek Squad, physician checkups and procedures, elective surgeries, automotive services, personal care like haircuts and manicures, massages, and more have been suspended. But as long as the entities survive this period, I believe there will be no permanent impairment of their businesses.

 

Conclusion

Coming back to where this post began, I’m still wondering who the Warriors will draft! But more importantly, I hope all of you and your families are safe and healthy. We will get through this!

Random Thoughts as I Shelter in Place

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.

Still Partying

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:

  1. First and foremost, make sure you protect your employee’s health by having them work remotely if at all possible.
  2. Draw down bank lines completely to increase liquidity in the face of potential reduced revenue and earnings.
  3. 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.
  4. If modeling indicates additional risk, consider cutting whatever costs you possibly can including:
    1. A potential reduction in workforce – while this is unpleasant you need to think about insuring survival which means the remaining employees will have jobs
    2. Reduced compensation for founders and top executives possibly in exchange for additional options
    3. Negotiating with your landlord (for reduced or delayed rent) as well as other vendors
    4. Eliminating any unnecessary discretionary spending
    5. 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!
  5. 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?

Stay Safe

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.