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.

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.