Wall Street has always been captivated by controversial companies, controversial leaders, and controversial mergers. Tesla’s shocking offer to buy SolarCity on Tuesday featured all three, so it was no surprise that the deal instantly seemed like a bigger story than the presidential race, gun control, ISIS, and Brexit. It even managed to make the last controversial company that dominated headlines, Valeant Pharma, seem like an afterthought.
A few people have written in asking my opinion of the deal. The short answer is, I believe investors are well advised to avoid both stocks like the plague. As separate entities, these companies are wildly overvalued story stocks with a good chance of going broke. Together, they will form one wildly overvalued story stock with a good chance of going broke.
Earnings, as the old Wall Street adage goes, are “the mother’s milk of stock prices.” But not all earnings are the same. More and more companies believe they can hoodwink investors into accepting the myth that non-GAAP earnings are a better measure of corporate progress than numbers produced by generally accepted accounting principles. In 2016’s first quarter, 19 of the 30 Dow companies reported both GAAP and non-GAAP earnings.
In theory, filing non-GAAP numbers can give a clearer picture of a company’s health by excluding expenses managements consider (or hope) to be nonrecurring, such as charges for divestitures, acquisitions, and foreign currency adjustments. In practice, non-GAAP figures increasingly allow managements to present wildly distorted pictures of their firms’ financial health by omitting the most troublesome aspects of their balance sheets. Valeant is all over the news now for doing just that. But the biggest and, mystifyingly, least talked about expense omitted in non-GAAP numbers is stock based compensation.
Believe it or not, mobile home stocks used to be good places to park your money. Twenty years ago, the so-called “manufactured housing” industry was widely followed by Wall Street analysts, and public companies like Clayton Homes, Champion Homes, and Palm Harbor Homes were all rated strong buys.
Then the roof caved in.
First, the easy credit of the early-2000s housing bubble allowed many first time buyers to choose “site built” homes instead mobile homes. That was followed by the 2008 crisis, when financing for all types of homes, mobile or otherwise, evaporated. Now, US mobile home production hovers around 70,000 units, down from a peak of 350,000 units in the late-1990s.
But a few companies have managed to weather the storm. The top three builders now command a combined 72 percent of the market. Berkshire Hathaway owns the largest of them, Clayton Homes, which accounts for 45 percent of all US mobile home production. The third largest company, Champion, is privately held. Aside from tiny Skyline Corp (SKY), that leaves only one publicly traded option for most stock investors: the second place company by market share, Phoenix-based Cavco Industries (CVCO).
I’m traveling this week, so I’m not able to write a new blog post, but I thought I would share the video of the presentation J. Carlo Cannell and I made at last year’s Stansberry Conference in Las Vegas. (Email subscribers can find the video on Youtube by clicking here.) I’m scheduled to present at the conference again this September. You can register here if you’d like to attend.
As last year’s holiday season was kicking off, I cautioned investors for the second year in a row to beware of the traditional retail sector. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. This earnings season has been an unmitigated disaster, with one retailer after another turning in disappointing reports. Gap, Nordstrom, Macy’s, JC Penney, Kohls, and others have all dropped precipitously.
Some contrarian investors who buy out of favor stocks in out of favor industries have started calling a bottom for these companies, positing that the recent selloff provides an attractive entry price for long term investors.
Last February, I wrote a thought exercise of sorts for CNBC.com weighing the stocks of the number one and two companies by market cap at the time, Apple and Exxon.
Apple, as you may recall, had just turned in one of the greatest quarters in history, annihilating estimates with record smashing iPhone sales. Its stock had shot up to $128/share, and just about everyone expected it to climb higher. Pundits were breathlessly debating how soon Apple would become the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Exxon’s stock, by contrast, was $88/share and not many people were touting it as a buy. Oil prices had crashed to $50/barrel, from over $100 less than a year earlier, and a recovery was seen as unlikely.
Despite these factors, I wrote that if I could buy only one stock between the two and hold it for the long term, Exxon was a better choice than Apple. A quarter later, as both companies prepared to release earnings again, I reiterated my preference for the energy giant.
This is part two of my responses to some of the emails, messages, and tweets I’ve received in recent weeks. Part one was posted on Monday.
A number have readers have contacted me wondering about specific stocks. I generally don’t like to comment on companies I haven’t studied, so I have been reluctant to offer my thoughts on most of them. However, I thought it might be worthwhile to respond to this tweet from Thomas Yarbrough (@tmyrbrgh):
Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who has emailed, messaged, or tweeted at me since my book Dead Companies Walking came out. I’ve tried to reply directly to as many folks as possible but running my fund has taken up most of my time and attention, so I thought I would post my responses to a few interesting questions, comments, and criticisms I’ve received in recent weeks here. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit everything into one post, so I had to break my responses up into two parts. I’ll post the second half on Wednesday.
First up, an email from a reader named Greg:
“I am a private investor who has been investing on the long side for most of my career. I’ve almost finished your excellent book, ‘Dead Companies Walking,’ and it has inspired me to start trading the short side as well. My immediate question is: Where do you find all the good ideas? It’s fairly easy to find long ideas in places like Value Investor’s Club (of which I am a member), or the published portfolio lists of hedge fund managers. But where do you get quality short ideas? Thanks for your help with this!”
In theory, Wall Street analysts are paid to predict the future earnings of the companies they cover and use those predictions as the basis for their stock recommendations. In reality, this is not always how the game works. Often, analysts seem to forget that earnings and earnings growth have always been the mother’s milk of stock prices over the long term. Instead, they focus on short term price fluctuations, lowering ratings when a company’s stock drops, even as its earnings estimates rise.
Make no mistake, as I’ve repeatedly warned, most stocks making the 52-week low list are there for good reason. The large majority of them are heading lower, and many will cease to exist. Conversely, most stocks making 52-week highs are likely headed higher. However, profitable exceptions to these rules do exist. With a little digging, investors can exploit the imbalance between the Street’s short-term perception of a company, as reflected in its stock price, and its long-term prospects, as reflected by its earnings outlook.
Two high profile commodity companies filed for bankruptcy last week. The first was St. Louis-based coal producer Peabody Energy (BTU). Peabody was the latest coal producer to file, following Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, and Walter Energy. BTU quickly fell below $1 on the news. Just a few years ago, Peabody’s market capitalization exceeded $20 billion. On Wednesday, Houston offshore oil producer Energy XXI (EXXI) joined Peabody in bankruptcy court. Four years ago, EXXI was a $32 stock. On Thursday, the day after it announced its bankruptcy filing, it closed at 12 cents.