Merry Christmas! With more updates

Credits: www.care2.com

A few updates in the run-up to Christmas:

  • Dividends & buybacks
    • Following issues with its latest Galaxy Note, Samsung decided to support its share price by boosting its dividends to 50% of its free cash flow. Samsung is also facing pressure from activist fund Elliott.
  • Unicorns & valuations
    • Stripe joined the unicorn club last month after being valued at $9bn despite raising less than 2% of this amount.
    • Unicorns in need to add liquidity to their shares but not meeting (yet) public market requirements have increasingly relied on secondary markets to trade shares, despite the lack of transparency associated with these semi-private markets. $1.2bn worth of transactions are expected to take place in 2016 at a time where tech company IPOs are expected to reach their lowest level since 2009 and investors are becoming increasingly cautious about overvalued sectors, including on-demand delivery.
    • Uber reported a $800m third-quarter loss although it states it is now cash-flow positive in some mature markets. Consolidated profitability seems far away still.
    • The mayor of Barcelona fined Uber and HomeAway €600k each last month for not complying with local licensing requirements. In France, Airbnb committed to send tax data to French authorities automatically rather than leaving it up to individuals to declare as it used to be the case. Registration will be made compulsory for landlords willing to let their property more than 120 days a year.
  • Cybersecurity
    • Yahoo revealed that 1bn users were stolen personal data in 2013 in an attack dwarfing the one reported in 2014. Compromised datasets may include names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates as well as poorly encrypted passwords. This security issue may thus create vulnerabilities for other websites, as users tend to recycle the same password for multiple websites, according to Lisa Pollack from the Financial Times.
    • Hackers targeted the SWIFT messaging network with the help of Bangladesh central bank officials, highlighting the vulnerability of IT systems to insider fraud.
    • A couple of weeks ago France unveiled its cybersecurity policy. The country aims to build defensive capabilities as well as an offensive arsenal, which could include traditional weapons.
    • Several hedge funds investors warned big data sellers that they were failing to properly hide personal information. Cross-referencing information enables recipients to waive the anonymity of the data.
  • Active & passive investing, bonds & equity
    • The passive investing frenzy seized bond markets, which now ‘host’ more than $600bn of fixed income ETFs, threatening the stability of the financial system, according to experts. The bubble around fixed income is expected to weaken in the coming months given the Fed’s willingness to raise interest rates three times next year – subprime borrowers have already started to feel the heat.
  • Blackberry, LinkedIn, Twitter, Apple
    • Blackberry raised its full-year profit outlook as its software & services business generated more than 50% of its sales over the last quarter. Management expects to bring the company back to profitability on an adjusted basis in the full year.
    • Russian authorities blocked access to LinkedIn for its 6 million users in the country as Russian legislation requires personal data of Russian citizens to be stored on Russian territory.
    • LinkedIn added a robot tool to its chat interface in order to trigger more numerous conversations between individuals and ultimately gathering more data on its users.
    • For its part Twitter suffered another executive departure as its chief technology officer Adam Messinger resigned after 3 years in the job.
    • Apple is the latest investor to express interest in Softbank’s $100bn planned tech fund.

I unfortunately doubt that I will have the time to publish another post before the end of the week, so I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and I look forward to publishing again in the New Year at the latest.

More updates…

We start the week with the latest news that have been shaking up some of the topics we have already covered in this blog.

News brought to you courtesy of Warren. Credits: Daily Mail.
News brought to you courtesy of Warren. Credits: Daily Mail.
  • Apple struggles to maintain its market share in China according to the company’s latest filings released last month. Although Apple’s revenues in the country are up 50% compared with 2014, local rivals such as Huawei, Vivo and Oppo have been offering cheaper although similarly powerful devices. The firm is supposedly eyeing towards India as its next revenue growth driver. In the meantime it launched its latest ‘product’, a retrospective book entitled ‘Designed by Apple in California’, and priced the Apple way: $199 to $299 depending on the edition.
  • Twitter has announced it would cut 9% of its workforce in order to keep costs down. This comes at a bad time for the firm which have been increasingly criticised for allowing cyberbullying, racism and misogyny to flourish on its platform and now has to find a new COO after the departure of Adam Bain. Twitter responded by suspending several accounts belonging to right-wing extremist groups, although it has for the moment ruled out ‘instant message moderation’. The idea that “good speech naturally wins out” is a fallacy, argues heather Brooks in the Financial Times.
  • The election of Donald Trump in the US caused a mini-stock market shock to tech values. Mr. Trump is indeed believed to ease the tax policy surrounding corporate earnings made overseas – currently those earnings are taxed at 35% and the rate could go down to as low as 10%. This explains why Microsoft, Apple and Google have been keeping billions of dollars offshore. This news could have been welcomed but are investors actually fearing what executives are going to do with this ‘idle’ money?
  • Notwithstanding this rumour Facebook announced earlier this week a $6bn share buyback aimed at curbing the negative share price impact of an expected growth slowdown expressed during its latest quarterly result presentation. This decision represents an archetype of buyback for ‘wrong’ reasons, as flagged in my post a few months ago. Facebook is not buying shares because it believes they are cheap but because it needs to satisfy its existing shareholders – a typical value-destroying move.
  • Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn could trigger a wave of antitrust challenges, according to Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO. LinkedIn’s data could indeed provide Microsoft with a unique competitive advantage especially in the field of CRM – hence Mr. Benioff’s ire. As a response Microsoft proposed to give rivals access to its software and offer hardware makers the option of installing other services.
  • SoftBank is entering the ‘tech unicorn’ investor market the big way, through the launch of a $100bn fund anchored by Saudi Arabia. The implied equity cheque size (up to $5bn according to its CEO) could provide a private exit door for a handful of existing unicorns reluctant to go through the ‘IPO gateway’.
  • Sigfox, the French ‘Internet of Things’ specialist, could soon join the unicorn club, being valued at €600m according to its latest fundraising round. The operation was relatively unique in the sense that it gathered public entities, private companies and VC funds around the same (investor) table.
  • Fitbit could conversely become the next ‘unicorpse’. The company’s share price has declined by 80% over the last 18 months as tech behemoths have been progressively entering the field of connected objects. On its side, Fitbit tried to put the blame on one of its suppliers to explain its recent supply chain disruptions – whereas analysts attribute this phenomenon to incorrect demand forecast.
  • Karhoo has already reached this status, filing for bankruptcy after just 6 months of activity. The start-up, which raised $250m and was employing 120 people despite only generating $1m of revenues in London. A very aggressive promotional policy, consisting of ‘thousands of pounds of vouchers’, alongside a “ludicrous lack of corporate governance”, led the company to ruin in a highly contested market.
  • Nutmeg managed to raise £30m from international investors despite posting pre-tax losses of £9m this year.
  • Snapshat could be the big IPO of 2017, hoping to raise additional equity at an implied valuation of $20bn to $25bn – although the exact amount still needs to be determined. The two founders will keep the control in any case through the use of preferred shares.
  • Uber faces legal challenges in the UK, where a court ruled that Uber drivers were not independent but actually salaried workers. In France the fact that some Uber drivers could under some circumstances be promised a minimum wage is also a cause for dispute.
  • The Airbnb business model is being challenged in an increasing number of cities. After New York and San Francisco, Berlin and London have joined the fight to prevent the firm from putting pressure on dwelling supply and subsequently pushing rents up in the most touristic areas. After relentlessly fighting all forms of regulatory resistance, the firm has changed its approach and is now intending to strike as many tax deals as possible with the cities it operates in – bringing the figure up from 200 to 700 and covering 90%+ of its revenues.

That is it for this week in terms of updates! Next post (hopefully later this week) will introduce the cybersecurity topic.

Updates, updates…

Some more follow-ups this week:

  • coupa-softwareEarlier this month Coupa Software proved to be one of the very few completed AND successful tech IPOs this year, despite reporting a loss of $24m for total sales of $60m. The shareholders were wise enough to limit the sale to $153m worth of shares, a fraction of the $1bn+ total enterprise value, in order to price the IPO at the top of the range. On the first day of trading the share price had jumped by 121.7% to $39.71, although it has since cooled down to c.$27. In any case this event shows a clear investor appetite for this kind of assets – good news for the likes of Uber and Airbnb.
Coupa Software share price evolution in USD since IPO. Source: Yahoo Finance
Coupa Software share price evolution in USD since IPO. Source: Yahoo Finance
  • On the contrary Theranos, once valued at $9bn, is close to bankruptcy after the FDA pointed out failures in its patient data collection procedures, highlighting the risks for investors who put their money in unicorns operating in ‘regulated’ areas such as healthcare or financial services – remember Lending Club.
  • Credits: rt.com
    Credits: rt.com

    Airbnb is facing ‘life-threatening’ disputes in New York and San Francisco whose governors have expressed the intention to rein the ‘short-term rental’ offering in. It is indeed argued that this type of systems contributes to the increase of rents in tight dwelling supply areas since landlords prefer to rent unoccupied flats on a short-term basis rather than putting it back on the market. So far the New York governor has approved a law which allows the city to fine landlords who list apartments for rentals of less than 30 days – a ‘half-baked measure’ difficult to enforce given that the authorities do not have access to the landlords’ identities.

  • After China, Uber is facing tough competition in Russia where Yandex Taxi, funded by the eponymous deep-pocketed search engine, has decided to cut its minimum base fares in half, leading to a taxi driver protest.
  • More generally the funding environment for start-ups has deteriorated slightly as investors prove increasingly selective in their investment decisions. Venture capital investment in European companies dropped 32% yoy in Q3, in line ith the 35% YTD drop noticed in California. The IPO window has also proven more and more difficult to reach, with investors perceiving some proposed valuations “ludicrously overpriced compared to existing peers”.
  • Credits: www.juancole.com
    Credits: www.juancole.com

    Twitter is back in the doldrums after the last takeover candidate, namely Salesforce, dropped the case after careful deliberations. The share price had already taken a hit after Microsoft denied interest, lowering the competitive tension. Although some experts believe that the company would represent a great ‘trophy asset’ for an activist shareholder, management has now shifted its attention back to streamlining its cost structure, initially designed to serve more than 500m users, way higher than the actual user base (300-350m). This exercise will result in 300 employees losing their job this year, according to Bloomberg.

Twitter share price evolution over the last 60 days in USD. Source: Yahoo Finance
Twitter share price evolution over the last 60 days in USD. Source: Yahoo Finance
  • Carrefour and Auchan have launched initiatives to tap into the wisdom of start-ups to boost their digital capabilities. Les Echos reports that Carrefour has built relationships with more than 150 start-ups and has invested in the VC fund Partech Ventures while Auchan organised earlier this month its first ‘Salon des start-ups’. Due to its close proximity with historical retailers, Lille appears as the spearhead of ‘French retail tech’, having hosted the #conext show as well.
  • UBS became the latest major bank to join the ‘robo-advisor trend’ after it announced that it would roll-out such a service in the UK no later than next month. This decision will make the service available to users with as little as £15k in personal savings, although the 1% annual fee levied for customers investing solely in ‘passive’ funds is still high compared with industry best practices. In the same vein Charles Schwab announced its robo-advisor service was now managing more than $10bn in assets, a c150% yoy growth. The first independent ‘French tech’ player, Yomoni, has much more modest ambitions, targeting $1bn of AuM by 2020.
  • Apple reported its first annual decline (9%) in iPhone sales volumes (in line with analysts’ expectations) despite the misfortune of the Samsung Galaxy S7.
Updated chart showing yoy ASP and sale volume evolution for the iPhone. Sources: SEC filings, author analysis
Updated chart showing yoy ASP and sale volume evolution for the iPhone. Sources: SEC filings, author analysis

That’s it for now!

Press review – A few updates

Recent economic news have provided further substance to some of the topics we covered earlier this year. Selected examples include:

  • Apple revealed earlier this week declining yoy iPhone sales. The decline was however in the higher end of analysts’ expectations and resulted in a share price appreciation. Furthermore the company unveiled a strong increase in R&D spending (now reaching 6% of turnover), highlighting the hunt for the ‘next big thing’ to alleviate the still heavy reliance on iPhone which represents 2/3 of revenues.
  • Twitter’s results, on the other hand, disappointed investors which let the share price drop by 11% after the announcement. User base seems to have reached a plateau and the company has not found a way to profitability yet.
  • ‘Active’ investing is still haemorrhaging money while investors favour low-cost passive strategies.

Warren hopes there are seeds in the Apple

6a00d83473f9dc69e20148c6ac7b95970cAfter decades of cautious suspicion towards technology-related stocks (with the notable exception of IBM), Warren Buffett has crossed the Rubicon and is now an Apple shareholder. The news clearly took the financial community by surprise: Apple’s stock jumped by 2% in pre-market trading after the announcement (indicated by a green arrow in the chart below) and is now up 4% compared with last week.

Sans titre

Mr. Buffett cannot be described as a 'geek'. Credits: CNN.
Mr. Buffett cannot be described as a ‘geek’. Credits: CNN.

Not only does the move surprise given Mr. Buffett’s historical ‘tech-adverse’ inclination  but this move also contradicts a statement he made no earlier than 4 years ago, saying that he would “not be able to value [Apple’s] stocks“. Last but not least, Berkshire is investing at a time when another famous investor, Carl Icahn, has taken the opposite direction by offloading his $4bn stake last month.

Why has Warren turned round? We cannot accuse Berkshire of trying to benefit from the recent air pocket Apple went through which we discussed on this blog three weeks ago, since the stake was built throughout the first quarter. Nor can we assume that Mr. Buffett will be able to impose his views on Apple’s management: his stake is important in nominal terms ($1bn), but only represents 0.2% of the total shareholder structure.

iphone-iphone6plus-colors
Credits: www.apple.com

In my view, the reason lies in another factor we have underlined. According to our EV/EBITDA benchmarks (reproduced below) the market is primarily viewing Apple as a hardware company at present, which is understandable given the share of revenues generated by devices such as the iPhone and, to a lesser extent, the iPad and the iPod.

EV/EBITDA benchmarks.
EV/EBITDA benchmarks as of 28 April 2016. Sources: CapitalIQ, author analysis

And yet, Apple is trying hard to get out of the generally slow-growing, low-margin hardware trap where it can be considered as an alien – but for how long? – by investing part of its massive war chest into promising ventures, both internally – iTunes and, more recently, iCloud – and externally – the $1bn stake taken in Chinese ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing is the most significant to date.

Warren-Buffett-laughingIf Apple manages to grow the seeds it has been planting over the last few years and to convince Wall Street that it has now become a credible player in the ‘virtual’ space alongside other tech behemoths such as Google, Amazon or Microsoft, it will be able to command a higher valuation multiple which will ultimately lift its stock price. And the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ will have won his bet (once more).