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Quick Thoughts: AAPL – SURPRISE! AAPL beats! (actually, not a surprise)

Written October 20th, 2014 by

-          AAPL delivered 4QFY14 EPS of $1.42 on sales of $42.1B, handily beating the published consensus, on very strong sales of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus that had been widely anticipated

-          Sales growth of 12.4% was the best since December 2012. iPhone unit sales of 39.3M were up 16.2% YoY, with ASPs up 4.3% to $6.02. iPhone is 56.2% of AAPL sales, up 340bp YoY.

-          Mac sales had a big quarter, up 18% YoY and 15.7% of total. The iPad franchise, down 14% to 12.6%. of AAPL sales, is deteriorating. iTunes grew 8% YoY, falling to 10.9% of total sales.

-          We expect another big beat in December. Increasing dependence on iPhone raises risks as high end smartphone market saturates. Strong Apple Watch sales needed to sustain growth in 2015.

Having already reported selling 10 million units during the opening weekend sales of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and ongoing press commentary of the vigorous global demand for Apple’s foray into modern larger screen form factors, it would have been shocking if the company had not blown out the published consensus numbers. In that context, the fairly sleepy after-hours response to the obviously excellent results is not all that surprising.

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Quick Thoughts: GOOG – Moonshots are Expensive

Written October 16th, 2014 by

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-          GOOG missed 3Q14 EPS by 2.8%, failing to deliver an expected QoQ improvement in operating margins. Net sales were in line, with fractionally lower revenues offset by slightly better TAC.

-          Sales saw total paid clicks decelerate to 17% YoY growth, but cost per click was once again flat QoQ and down just 2% YoY, rebutting the popular bear narrative of chronic price deterioration.

-          Sites revenue grew 20% and “Other” revenue – including Play, devices, Docs and Compute Engine – grew 50%. Expenses were up nearly 30% YoY, driven by R&D and SG&A.

-          Modest CAPEX, up less than 6% YoY, may be a sign of future cost improvements, but like many other cloud-era leaders, GOOG is relatively unconcerned with delivering quarterly results.

Google missed its 3Q14 EPS bogie by $0.18, delivering $6.35, when the assembled sell side wanted $6.53. Predictably, in a tough tech tape, Google shares are trading down a bit over 2% after hours, drooping uncomfortably close to the 52 week low of $503. Still, despite the headline, 3Q14 was, more or less, a continuation of the trends set in the last couple of quarters.

Sales were, essentially, in line, up 20% YoY at $16.52B. While this was nominally $50M below the published revenue consensus, most investors care more about Google’s net sales after deducting traffic acquisition costs (TAC), and those were actually just a tick above expectations, since TAC was more than $50M lower than forecast. Inside the sales number, was more give and take. The total paid clicks were up just 17% YoY, decelerating from better than 25% click growth in each of the previous three quarters. Management drew a few questions about decelerating click growth on the conference call and asked investors not to panic, explaining that ad demand is pretty volatile quarter to quarter.

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Quick Thoughts: NFLX – One Strike is Not an Out

Written October 15th, 2014 by

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-          NFLX disappointed investors on sub growth, missing guidance for 3.7M new subs by 19% as a price hike and a relatively weak slate of new programming releases dampened demand

-          The disappointing results were amplified by TWX’s announcement that it would offer HBO as a stand-alone streaming service in 2015 – we expect a significantly higher price point than NFLX

-          While sales disappointed vs. consensus, they were up 89% YoY, an acceleration from 2Q14’s 85% growth, a better indicator of imperfect forecasting than real operating problems

-          We remain confident in NFLX’s long term trajectory and expect substantial further sub growth going forward. We also see significant opportunity for advertising revenues down the line.

This is why many technology CEOs hate to give guidance. After blowing out numbers for the past three quarters, NFLX honcho Reed Hastings offered a 3Q14 target of 3.7M new subscribers, a projection of 33.4% YoY growth in total subs and a slight acceleration against the 33.3% growth the company delivered in 2Q. OOOPS! NFLX only delivered 3.0M new subs in the quarter, missing the total sub number by 1.3%, and BOOM! NFLX stock is down 25% as I write this.

It turns out that when you raise prices by 12.5% on a mass market consumer good, it has a negative impact on demand volume. Who knew? Perhaps Hastings had grown confident in the warm glow of Emmy nominations for NFLX’s “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards”, both of which had launched new seasons in the spring amidst fanfare and drove strong sub numbers in the first half of the year. Unfortunately, there were no such publicity-magnet tent-pole shows arriving during 3Q and the impact was apparent in the sub numbers. Still, 33.3% YoY growth in subs and nearly 89% growth in revenues should not be taken as some sort of indicator of doom.

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Quick Thoughts: HPQ – Another 180 Degree Turn, But Still No Strategic Direction

Written October 6th, 2014 by

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-           HPQ’s plan to split in two echoes EBAY’s PayPal spinout, completely repudiating its previous assertion of strategic synergies and capitulating to financial market pressure

-           HP Inc., the PC/Printer business, will be in long term decline, but could be attractive to acquirers looking for scale. Historically, it has been distinctly unsuccessful in entering growth markets.

-           Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is poorly positioned to compete for cloud services and will face serious deterioration in the demand for its in-house data center solutions going forward

-           More cost cutting or combining with another threatened data center supplier, like EMC, would do nothing to strategically reposition HPE for future success

Is there something in the water in Silicon Valley that is causing CEOs to do things that they had previously said they would never do? First Tim Cook’s Apple announces a phablet; then John Donahoe’s eBay decides to spinout PayPal; and now Meg Whitman’s HP announces a split into two. The moves come in increasing degrees of desperation – Apple finds some growth by finally giving its loyal users the top item on their wish lists, eBay gives Carl Icahn the top item on his personal wish list, and HP tries to make itself less unwieldy in case someone wants to buy a piece or agree to join forces as the ominous threat of the mobile/cloud era rolls in.

The rationale behind HP’s move is classic sum-of-the-parts – break off a business (HP Inc.) that is viewed as detracting from the value of the whole, and, VOILA, the bad stock price mojo follows the spin and the remainder gets a friendly multiple expansion. So HP Inc. gets a ~0.50 P/S ratio and trades at $15-17/share, ostensibly allowing HP Enterprise to break out to ~0.80 P/S and trade at $25-30. Meanwhile, breaking into two eliminates operating synergies and does nothing to address the substantial strategic threats that both of the businesses face.

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October 3, 2014 – Consumer Data: It’s Not Just What You Have, It’s Also Knowing What to Do With It.

Written October 2nd, 2014 by

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As the time that consumers spend on line continues to grow, particularly on mobile devices, the information that various companies are able to collect about their users is also growing. The value of that information – for commercial advertising, commerce, and personalized services – allows those companies to better address markets that are collectively worth $17T. We have built a taxonomy of that information – demographics, interests, actions, locations and connections – and assessed the degrees to which each category might be valuable. We then created a framework to assess various companies with stakes in the flow of consumer data based on their access to data, their ability to collect and analyze the information, and their potential for monetizing it. Not surprisingly, GOOG is far ahead in all regards – the extensive data they are privy to across the taxonomy, their prodigious institutional skills in data collection and analysis, and the levers for monetization that they are able to pull. Amongst the rest – AMZN, FB and TWTR are obvious leaders. AAPL, and NFLX are constrained by their ability/willingness to monetize. Other internet players – YHOO, AOL, YELP, EBAY, etc. – lack scale and depth in the data that they are able to collect and reach in the vehicles used to monetize it. The same is even more true of the incumbents in industries in the path of digital competition, including banks, retailers, media companies, and others.

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Quick Thoughts: EBAY – OK Carl, Just Don’t Tell Us “I Told You So”

Written September 30th, 2014 by

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-          A PayPal spinoff is a sharp shift from EBAY’s “one-stop” merchandizing outsourcing strategy, relegating often asserted synergies between EBAY and PayPal to arm’s-length contracts

-          PayPal is growing but faces growing threats. AAPL is making payments an iOS default utility while fee advantaged card nets and banks are moving to build their own digital services

-          PayPal acquisition speculation will fly – banks (COF, JPM) and online leaders (GOOG, AMZN, BABA) will be rumored, but may not pay a premium for a brand that they likely see as vulnerable

-          EBAY’s strategy to offer digital merchandizing as a service to retail merchants is interesting but risky. Spinning PayPal, assuming agreements can sustain synergies, does little to change that

Carl Icahn is obviously smiling this morning. After months of protesting that the synergies between PayPal and its Marketplace and Enterprise businesses were substantial and integral to its broader strategy, eBay has executed an abrupt about face. With eBay sales now generating less than 30% of PayPal’s revenue, and with PayPal growing at twice the pace of the rest of the company, now may be as good a time as any to execute a separation. PayPal will be spun off to shareholders as a tax-free transaction some time in 2015.

The new tune is that the two separate companies will now be agile and freer to pursue the ample opportunities in their rapidly evolving target markets, and that those substantial synergies can be perpetuated by long-term, arm’s-length, operating agreements. Those synergies flow in both directions. eBay got strong payments franchise with innovative approaches for using integrated payments to enhance the shopping experience across online and physical stores to sell as part of its package of services for merchants. PayPal got advantaged access to eBay’s nearly 150M customers and its thousands of participating merchants. Both businesses benefited from jointly analyzing the consumer data generated by customers using their services. While soon to step down CEO John Donahoe asserts that these benefits can be sustained over the long haul, I’m a bit skeptical.

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Quick Thoughts: Apple Watch – All About the Benjamins

Written September 22nd, 2014 by

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-          The Apple Watch lacks a compelling use case at launch, but critics are gun shy after missing on iPad. Demand driven by fashion, not function, with 10% max penetration into iPhone base

-          $349 is the bare bones price – fancy bands and luxury materials will take blended ASPs $750 or more, with very strong margins. CY2015 sales of $15-20B possible

-          Without subsidies or unique high value applications, replacement cycle should be much longer than iPhone. As such, growth curve could peak quickly after a quick early ramp.

-          Universal ID for payments, locks, tickets, etc. could be the killer app, but necessary standards, infrastructure and ecosystem many years away and will see fierce competition

Toward the end of Apple’s annual September iPhone launch extravaganza, Tim Cook borrowed Steve Jobs’ signature tagline and offered up “one more thing”. That thing was, of course, the Apple Watch – hotly anticipated for more than a year with more fevered speculation than any previous piece of consumer electronics, other than, perhaps, the still mythical Apple Television set. The unveiling spurred a standing ovation from the carefully selected live crowd, and rapturous “first impressions” posts from the attending journos and bloggers once they were able to get a clear enough WiFi signal to upload.

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September 15, 2014 – Apple Pay: Friend (and Potential Foe) to the Payments Industry Status Quo

Written September 15th, 2014 by

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Apple Pay: Friend (and Potential Foe) to the Payments Industry Status Quo

Apple Pay combines NFC, TouchID, and HW secured “tokens” on its iPhone 6 to execute retail POS transactions, meeting the security requirements of the card nets (V, MC, AMEX) and issuing banks (JPM, COF, BAC, WFC, C) that will support it. AAPL gains rate parity with “card present” transactions, and a ~15bp fee for providing ID&V assurance and assuming some fraud risk. Alternative RF mobile payment options will NOT be allowed on iOS and Apple Pay will obscure the branding by card nets and banks, threatening the ambitions of many retailers, card nets and issuers. Adoption will be slow – an iPhone6 or Watch is required, just 17% of US stores support it, and the use case is NOT yet compelling. Competitive alternatives will strengthen – the MCX consortium will fight Apple Pay, investment will narrow AAPL’s technical advantage, and open Android provides far more brand flexibility to banks, card nets and merchants. The initial benefit to AAPL will be small –a 15bp fee would bring less than $300M in new revenue. The real benefit to AAPL is in strengthening its proprietary device-centered architecture against hardware commoditization and future cloud-based threats. For now, AAPL is content to leave interchange and network fees in place, preserving the status quo for incumbents, and deny interest in transaction data, assuaging merchants. However, with critical mass, AAPL could choose to monetize Pay more aggressively.

Special thanks to SSR Financials Analyst Howard Mason 203-901-1635, whose contributions were invaluable to this report. Please visit http://www.sector-sovereign.com/topics/research/financial/to find more of his insightful research on mobile payments

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Quick Thoughts: T-Mobile’s Uncarrier 7.0 Takes Aim at VZ/T’s Profits

Written September 10th, 2014 by

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-        TMUS’ “Uncarrier” strategy is working with 2.75M gross sub ads including 1M post paid ads in August alone and porting ratios from other carriers at over 2 to 1

-        CEO John Legere unveiled a new strategy to leverage WiFi connections to bolster quality of service and offer WiFi calling and texting globally – a strategy diametrically opposed to the rest of the US Telecom industry that will improve its coverage with little cost

-        Other announcements from Uncarrier 7.0 include a couple of freebies: TMUS will give away personal cell spots to subs for their homes and will offer unlimited texting / visual voicemail on domestic flights via a partnership with GoGo

-        TMUS has been keeping the pressure on the industry, demonstrating innovation and attacking from unexpected angles – T/VZ may not have the strategy and org model to respond

Taking the stage after downing a can of Red Bull and dropping F-bombs has become a staple of TMUS CEO John Legere’s Uncarrier keynotes. This afternoon was no exception as Legere and his lieutenants announced another set of broadsides aimed at destroying the T/VZ duopoly just three months after the last Uncarrier initiative.  In his latest salvo against wireless incumbents, Legere has essentially turned T-Mobile into the first major US mobile virtual network operator by allowing subscribers to use WiFi connections for calling and texting, something rivals have been loath to do given rich margins from cellular data services. The announcement is timely, coming just a day after Apple touted its new iPhone’s ability to seamlessly handoff between cellular and WiFi networks. While rivals have responded in kind by matching TMUS offers and tactics in the past, going WiFi could be very disruptive to the most lucrative source of profit for incumbents.

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Quick Thoughts: Apple – Go Big or Go Home

Written September 9th, 2014 by

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-           The big screen iPhone 6 and 6+ should pull upgrade sales sharply forward, even at a higher average price point than the 5S, yielding 15%+ sales growth from iPhone for AAPL’s FY15.

-           The Apple Watch is beautiful and chock-a-block with technology, but lacks a compelling use case at a price that will stretch the wallets of users already saving for an iPhone 6 upgrade.

-           Pay has uniquely integrated HW and SW for mobile payments, and has a coalition of banks, card nets and merchants, but users get little benefit and the revenue potential for AAPL is small

-           AAPL is positioned for strong iPhone 6 driven results in its 1HFY15, but we do not expect the Watch to be a repeat of the surprising iPad phenomenon. Growth worries will return in 2H.

In a super-sized version of its annual fall ritual, Apple CEO Tim Cook to the stage at the Flint Center in Cupertino to unveil two highly anticipated new iPhone models, a mobile payment solution called Apple Pay, and the company’s first new product category in four and a half years, the Apple Watch. The content of today’s presentation was hardly a surprise given bloggers and the tech press have been publishing leaked photos of the new iPhone as well as commenting on deals between Apple and payments networks in the weeks leading up to the event. Apple’s move into wearables has long been speculated, given the company’s hiring spree of executives from the luxury goods industry over the past year, though the alleged “iWatch” leaks turned out to be no more than fan boy renderings for a future product that is likely not yet in production.

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