“It is not inequality which is the real misfortune, it is dependence.” – Voltaire
“The strength of criticism lies in the weakness of the thing criticised.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet and educator
“The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.” – Peter Drucker
“Instead of working for years to build a new product, indefinite optimists rearrange already-invented ones. Bankers make money by rearranging the capital structures of already existing companies. Lawyers resolve disputes over old things or help other people structure their affairs. And private equity investors and management consultants don’t start new businesses; they squeeze extra efficiency from old ones with incessant procedural optimizations. It’s no surprise these fields attract disproportionate numbers of high-achieving Ivy League optionality chasers; what could be more appropriate reward for two decades of résumé-building than a seemingly elite, process-oriented career that promises to ‘keep options open’?” – Excerpt from Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Franco-American mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot is a mathematics book that behind all the Greek symbols holds within it explanations of the elegant shapes, sequences and patterns that repeatedly occur within nature. In this book Mandelbrot outlines a theory called the Lindy Effect – a theory he developed but that was named after a New York diner where stand-up comedians used to gather – that advances the idea that the longer a technology or concept has survived, the longer it is likely to survive. More specifically, the future life expectancy of non-perishable items such as a technology or concept is proportional to their current age, such that each incremental period of survival implies an increasing remaining life expectancy.
Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, relatively speaking, have been around a long-time.
CPG companies have had a great run for well over five decades. During that time the well-established CPG companies – like The Kraft Heinz Company, Kimberley Clark, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and PepsiCo to name but a few – have each created their very own ecosystems. These ecosystems are comprised of retailers, advertising and public relations agencies, media companies, trucking and warehousing solutions providers, container and packaging producers, and many other ancillary businesses that are almost entirely focused on servicing the dominant CPG company within the ecosystem they exist.
As CPG companies have thrived over the decades so too have the businesses that are focused on servicing them. And the larger the CPG companies have grown, the more dependent these businesses have become on them.
These dominant companies are now under threat. The threat comes from multiple angles including changing consumer tastes and shopping patterns, demographics, technological disruption, rising commodity prices, and more responsive niche competitors. The CPG companies have responded to these threats by becoming increasingly inward looking. That may appear to be a strange way to describe their behaviour but as we read through transcript after transcript of these companies’ earnings conference calls we find one common theme across all of them: cost savings. Some companies have hired strategy consultants like McKinsey & Co. to help identify areas of inefficiency and procedural optimisation, while others have launched clumsily named cost cutting initiatives such as “FORCE”, “SPORT”, and “Agility”. Many of the companies in face of investor scepticism are going out of their way to trump up their research and development capabilities and their focus on innovation; for the most part, however, the supposed innovations appear to us to be a doubling down on what has worked in the past or playing catch-up with niche brands that have blazed a trail in new market segments. Based on airtime given during the conference calls cost saving not innovation is obviously the key area of focus for most, if not all, of the major CPG companies today.
The focus on cost saving and efficiency is not surprising. The management teams at the leading CPG companies are comprised primarily of, in Peter Thiel’s words, “indefinite optimists”. And the consultants they hire too are likely to be indefinite optimists. These indefinite optimists, as Thiel describes them, are far more like to alter and try to improve that which already exists than to create new products that will deliver meaningful revenue growth. Take for instance PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi’s response when asked about the company’s conservative expectations relating to their innovations in 2018 (emphasis ours):
“Internally, we’d like to do more, but we want to be very, very cognizant of the headwinds around us, some of which we don’t even understand at times because the consumer is not consistent.”
And The Kraft Heinz Company’s Chief Operating Officer Georges El-Zoghbi’s response when asked about the importance of brands to consumers in food and the investments they are making into brands (emphasis ours):
“Brands matter most because the investment behind advertising, the investment behind promotions, the investments behind new products that come to market not only helps the brand, but stimulates overall category demands for everybody who is operating in those categories. So in an environment where there is changing consumer needs and changing go-to-market model, brands become a lot more important.
However, brands need nurturing and nurturing means investment and staying relevant with what consumers’ needs are and what consumer wants to buy. So for us, an investment in the brand has always been important. Now we’re even accelerating that to deal with an environment where consumers changing what they buy and where to buy it from. And we are accelerating the investments to deal with that. So we see now increasingly important to have stronger brands in those categories for everybody.”
In an environment where LaCroix has become the leading carbonated water brand in the US without advertising, we see the above comments from PepsiCo and the Kraft Heinz Company as being symptomatic for management teams that are still coming to terms with the scale of the challenges they face in growing their revenue.
As the CPG companies’ face up to the challenges on the revenue side, we think their focus on cost savings and efficiency will only increase further. And this is bad news for businesses that exist almost entirely to serve these companies. As a case in point consider Procter & Gamble’s comment on rationalising costs relating to media spend (emphasis ours):
“Looking ahead, we see further cost reduction opportunity through more private market placed deals with media companies and precision media buying, fueled by data and digital technology. We continue to reinvent our agency relationships consolidating and upgrading P&G’s agency capabilities to deliver the best brand building creativity. We’ve already reduced the number of agencies nearly 60% from 6,000 to 2,500, saved $750 million in agency and production costs, and improved cash flow by over $400 million additional through 75 day payment terms.”
Businesses providing undifferentiated, commoditised products with increasing production capacities are the most at risk of being hit by the cost saving drives being undertaken by CPG companies. Containers and packaging companies are, in our opinion, amongst the most vulnerable.
By containers and packaging companies we are referring to the likes of Ball Corporation, Crown Holdings, Bemis Company, Silgan Holdings, Sealed Air Corporation and Tredegar Corporation. These companies manufacture products such as flexible and rigid plastic packaging, metal packaging and steel cans for the consumer packaged goods industry.
The table below provides the share of revenue coming from major CPG companies for a number of the containers and packaging companies
|Company||Major CPG Companies’ Share of Revenue|
|Sealed Air Corporation||7.2%|
Note: Based on Bloomberg data as at 1 March 2018, revenue shares are calculated based on sales to The Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle SA, Conagra Brands, Johnson & Johnson, Reckitt Benckiser, Dr Pepper Snapple, Campbell Soup, The Kraft Heinz Company, General Mills, Hormel Foods, TreeHouse Foods, Dean Foods, Mondelez International, Kimberly-Clarks, Kellog Company, and Tyson Foods
Most of the containers and packaging companies highlighted above sell largely commoditised products and are operating in highly competitive market segments, giving them little power when dealing with customers that in and of themselves possess a significant amount of marketpower. Moreover, the containers and packaging companies’ largest markets – namely developed economies – are characterised by excess capacity while their growth markets – emerging economies in Asia and South America – are witnessing deliveries of increased production capacities. Despite this a number of the companies continue to expand production capacities both in developed and emerging markets. It is then no surprise that return on invested capital for most of these companies is declining sharply.
Annual Return on Invested Capital (%)
At the same time, in terms of trailing price-to-earnings ratios in a historical context, these companies appear to be richly valued with most trading at one to two standard deviations above their historical trailing price-to-earnings ratios.
Ball Corp Trailing Price-to-Earnings Ratio
Silgan Holdings Trailing Price-to-Earnings Ratio
Bemis Co Trailing Price-to-Earnings Ratio
Tredegear Corp Trailing Price-to-Earnings Ratio
If one is to invest in the containers and packaging segment, we think manufacturers catering to highly regulated markets or delivering highly complex solutions is where to look. Manufacturers catering to the pharmaceutical segment, for example, would be those operating in highly regulated markets. Suppliers to the pharmaceutical market have to meet very high regulatory standards and their production facilities have to go through rigorous testing and audits to be validated for production. Customers of such manufacturers are unlikely to switch suppliers quickly or easily and are more likely to see validated suppliers as trusted partners whom they are likely to work closely with in developing new and innovative solutions.
The stocks of the more commoditised containers and packaging producers, in our opinion, are clearly ones to avoid and amongst them might even lie some very compelling short opportunities. While stocks of companies – such as AptarGroup $ATR – operating in more regulated segments of the containers and packaging sector or those delivering highly complex solutions may offer relatively more compelling investment opportunities.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable
“Bulls do not win bull fights. People do.” – Normal Ralph Augustine
“Stocks fluctuate, next question.” – Alan Greenberg, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Bear Stearns, in response to questions about the crash, October 22, 1987
“If you have trouble imagining a 20% loss in the stock market, you shouldn’t be in stocks.” – Jack Bogle
November last year, in Volatility Selling and Volatility Arbitrage Ideas Using Equities, we wrote:
Based on the tenets of Prospect Theory, the popularity of short volatility strategies is somewhat confounding. By investing in such strategies, investors are underweighting as opposed to overweighting a low probability event (a market crash). At the same time, they are giving preference to negative skewness, favouring small gains at the risk of incurring large losses.
During October, 2017, the VIX recorded its lowest monthly average since the launch of the index dating back to January, 1993. What makes this statistic even more remarkable is that autumn months are generally more volatile with October being, on average, the most volatile month during the year. The average level of the VIX for October, starting 1993, is 21.8 – more than double the 10.1 averaged last month.
With all that being said, we do consider the short volatility trade to be richly valued. That does not mean we expect the equity market to crash, instead the differential between implied and realised volatility has tightened to such a degree that this gap can easily close and invert. The trade can become loss making without a meaningful correction in equity markets.
Poorly structured short-volatility products and the limited – almost non-existent – down-side risk to going long volatility has, in our opinion, led to the emphatic short-squeeze in volatility witnessed over the last ten days or so. The tail has well and truly wagged the dog. That is, higher volatility has led to the sharp correction in the market. Not the other way round. The late-afternoon equity sell-off on Monday 5 February is indicative of as much.
S&P 500 Index on 5 February, 2018Source: Bloomberg
XIV, SVXY and other products of their ilk are not the first, and are almost certainly not going to be the last, poorly conceived investment products to blow-up. Think back to portfolio insurance, synthetic collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and CDO-squared as a reminder. There has been plenty of commentary, and no shortage of memes, lambasting regulators of and speculators in short-volatility products alike – many of the critics make valid arguments that should give regulators pause for thought. For investors the time, however, is not to reflect on the flaws of these products but rather to focus on whether the blow-up of these products can lead to a contagion into adjacent markets or is this just a shake-out of weak hands.
The most convincing argument for the recent correction being a shake-out of weak hands comes from the US corporate bond market. US corporate spreads have been benign in the face of the recent spike in volatility – a first in a very long-time.
US Corporate Yield Spreads vs. VIX IndexSource: Bloomberg
The narrative of rising inflation expectations leading to the correction in equity market has taken hold in some quarters. Firstly, looking at the USD 5-year, 5-year inflation swap rate, there has not been a sharp increase in market-based inflation expectations. In fact, the increase in inflation expectations was much sharper immediately after Trump won the election than at any time during the last year. Secondly, high inflation does not negatively affect equities. If inflation is high but stable, it is nominally positive for equity markets and is unlikely to cause any damage to the real economy. Moreover, historical data suggests that the highest levels of price-to-earnings multiples are witnessed during periods when inflation ranged from 2 to 3 per cent.
An unexpected acceleration in inflation followed by unanticipated changes in monetary policy, however, can have significant negative consequences for the economy. The Fed, to date, has not shown any signs of panic. As long as the Fed continues on the path of slow and steady rate hikes, we do not expect Fed rate hikes to derail the economy or the equity market. If, however, the US economy overheats in response to the recently passed tax reforms and the tight labour market, the Fed may be forced to react aggressively, which could be catastrophic for both the economy and equity markets.
USD 5-Year, 5-Year Inflation Swap RateSource: Bloomberg
The one change coming out of the recent sell-off, in our opinion, is that volatility has made its secular low. We suspect that retail investors are unlikely to return to short volatility in droves. We also have a hunch that private banks and wealth managers will not be offering short-volatility products to their high-net worth clients any time soon. Volatility, therefore, should stabilise closer to its longer-term average – we do, however, expect volatility to be structurally lower than the past due to the increased prevalence of passive and systematic strategies, which implicitly dampen volatility during a stable market environment.
A necessary corollary of higher volatility is that investors have to be more discerning in security selection. Active management may soon be back in vogue.
In the after-math of the recent market sell-off we have heard market legends claim that “macro is back” or that it is an “exciting turn for macro trading”. At the same time, we have heard old hands speak of the trauma of 1987 and how it shaped their approach to markets going forward. What we do not hear or read of enough though is that as traumatic as 19 October, 1987 was, it was also the buying opportunity of a generation. The S&P 500 compounded at an annualised rate of 18.9 per cent over the next ten years.
We do not expect returns from equity markets for the next ten years to be like those witnessed between 1987 and 1997. We, however, also cannot ignore that global equity markets had a major break out last year.
MSCI All Cap World IndexSource: Bloomberg
We have one simple, singular thought when it comes to equity markets today. Until we come across evidence to the contrary, we think investors should figure out what they want to own and buy it with both hands.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.