Late Cycle Signals and Yield Curve Dynamics

 

“Everything turns in circles and spirals with the cosmic heart until infinity. Everything has a vibration that spirals inward or outward — and everything turns together in the same direction at the same time. This vibration keeps going: it becomes born and expands or closes and destructs — only to repeat the cycle again in opposite current. Like a lotus, it opens or closes, dies and is born again. Such is also the story of the sun and moon, of me and you. Nothing truly dies. All energy simply transforms.” – Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem by Suzy Kassem

 

“We say that flowers return every spring, but that is a lie. It is true that the world is renewed. It is also true that that renewal comes at a price, for even if the flower grows from an ancient vine, the flowers of spring are themselves new to the world, untried and untested.

 

The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid.

 

And as it is for spring flowers, so it is for us.” – The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham

 

“There are constant cycles in history. There is loss, but it is always followed by regeneration. The tales of our elders who remember such cycles are very important to us now.” – Carmen Agra Deedy

 

Late Cycle Signals

 

Each business cycle is unique. Certain patterns, however, have tended to repeat across business cycles with the ebbs and flows in the level of economic activity.

 

The late stage of the business cycle is often characterised by an overheated economy, restrictive monetary policy, tight credit markets, low unemployment rates and peaking corporate profit margins.  These are not the types of signals that form part of our discussion on the late cycle this week. Instead we focus on behavioural clues from the financial services and investment management sector that signal that we may have potentially entered the late stage of the business cycle – often the most rewarding, but also the most precarious, phase of bull market for investors.

 

1. Liquidity events for investors in ride hailing services companies

 

Few opportunities have captured the imagination of venture capital investors over the last decade as the one represented by ride hailing services companies such as Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing and Grab.

 

 

 

  • Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent to Uber and valued at US dollars 56 billion during its last fundraising, is the most valuable start-up on the Mainland and counts Apple, Softbank and Uber amongst its shareholders. The start-up is estimated to have raised US dollars 20.6 billion in funding over 17 rounds of financing.

 

  • Southeast Asia’s leading ride hailing services company, Grab, was valued at over US dollars 10 billion in a fundraising round in June this year and has received US dollars 1 billion in funding from Toyota.

 

With such eye-popping valuations it should come as no surprise that most, if not all, of the leading ride hailing companies the world over are weighing up potential liquidity events, be it an initial public offering or a trade sale to larger competitors or strategic investors. The investors in these companies are undoubtedly eager to convert their paper profits into realised gains in the form of cold hard cash.

 

  • Lyft has hired JP Morgan to lead its IPO and is aiming to beat its much larger rival, Uber, in becoming the first ride hailing services company to be publicly listed

 

  • Uber has reportedly received proposals from Wall Street valuing the company as high as US dollars 120 billion – almost 67 per cent higher than the valuation at its last round of fundraising

 

  • Didi Chuxing is reportedly weighing up the possibility of a public offering in 2019

 

  • Careem Networks, the Middle East’s leading ride hailing services company, and Uber are rumoured to be in talks for a possible merger or an outright acquisition of the Middle Eastern business by Uber. Careem was valued at US dollars 1 billion during a fundraising round in December 2016. Bloomberg reported in September that the acquisition of Careem by Uber would value it between US dollars 2 to 2.5 billion – a 100 to 150 per cent increase in less than 24 months.

 

In 2007, The Blackstone Group, the leading alternative asset management firm, successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange, selling a 12.3 per cent stake in return for  US dollars 4.13 billion. Blackstone’s listing was, at the time, the largest US IPO since 2002.

 

Although Blackstone was able to successfully list, many of its rivals – including Apollo Global Management, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and the Carlyle Group – missed the opportunity to float ahead of the global financial crisis and had to shelve their plans and wait for a more conducive environment.

 

We worry that a similar fate awaits the riding hailing services industry, where it becomes a case of one IPO and done and the remaining companies’ plans are delayed by an abrupt end to the current iteration of the US equity bull market.

 

 

2. INVESCO to buy OppenheimerFunds

 

INVESCO, the independent investment company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, this week agreed to buy rival Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance’s OppenheimerFunds unit for US dollars 5.7 billion. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Invesco will pay for the deal with 81.9 million common shares and another $4 billion in preferred shares, making MassMutual the firm’s largest stockholder. Including OppenheimerFunds, Invesco will manage more than $1.2 trillion in assets.”

In the summer of 2009, BlackRock acquired Barclays Global Investors, including its highly coveted iShares franchise, for US dollars 13.5 billion and created a combined entity with, at the time, approximately US dollars 2.7 trillion of assets under management.

BlackRock’s timing was impeccable: a near decade long equity bull market ensued and, even more importantly for BlackRock, the company put itself in the prime position to reap the rewards of the rise of passive investing.

The rationale for the OppenheimerFunds acquisition according to the Wall Street Journal paraphrasing INVESCO CEO Martin Flanagan is to: “strengthen Invesco’s position in some businesses that have been proven resilient to the move toward passive investing, including international and emerging-markets stock funds.”

We are curious to see if INVESCO’s decision today turns out to be as flawed as BlackRock’s decision in 2009 was impeccable.

 

3. Middle market alternative asset managers selling stakes

 

In recent years, seemingly successful, mid-sized alternative asset management firms have started selling equity stakes to their much larger, more established competitors such as Neuberger Berman, The Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group.

Dyal Capital, a unit of Neuberger Berman, has closed 30 or more transactions acquiring stakes in alternative asset managers over the last 2 to 3 years, including a strategic investment into Silver Lake Partners. Dyal presently manages three funds with US dollars 9 billion in assets under management and is set to complete fundraising over 5 billion for a fourth fund.

The most recent of such sales comes from New Mountain Capital, which manages private equity, public equity and credit funds with more than US dollars 20 billion in assets under management. The company has reportedly sold a 9 per cent stake to Blackstone Strategic Capital Holdings.

We wonder: what are the chances that highly successful private equity and alternative investment firms would sell their stakes at anything but close to peak valuations?

 

Yield Curve Dynamics

 

Given that we have discussed late cycle signals above, we wanted to touch upon the historical dynamics of the Treasury yield curve when it has either gone (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping.

Prior to sharing our findings, we wanted to share some analysis for the period starting 1959 and ending 1984 from Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World (1985) by Henry Kaufman:

 

“If the risk in investing in the long market is still great immediately following the point of maximum inversion, when does the long market offer the best opportunity? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine the swings in the U.S. Government securities yield curve during the past quarter century.

These swings are:

 

  1. from extreme negative (short rates above long) to flat
  2. from flat to extreme positive (long rates above short)
  3. from extreme positive to flat
  4. from flat to extreme negative

 

The results are as follows:

 

1. When the yield curve for government securities swung from extreme negative to flat, long yields actually increased with one exception – the 1980 cycle. In one of these cycles, there was greater rise in long yields than in short rates. In all other instances, however, short rates fell while long yields rose.

 

2. When the yield curve moved from flat to extreme positive, with long yields going above short, in all cycles long yields fell in conjunction with a more sizable drop in short rates.

 

3. The swing from extreme positive to flat can be quite dangerous in the long bond sector. In the four complete cycles… yield increases average 104 basis points for long-term issues, ranging from 40 to 220 basis points.

 

4. The most dangerous period of all for investors in long bonds, however, occurs when the yield curve moves from flat to extremely negative, with short rates moving up above long.”

 

Interestingly, the period around the time of publishing of Mr Kaufman’s book was the exception for how the long end of the curve reacted when the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat. And Mr Kaufman speculated in his book if the long-running bond bear market was over or not. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the bond bear market had indeed ended during the early 1980s.

For the period from 1980 till date and with respect to cycles where the yield curve went either (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping, we make the following observations (based on the yield differential between 2 and 10 year Treasury securities):

 

  1. 1980 – 1982: the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 1988 – 1992: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2000 – 2003: from inverted to flat and then to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2005 – 2010: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

In recent weeks we have witnessed the yield curve correct its flattening trend due to a sell-off at the long-end. The yield curve has steepened due to higher long-term yields – a phenomena last witnessed in the 1970s. These are still early days and the recent sell-off at the long-end may be nothing more than a blip. If, however, the yield curve continues to steepen due to increasing long-term yields it would be an ominous sign for bond bulls.

Much like Mr Kaufman speculated that the bond bear market may have ended in the early 1980s, the recent shifts in the Treasury yield curve and the forthcoming supply of US Treasury securities have us wondering if the multi-decade bond bull market is over.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trade Wars: Clearing the Way for a War of Attrition

 

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy

 

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

“Only an idiot tries to fight a war on two fronts, and only a madman tries to fight one on three.” – David Eddings, American novelist

 

A few updates relating to themes and topics we have written about in the recent past before we get to this week’s piece.

1. Two out of three companies we highlighted as potential value plays in Searching for Value in Retail in June have now announced that they are evaluating opportunities to go private.

The most recent of the announcements comes from Barnes & Noble $BKS which said on Wednesday that it is reviewing several offers to take the bookstore chain private. We are not surprised by this development and had expected as much when we wrote the following in June:

“Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 10x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 500 million, $BKS remains a potential target for even the smallest of activist investors or private equity funds.”

The other company we discussed in the same piece was GameStop $GME, which at the start of September announced that it is engaged in discussions with third parties regarding a possible transaction to take the company private.

 

2. Following-up on Trucking: High Freight Rates and Record Truck Orders, orders for Class 8 semi-trucks increased 92 per cent year-over-year in September. Last month capped the highest ever recorded quarterly sales of big rigs in North America.

American trucking companies continue to struggle with tight capacity at the same time demand from the freight market remains strong.

We continue to play this theme through a long position in Allison Transmission $ALSN.

 

3. When the tech bubble popped at the start of the millennium, between 2001 and 2003, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100 indices declined by 31.3 and 57.9 per cent on a total return basis, respectively. During the same period, Cameco Corporation $CCJ, the world’s largest uranium miner by market capitalisation, went up by more than 40 per cent.

Yesterday, as we witnessed global equity markets sell-off in response to (depending on who you ask) (i) tightening central bank policies and rising yields raising concerns about economic growth prospects, (ii) the accelerating sell-off in bond markets, or (iii) news that China secretly hacked the world’s leading tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, $CCJ closed up 5 per cent on the day.

Maybe history as Mark Twain said rhymes, maybe it is nothing, or just maybe it is one more sign of the increasing awareness of the nascent bull market underway in uranium.

CCJ.PNG

 

4. With the recent sell-off in the bond market, long-term Treasury yields have surged. Yields on the ten-year treasuries rose as high as 3.23 per cent on Wednesday, recording their highest level since 2011.

Does this level in yields make the long-end of the curve attractive for investors to start to re-allocate some equity exposure to long-term Treasury bonds? We think not.

Our thinking is driven by the following passage from Henry Kaufman’s book Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World in which he considers, in 1985, the possibility that the secular bond bear market may have come to an end:

“[T]wo credit market developments force me to be somewhat uncertain about the secular trend of long-term rates. One is the near-term performance of institutional investors, who in the restructured markets of recent decades generally will not commit funds when long when short rates are rising. The other development is the continued large supply of intermediate and long-term Governments that is likely to be forthcoming during the next period of monetary restraint. There is a fair chance that long yields will stay below their secular peaks, but the certainty of such an event would be greatly advanced with a sharp slowing of U.S. Government bond issuance and with the emergence of intermediate and long-term investment decisions by portfolio managers.”

 

In August this year, the US Treasury announced increases to its issuance of bonds in response to the US government’s rising deficit. This is the very opposite of what Mr Kaufman saw as a catalyst for declining long-term yields in 1985. Moreover, this increased issuance is baked in without the passing of President Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, which has been temporarily shelved. We suspect that Mr Trump’s infrastructure spending ambitions are likely to return to the fore following the upcoming mid-term elections. If an infrastructure spending bill of the scale Mr Trump has alluded to in the past come to pass, US Treasury bond issuance is only likely to further accelerate.

With the window for US companies to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions now having passed, it will be interesting to see if institutional investors now become reluctant to allocate additional capital to long-dated Treasury bonds due to rising short rates.

The relative flatness of the yield curve, in our opinion, certainly does not warrant taking on the duration risk. At the same time, we do not recommend a short position in long-dated treasuries either – the negative carry is simply too costly at current yields.

 

On to this week’s piece where we discuss the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the new trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and its implications on the on-going trade dispute between the US and China.

The many months of the will-they-won’t-they circle of negotiations between the US, Canada and Mexico have culminated in the USMCA, which will replace NAFTA. The new deal may not be as transformative as the Trump Administration would have us believe but nonetheless has some important changes. Some of the salient features of the new agreement include:

 

1. Automobiles produced in the trade bloc will only qualify for zero tariffs if at least 75 per cent of their components are manufactured in Mexico, the US, or Canada versus 62.5 per cent under NAFTA.

The increased local component requirement is, we feel, far more to do with limiting indirect, tariff-free imports of Chinese products into the US than it is to do with promoting auto parts production in North America. The latter, we think, is an added benefit as opposed to the Trump Administration’s end goal.

 

2. Also relating to automobiles, the new agreement calls for 40 to 45 per cent of content to be produced by workers earning wages of at least US dollars 16 an hour by the year 2023.

This provision specifically targets the relative cost competitiveness of Mexico and is likely to appease Trump faithfuls hoping for policies aimed at stemming the flow of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico.

How this provision will be monitored remains anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the USMCA, unlike NAFTA, does allow each country to sanction the others for labour violations that impact trade and therefore it may well become that the threat is used to coerce Mexico into complying with the minimum wage requirements.

 

3. Canada will improve the level of access to its dairy market afforded to the US. It will start with a six-month phase-in that allows US producers up to a 3.6 per cent share of the Canadian dairy market, which translates into approximately US dollars 70 million in increased exports for US farmers.

Canada also agreed to eliminate Class 7 – a Canada-wide domestic policy, creating a lower-priced class of industrial milk. The policy made certain categories of locally produced high-protein milk products cheaper than standard milk products from the US.

 

4. The term of a copyright will be increased from 50 years beyond the life of the author to 70 years beyond the life of the author. This amendment particularly benefits pharmaceutical and technology companies in the US. American companies’ investment in research and development far outstrips that made by their Canadian and Mexican peers

Another notable victory for pharmaceuticals is the increased protection for biologics patents from eight years to ten years.

 

5. NAFTA had an indefinite life; the USMCA will expire in 16 years.

The US, Canada and Mexico will formally review the agreement in six years to determine whether an extension beyond 16 years is warranted or not.

 

The successful conclusion of negotiations between the three countries, subject of course to Congressional approval, combined with the trade related truce declared with the European Union in the summer, should be seen as a victory for US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer.

Earlier this year, in AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote (emphasis added):

 

Mr Lighthizer’s primary objectives with respect to US-Sino trade relations are (1) for China to open up its economy – by removing tariffs and ownership limits – for the benefit of Corporate America and (2) to put an end to Chinese practices that erode the competitive advantages enjoyed by US corporations – practices such as forcing technology transfer as a condition for market access.

Mr Lighthizer’s goals are ambitious. They will require time and patience from everyone – including President Trump, Chinese officials, US allies, and investors. For that, he will need to focus Mr Trump’s attention on China. He will not want the President continuing his thus far ad hoc approach to US trade policy. If NAFTA and other trade deals under negotiations with allies such as South Korea are dealt with swiftly, we would take that as a clear signal that Mr Lighthizer is in control of driving US trade policy.

 

Mr Trump and his band of trade warriors and security hawks are now in the clear to focus their attention on China and deal with the threat it poses to the US’s global economic, military and technological leadership.

 

The Big Hack

On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a ground breaking story confirming the Trump Administration’s fears relating to Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft. The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies details how Chinese spies hacked some of the leading American technology companies, including the likes of Apple and Amazon, and compromised their supply chains.

Bloomberg’s revelations were swiftly followed by strongly worded denials by Apple and Amazon.

The timing of Bloomberg’s report – coming so soon after the USMCA negotiations were completed successfully – regardless of whether the allegations are true or not is notable.

Coincidentally, also on Thursday, Vice President Pence, in a speech at the Hudson Institute, criticised China on a broad range of issues, from Beijing’s supposed meddling in US elections, unfair trade practices, espionage, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

American Corporate Interests

The main hurdle for the Trump Administration in its dispute with China is the US dollars 250 billion invested in China by Corporate America.

We see the recent moves by the Administration in upping the ante on China, by disseminating the theft and espionage narrative through the media and new rounds of tariffs, as a means to provoke Corporate America to begin reengineering its supply chains away from China. Whether this happens, and at what the cost will be, remains to be seen.

 

War of Attrition

We expect US-China tensions to continue to escalate especially as we draw closer to mid-term election. And the Trump Administration to (threaten to) impose higher tariffs and use other economic and non-economic measures to pressurise the Chinese. The only near term reprieves we see from the US side are (i) a resounding defeat for the Republicans in the mid-term elections (not our base case) or (ii) a re-assessment of priorities by the Trump Administration following the elections.

From the Chinese perspective, the short-term impact of tariffs has partially been offset by the ~10 per cent fall in the renminbi’s value against the US dollar since April. A continued depreciation of the renminbi can further offset the impact of tariffs in the short run – for now this is not our base case.

The other alternative for Beijing is to stimulate its economy through infrastructure and housing investment to offset the external shock à la 2009 and 2015. However, given that Xi Jinping highlighted deleveraging as a key policy objective at the 19th National Congress, we expect fiscal stimulus to remain constrained until is absolutely necessary.

For now our base case is for China to continue to buy time with the President Trump and at the same time for it to work on deepening its economic and political ties in Asia, with its allies and the victims of a weaponised dollar.

 

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.

Consumer Stocks: The Long and Short of it

 

“One of the funny things about the stock market is that every time one person buys, another sells, and both think they are astute.” – William Feather, American publisher and author

 

“When thinking about the future, it is fashionable to be pessimistic. Yet the evidence unequivocally belies such pessimism. Over the past centuries, humanity’s lot has improved dramatically – in the developed world, where it is rather obvious, but also in the developing world, where life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 100 years.” – Bjørn Lomborg, Danish author and President of Copenhagen Consensus Center

 

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favourite day,” said Pooh.

Alexander Alan Milne

 

American consumers are the driving engine of the US economy – consumer spending is estimated to represent about two-thirds of US economic output. If sentiment surveys and retail sales are anything to go by then the American consumer, and by extension the US economy, is in rude health.

Consumer sentiment, as tracked by the University of Michigan, in September jumped to its second-highest level since 2004.

According to the Commerce Department, US retail sales increased by 6.6 per cent year-over-year in August – running well ahead of inflation. Month-on-month growth, however, was disappointing with August sales only increasing 0.1 per cent over July – whilst somewhat unsatisfactory, monthly comparisons tend to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio and are therefore misleading to read into, in our opinion.

Given the robust retail sales and soaring consumer sentiment, one would expect investors to be all bulled up on consumer stocks. Yet, as we compare the level of short interest across the constituents of the S&P500 Index we find that the greatest concentration of shorts (relative to free float) is in consumer related stocks. Investors remain circumspect about the prospects of consumer focused companies due to the potential impact of (i) rising interests on the disposable income of US consumers, and (ii) escalating trade tensions between the US and China on the companies’ supply chains, which in turn could meaningfully increase their cost of goods.

The below chart shows the average level of short interest (as a percentage of free float) by industry group. (Consumer related industry groups are highlighted in yellow.)

 

Average Short Interest across S&P500 Index by Industry Group 1Source: Bloomberg

The above chart shows that all but one of the consumer related industry groups has a higher level of short interest than the average level of short interest for a stock in the S&P500 Index. Moreover, the top three most shorted industry groups are all consumer related.

To further dissect the level of short interest across consumer related stocks, we focus in on the constituents of the SPDR S&P Retail $XRT and iShares US Consumer Goods $IYK exchange traded funds.

 

Retail

The average level of short interest for $XRT constituents is 7.5 per cent of free float. The most shorted sub-industry groups are food retail (something we have written about recently in The Challenge for Food & Beverage Retail Incumbents), automotive retail, and drug retail.

Average Short Interest across $XRT by Sub-Industry Group 2Source: Bloomberg

American department store chain Dillard’s is the most shorted stock amongst the constituents of $XRT with short interest making up a whopping 66.2 per cent of free float. The high level of short interest in the stock has not been rewarded by a declining price this year – the stock has generated a total return of 31.5 per cent year-to-date (as at market close on 19 September, 2018).

A further seven constituents have short interests that exceed 30 per cent of their free float, namely: Overstock.com (45.7 per cent), JC Penney (45.7 per cent), GameStop (39.6 per cent), Camping World Holdings (39.3 per cent), Hibbett Sports (36.4 per cent), The Buckle (36.0 per cent) and Carvana (31.3 per cent). The performance of these stocks has been more mixed with online retail company Overstock.com down 58.8 per cent year-to-date while online car dealer Carvana has generated an astonishing 208.3 per cent return year-to-date.

Many of the heavily shorted retail stocks appear to us to be the companies investors view as the mostly likely to be “Amazoned” in the near term.

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 3Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents 4Source: Bloomberg

 

Generally, being short retail stocks has not been rewarding this year. The price return of $XRT is 14.2 per cent year-to-date versus 9.6 per cent year-to-date for the S&P500 Index.

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $XRT Constituents 5Source: Bloomberg

Note: Chart excludes Dillard’s and Caravan

 

Consumer Goods

The average level of short interest for $IYK constituents at 6.2 per cent of free float is lower than for $XRT constituents but still significantly higher than the average for the S&P500 Index. The most shorted sub-industry groups are tires & rubber, home furnishings and housewares & specialties.

Rising mortgage rates and the home buyer affordability index at ten-year lows are the likely reasons for the high levels of short interest in the home furnishings and housewares & specialties segments.

Average Short Interest across $IYK by Sub-Industry Group 6Source: Bloomberg

 

Only two stocks amongst the $IYK constituents have a short interest to free float ratio exceeding 30 per cent: B&G Foods (32.7 per cent) and Under Armour (31.8 per cent).

Generally, being short consumer goods stocks has been more rewarding than being short retail stocks. $IYK is down 3.5 per cent year-to-date. (We wrote about our concerns relating to the consumer goods sector last year in Unbranded: The Risk in Household Consumer Names.)

 

Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 7Source: Bloomberg

 

Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents 8Source: Bloomberg

 

Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $IYK Constituents 9Source: Bloomberg

 

 

Investment Perspective

 

There is, we think, no clear playbook when it comes to heavily shorted stocks. Some portfolio managers we have interacted with in the past have occasionally gone long ‘consensus shorts’. Their track record is middling; they have done very well at times but also been burnt badly at other times.

Our approach is to identify heavily shorted stocks where we have a differentiated view on the prospects of near term earnings, valuation or the potential for the company to be acquired and to go long those stocks. (These lessons have been hard learned over time as in the past we have found ourselves far too closely aligned with consensus – as George S. Patton is known to have said: ‘If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’.)

In the instances our positioning and views prove correct, the high level of short interest acts like leverage and greatly amplifies returns in a relatively short amount of time.

Earlier this year we went long Under Armour based on our view that consensus earnings expectations had been deflated to such a degree that there was very little chance for the company to disappoint – with the stock price languishing at multi-year lows we deemed there to be little downside even if the company disappointed. As it transpired, the consensus view was indeed far too bleak and the stock quickly re-rated higher as the company outdid lowball expectations.

More recently, on 24 July, we went long and remain long kitchenware and home furnishings company Williams Sonoma $WSM. Short interest for the stock stands at over 20 per cent of free float, the company generated a best-in-class operating return on invested capital of 18.4 per cent in 2017 and trades at around consensus forward price-to-earnings of 15.4 times.

The retail and consumer goods sectors remain our preferred areas to search for heavily shorted stocks where we may have or develop a differentiated view.

 

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.