on Monday, 17 July 2017. Posted in 2017, July


Amazon Skews the World

“If consumers make better choices, the marketplace will change.”

                                                    Mike Huckabee


After a brief selloff stocks resumed their upward move with most of the broader averages setting record highs last week.  The NASDAQ remained 0.4% below its June 9th record after falling 4.2% in late June/early July.  This compares with a 2% downdraft for the S&P 500.  The Tech sector (XLK) closed 1.3% lower than its record high, also set on June 9th.  The turnaround in tech stocks was led by the LargeCap favorites, FANG + APPL + MSFT, all of which had fallen double-digits.  The selloff resulted in a reawakening of the permabears and the Fed watchers, while most bullish market-strategists focus on a shift away from Tech into Financials.  This is a normal rotation away from higher-priced growth stocks to value.  Large bank earnings thus far justify this strategy as the S&P 500 Bank sector (KBE) has rallied.  The after earnings Conference Calls have not confirmed the long-term earnings optimism as regulation, low inflation, and a flattening of the yield curve remain.  The KBE is up 5% over the past three months and 37.4% above year-ago levels.  It outdistances the XLK, which has risen “only” 26.4% year-over-year.  It is important to note that from a trader’s prospective, many of the leading tech stocks have not broken above their former highs, and therefore remain in a trading range.
In our opinion there is little likelihood of a bear market related to an impending recession.  The current bull market is in its ninth year and officially one of the longest in history.  For many investors the duration of the bull market and the accompanying P/E’s substantially above historic norms, leave them to constantly reevaluate risk.  With the negative media attention, investors remain anxious in spite of rising prices.  Fear that stocks are overpriced results in an instinctive reaction to sell in order to avoid the upcoming swift selloff in the beginning of the bear market.  Remember bear markets result from economic distortions or euphoria as experienced during the Internet bubble in 1999.  Although some economic imbalances in housing and energy exist today, they are manageable.   
Last week Amazon held Prime Day, the annual event was for 30 hours and sales were 60% above yearago levels.  According to data from the Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, 45% of Amazon’s 40+ million customers in the US have Prime.  Amazon collects $99 annually for a membership that yields an average of $1,500 in annual sales, compared to only $625 for non-members.  In an attempt to offset potential loss and market share, other retailers including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, competed with Prime Day.  Unlike Amazon, these “brick and mortar” retailers sell from their own inventory.  But Amazon, in addition to acquiring and selling merchandise on its own, offers a service called “Fulfillment by Amazon” that handles third-party sellers.  Amazon’s success is well-recognized, but our research leads us to believe it is not fully reflected in the retail data published by the Census Bureau in its monthly Retail Sales Report and utilized as an input for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) and GDP.
Unfortunately for data consistency, Amazon only reports net sales however, data from the 1Q2017 earnings release shows retail third party sales were up 34% for year-ended 1Q2017.  According to a study
done by Taxjar, in 3Q2013 third party sellers “were generating more than $17 billion of Amazon’s $32 billion gross merchandise value.”  Our own unsophisticated survey conducted on Prime Day showed that the third party fulfillment merchandise was 54% of all sales.  This percentage varies greatly within the various retail categories.  Amazon tends to sell more of the $200 and over items with only 30% being sold by outside suppliers.  Since Amazon does not report Gross Merchandise Sales in its financials, where then does the Census Bureau get their numbers?  Even if Amazon reports sales, it would be for Amazon itself and not the tens of thousands of third party suppliers (fulfillment is another income category).  As the number one or two retailer for most categories (books, clothing, electronics and furniture), if unrecorded the absence of these sales are significant.   
According to Morgan Stanley, Amazon accounted for 38.5% of the growth in 1Q2017 retail sales.  Data reported by the Census Bureau are from a probability sample of 4,700 employer firms selected from the Monthly Retail Trade Survey, all the monthly data are benchmarked to a larger annual survey for the previous year.  Aside from sampling error, non-sampling error can occur for “insufficient coverage for retail business.”  The Census Bureau claims the Retail Sales Report includes sales from pure-play ecommerce and retailers, but third party suppliers could easily fall between the definitional cracks.  It has been our contention that these sales may be uncollected and therefore absent from consumer purchases.  Healthy consumer balance sheets, full employment, low gas prices, and the level of consumer sentiment do not justify PCE for GDP at an historically low 2.0%-2.5%.  As consumers continue to get more for their money, the 2% real GDP growth does not justify 10% increase in quarterly earnings.  We will carefully monitor for an increase in the July Retail Sales Report to see if Prime Day significantly moves the needle.  
A vibrant consumer seems to be lost in the data which does not reflect the rapidly changing demographic and the seismic shift in retail.  As we have stated, the Gross Output is a better indication of economic activity rather than final sales (Compass 09-15-14.)  Corporate earnings are more reflective of Gross Output as it takes into account all goods and services used in the production process, including intermediate production rather than final consumption.  In this measurement PCE is only about 38%.

Investment Policy

Our investment policy remains optimistic. We do not discount the possibility of a market sell off as investors become frustrated with slow implementation of stimulative policies. However, any correction should be considered a long-term buying opportunity.  It is unlikely given the growing strength in the economy and the outlook for corporate earnings that the long-term bull market will be interrupted.  Realistically the positives from expansionary fiscal policies will take more time than generally expected. Longer term we believe that consumer-led economic growth, accompanied by slow rising real interest rates and moderate inflation, will result in increased earnings and multiple expansion with further upside for select domestic Large-Cap consumer, financial, industrial and technology companies.  To mitigate the potential of higher-than-expected inflation and multiple compression, portfolios should include value companies exhibiting sustainable earnings growth and dividends.

David Minor
Rebecca Goyette

William Hutchens