Thursday, July 30, 2015

Twitter: The Grace Period is Over

In a take-no-prisoners trading culture, there was a mass exodus of investors in Twitter (TWTR) after interim CEO Jack Dorsey and CFO Anthony Noto reported anemic user growth in the Q2 2015 Conference Call. Originally, Wall Street liked the results of the second quarter when the earnings press release first hit the Web. According to the document, sales of $502 million for the quarter, up 61% year-over-year, and above the previously forecast range of $470 million to $485 million. The stock shot up over 7% in after hours trading.

However, the equity did an about face a few minutes into the conference call when the executive team discussed user growth, or lack thereof. The gears of capitalism ground to a halt, and the stock not only lost all after hours gains, but descended to near all time lows the next day of trading. Here are some quotes from members of the C-suite from both the prepared statements and Q&A session that accelerated the selling:

  • "Specifically, we do not see organic growth."
  • "Simply said, the product remains difficult to use."
  • "Our growth rate in users is slowing quite dramatically."
  • "We will take the necessary time to build the service people love to use every single day. And we realize it will take some time to show results we all want to see."
  • "The DAU (daily active users) to MAU (monthly active users) ratio has gone down...because we’ve grown MAUs faster than DAUs, and we have not historically focused on driving daily active user growth."
  • "Our organic growth is going to be very low as it was this quarter, and as I think about Q3, it’s marginally better, but I wouldn’t want you to or anyone else to expect a change in our growth rate relative to what you are seeing in this quarter."
  • "We have only reached early adopters and technology enthusiasts, and we have not yet reached the next cohort of users known as the mass market."
That assessment is about as succinct as you'll get from high-tech management, or management in any publicly traded company. My hat's off to Jack Dorsey and Anthony Noto for not sugarcoating prospects going forward. However, it wasn't a bad quarter. Besides beating on the revenue front, Q2 adjusted EBITDA was $120 million, up 122% year-over-year. This is above the previous forecast range of $92 million to $102 million.

I believe a big problem with Twitter is perception. Early investors just got seduced by the Wall Street marketing machine. People thought this global brand on the digital frontier would be an instantaneous profit generator. In reality, it was an unprofitable story stock from the get go. If you bought the hype thinking the share price would be in an automatic upward trajectory, you got dealt a cruel hand. The equity may reach it's previous all time high of $75/share again, but that may take some time the way sentiment is going.

Twitter has some new initiatives going for it, which may be why Twitter bulls cling on to lofty price expectations. Most importantly, the company appears to have a growing relationship with Google (GOOG). Tweets are now integrated in the daily search of Google domestically, but only on the desktop. Mobile is a work in progress. In addition, there are other languages they will be expanding into internationally with Google desktop search, specifically within English-speaking countries.

A partnership with Google's DoubleClick will help improve advertising performance measurement. There's been speculation in the business press that Google would be a good suitor for Twitter, and that may be so, but that's just speculation. With Twitter's market cap of $21 billion, it would be an expensive acquisition for Google. Plus, regulators would have to approve the deal.

The acquisition of TellApart in late April is also discussed in the Q&A session. TellApart will remain a standalone business, although under the Twitter family of companies like Periscope and Vine. The marketing technology company provides retailers and e-commerce advertisers with cross-device retargeting capabilities. At this juncture, Twitter has no plans to monetize TellApart. Twitter paid $533 million for the company, so that just adds to the mounting expenses the corporation has accrued recently, including increased headcount and infrastructure build out. Nevertheless, these expenditures are a necessity to stay current in today's social media environment.

Like all companies, Twitter is in a state of perpetual flux. The partnership with Google, and the acquisition of TellApart, helps monetize the rabid base of over 300 million active monthly users. However, if current management plans come to fruition, Twitter may be taking steps backwards by making the service easier to use. In doing so, you take the chance of alienating the current user base, which may dilute end-user participation. Twitter is not a mass market product like Facebook (FB). It's a niche product.

Going toe-to-toe with Facebook would be a big mistake in my opinion. Facebook has 1.5 billion monthly active users, five times the population of Twitter. You need to invest intellectual capital to become well versed in Twitter. Therefore, you may have a more affluent user base. Facebook is basically plug-and-play. Octogenarians posting pictures of their grandchildren and other family members, to stereotype the process. Both demographics are important to advertisers, but followers on the Twitter communication platform may be more qualified, allowing higher advertising rates. After all, it's the Millennials and Gen-Xers that primarily use the communications service.

It was only a few weeks ago that I wrote my previous article about Twitter. To recap, I thought the equity was expensive, and that I wouldn't pay any more than $25/share for the company. With a trailing twelve month price/sales ratio of roughly 15, and very little earnings visibility, it's still expensive despite the recent selling spree. With a range bound stock market looking to take a breather, I'll wait on Twitter. It was a one-sided love affair on the way up, now a messy divorce on the way down. If I'm patient, I may get my price.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mobileye: Autonomous Driving Pure-Play

Performing the song "Roadhouse Blues", Jim Morrison of The Doors once sang:"Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.". If management of Israeli firm Mobileye NV (MBLY) is correct, this mode of driving will become antiquated in the not so distant future. In fact, they're betting the farm on it with their proprietary System-on-a-Chip [SoC] technology called EyeQ. The current iteration of the product is EyeQ3, and has positioned the company as the global leader in the design and development of camera based ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems).

Developers are tackling the the technological challenges of autonomous driving through the use of sensors and imaging devices such as radar, lidar (lasers) and cameras. Although automakers are in the early innings of developing self driving cars, Mobileye appears to have trumped the competition because camera based systems have the scientific advantage at this juncture. At least this is my interpretation of Mobileye management's take on it.

There's been much speculation on the Internet the last year about driverless automobiles. Google (GOOG) has received most of the press, but now Apple (AAPL) and General Motors (GM) are coming into the conversation. Although all three of these organizations may take part in the autonomous driving mix somewhere down the line, it's Mobileye that's the pure-play in the field. What does Mobileye do with your car? Here is the layman's description of the company as stated by COO Yonah Lloyd in the Q2 2014 Conference Call:

Much like the human eye, the Mobileye Solutions performs driver seen interpretation, detecting and classifying different objects in the road including vehicles, pedestrians, traffic signs and more. The systems capabilities range from providing lane departure warnings, forward collision warnings for vehicles and pedestrians, to more complex driving enhancement features such as autonomous emergency breaking.

Mobileye's client list is a literal Who's Who of car manufacturers with the exception of Toyota. The company's c-suite doesn't believe they can get Toyota into the fold until 2018, if indeed Toyota decides to become a customer. In addition, there is usually a five to seven year period when they are first introduced to a manufacturer until their product is included in serial production. So don't expect the number one automaker to add to Mobileye's top line anytime soon.

However, the company is in good shape with the current car manufacturers under contract. In 2016, there will be 244 car models utilizing EyeQ3 technology. Below are some specific applications of the Mobileye solution in today's world:

  • In September, GM announced that it expects to release cars equipped with hands-free driving abilities on highways. GM is calling this feature the Super Cruise, which includes Mobileye technology, and it's expected to be available in 2016.
  • Tesla announced plans to provide all of its Model S cars with full ADAS functionality, which also includes Mobileye camera technology.
  • Mobileye is in the new Ford Mondeo sedan where their system can help determine if a person is crossing the road, and if needed can reduce the brakes up to full automatic stop. Ford expects the car to be available in Europe during 2015.
  • The Audi Q7 will be showcasing Mobileye's most advanced capabilities. Specifically, the capacity to perform full breaking collision avoidance.

The corporation is not resting on past laurels. Mobileye maintains their cutting edge by by plowing a substantial portion of their revenues back into research and development. Approximately thirty-three percent in 2014. Commercial shipments for their next generation product EyeQ4 begin in 2018. Ten times faster than its predecessor, EyeQ4 will enable the use of seven cameras, which will help bridge the gap from semi-autonomous to autonomous driving. The chip is developed in collaboration with Mobileye partner STMicroelectronics (STM), as were previous generations.

As stated in the inaugural annual report, Mobileye management believes the total addressable market for camera-based ADAS systems for autonomous driving could reach $15 billion in the next several years. Management believes they will capture a substantial share of this market because of four reasons. One, long penetration cycles. Two, the data they have generated over the past 15 years allows them to optimize their proprietary algorithms. Three, they have the most advanced and most cost effective system in the market. Four, they have succeeded to lead in innovation, and bundle applications in one compact system.

Sounds great, but here's the rub. Hyperbolic headlines in the business press touting the wonders of self-driving cars may come to fruition, but not for another ten years according to CEO Ziv Aviram. It's a process that will come in increments. Although Mobileye is in the pole position with its SoC for automated driving, it has gotten way ahead of itself on a valuation basis. There's an old stock broker's mantra of "Sell the sizzle, not the steak.". Overzealous Wall Street pundits may be pushing up the price of Mobileye because it's the fair haired child of the semiconductor and automotive industries.

In this investing environment we are currently in, investors are paying up for growth. Especially freshly minted Initial Public Offerings. Mobileye had its IPO in July of last year, and it's been a thrill a minute ride for investors with the stock doubling in twelve months.

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Nevertheless, the equity is very expensive if we utilize traditional valuation metrics. Forward P/E (for the full year 2016) is a whopping 85. This is based on the average analyst earnings estimate of $.71/share. Earnings growth is projected to grow in the 80% range for the next two years, which is why traders may have elevated the security in addition to the overall autonomous driving market hype. Price/sales doesn't get any better with the trailing twelve month figure at 84. As of June 30th, the short float was 13.2%, and may be higher because the stock has escalated.

Revenue guidance for full-year 2015 is only $217-$218 million, but Mobileye has a market cap of $13 billion. This is not an optical illusion. Although sales growth is a healthy 51% compared to 2014, the equity is way over its skis, ready for a tumble if it misses earnings estimates. The company doesn't give quarterly earnings projections, and has stated quarter-over-quarter results can fluctuate due to timing of orders, and the introduction of new vehicle models containing Mobileye products.

Although this is an exciting company, the time to buy Mobileye was four months ago when it traded in the $30 range. At $60/share, it's buyer beware. Patient investors may get a better entry point after the next conference call in early August. Better to let the day traders and momentum machines sell their shares to each other for the time being.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Critero S.A.: Big Brother is Watching You

Deep-Data Integration. Digital Performance Marketing. Individualized Performance Advertising. These are the current corporate terms used to describe ad targeting firm Criteo S.A. (CRTO). Their computer science is the creepy, but useful cyber stalking technology that enables advertisers to bombard you with personalized advertisements wherever you go on the Internet. They do this by dynamically matching your recent Web browsing history via cookies with predictive software algorithms.

For example, shop for laptops on an e-commerce site like Amazon (AMZN), and you'll spend the rest of your browsing session looking at banner ads highlighting Amazon's best available computer wherever you go in cyberspace. The sophisticated technology relies on programmatic buying for relevant consumer options that benefit the advertisers as well. Programmatic advertising is the real time automated bidding, buying and placement of banner ads.

Criteo was incorporated in France in 2005, and began selling their solution primarily to Western European companies two years later. They have since established a global footprint, and can now claim 7,000 clients in Europe, the United States and Asia. As of January 1st, 2015, 88.3% of Criteo's revenues were generated from outside the home country. All financial statistics for the past three years are reported in Euros:

Year2012 2013 2014
Revenues €271.9 million €444.0 million €745.1 million
Revenues Excluding Traffic Acquisition Costs €114.1 million €179 million €303.7 million
Net Income €0.8 million €1.4 million €35.4 million
Adjusted EBITDA €17.4 million €31.3 million €79.4 million

Business is booming for the small cap company. They're profitable, too. Investor's Business Daily claims Critero's annual earnings growth is projected to be 31% or higher over the next three years. During the last conference call, the company raised full year 2015 guidance for Adjusted EBITDA to between €120 million and €127 million. If we split the difference and use €123.5, it would mean a gain of 55.5% for the year. Wall Street took notice, and the stock continues to rally.

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Addressable Market:

According the the Annual Report:

  • Business to consumer retail e-commerce was approximately a $1.3 trillion industry globally in 2014, growing at 19.5% per year from 2013 to 2017, according the eMarketer.
  • Goldman Sachs has stated penetration of smartphones and tablets has driven rapid growth of mobile commerce, which represented $61 billion globally in 2012, and is expected to grow at a 53.3% compound annual growth rate between 2012 and 2017.
  • ZenithOptimedia reports marketers spent $122.1 billion on Internet advertising in 2014, with this spend expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15.5% through 2017.
Catalysts:

Investor's Business Daily. The newspaper many consider to be the primary print source for momentum traders gave the company plenty of ink the past three months. From my experience, stocks IBD features in their "New America" column, and are highlighted in the IBD Top Fifty Stocks, tend to stay in motion until dethroned by a bad earnings call. Critero is in the sweet spot for revenue acceleration because of e-commerce trends, and sells for reasonable valuation metrics for a growth technology stock. I anticipate the equity going higher after the next conference call in early August unless expenditures get out of hand.

Analyst expectations are getting elevated for Criteo. Out of the twelve Wall Street firms that cover the stock, ten have a Buy, or, Outperform rating on the security. Last week, RBC Capital Markets initiated coverage with an Outperform rating. This goosed the price per share. If Critero has another good quarter, other brokerage firms will initiate coverage, or, up the ante for price appreciation.

The partnership with Facebook (FB) just got stronger. According to comScore data, Criteo ads reached 1.1 billion unique users worldwide on the desktop in March. Many of these end users may be part of the ever expanding Facebook universe. Now that Facebook has recently released Dynamic Product Ad for mobile devices, Critero has access to Facebook's mobile ad inventory. This could be a boon for sales going forward.

Finally, the Criteo Engine's ability to match shopping data across multiple devices is a new phenomena for the company, and will increase revenues. We have transitioned to a mobile world, and working with end users on desktops, as well as smartphones and tablets, keeps Criteo ahead of the competition. As is, the company has a 90% client retention rate. By the end of last quarter, 84% of customers were using the Criteo multi-screen solution.

Caveats:

Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II is famous for saying: "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.". Although the technology sector makes strange bedfellows, Critero should probably follow Michael Corleone's advice. The annual report sites Google (GOOG), Amazon, and Yahoo (YHOO) as well-established competitors. They are also customers. For instance, the latest conference call states several new clients were added including Hubbub, a subsidiary of Amazon.

In addition, Google is also one of the largest publishers working with Critero on the supply side. As Investor's Business Daily reported:

"In the self-serve formula, retailers or advertisers can bypass a manager such as Critero and go directly to ad platforms found on Facebook, Google or other ad publishers and suppliers. This path poses a competitive threat to Critero.".
We live in a do-it-yourself world, and companies are always looking for ways to cut costs, and raise productivity.

Plus, there's always the threat of Criteo's bread and butter technology being leapfrogged by another entity. Two weeks ago, Apple (AAPL) announced a content-blocking feature for the soon to be released iOS 9. This translates into blocking banner ads in mobile browsers. Stocks in the advertising sector went down in unison for a week following this announcement. This includes Criteo. The stock has bounced back in tandem with the overall market during the past seven trading sessions.

Valuation:

This is not an expensive stock using traditional P/E and PEG Ratios. Although the trailing twelve month P/E is a lofty 74, the company's earnings are growing close to 89% for the current quarter. This gives us a PEG ratio of below one. That's in the wheelhouse for many technology investors. Wall Street is always looking forward, and when we examine the forward P/E ratio for the end of 2016, it decreases to 35. Trailing twelve month price/sales is also very reasonable at 3.5. Not dirt cheap, but you're not going to get a growth stock at distressed prices in this investing environment.

Conclusion:

Critero trades at an all time of $55, bucking the trend of European equities that have faced serious tailwinds in a recessionary environment. Nevertheless, this is a dangerous stock because of its small market cap of 3.5 billion, plus the fleeting nature of technology superiority in individual companies in the early 21st Century. However, the window for investors to hold an equity gets smaller and smaller as each day passes with actively managed mutual fund managers trying to beat high frequency trading platforms and index benchmarks like the S&P 500. I believe if you have a holding period of three to six months, you may make money with this one.