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Brian Grosso
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Current sophomore accounting student, regular financial writer, DIY investor, uncle, and avid reader. Pursuing an internship/career in investment management in the Greater NYC area. Email: bggrosso@buffalo.edu LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=226695501
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  • Our First Glimpse At ‘ObamaEducation'

    Last Thursday, the President began a two-day bus tour of several colleges in New York State and Pennsylvania at my school, where I sit in a dorm room right now writing this piece, SUNY Buffalo. Now just put yourself in my position: You're a young college student that just transferred to a new college trying to become an expert in the education industry. Most of your net worth is in your equity portfolio which is fully invested in an education company. A few days before you head off to your new school, you find out that the President will be speaking there to talk about higher education and reveal his new comprehensive education reform plan to the world for the first time. I think anyone in such a position would be extremely excited and I certainly was. Unfortunately the President spoke on Thursday the 22nd and I wasn't registered to move in until Saturday the 24th. I live 5 hours away from Buffalo and quite honestly I wasn't packed up and ready to leave before Saturday or to pay hundreds of dollars for 2-3 nights at a hotel. I was disappointed that the White House didn't give more notice for the event so that I could have attended, but that's not going to stop me from covering what the President said that day, which turned out to be extremely significant.

    Those of you who watch House of Cards on Netflix (NFLX) know all too well that education reform is one of the greatest platforms to get elected on and an easy issue to gain support from virtually any demographic. As the fictional White House Chief of Staff Linda Vazquez and House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, two of the most powerful characters on the show point out, "education is an issue we can all agree on." Since he first campaigned for the presidency in early 2007, President Obama has consistently used education as a buzzword, a rally call. It's always been one of his rhetorical tools to enhance his image and popularity with the people, but I'd argue that up until now, he hasn't actually done much to drastically reform the higher education system in America, especially compared to his aggressive reform efforts in other areas. Yes the federal government as a whole has been doing plenty, especially the Senate HELP Committee led by Sen. Tom Harkin, but Obama himself hasn't really been an active leader of the effort thus far and hasn't contributed or delivered on his campaign speech promises. He's always established that it's an area that needs changing, but up until recently, it's taken the back seat to healthcare reform, foreign relations, federal budgeting, and other issues that President Obama deemed more pressing. Now it has become more than just a means of gaining support though. Now that many of these other issues have been addressed, Obama has the time and is putting his attention where his mouth is and has joined the federal war on higher education.

    The Dilemma

    On Thursday, the first half of his speech was dominated by concerning statistics related to the higher education system. Before he revealed his solution he identified the problem. The problem is multi-faceted. States have collectively been cutting funding of public colleges and universities. Tuition increases have overwhelmingly outpaced household income increases in recent years:

    Over the past three decades, the average tuition at a public four-year college has gone up by more than 250 percent - 250 percent. Now, a typical family's income has only gone up 16 percent. So think about that - tuition has gone up 250 percent; income gone up 16 percent. That's a big gap.

    Economic mobility has been stifled- it is becoming increasingly difficult to climb the ladder into the middle class. Schools are too content passing costs onto students rather than working to cut costs in the first place. In some cases private rating systems like that of US News and World Report reward schools for being expensive to attend. To work the ratings in their favor, schools bump up tuition sometimes as much as 5% per year. Students are becoming more and more dependent on federal financial aid and less and less capable of paying off their loans. Federal student loan debt outstanding is now over $1 trillion and exceeds credit card debt and auto loan debt, second only to mortgage loan debt. The number has nearly doubled since 2007 and continues to increase faster than ever, straining a government that is already down $16.7 trillion. The bottom line- affordability is the problem according to Obama and will be the target of his reform plan.

    ObamaEducation

    Obama began by establishing 3 categorical initiatives for his reform efforts:

    1. Rate colleges based on value offered to students.
    2. Jumpstart competition between colleges.
    3. Make debt manageable and affordable.

    Goal #1 - Rating System

    Let me start by saying that this is by far the most radical, significant change and will likely also be the most controversial. Since many private rating systems like those of US News and World Report and Businessweek already exist, President Obama wanted to make sure he clearly differentiated his proposed federal ratings from those that already exist. The new rating system will not include any of the following criteria found in many traditional rating systems:

    • Favors selectivity
    • Favors expensiveness
    • Favors nice facilities

    Obama did mention and imply many criteria that would be used to determine the new federal ratings. His proposed ratings would favor schools:

    • whose students graduate with less debt
    • whose students graduate on time
    • with higher placement rates
    • whose students graduate with higher starting salaries
    • with lower cohort default rates
    • with higher graduation and/or continuation rates
    • who enroll and graduate Pell Grant students
    • with lower tuition and fees (and room and board when applicable)

    The rating system will begin being developed right now and Obama hopes for the 2013-2014 academic year (this year) to be the first year of published ratings which should be published before the start of the 2014-15 year. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was directed by Obama to oversee the development of the ratings. He will travel across the country hosting public forums and speaking with industry experts to refine the exact methodology for the ratings. Obama is able to and will do all this without Congressional approval. He wants to go further though and make financial aid distributions dependent on ratings beginning in 2018. Instead of schools just receiving whatever portion of tuition students' finance with federal student loans, their Title IV receivables would be adjusted higher or lower depending on their rating. To do that, he needs Congressional approval. That's significant because Congress is largely split on higher education reform (what a surprise). Democrats have the majority in the Senate and big reform proponents like Sen. Tom Harkin and most of the Senate HELP Committee are in there. Harkin issued a statement applauding the plan. Though some Republicans on the Committee and the respected Marco Rubio have been critical of Obama's ideas, I think the Senate would most likely support Obama's plan. The House is Republican-dominated and in my view frustrated with Obama's aggressive radical reform efforts. They already ceded ObamaCare and arguably got the short end of the stick in the 'Fiscal Cliff' negotiations, I don't think they want the stain of this on them as well. Rep. John Kline, a Republican and the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said, "I remain concerned that imposing an arbitrary college ranking system could curtail the very innovation we hope to encourage - and even lead to federal price controls. As always, the devil is in the details." The devil, huh? Yeah, it's going to be extremely challenging for Obama to get this through Congress.

    Goal #2 - Jumpstart Competition

    President Obama mentioned this as his second goal and gave many examples of schools innovating and working to keep costs down, but didn't offer much as to what exactly he would do to encourage it. All he said was:

    We're going to provide additional assistance to states and universities that are coming up with good ideas.

    Goal #3 - Make Debt Manageable

    The President described his Pay-As-You-Earn option that was added to student loans a few years ago that caps student loan repayments at 10% of a student's annual income. Many students, 2.5 million according to the President, have utilized the plan already, but it is still not available to all borrowers. He said he would work to get that through Congress and changed so the option is available to everyone. He also said that many students simply don't know they are eligible for the plan, and that the government would begin advertising it heavily. While this has the potential to substantially cut down on defaults, it doesn't sound like it will really affect colleges and education companies at all.

    How ObamaEducation Will Affect Education Companies

    The rating system described above will revolutionize the higher education system in America whether Obama is able to get it tied to Title IV fund disbursement or not. I've said it in the past and this goes a long way in confirming it: the marketing first, high turnover, high margin business model is dead. Some schools continue to employ such a model and they will get shredded to pieces by these rankings. Remember what Sen. Harkin and the Senate HELP Committee's investigation and hearings did to the reputations of for-profit education companies last summer? This will have the same effect in exposing unethical practices, but on a much larger scale. Much more people listen to the President of United States than a Senator. Think about it- the Congressional report was hundreds of pages long. People don't want to read all that, they like things made as simple as possible for them. A rating system does just that. The rating systems that are out there now get plenty of attention. US News and World Report and Businessweek's rankings in particular were critical in my initial college choice and my transfer decision. Not only do students pay attention to rankings, so do schools. Both the universities I've attended have bragged about their rankings in press releases. Schools have proven willing to make major changes just to move up the rankings. When Obama's rankings are published, they'll continue to make changes but the changes they make will be different because the ranking criteria is different. We'll see an overwhelming push in higher education towards strengthening schools' value propositions.

    Opportunity

    Now that you and I know where the education industry is going, we can apply this information to our analyses of individual education companies to help pick the best investments. Many for-profit education companies have seen this change coming and been working hard to improve their value props. A few that immediately come to mind are Strayer (STRA), Capella (CPLA), and American Public Education (APEI). Their schools all sport cohort default rates way below the national average, were complimented in the Congressional report, have tuition of less than a very reasonable $320 per credit, have good relationships with their accreditors and no trouble getting reaccredited. American was chosen as the exclusive education partner of Wal-Mart (WMT) and Strayer has similar business agreements with community colleges and corporations. All three have best-in-class online programs. All three already have competency-based learning models in place and Capella owns Sophia, one of the first massive open online course (MOOC) providers to get courses approved for college credit. Strayer has a unique governance structure that protects academic interests. It's really quite easy to see that the executive management teams at these companies genuinely care about offering students value. Listen to a conference call of any of these companies and you'll hear management talking about what its students want and how it gets there. They understand that proposing strong value can be mutually beneficial. Students get a better education for less. The federal government enjoys economic value added, pathways to economic mobility, and lower costs of loans at these schools because less students default. The reaccreditation decision for accreditors is made easy and they get to brag about accrediting innovative new programs, the likes of which the education industry hadn't seen until recently. The schools themselves don't have to struggle and manipulate the system to comply with government regulations or attain reaccreditation, enjoy free marketing via the word-of-mouth, have an easier time recruiting students, and are able to enjoy the financial benefits of being first-to-market with innovative new learning methods.

    If I held shares of any of these companies, I'd be happy to see as much regulation as possible. These companies won't be hurt by a stricter regulatory environment, but their competitors will, which means less competition. Misplaced blanket statements slamming the entire for-profit education industry in the Congressional report last year hurt these schools' reputations and enrollments along with the rest of the industry. Harkin and company were wrong to generalize about for-profit education institutions in particular. Sure, many for-profits are unethical but these schools are doing it the right way. It shouldn't be a crime to make a profit in and of itself. At private non-profits there's still a profit, it just goes in the endowment war chest or in the salaries of higher-ups instead of to stockholders. Some of the biggest party schools I know are public universities and many spend and care more about their football and basketball teams than the educational value they offer. A ranking system that utilizes the criteria Obama mentioned to rank individual companies will tell students what a great value Strayer, Capella, and American are. It will set the record straight and many will be surprised to see these schools pop up high on the rankings- higher than many private non-profits and public universities. Trust me when I say that these schools will get a good rank. After my freshmen year of college, I had a 4.0 GPA and good credentials. I could choose where to transfer to from virtually any college in the northeast. I chose to attend SUNY Buffalo over Cornell, UPenn, and other prestigious schools because I felt that Buffalo was a much better value. As a full-time student, I'm paying $17K per year for tuition, fees, and room and board compared to $45K+ at all the other schools on my list. Buffalo is ranked nationally, is quickly headed in the right direction, is AACSB-accredited, and its finance and accounting programs are recognized as being arguably the best among SUNY schools, and one of the best nationally among public universities. President Obama's decision to reveal 'ObamaEducation' to the country for the first time at UBuffalo confirms my decision. I am not only a student but an active investor who has dedicated most of his research to the education industry. I know how to pick colleges and education stocks and Strayer, Capella, and American are my long-term buy and hold choices.

    I'm not saying don't invest in any other education stock, but at least begin considering the value propositions of schools in your analyses of education companies, especially if you plan on holding the stock for more than a few months. Look for low CDRs, high placement rates, and the like. This is the business model that will win and the importance of these metrics will only become more pronounced in the years to come. That's been my view for months now and Obama's new plan only confirms that and will catalyze that change in the industry.

    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, but may initiate a long position in STRA, APEI over the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

    Aug 29 9:56 AM | Link | Comment!
  • No News Is Good News For Apple

    The Most Followed Company in The World

    Most of you who are reading this article scrutinize Apple (AAPL), keeping up on the company on a daily basis. Apple is the most heavily covered company in the world. One doesn't have to go very far to figure this out. Right now on Seeking Alpha, about 145,000 people get email alerts for Apple.

    Provided by Seeking Alpha

    The next highest is Google (GOOG) at 60,000 subscribers, less than half that of Apple.

    Provided by Seeking Alpha

    As far as analyst coverage, Apple also wins by a long shot. A quick look on Yahoo Finance revealed that 48 analysts' estimates were included in Yahoo's analyst consensus for Apple versus 36 for Google.

    Provided by Yahoo Finance

    All these people watching the company have been pretty bored for the past month and a half as very little new information has come out about the company. The company hasn't filed a report of any kind with the SEC since March 1st and it is well known to be one of the most secretive companies out there today. Apple started becoming very secretive under Steve Jobs to protect leaks of innovative information and possibly delay copy-cat product development from rival tech firms. The strategy has been very effective and so the company continues to operate that way.

    The lack of factual information has led to hardcore rumor spreading and speculative discussion among Apple followers. I find this unsurprising. I figure when 150,000 people have interest in the same thing and are all easily able to communicate with each other through a medium (Seeking Alpha), they are bound to find something to talk about.

    No News Is Good News

    My problem is not that rumors are being spread, its the contents of some of these discussions. I've read various articles that claim that for Apple, no news is bad news. The support for such claims is that Apple needs an innovative product now or it will be doomed to declining margins and profitability.

    While I agree that Apple does need a new product to continue to grow, I think it is ignorant to think that the company isn't working on something big right now. Apple spends $1 billion on R&D per quarter; the company better be working on something or I want my money back! CEO Tim Cook also gave a few tip offs of innovation to come in the company's Q1 earnings call. In response to a question about innovation at Apple in general, he said the following:

    We are working on some incredible stuff. The pipeline is chock-full, I don't want to comment about a specific product, but we feel great about what we have got in store.

    Later on, Gene Munster from Piper Jaffray asked Cook specifically about innovation in the TV market. His question and Cook's complete answer are below:

    Gene Munster - Piper Jaffray

    Hey good afternoon. Tim, you made comments in the past that the Apple TV experience is dated and Apple wants to fix that problem, if we can take a step outside of the form factor debate whether it's a box or can you just talk in high level how important this market is to Apple, number one? And number two is can you accomplish what you ultimately want to accomplish with the reality of where content is today, and how content is distributed?

    Tim Cook - Chief Executive Officer

    Gene you're asking me all questions I don't want to answer but let me see if I can find some comments to make that productive. In terms of the product that we sell today, the Apple TV we sold more last quarter than we've ever sold before, eclipsing 2 million during the quarter. It was up almost 60% year-on-year and so there is actually very, very good growth in that product and what was the small niche at one time the people that loved it is a much larger number some of it, I have said in the past this is an area of intense interest for us and it remains that and I tend to believe that the, there is a lot we can contribute in this space and so we continue to pull the string and see where it leads us but I don't want to be more specific.

    Provided by Seeking Alpha

    I had heard rumors about the 'iTV' up until then but when I heard Cook say, "You're asking me all the questions I don't want to answer," I really began to take them serious. I think Cook side-stepped the question because, as I mentioned before, he and the rest of executive management at Apple are committed to keeping their mouths shut on innovation. They're probably legally bound to do so. The company is that serious about it.

    Given that the company has always been secretive of what it is working on, along with the increasing R&D expense and certain tip offs from CEO Tim Cook, I think it is very likely that the company is on the verge of something huge and that those of us that are long just need to be patient and not let the negative rumors sway us from our convictions.

    There Was News After All

    As I said before, very little factual information has come out of Apple in the past 6 weeks or so. There has been news though, it just didn't come from Apple.

    On March 14th, nearly a month ago, Samsung presented the much anticipated Galaxy S IV in New York City. There has been much argument as to whether the S IV is better than the iPhone 5, but one thing is for certain: it could have been a lot worse. Many investors sold out of Apple before the S IV release expecting the new phone to blow the iPhone away and steal market share. Clearly that is not the case. Regardless of which phone you prefer, it seems clear that the phones are both competitive with each other; the iPhone is far from a complete loser. The Friday following the Thursday night of the S IV release, Apple stock jumped up and Samsung stock fell. That's Mr. Market's opinion on the debate.

    The Blackberry (BBRY) Z10 release was very similar to the S IV presentation for Apple. The Z10 was finally released in the US on March 22nd. Sales were initially less than expected and the product received less than stellar reviews. According to CNET, the Z10 is "not quite enough to draw committed iPhone or Android owners." On the day of the release, Blackberry stock dropped nearly 10% and hasn't rebounded since. Apple stock also jumped on this day. Another hint from our good friend Mr. Market.

    Conclusion

    Despite very little factual information regarding Apple coming out in all of March and April until now, there have been several bullish signs for us investors to pick up on. It seems that in March and early April, no news was good news for Apple. We'll have some news coming soon though in a few weeks on Tuesday April 23rd after the markets close as Apple will release its Q2 earnings results. I look forward to the day. It's about time we got something to get excited about!

    Disclosure: I am long AAPL. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

    Apr 14 1:52 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Apple And Google Are Not The Same Part I: Quantity Vs. Quality

    Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL), two of the most well known public technology companies in the world, are routinely compared without hesitation by investors these days. Sure they are similar to a degree, but equating the two is a dangerously ignorant mistake that could really hurt investing performance. I believe that the best investments are often made in businesses that the investor thoroughly understands. Thorough understanding is hard to come by, but you know when someone possesses it. When someone is read up on a company's annual reports and can summarize the company's lines of business and most recent events in a few minutes and act on all the information, I become convinced of their knowledge. This is the kind of understanding I have sought in my investments and tried to develop of both Google and Apple. In my search, I have found that the two companies are very different and probably are compared way too often. In this article I will begin to go about differentiating the two companies to aid fellow investors interested in both.

    Google

    Google is a company that seems determined to do just about everything (or at least try). The following is in the company's 2012 annual report:

    Our product development philosophy is to launch innovative products early and often, and then iterate rapidly to make those products even better. We often post early stage products at test locations online or directly on Google.com. We then use data and user feedback to decide if and how to invest further in those products.

    The company has no problem releasing a product that still needs work and then perfecting it once it is already out there for consumers. A good example of this is Android. Android is an open source mobile operating system developed by Google. It was first released in late 2007 and several new versions have been released (iterations) since then. Android versions are named using code names of dessert foods that begin with sequential letters of the alphabet. The first widely commercialized version was Android Cupcake and the current version is Android Jelly Bean. The version naming system indicates that Google anticipates more improved versions in the years to come.

    Maybe an even better example of this ongoing process of product improvement is Google Search. Originally created in 1997 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google Search is what started the company. To this day Google Search is still the central product in Google's portfolio. Since being created the product has been changed countless times and perfected while being used by consumers at the same time all along.

    Google also has a case of 'corporate ADD'. The company exists in many different segments. The following is a comprehensive list depicting the company's various products and segments:

    1. Google Search
    2. AdSense
    3. AdWords
    4. Google Display
    5. DoubleClick
    6. YouTube
    7. Google Mobile
    8. Google Local
    9. Android
    10. Chrome OS
    11. Google Chrome
    12. Google+
    13. Google Play
    14. Google Drive
    15. Google Wallet
    16. Google TV
    17. Gmail
    18. Google Docs
    19. Google Calendar
    20. Google Sites
    21. Google Maps
    22. Google Earth
    23. Motorola Mobility
    24. Google Glass

    I believe the reason for this multitude of products is the nature of Google's development process. Google understands that it doesn't need every one of its products to be a hit for the company to succeed. 5 to 10 big winners is enough. Because the company releases products earlier on in the development process than other tech companies, we know about more of them. The company doesn't usually sink too much money into any one idea. Rather it makes many small bets, hoping for a big winner. Google is the equivalent of a diversifying investor with plenty of resources and an open mind. The strategy has worked so far. Through its strategy, Google has discovered Android and Chrome, both of which are probably underestimated for their contributions to the company's bottom line. Although they don't contribute much on their own, they both have been vital to Google Search's continued popularity on new technological platforms.

    Apple

    Apple has a very different development strategy. When Steve Jobs rejoined the company in 1996 he immediately worked to eliminate the company's plainest products and narrow the company's focus to its best ideas. Below are a few quotes from Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs that illustrate the wind of change Jobs brought:

    "What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they're dragging you down. They're turning you into Microsoft (MSFT). They're causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great."

    "Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time. "There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him," Cook said. "That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that."

    "So that's our approach. Very simple, and we're really shooting for Museum of Modern Art quality. The way we're running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let's make it simple. Really simple." Apple's design mantra would remain the one featured on its first brochure: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

    In Apples Q1 2013 earnings call, Tim Cook signaled that Jobs' philosophy is still alive at the company, saying, "We could put the Apple brand in a lot of things and sell a lot more stuff, but that's not what we're here for. We want to make only the best products."

    If we look at the segments and products that Apple offers, the list is significantly shorter than that of Google, despite Apple being the larger company:

    1. iPhone
    2. iPad
    3. Mac
    4. iPod
    5. iTunes
    6. App Store
    7. iCloud
    8. iOS
    9. OS X
    10. Application Software
    11. Displays & Peripheral Products
    12. Apple TV

    Apple continues to focus on a few products to prevent dilution of efforts, resources, and the company's brand image on subpar ideas. The company's development process is equivalent to a focus investor, almost like Warren Buffett. Buffett, through his perch at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), is always on the hunt for what he calls 'elephants,' attractive investment ideas that he can allocate plenty of capital into so that they are worth his time and efforts. Similarly, Apple sifts through the hundreds of ideas that it is inevitably presented with and puts the ones it likes most into production.

    The iPhone is proof that the focus strategy works. In 2012, the iPhone alone contributed $80 billion to the company's revenues. A single product driving Apple's success so much shows why the company focuses.

    Apple also tends to wait to release a product until it is perfect. Sure they iterate nearly every year but I would argue that Apple's product iterations are more a business move than developmental. The new product versions provide big boosts to sales but are not usually all that different from the products that preceded them due to the fact that the product was largely perfected before the first generation product was even released. A good example of this is the iPhone. The latest version of the iPhone, the iPhone 5, isn't all that different from its predecessor, the iPhone 4S. It has a slightly larger screen and a new charging adaptor but not many other material differences and the same basic appearance and functionality. In the company's latest earnings call, an analyst grilled Tim Cook about iPhone screen size. Cook replied: "The iPhone 5 offers as you know a new 4-inch Retina display.. for iPhone customers without sacrificing the one-handed ease-of-use that our customers love." Cook mentioning one handed ease of use and customers is evidence of Apple's strategy. The company will make slight variations to products like the increase in screen size, but not do anything drastic that would make the product less appealing to the majority of its customers. If no change is worth making, the company won't make a change solely for the sake of change. This is why most of Apple's products look so similar. The design works so there is no reason to change it.

    Conclusion

    So what is the use of all this information. Well as an investor, I want to own a company whose vision and strategy aligns with my own. Since I am a focus investor and a perfectionist who advocates optimal capital allocation, I own Apple. Other investors who sport a strategy of diversification and an open mind may find Google more attractive.

    The other use of this article is to begin to differentiate the two companies. Far too often, they are equated to each other when they are really quite different. I see no harm in basic comparisons but the comparisons I've been hearing have been more than just that. I also think many will find that even if you only are interested in Google or Apple, reading about how one is different than the other will be more effective than if I were to just say something like "Apple focuses on a few products" or "Google diversifies." The qualities are strengthened through differentiation. I hope to follow this article up with more focusing on other points of differentiation. Stay tuned.

    Disclosure: I am long AAPL. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

    Apr 04 8:38 AM | Link | Comment!
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