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Wall Street Journal Recap: January 23-29, 2017

|Includes: BURBY, JNJ, MRK, NSC, NSRGY, PEP, Unilever Plc (UL), VZ, WFC

My full notes and analysis on the Wall Street Journal from the past week: January 23-29, 2017 (Week 4). Please Enjoy.

Note: To view this post in optimal formatting, please visit my blog LatticeworkInvesting.com.

Ruthless pricing formula in Pharma:

When general economic principles are applied to Pharma, the outcome looks ruthless in nature. For example:

According to this quote, drug pricing has nothing to do with cost of development, or the amount of supply, but rather the demand generated due to the effectiveness of saving lives.

"Mr. McMahon said the price was justified by the improved average survival benefit the drug provides for patients with certain cancers." (link)

Drug Pricing Chart

Furthermore, drugs for rare diseases have the best pricing power.

"If you have blockbuster drugs in a rare disease area that's shown to be more immune to pricing pressure, that is a very valuable asset to have," said Jefferies analyst Peter Welford. (link)

Drug with Immunity to Pricing Pressure

The Rise of the "New and Now" Consumer

A trend is emerging in retail. Customers want it "new" and they want it "now". Whether you're in consumer goods, video games, or luxury goods, consumers are becoming increasingly impatient and bored.

Here are how some companies are adapting:

(1) Unilever:

"Unilever hopes the move will make it more nimble in responding to local tastes or trends." (link)

(2) Supercell (Clash of Clans):

"Five months later, Mr. Paananen says Supercell has fixed problems, paying more attention to customer complaints and refreshing its handful of games more often." (link)

"He said the episode underscores how competition has risen in the sector, increasing pressure on developers to produce ever more attractive games."

"All the companies, including Supercell, have to find new ways to get new users," Mr. Hiltunen said.

"When players return to their games, there should be something new," he said.

(3) PepsiCo:

"The clear plastic bottles will feature textured labels by emerging artists, including the street artist known as Momo, with new designs introduced every few months."…"PepsiCo hopes the revolving designs will prompt young people to share images of the bottles on social media." (link)

(4) Fashion (Burberry):

"Luxury consumers, including in China, are increasingly choosing innovation over tradition. Burberry reported last week that "fashion," or newly designed items, outperformed sales of core products like its famous trench coats in the Christmas quarter." (link)

"This trend is a challenge for companies used to selling products on the basis of timeless appeal."

Drivers of Luxury Good sales: Peace and Corruption

There are two fascinating insights from this article on luxury brands. (link)

(1) Peace is good for business. Terrorism is not. High profile terrorist attacks reduce international travel. When people travel they spend more on luxury goods. "Chinese and U.S. tourists who don't travel abroad are less likely to splurge,"

Terrorism = Less International Travel = Less Luxury Brand Sales

(2) Corruption is good for business. A Crackdown on corruption reduces luxury goods sales. China instituted a stiff crackdown on corruption which led to less luxury brand sales.

Lower Corruption = Less Luxury Brand Sales

Are luxury brands over-extending themselves?

More and more brand names seem to be expanding the price range of their product offerings. This strategy of offering products at lower and lower price points can increase sales in the short-term, but it can also contribute to brand dilution in the long-term. The Range Rover Evoque & Mercedes CLA are two possible examples.

This strategy is very similar to retailers like Michael Kors and Coach who embraced the outlet store model. It helped revenue growth (and stock price) in the short term, but the growth was an illusion and it severely damaged each of their brands. Their outlet strategies proved to be nothing more than a complete exploitation and degradation of years of goodwill.

Ferris Bueller's 'Oh Yeah' Song Seeded Investing Fortune

Got to like the Buffett-like logic of these investments. (link)

(1) BVZ Holding AG:

"Mr. Meier's banker father offered advice. A growing middle class in Asia, he said, meant more Asian tourists would be coming to see the Matterhorn in southern Switzerland. So Mr. Meier bought a large stake in a railway company, BVZ Holding AG, that now takes them there."

(2) Orell Fussli Holding AG:

"Another piece of fatherly advice: 'As long as Switzerland exists, we will always print our own money.' So Mr. Meier obtained a stake, which FactSet now values at about $37 million, in Orell Fussli Holding AG, the company that prints Swiss Francs. He is the firm's second-largest shareholder, behind the Swiss National Bank."

Pricing Power:

Warren Buffett says:

"The single most important decision in evaluating a business is pricing power. If you've got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you've got a very good business. And if you have to have a prayer session before raising the price by 10 percent, then you've got a terrible business."

(1) Strong Pricing Power

Merck (link): "Last year, Merck raised list prices by an average of 9.6%, with an average net price increase of 5.5%."

(2) Weak Pricing Power

Nestle(link): "But Nestle and its rivals have struggled to boost volumes and lift prices amid consumers' push for healthier fare and super-competitive markets."

Declining Sales: Strategies

Here are five strategies being used to fight/cope with declining sales.

(1) Cut costs

Caution: Cost cutting might lead to under-investment and result in 1. a further slowdown in long-term sales and 2. a need for large capital outlays in the future.

a. Unilever PLC (link): Reported slower sales growth last year, spooking investors…Last year, Unilever started its own cost-cutting campaign, including so-called "zero-base budgeting-a management practice based on justifying all costs from scratch each year."

b. P&G (link): Years of cost-cutting only recently started to bear fruit.

c. Kimberly-Clark (link): Recently completed a cost-cutting plan aimed at saving $140 million annually. But it said earlier this week it still forecasts tepid sales growth for 2017.

d. Norfolk Southern (link): Norfolk Southern posted a decline in revenue but notched higher profit in its fourth quarter as it cut costs, an effort it said it would continue as rival railway operators are pushed to take similar belt-tightening measures."… "Norfolk Southern cut $250 million in annual costs in 2016 and plans to cut $100 million more this year."

"Coal has been weighing on the railroad sector's results"

(2) Acquire high growth businesses

Caution: Often times this means over-paying.

a. Verizon(link): "Verizon needs to do a big deal to boost growth…The telecom giant is exploring a merger with Charter," "Charter's wired broadband service passes 49 million homes and is growing even as the pay-TV market is shrinking."

b. AT&T (link): AT&T's deal to buy Time Warner is a tie-up that would transform the phone company into a media giant, helping it potentially find new areas of growth as its core wireless business has become saturated and its share of the mobile market leaves little room for acquisitions."

c. Cisco (link): "Cisco is buying software company AppDynamics Inc. for $3.7 billion…at a big premium to bolster its software offerings to large enterprise customers."

"Cisco has placed increasing importance on software. The company has long held a dominant share of sales of the routing and switching equipment used to funnel data over the internet and between computers in data centers. As competitors enter the market with less expensive options, Cisco has focused on other business lines such as security, collaboration and the "Internet of Things."

(3) Acquire a company to smooth revenue and profits

Caution: Impatience, or time, based acquisitions are often expensive.

a. J&J (link): "J&J has said it has several new drugs in development that could offset any revenue loss from this rivalry, but the Actelion acquisition would more quickly help plug that hole."

(4) Spin off underperforming divisions

Caution: Beware of selling the division too low.

a. Intel (link): "It also agreed to sell 51% of its underperforming security division to private-equity firm TPG for $4.2 billion. Intel expects the two moves to create $1 billion in savings in the coming year."

b. Novartis: "Novartis AG is considering spinning off its ailing eye-care business Alcon, one year into a slower-than-expected turn-around for that business."…"The potential spinoff comes seven years after Novartis gained full ownership of Alcon (for $51.6 billion), a move that it had hoped would allow it to capitalize on the fast-growing eye-care market."…"The decision comes as the company struggles to revive growth at Alcon."

(5) Adapt to shifting consumer demands and develop a new advertising strategy

a. Nestle (link): "Nestle SA is betting reduced sugar and a new advertising strategy will boost sales amid a growing consumer backlash against sweet drinks."

Return Expectations

"With dividend yields about 2.5% for the Dow and 2% for the S&P, not far from historic lows, and stocks trading at almost 29 times inflation-adjusted multiyear profits, or well above their long-term average of about 16, it seems prudent to expect tepid-maybe even putrid-returns for years to come." (link)

Corruption at Wells Fargo

The corruption at Wells Fargo can be boiled down to:

Past success + high draconian expectations + a lapse in oversight = Ripe environment for corrupt practices.

P.S. Why does this formula remind me of China? Past success, draconian growth demands, large lapses in oversight…

The Wells Fargo story is pretty wild, here are some of the best quotes(link):

(1) "Managers and employees at the bank's roughly 6,000 branches across the U.S. typically had at least 24 hours' warning about annual reviews conducted by risk employees,"…"That gave many employees time to cover up improper practices, such as opening accounts or signing customers up for products without their knowledge."

(2) "You became numb to it,…it became pretty normal."

(3) "Growing the business was primary: The more successful you were, the higher the goals were. So you had to keep up."

Investment lesson:

Pay close attention to internal corporate performance goals & oversight. Are the demands too unrealistic and draconian? Are there lapses in oversight?

Government Debt & Growth Assumptions: A Disaster

Thomas Jefferson said, "To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt."

When governments are allowed to borrow based on assumptions of growth, they inevitably set us up for disaster. Why? Because they use "naive extrapolation" in their assumptions. Naive extrapolation assumes that growth will persist, nearly indefinitely. But the fact of the matter is that growth will eventually slow. Economies or companies that aren't prepared for this eventually are devastated.

This undesirable fate has now befallen the U.S. Virgin Islands. Just check out a few of their problems:

(1) Between 2007 to 2013, tourism feel 19%, a drop of $280 million. During that period the territory's population shrank by almost 9%.

(2) "With less revenue, the territory has relied increasingly on bond proceeds to pay operating costs while contributing less to pension plans. That borrowing has increased its debt to a level similar to that of Puerto Rico, on a per capita basis."

(3) "That pension plan has only 27% of what it needs to pay future benefits, according to 2015 financial statements; a 2015 analysis by Segal Consulting predicted the fund would run out of money by 2024."

What might they have to do to get out of their financial predicament?

(1) Sell off key assets.

(2) Raise taxes.

(3) Cut funding to pension plans, schools, etc.

Investing Lessons:

(1) Beware of naive extrapolation of past growth rates.

(2) Use a margin of safety

(3) Warren Buffett said, "If you buy things you do not need, soon you will have to sell things you need."

i.e. If you're looking for investment bargains, look at distressed countries and companies who will be forced to sell things that they need to pay for the things they didn't.

(4) Remember what happens when you assume things?

www.youtube.com/watch

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.