It's been a bumpy couple of weeks, but baby bull markets tend to sputter a little sometime between the 60- and 120-day mark. With that in mind, this test of investors' courage seems almost foreordained in terms of where it fits in the larger Wall Street cycle. Yes, things were going extremely well. Yes, stocks were racing back to the levels they comfortably commanded before the pandemic inflated and then deflated a bubble. And yes, that rebound is largely justified. We just need to test that justification in order to shake off our residual trauma from the bubble collapse; and the last few years in general.
This is how stocks normally behave. If the bull market has hit a wall this early, it will be the shortest significant rally in modern history. Bull markets generally run for 5-6 years and even in the depths of the Great Depression, the recovery was both more robust and more sustained. Granted, we live in unusually unsettled times, but sooner or later every statistical aberration reverts to the long-term trend. For the S&P 500 and large stocks in general, that means moving up 8-11% a year across the long term. And for Treasury yields, that means about 1% above inflation.
Keep that last part in the back of your head when people try to tell you that 4% bond yields are poison for the stock market. Across generations, inflation has averaged a little over 3% a year. Adding a full percentage point to that "normal" historical level gives you a number above 4%, which means this is where long-term yields should be. If anything, with the latest read on consumer prices coming in at 3.2%, both inflation and interest rates are exactly where they should be under normal circumstances.
Of course, accepting this argument means letting go of a lot of assumptions and expectations that have accumulated over the last 10-15 years. Extremely low interest rates were a historical aberration left over from the 2008 crisis. They needed to come back up, for a lot of reasons. Whether the trigger that gets them back on track is the Fed or a sudden Treasury credit downgrade is secondary. And stocks have historically rallied in the face of exactly this kind of interest rate environment. This is a market fact. Unless you think something fundamental has broken within the American psyche that will prevent us from rising above all current obstacles like we did in the wake of the 2008 crash, or the dotcom crash, or 911, or World War II, or the Great Depression itself for that matter, the numbers are on our side.
In the meantime, the numbers are not great, but they aren't terrible either. The S&P 500 is up 16% YTD, which is accelerated performance when you look at the statistics. Granted, a lot of investors still have wounds left to heal before they really start feeling good about their experience in the last few years, but things are still moving fast in the right direction. The Nasdaq is up a blistering 30% in barely 7 months. Our stocks, balanced between a strong defense and plenty of aggressive growth recommendations, are right in the middle. We've scored a 22% bounce so far this year. In just another 7 percentage points, we'll be back where we were at the end of 2021 ... right before the zero-rate bubble started to rupture.
The big market benchmarks are in a similar state. Even counting the recent pullback, Wall Street as a whole hasn't exactly fallen off a cliff. Stocks are within sight of record territory. And as you know, these relatively rarefied levels near all-time peaks tend to be a little precarious. Investors and traders challenge every move. The bulls need to fight for every inch. Sometimes we need a little time to build up our strength and go over each wall of worry in turn. But it happens. On average, the bulls run for 5-6 years before a real obstacle gets in the way and forces a major downswing. Across each multi-year run, the market as a whole tends to quadruple in value.
In other words, things look a long way from unsustainable or overheated. This is a pause, not a halt. Corporate earnings support this. This has been a mediocre earnings season but the mood has been more hopeful than depressed and a lot of investors have even showed signs of impatience. People can't wait to see the numbers on the current quarter and then guidance for the end of the year. There's a strong sense that by then, the Fed will be finished raising short-term interest rates, which means the pressure on the economy will not get much worse. And when things can't get much worse, they generally get better from there.
Inflation is no longer accelerating. The Fed is getting traction. Earnings across the S&P 500 are not great, but they aren't plunging either. At worst, the tone reads "stagnation," a stall instead of a swoon. That's not a hard landing. Unless the real cliff is coming, this is the soft landing we needed. The recession so mild that it barely even registers after years of disruption, upheaval and, most recently, an economy too strong for anyone's comfort. When investors run from signs of the job market running too hot, it's really a sign that we could all use a break. The economy needs to cool off. That's what the Fed is doing. The alternative is watching prices keep soaring indefinitely, which creates a vicious cycle in which the dollar ends up much lower. Nobody wants that. This is preferable. This is what normal feels like.
There's always a bull market here at The Bull Market Report. As earnings season winds down, the drama has shifted back to the bond market, which shifts The High Yield Investor into the spotlight as we work to explain how rising yields pushed our stocks back down 3% in the last two weeks. As a result, The Big Picture once again revolves around benchmarking the current stock market environment against history, and finds the results highly encouraging. And if you're still paying attention to earnings, we've got plenty of updates for you as always.
Key Market Indicators
The Big Picture: From Baby Bull To Tempestuous Tot
If you’ve already written this bull market off for dead, we have to admit, you’ve given up on the stock market and we can’t help you. For this bull market to have been born in June and dead by August, the economic environment would need to be worse than it was in 1932, in the deepest depths of the Great Recession. That’s when the shortest bull market in modern memory happened. Back then, investors only got two months after rallying 20% from its peak before the bear recouped control of Wall Street. Those were truly bad times.
But even then, investors who bought the brief rally didn’t have a lot to complain about. That two-month rally sent the S&P 500 up a dizzying 91%. The brief but savage retreat that followed took about 30% off that peak, leaving the market roughly 55% off its low. Maybe you think the world is in worse shape now than it was 80 years ago and the market just no longer has what it takes to recover. In that scenario, you’ve effectively given up on stocks, the economy and the American people.
Because in every other crisis over the past eight decades, the bulls got years to run. Other than the 1932 shudder, the shortest modern bull market lasted 1.8 years, before the grim lead into World War II cut the rally short. Only the 2020-2021 pandemic bubble was anywhere near that truncated. It took real determination for the bulls to start running this time around. The mood bottomed out in October and it took eight months for the S&P 500 to recover 20% from that low point. During that period, it became clear that even the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes wouldn’t be severe enough to crash the economy immediately.
And in the absence of that crash, guess what? We survived. Corporations didn’t implode like people feared. A recession like the one we saw in 2008 didn’t happen this time around. We're thinking the recession is already well underway for corporations. Earnings are down from last year. But in the new third quarter, we’re looking for a slight uptick. Even if that doesn’t happen, the comparisons practically guarantee better times ahead for the end of the year. In that scenario, we’ve already lived through the worst of it. Things get better from here. In a few months, members of the S&P 500 will be getting bigger again in the aggregate. The economy will be growing.
That’s good for investors. It’s hard for stocks to go down for long when the economy is feeding more profit across big companies year after year, which is why bull markets are hard to kill once they get going. Admittedly, it isn’t a smooth ride. The first few months of any baby bull are the most intense. But then there’s generally a lull and a pause for the market to test its convictions. Things slow down. People get nervous and start second guessing themselves. But in history, the bull has never backed down this fast. History can bend, but it rarely breaks. If the bear takes over again, we'll be shocked.
Remember, bond yields move in the opposite direction from bond prices. If bonds are falling and rates rising, that means money is pouring out of that particular side of the global financial markets. Within the dollar sphere, money flowing out of bonds means money flows into cash or stocks. Cash is bad news as long as inflation remains high. You might be able to get 4% in money markets, but you’re probably going to lose it all from inflation. Only stocks can make enough right now to keep ahead of inflation. Some may go down instead but the right stocks have a fighting chance. When that’s the best bet you get, you take it. We have the right stocks.
BMR Companies and Commentary
Moderna (MRNA: $101, down 6% last week)
Get ready for a good long read on this extraordinary company. This is not a 1- or 2-minute read. It will be 5-10 minutes. So, hang on. Here we go.
Leading biotechnology company and mRNA pioneer, Moderna, released its second quarter results a week ago. The company posted $340 million in revenues, down by a colossal 94% YoY, compared to $4.7 billion a year ago. It further posted a loss of $1.4 billion, or $3.62 per share, against a profit of $2.2 billion, or $5.24. This was largely the result of the seasonal nature of its COVID-19 vaccine sales.
While this was expected as the world moves on from the pandemic, the company, however, expects $6 to $8 billion in revenues from its COVID shot this year, with the US alone expected to buy anywhere between 50 to 100 million doses for the fall. Its updated COVID vaccine, targeting the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5. Is still awaiting FDA approval, but will be ready for a rollout over the coming months.
The company is confident of seeing robust demand for the shot, not just in the US, but also in Europe, Japan, and other leading markets. With COVID-19 becoming ubiquitous, Moderna expects this great business to continue. Far from resting on its laurels, however, it has gone all out to ensure its pandemic windfall is used towards developing more sustainable products.
This includes a robust pipeline of vaccines targeting cancer, heart disease, and a slew of other conditions, and are all set to hit the market by 2030. This pipeline includes its experimental vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, aimed at adults aged 60 and above, followed by its personalized cancer vaccine in partnership with Merck, which passed its first major clinical trial early last month, with flying colors.
The stock is down by 44% YTD and over 78% from its all-time high in 2021, and as such, is quite de-risked. It currently trades under 4 times sales and 35 times earnings, which might seem rich, but is perfectly justified for a growth stock such as this. It has since repurchased stock worth $1.5 billion and ended the quarter with $8.5 billion in cash, $1.2 billion in debt, and negative $230 million in cash flow. Our Target is $250 and our Sell Price is $150. SO, let’s discuss. These numbers are there for you to decide what to do. And each and every one of you has a different scenario of buying the stock. Some of you bought the stock in January 2023 when we added the stock at $193. Some of you bought the stock beforehand in February 2020 at $26. As the stock has come down from the all-time high of $464 in September of 2021, and more recently from the $218 level in January of this year, you have decisions to make on a day-to-day basis. And all of these decisions are personal, based on a myriad of things that are going on in your life. We could list them here, but you know what we mean here. It comes down to a decision that YOU have to make: Do I sell? Do I stay with it? Do I add more? Tough questions. We highly recommend GTC Stop Orders. Good-‘Til-Canceled orders are orders to sell a stock at a certain price. If it hits the number, the order executes and you are out of the stock. If you bought in January, you could have put a stop order in place to sell at say, $181. Or $171 or whatever price you picked. They used to call this order a Stop Loss order because that’s what it does. Now it is just called a Stop order.
We’re not real happy that the market has drubbed this company the way it has. But we believe in the firm long term, and since we are a long-term investment newsletter, we believe in the companies that we follow and if the stock moves lower, in many cases we like it even more than it was at the higher price. That is the case with Moderna. We would buy the stock here as they have a strong, diverse set of new products coming to market this year, in 2024 and 2025, and beyond.
The future looks bright for Moderna. The company has a strong pipeline of new products, including vaccines for influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV)*, and HIV. Moderna is also developing a personalized cancer vaccine that could revolutionize the treatment of cancer. The potential dollar size of these markets is enormous. The global market for influenza vaccines is estimated to be worth $8.5 billion, the RSV market is worth $2.5 billion, the CMV market is worth $1.5 billion, and the HIV market is worth $30 billion. Moderna could capture a significant share of these markets with its innovative products.
*CMV is related to the viruses that cause chickenpox, herpes simplex, and mononucleosis. CMV may cycle through periods when it lies dormant and then reactivates.
In addition to its new products, Moderna is also expanding its manufacturing capacity. This will allow the company to meet the growing demand for its vaccines and other products. Moderna is well-positioned to be a major player in the pharmaceutical industry for years to come.
Here are some specific examples of new products that Moderna has in the pipeline. The company is committed to using its mRNA technology to develop innovative new treatments for a wide range of diseases:
A bivalent influenza vaccine that protects against both influenza A and influenza B.
An RSV vaccine that is more effective than existing RSV vaccines.
A CMV vaccine that could prevent congenital CMV infection, which can lead to serious health problems in newborns.
A personalized cancer vaccine that is designed to target the specific mutations in a patient's cancer cells.
The company is worth $39 billion now. At its peak, it was worth $189 billion. Can it go there again in the future? We believe so.
Axcelis Technologies (ACLS: $167, down 5%)
High Technology Portfolio
This company is one of the largest suppliers of capital equipment for the semiconductor industry, leading some industry observers to call it one of the most important companies in the world. During its second quarter, despite a glut in the Chip industry, the company has continued its strong streak, with $270 million in revenues, up 24% YoY, compared to $220 million a year ago. The company posted a profit of $62 million, or $1.86 per share, against $48 million, or $1.43, in addition to a beat on consensus estimates at the top and bottom lines. Its dominant position within this space, amid an industry that in many places has been turned upside down, has resulted in substantial tailwinds for Axcelis, something that is unlikely to subside even in the case of a glut in the market.
Axcelis Technologies ended the quarter with an order backlog of over $1.2 billion, including fresh orders of $200 million. This is largely the result of persistent demand for its Purion family of products, particularly from the silicon carbide power markets. These are semiconductors used in cars, particularly electric vehicles, which are growing fast around the world.
The company’s customers span markets of advanced logic chips, memory chips, and storage chips, all of which are set to witness robust demand, as a result of the unprecedented growth in AI, machine learning, and cloud computing. It is further the only ion implant company capable of providing full-recipe coverage for all power device applications, allowing for high-volume, low-cost manufacturing.
As a result, the company has increased its revenue forecast for the full year by $70 million, giving the stock that is already up by 115% YTD, more reason to rally. Axcelis has a strong balance sheet position with $450 million in cash, just $80 million in debt, and $250 million in cash flow. This puts many lucrative value-creation opportunities, such as dividends and stock repurchases on the horizon going forward. Our Target is $150 and our Sell Price is $125. We are raising the Target today to $195, and the Sell Price to $148.
Roku (ROKU: $79, down 8%)
Early Stage Portfolio
Streaming giant Roku caught another break with its second quarter results a week ago. The company posted $850 million in revenues, up 11% YoY, compared to $760 million a year ago, with a loss of $110 million, or $0.76 per share, down from $112 million, or $0.82, in addition to a beat on consensus estimates on the top and bottom lines.
The company posted strong growth across key operational metrics, with total active accounts at 74 million, up 16% YoY, and reaching a level of 25 billion hours streamed on the platform during the quarter, up by 4 billion hours from last year. The Roku channel now accounts for 1.1% of total TV viewership, establishing it as a leading player in the global streaming space, with plenty of room to grow.
The platform’s average revenue per user slid 7% YoY, to $40.67, but this is mostly owing to a global advertising slowdown, which has since started to turn around, as recessionary fears abate. Roku is perfectly poised to reap rewards from this trend, given its dominance in the connected TV space with a market share of 50% in North America, and billions of dollars of unmonetized ad inventory.
Roku continues to face substantial challenges as a result of supply chain constraints and inflationary pressures, particularly when it comes to its hardware business. Its decision to not pass these additional costs onto customers is what led to the string of losses in recent quarters. This same strategy will pay off in the long run, as it faces stiff competition from the likes of Alphabet TV, Amazon, and Apple TV.
The stock is down by over 85% since its all-time high in 2021 but has posted a 95% rally YTD, amid substantial challenges and headwinds. It currently trades at under 3.5 times sales, which is very reasonable for a growth stock with a landed base and massive competitive moats. Roku ended the quarter with $1.8 billion in cash, just $650 million in debt, and $15 million in cash flow. Our Target is $110 and our Sell Price is $62.
With all of this said, we are not very happy about the fact that the company can’t make a profit. Yes, they have a ton of cash to tide them over the next year or two. But gee whiz, after all these years, WHY CAN’T THEY MAKE A PROFIT? We’ve always said to ourselves: When you are not happy about something, you have to take some action. We’re pretty darn tired of waiting for this one, so yes, their future looks bright, but the stock had better move higher, and if it doesn’t, we are going to move on. The way we like to do this is to set a Stop. We would suggest that you put a Sell Stop in place at $74. If it goes there, we are out. If it goes higher, we will move the stop up accordingly over time.
PayPal (PYPL: $62, down 2%)
PayPal released its second quarter results two weeks ago, reporting $7.3 billion in revenues, up 7% YoY, compared to $6.8 billion a year ago. The company posted a profit of $1.3 billion, or $1.16 per share, against $1.1 billion and $0.93. Despite posting in line with estimates, the stock witnessed a pullback following the results, owing to a slew of factors and operating metrics.
During the quarter, the company processed over $370 billion in payments, across 6.1 billion transactions, up 11% and 10% YoY, respectively. It processed 55 transactions per active account, an increase of 12% YoY, with total active accounts growing to 435 million, up marginally from 428 million during the same period a year ago. It is truly an astounding number of accounts.
PayPal is an online payment platform that facilitates payments between individuals and businesses. It is one of the most popular online payment platforms in the world. PayPal is successful because it is easy to use, secure, and trusted by businesses and consumers alike.
PayPal has a new deal with private-equity giant Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts. According to this deal, the PE firm will be acquiring PayPal’s ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ loans originated within the UK and other European countries, to the tune of $44 billion, with $1.8 billion in net proceeds to PayPal set to be realized over the next few months alone. This provides the fintech giant with much-needed liquidity and stability, as it forays deeper into the lucrative consumer credit markets. In addition to this, the company has seen enormous traction with its recent rollout of PayPal Complete Payments, onboarding big ticket channel partners, the likes of Adobe, WooCommerce, Shopify, Stack Payments, and LightSpeed among others.
As PayPal grows by leaps and bounds, it hasn’t lost sight of its promise to continue delivering exceptional value to shareholders, with $1.5 billion being returned via buybacks during the second quarter alone. It plans to scale past $5 billion in buybacks in 2023, giving strong support to the stock, while hardly denting its robust balance sheet, with $11 billion in cash, just $12 billion in debt, and $5.8 billion in cash flow. And the firm is quite profitable, as noted above in the first paragraph. The Target is $125 and we would not sell PayPal.
The Trade Desk (TTD: $75, down 12%)
Early Stage Portfolio
One of the largest demand-side advertising platforms, The Trade Desk released its second quarter results last week, reporting $460 million in revenues, up 23% YoY, compared to $380 million a year ago. The company posted a profit of $140 million, or $0.28 per share, against $100 million, or $0.20, driven by its relentless streak of onboarding new brands, inventory, and partnerships throughout the past year.
Despite a beat on consensus estimates at the top and bottom lines, the market reaction following the results put a damper on the stock’s 100% YTD rally. The results themselves had nothing to warrant an adverse reaction, and in our opinion, this was everything to do with the company’s unjustifiably high valuations of 22 times sales and 290 times earnings, many times higher than the industry average.
The Trade Desk is a technology company that helps businesses buy and sell digital advertising. They are successful because they offer a platform that is easy to use, transparent, and effective. The company has a strong focus on data and analytics, which allows them to help businesses target their ads more effectively. While demand for advertising has hit a rough patch over the past few quarters, the company’s precision and transparency-driven platform has remained resilient nonetheless. Its business development initiatives have made its solutions indispensable for large brands, resulting in a 95% customer retention rate for the ninth consecutive year.
In a niche filled with walled gardens from the likes of Meta and Alphabet, The Trade Desk has succeeded by making this business more accessible to everyone. It has continually gained market share at the expense of its two major competitors, and while the threat of Alphabet’s renewed efforts in this space is substantial, TTD’s expansive moats, industry partnerships, and integrations will not be easy to breach.
The stock was upgraded by many firms on the Street, including Wells Fargo, raising their target to $100 from $82. Piper Sandler has a nice round $100 price target, with Morgan Stanley at $105. During the quarter the company repurchased stock worth over $40 million, with a further $360 million in pending authorizations. This should provide it with much-needed support during volatile times like the present. The Trade Desk ended the quarter with $1.4 billion in cash, a mere $250 million in debt, and $630 million in cash flow. Note: We wrote about The Trade Desk in The Bull Market Report of July 17th. Check it out on the website.
HF Sinclair (DINO: $59, up 8%)
Independent petroleum refiner HF Sinclair released its second quarter results two weeks ago, reporting $7.8 billion in revenues, down 30% YoY, compared to $11.2 billion a year ago. The company posted a profit of $500 million, or $2.60 per share, down from $1.3 billion, or $5.59, but the beat on consensus estimates at the top and bottom lines sent the stock on a strong rally from $51, and the $46 level in July. We added the stock at $61 in December, so the weakness this year has been put behind it.
During the quarter, the company was hurt by the drop in volumes due to the drop in energy prices and the economic slowdown globally, along with a slowdown in refining margins. The gross margin per barrel stood at $22, down 40% YoY, compared to $36 a year ago. This was coupled with lower production of 554,000 barrels of oil per day, down from 627,000 barrels during the second quarter of last year. This is in sharp contrast to the previous quarter, when the company looked upbeat as a result of increasing utilization rates, falling oil refining capacities, and a widening crack spread, owing to the normalization of global energy markets. (Crack Spread is the margin or pricing difference between a barrel of crude oil and the finished petroleum products.)
HF Sinclair is an energy company that produces and sells a variety of fuels, including gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, renewable diesel, specialty lubricant products, specialty chemicals, and specialty and modified asphalt. They have a long history in the energy industry, having been founded in 1916. They have a strong financial position and are committed to innovation. The company used its windfall gains over the past year exceptionally well, paring down debt to $3.6 billion, while offering a well-covered annualized dividend yield of 3%, ending the quarter with $1.6 billion in cash, and $2.5 billion in cash flow during the quarter. Our Target is at $72 and our Sell Price is at $51. This is a solid $11 billion company with a strong management team.
Sunrun (RUN: $16.64, down 5%)
Photovoltaic cells and energy storage solutions provider Sunrun is riding the post-IRA high life, as evidenced by its second quarter results two weeks ago. The company posted a profit of $55 million, or $0.25 per share, against a loss of $12 million, $0.06. This was still a fairly mixed quarter, with earnings blowing past estimates by a wide margin, with top-line figures coming in below expectations.
Market reactions aside, this was a spectacular quarter for the company, with 103 megawatt hours of fresh installations, up 35%. Total solar energy capacity installations reached 300 megawatts, exceeding the high-end of its guidance at the end of the quarter. Net subscriber value hit $12,320, up by $320 from the prior quarter. Much of this was made possible by the tax credits availed to consumers since the passing of the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act last year. With tax credits now covering 30% of the installation costs, solar companies such as Sunrun are on a fiery streak.
The company unveiled a slew of new products and initiatives during the quarter, starting with the Sunrun Shift, a home solar subscription that aims at maximizing value under California’s new solar policy. It further signed a partnership with PG&E to develop a distributed power plant that turns home solar storage systems into resources during periods of peak demand, helping prevent blackouts.
Sunrun is an undisputed leader in an industry that is set to hit $400 billion by 2030, and following a 30% YTD pullback, and an 83% decline since its all-time high in 2021, it is trading at a mere 1.5 times sales. The company ended the quarter with $670 million in cash, and over $10 billion in debt which is concerning, but has the assets and is now generating sufficient cash flow to back this up.
With all of this said, we’re not happy with the performance of the firm. After thinking this through long and hard, we believe their marketing philosophy is skewed. The firm offers solar leases, solar loans, and purchase agreements where customers agree to buy the electricity generated by their solar panels for a fixed price over a set period. They don't have to pay upfront for the solar panels, and they don't have to worry about maintenance or repairs. This all sounds great at first glance, but the financing costs for the firm are exorbitant at $10 billion, which is WAY out of line. We added the stock at $29 and we reluctantly exit the stock here. We will be replacing this with a much better solar option in the coming weeks.
Twilio (TWLO: $62, up 1%)
Long-Term Growth Portfolio
Twilio is the leading provider of cloud-based programmable communications solutions. It released its second quarter results last week, reporting $1.0 billion in revenues, up 10% YoY, compared to $940 million a year ago. It posted a profit of $120 million, or $0.54 per share, against a loss of $7 million, or $0.11, coupled with a beat on estimates for the next quarter sending the stock up from the $58 level following the results.
The company hit a rough patch over the past year, owing to persistent macro pressures, which in turn resulted in longer sales cycles, lower deal sizes, and a substantially lower dollar-based net expansion rate* at 103%, compared to 123% a year ago. The slowdown in the social, streaming, and crypto verticals has made things worse, yet Twilio has successfully managed to hold its ground as things start to turn around.
* Dollar-based net expansion rate (DBNER) is a measure of how much revenue you earned from existing customers due to add-ons, upselling, and cross-selling.
Twilio currently has 304,000 active customers on its platform, against 275,000 a year ago, which is largely in line with estimates. The company’s communications revenues led the way at $910 million, up 10% YoY, followed by data and applications at $125 million, up 12%.
Over the past few years, the company has made significant progress in offering a differentiated customer value proposition. It has done this via acquisitions, partnerships, and integrations, which have since resulted in wide, impenetrable moats. The tailwinds as a result of this are only just beginning to be realized and have since prompted a flurry of analyst rate hikes, with the high end of its target at $110.
The stock is up by 23% YTD, but is still off by 86% from its all-time high in 2021 at $457, while trading at a mere 2.8 times sales, making it a fairly priced growth stock. The company completed $500 million in stock repurchases during the quarter, from its $1 billion in authorizations at the beginning of this year. It ended the quarter with a strong balance sheet with $3.7 billion in cash, $1.2 billion in debt, and a stable cash flow position. Will the stock ever reach its all-time high again? We believe so, but certainly not for a few years. In the meantime, we see steady, profitable growth ahead and look forward to breaching our Target of $135. Our Sell Price is $65, with the stock under that price now, as you know, so if you are anxious, set a sell stop at your pain point, say $55 or so. We don’t believe this can happen, but a lot depends on the world economies and all of the potential negatives in the world. We are optimists, as the American economy and markets have grown through thick and thin, through war and viruses, and bull markets and bears, for 200 years. We’ll come through again, of that there is no doubt.
The Bull Market High Yield Investor
It happened like clockwork. Something nudges long-term interest rates above 4% and a perfectly good rally in the stock market evaporates. This week, the trigger was a shock cut to the Treasury’s credit rating, a significant shift in the bond market but not necessarily anything the rest of Wall Street needs to worry about. Most of the big players blew off the downgrade. Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon, Janet Yellen, everyone. The rating agency that pulled the trigger, Fitch, is relatively minor, with maybe 15% of the global heft in this space. Neither of the true giants spoke up.
And the timing of this downgrade is strange to say the least. It feels like a PR stunt, a desperate reach for relevance. But for now, that 15% of the world that pays attention now needs to adjust its bond portfolios to mirror this move, which means selling Treasury debt to make room for whatever this agency decides is still worth its top rating. Demand for Treasury bonds goes down a bit. And the laws of economics say that when demand for a thing suddenly drops, the price drops with it. When bond prices drop, yields go up. Suddenly yields on the 10-year are above 4%.
This is a historical pain point for the market. Round numbers scare people. The thought is that if you can lock in 4% a year on bonds for the foreseeable future, enough investors will pull their money out of stocks to buy those bonds. But wait a minute. Money flowing out of stocks into bonds means demand for bonds picks up again. Prices in this scenario firm up. And guess what, yields go down. The situation just resolved itself.
That’s how this works. It’s how it worked in 2011 and it’s how it’s going to work now. Yields have had trouble getting above 4% in this cycle. It’s going to take a massive shift in the landscape to get them permanently above that level now. If you’re worried about yields, buy bonds when they hit 4%. And if you’re unwilling to buy bonds at 4%, stick with the stocks that can deliver better under the right circumstances. Beyond that, 4% is just a number.
After all, there are two things here to keep in mind. First and foremost, when long bond yields are stuck at roughly 4% and the Fed has pushed short-term rates well above 5%, the system is showing dramatic signs of stress. That’s the inverted yield curve that tends to foreshadow a recession. The Fed controls the short end. The market decides the long end. When the market keeps buying so many Treasury bonds that long yields stay below short yields, the market is already so fixated on an economic downturn ahead that the prophecy becomes self fulfilling.
But if long-term Treasury yields were to rise back above the short end of the curve, that recession signal goes away. Keep that in mind when people talk about how lethal 4% really is. The only way this curve can heal is if those long yields climb well above 4% or if the Fed wakes up and decides there’s been a terrible mistake. You know the first scenario is the only plausible one. And that’s the second factor to watch. We remember back to 1994, when Treasury yields started at 5.92% and crossed 8% by November. They didn’t get back below 5.5% until 1998. That’s at least four years the world survived yields much higher than 4%, a period in which the S&P 500 doubled. It was the dotcom boom, one of the greatest rallies in history. And it happened in the face of those rates.
What’s lethal about 4% yields? Fear itself. We’ll get through this. Stocks will recover and get back to work. If yields stay above 4%, it’s going to be a lot harder to argue that there’s a recession looming. And if they fall below 4%, where does all that fear go? For now, if you're happy earning 4% a year, bonds are attractive. If you want more, you need to reach for a few of our higher-yield recommendations like the two profiled here.
Apollo Commercial Real Estate Finance (ARI: $10.74, flat. Yield=13.0%)
High Yield Portfolio
New York-based Apollo Commercial Real Estate Finance primarily invests in real estate-backed debt instruments, including senior mortgages and mezzanine loans. The company released its second quarter results recently, reporting $63 million in revenues, up 10% YoY, compared to $57 million a year ago, with a loss of $16 million, or $0.11 per share, against a profit of $50 million, or $0.35. The numbers were weighed down by net realized losses on investments of $82 million, or $0.61 per share, from a subordinate loan backed by an ultra-luxury residential property. This was a significant event, one that saw a $60 million increase to its special current expected credit loss allowance, bringing it to a total of $141 million. This includes an already realized loss of nearly $80 million on the same Manhattan-based ultra-luxurious residential property and is a reflection of the state of New York’s property market, which continues to struggle with a very tough post-COVID recovery.
The company continues to benefit from higher interest rates because 99% of its portfolio is held in floating debt. This led to another consistent quarter of strong distributable earnings of $0.51, well above the quarterly dividend of $0.35. There has been some talk of a dividend cut, but with the level of coverage, we are not concerned. We believe the likelihood of interest rates remaining high for the foreseeable future is quite high.
Leaving this aside, Apollo’s loan portfolio remains as sturdy as ever, with a total portfolio value of $8.3 billion, a weighted average yield of 8.6%, with nearly 94% of them being first mortgages, making this a good place to be in a high-interest rate environment. The trust further funded two first mortgage loans worth $170 million, and received repayments worth $600 million.
The stock is down by 1% YTD, trading at an enticing 27% discount to book value. Apollo ended the quarter with $370 million in cash, $7.0 billion in debt, and $330 million in cash flow.
BlackRock Income Trust (BKT: $11.82, down 2%. Yield=8.9%)
High Yield Portfolio
The BlackRock Income Trust, one of the leading investors in agency mortgage-backed securities and US Government securities offers plenty of value for conservative investors looking for capital preservation, alongside regular income. With its exposure to quality AAA-rated securities, its risk quotient is only a notch below treasuries and munis, while offering higher yields and avenues for capital appreciation.
Ever since the Fed began its hawkish stance, the fund has witnessed a steady pullback and is currently down 6% this year so far. As a result, it offers an enticing 9% dividend yield, all the while trading at a 5% discount to book. With inflation slowing down, and the Fed’s rate hikes finally coming to an end, this fund represents a stellar economic opportunity during the months ahead.
The thing about this fund is that while it may be affected by macroeconomic headwinds and market volatilities in the short term, for investors with a long enough time horizon, the risk of loss is very low. This is made possible thanks to its exposure to mortgage-backed securities, all insured by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae, which while not explicitly guaranteed by the US government, we know for a fact that the latter will step in to keep these entities solvent.
The biggest drawback when it comes to investing in the BlackRock Income Trust is the lack of any significant hedges against interest rate risks. During a high-interest rate environment like the present, a portfolio of mortgage servicing rights offers much-needed cushioning against volatility, but they don’t own any, as Rithm Capital and others do. We feel that the company, at current levels, has limited downside risk as the current interest rate levels are very beneficial for the fund.
Todd Shaver, Founder and CEO
The Bull Market Report