Housing Market Update – February 2019

The outlook for housing (or more precisely, sentiment about the outlook for housing) has improved in recent weeks, primarily because of the decline in mortgage rates.  The average rate on the 30-year mortgage has fallen by 57 basis points (bp) since mid-November from a peak of 4.94% to 4.37% last week (as of Feb. 14), according to Freddie Mac.  That should bring more entry level buyers back into the market during the peak spring selling season which is just now getting underway.  Improving sentiment can be seen in the latest reading of the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, which rose four points in February to 62, better than consensus expectations of 59.  Since consumer confidence remains fairly high, there is a chance that house sales could bounce back sharply, if buyers rush to avoid missing out a second time.

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GE 18Q4 Results: Curb Your Enthusiasm

General Electric (GE) posted 2018 fourth quarter results that were viewed positively by the financial community primarily because there were no new major negative surprises. Although management gave an update on the company’s recent progress and certain aspects of its outlook, it declined to give specific guidance on 2019 earnings. It did not set a date for CEO Larry Culp’s presentation to the financial community. Mr. Culp said that 2019 should be viewed as more about the “how” than the “how much,” suggesting that the investment community should focus more in 2019 on the company’s achievements in addressing organizational, structural and execution issues and less on earnings. This is a clear indication that 2019 will be another “reset” year.

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American Water Works (AWK) 2019 Update

American Water Works Company (AWK) has delivered superior operating, financial and stock price performance over the past eight years. Its 2018 performance did not match the eight year average in either absolute or relative terms. However, management is confident in the company’s ability to achieve EPS growth “at the high end” of its 7%-10% guidance range over the next five years. While that seems like a bold assertion after eight years of superior earnings growth, the stock will likely continue to outperform peers, if management achieves its five-year targets. Outperformance vs. the broader market will depend upon other factors, such as interest rate and economic growth trends.

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Acme United Battles the Headwinds

2018 was a rough year for investors in Acme United Corporation’s (ACU) stock, including CEO Walter Johnsen who owns 15% of the outstanding shares.  ACU’s 2018 total return was -38%, worse than the Zack’s Micro Cap Index’s 17% decline.  The significant underperformance was due to market-, macro- and company-specific factors.

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Despite Progress, HPE’s Shares Struggle

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. (HPE) has reported solid progress on its strategic initiatives, including streamlining its worldwide operations (under its HPE Next program), emphasizing value vs. volume and targeting high growth market segments, such as the intelligent edge and high performance computing. The company posted fiscal 2018 revenue growth of 6.9%, GAAP EPS of $1.23 (up nearly six-fold) and non-GAAP EPS of $1.56, up 10.6%. It also bought back $3.6 billion of its shares and raised its dividend by 50%.

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SJI Outlines Its Vision

At its recent investor conference (held on Oct. 22), the management of South Jersey Industries outlined its vision for integrating its recent acquisitions of Elizabethtown Gas (ETG) and Elkton Gas (EGC), reducing the debt taken on in those acquisitions in part by selling non-core (non-regulated) assets and delivering additional value to shareholders by growing its earnings base in its core regulated businesses.

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StoneMor Likely Nears End of SEC Filing Delays

In an 8-K filing dated November 29, 2018, StoneMor disclosed that it had ended its relationship with Deloitte and hired Grant Thornton as its auditor.  With this move, the partnership is closer to catching up on its SEC filings after more than two years of delays in filing its financial statements on time.  If so, much of the anxiety expressed by the market in STON’s low share price will subside; but the stock’s recovery potential is still difficult to measure because of the uncertainty of the partnership’s future profit potential.

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Five Star Heads Toward a Restructuring

In an 8K filing dated October 23, Five Star Senior Living (FVE) reported that it had received a delisting notice from NASDAQ because its share price had remained below $1 for 30 consecutive days.  On its 2018 third quarter conference call, Five Star disclosed that based upon its cash balance as of Sept. 30 and its expectations of future earnings and cash flows, there is now substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.

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The Pause that Refreshes the Homebuilders?

It has certainly been a rough year for homebuilding stocks, but not nearly so bad for the housing market.  The Lark Research Homebuilder Stock Price Index, an equal weighted average of eleven publicly-traded homebuilder stocks, was down 29.2% year-to-date through December 7.  By comparison, the S&P 500 has declined 1.5% and the Russell 2000 has declined 5.7%.

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Notes and Observations from the MIT CFO Forum

This year’s forum, held on November 15, was the seventeenth in the series.  It kicked off with Co-Chairman Jeremy Seidman highlighting the planning process for the event.  Each year, about a month after the current forum, Mr. Seidman, Co-Chair Jack McCullough and team begin exploring what is top of mind for CFOs.  For this year’s version, the team recognized that CFO’s are stronger, more powerful than ever within their organizations.  The team also saw that while being different works, being bold is better: it often leads to greater success.  Smart strategic decisions are important.  M&A can have a big impact.  But most important of all, CFOs should not let doubts and fears get in the way or compromise their opportunities.  More than ever, he asserts, CFOs need to take risks. Continue reading

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