Bitcoin – The Bull that refuses to back into its cage

Bitcoin is now trading above the ceiling predicted to be its cap – it is the bull that remains uncontrollably volatile but unashamedly confident.

bitcoin-2643159__340  In a previous post, I explored how Bitcoin worked and explained the functionality of the centralized ledger. This week I have a new question. Why do people have faith in a currency that has no tangible resource backing it? Traditional currencies use gold, what does Bitcoin have? Hope? I will supply two reasons I find particularly compelling that may explain sudden interest for Bitcoin, however bear in mind that there a multitude of factors, and there is no monocausal reason for the sudden growth of Bitcoin.

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Firstly, financial commentators have commented on the magnitude of growth Bitcoin would experience if it were to be backed by a finite resource like gold. Bitcoin is a currency that has no tangible resource dictating its value. Its value is based precisely in what people think it is worth (or will be worth). Currently, Bitcoin is not backed by gold, or any other finite resource, but what if it were?

Standpoint Research’s Ronnie Moas reported that there is $200 T tied to cash, stocks and bonds. He stated:

“I am not excited about putting my money into any of those – If 1% of that $200 trillion finds its way into crypto in the next 10 years, you will be looking at a 2 trillion-dollar valuation – 10 times what it is today”

A theme common with cryptocurrencies. People are investing on the whim that it “could be” massive.

Secondly, trading Bitcoin may become safer – and hence attract attention from more conservative hedge fund managers. The more investors, the more Bitcoin will grow. Last week, the world’s largest exchange operator by market value (CME Group) has announced it is readying plans to offer futures on Bitcoin.

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This will give momentum to cryptocurrencies’ move away from the fringes of finance. But more importantly, the Chicago–based trading venue said it intended to add Bitcoin to its stable of futures on interest rates, stock indices, commodities, and currencies by the end of the year.

If hedge fund managers can long and short different prices, they can hedge against volatility. Currently, Bitcoin does not allow this. If it were to, which the CME have suggested, then Bitcoin becomes more attractive to less risky investors – once again increasing the amount of investment, and the “normativity” of the currency.

These two points share something. Both signpost to us that Bitcoin is doing well because people think it will do even better in the future. The potentiality for the currency is very high. And, although now there is little tangibility to Bitcoin besides hope and (somewhat) empty prediction, it seems that in the near future Bitcoin could become a global phenomenon.

What can we learn from companies shutting down online stores?

Starbucks has recently shut down its online stores. As a pioneer in sales and marketing strategy, Starbucks may be telling us something about the way businesses will have to operate soon. Since jumping onto the Central Perk culture from hit TV-series – Friends, they have revolutionized food and beverage in the last few years by making customers pay and pre-order using their smartphones. Their culture of fast coffee purchases using smartphones was influential enough to inspire credit card companies to produce cards the contactless cards we all have today. Starbucks are always ahead of the game.

 

Starbucks has been a innovator of trends for the last decade
Starbucks has been a innovator of trends for the last decade

 

In the last few years, companies have shifted from high-street retailers to online websites, selling their goods using only their web-client as a means to interact. It is easier for the client, it is cheaper for the company, and it means that people have better access to goods and services. So why have Starbucks shut down their site and discontinued online selling?

Starbucks’ new campaign strives to get people to leave their houses and come into their stores as opposed to surfing their products at home. Their CEO stated that he wants Starbucks to be an “experiential destination.” Customers can surf the net and check out their products using the app, but cannot buy anything without entering a store. This means you can order a coffee on the app and pop in and grab it, but you cannot have anything sent to your house. There must always be some physical interaction with the brand.

This is an interesting move. Why is it that we are seeing this shift back to high street retailers? What is it that companies value in such strategic shifts? Firstly, it allows companies to compete with giants like Amazon, who have a large market share, and sell the products of others. When we think about it, Starbucks would be extinct if Amazon found a way to sell their coffee online. This revolution would hit Amazon hard if Starbucks managed to make a trend of “experiential destinations,” as Amazon do not have a place where customers can come in. If this becomes a trend, it will make companies with a physical presence shine.

Secondly, it makes their product more valuable. Nike and other fashion companies have saturated the market with their goods, they are no longer seen as special. The consumer engagement is lower and people care less and less about high-quality Nike products. They are also available on Amazon. It is more than likely that Nike will swiftly follow suit, and emulate the synthesis of internet marketing and in-store experience. This could be the future for all big companies that sell goods online.

If successful, this business model will have a significant impact any company whose business model is focused in online sales. It will give power back to retailers, and will hinder “middle men” like Amazon. But before all this, they are going to have to convince the world that experiential destinations are successful.

 

 

Starbucks is a place we can work in or relax
Starbucks is a place we can work in or relax

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in: Amazon, Nike, or Starbucks. Henry James International does not currently own a position in: Amazon, Nike, or Starbucks)

 

Does Apple’s New iPhone Launch Signpost A Slowing Of America’s Economy?

 

iphoneWith stock indexes reaching an all-time high, the big tech stocks – FANGs (Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX), Alphabet (GOOG), and Apple (AAPL)) – may have lost their mojo. The most recent setback to one of the major tech companies is Apple (AAPL). According to Barrons, their new iPhone and Apple Watch are not going to meet sales expectations.

The exact reasoning for APPL’s plummet in sales is relatively unclear, but we can gather something from recent international trade relations. Firstly, China has been investing less in the American economy year by year. This is not of direct fault of APPL, but of China’s decision to cut down on outsourcing and invest more in its own domestic products. The price of copper also took a hit earlier this month due to China’s moderating demands which shows it is not a tech-centred issue.

It has also been evident that the iPhone 8 has been subject to slander on all social media platforms. Every time the Facebook and Twitter community decide they do not like a product, it has a direct negative effect on the sales of that product. It symbolizes that their clients are not happy with their products. APPL have since admitted having poor sales. They have also publicly acknowledged problems with their watch.

Of course, just because one tech company is underperforming, we should not begin to worry about the future of the American Stock Market. However, when FANGs struggle, we cannot throw caution to the wind. These stocks represent a large portion of market capitalization, and it most definitely will be a concern for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq.

On the surface, the American market seems strong due to stock prices chugging higher, regardless of APPL’s recent decline. But analysts are persistently pointing toward a low reading of Chicago Board options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX). The VIX, commonly understood as the fear index, signposts to us the volatility of the market. If it is low, then there is little fear of for investors looking to invest. The index is currently high. This means, although stock prices are rising, the market at any second could be volatile. Risks that were once safe, become high-risk. It makes for an uncomfortable climate that investors tend to avoid.

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Apple’s sales to China have underperformed, but this should not necessarily spook investors. It means that other regions will have to outperform expectations. It is possible that demand is coming from elsewhere, and that due to the September hit on the Copper industry, Apple realized China would underperform regardless, and thus changed their target location. In other words, lower sales to China is not directly related to the outcome of the market. We could see a resurgence of APPL shares shortly, when the iPhone is released.

According to Michael Khan, APPL and FANGs decline does not spell the end for the American market. It seems that in the current financial climate, the failings of APPL’s most recent product is being supported by other facets of the market. The market could remain stable, bearing in mind its normal fluctuations. Unless there is some major political shift in congress, or a major international confrontation – everything should level itself out.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in: Amazon, Alphabet, Netflix, or Twitter; and Henry James International does not currently own a position in:. Amazon, Alphabet, Netflix, or Twitter)

(Please note: James O’Leary currently holds a position in Apple and Facebook; and Henry James International currently owns a position in Apple and Facebook ).

How France’s Economy is Growing and Reforming

France’s economy looks to be on the up recently, following growth in several areas over the first two quarters of 2017. Developments in the country’s employment rates, as President Macron makes steps towards reformation, may also lead towards positive growth for the country.

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The second largest economy in the Eurozone, France experienced economic growth of 1.9% in the second quarter, following the upward trend that was observed in the previous two quarters. One driver of this upward growth is a high level of foreign demand for French exports. Export levels increased by 10% in the second quarter of 2017, the highest level in four years, following a rise of only 3.4% in the first quarter. The increase in exports was nearly seven times higher than that of imports, which rose by 1.5% in the second quarter. Although also up by 2.7% in the second quarter, gross fixed capital investment growth was down on the first quarter when it hit 5.4%, its highest level since 2011.

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Progress is also being made in France’s labor market. President Macron has put measures in place in the hope of tackling the country’s growing unemployment issues. In a move to make it easier for companies to negotiate agreements in-house concerning employee wages and working conditions the labor reforms will limit the power of unions to a certain degree. Further efforts have been announced to encourage companies to offer more permanent contracts than they currently do with caps being placed on the payments that can be imposed during tribunals over unfair dismissals. Previously tribunals were able to set high rates of payments in unfair dismissals claims and the hope is, with these rates capped, fewer companies will offer temporary contracts to employees. In another attempt to raise employment levels the government intents to make changes to the unemployment benefits system and reduce payroll taxes. These steps, although controversial, should stimulate higher employment.

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As Macron’s policies are put into place it awaits to be seen how they will affect the employment sector. The outlook is generally positive with levels of unemployment falling, however, unions currently still hold a high level of power, working with employers to set national wage rates. The result is that, for many companies, the wages they pay their employees are out of line with productivity levels. Overall, the country appears to be in a period of upheaval, with upward economic growth over the past three quarters and positive developments within France’s employment sector.

Market Overview – Australia’s Recent Finance and Retail Activity

Recent financial developments in Australia have signalled overall positive growth in several sectors, including areas of technology and finance, while in the retail sector recent announcements may have negative impacts on national businesses in the short term.

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A recent dip in interest rates has eased up mortgage stress, with the number of mortgage holders in Australia considered “at risk”, dropping by 1.6% in the last year, from 744,000 to 660,000, making up 16.8% of all mortgage holders compared to the previous 18.4%. While this is a move in the right direction, those with lower incomes are still at a higher mortgage risk. Of mortgage holders with a household income over $100,000 per annum only 1% were considered to be “at risk” while this jumped to 85.3% of mortgage holders with an income of under $60,000. If interest rates continue in this downward trend fewer mortgage holders may be considered “at risk” however, an appreciation in interest rates will abruptly have the opposite affect.

The Australian state of Victoria is experiencing changes in another area of the financial sector with the release of development plans by the Victorian government, announcing the establishment of a fintech center in Melbourne. According to the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews the hope is that this will not only strengthen the Australian fintech sector by bringing together start-up companies with investors, researchers, and industry corporates in one work space, but that it will also create new jobs in the area. Technology is fast changing the way the financial sector works and the plans for this fintech hub will provide Victoria with the opportunity to win a bigger share of the industry.

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While developments with in the financial technology sector are positive, Amazon’s announcement of their $13.7 million bid for the grocery company Whole Foods has had a drastic effect on Australia’s retail sector. Supermarket company Woolworths experienced a drop in value of 3% while Metcash fell 1.7% and Wesfarmers, the operators of the supermarket chain Coles, dropped by 1% following the announcement. Companies in the electronic appliance field have also noticed depreciations as Amazon announced their bid to expand into the grocery sector. JB Hi-Fi is down 18% this year while Harvey Norman dropped 25%, and its stocks are down by 2%. Alongside the acquisition of Whole Foods, these drops are fuelled by Amazon’s intention to expand across Australia this year. Many analysts believe that this will have further negative effects on Australian companies, as Amazon eats into their earnings.

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(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Amazon, Whole Foods, Woolworths, Metcash, Wesfarmers, Coles, JB Hi-FI, or Harvey Norman. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Amazon, Whole Foods, Woolworths, Metcash, Wesfarmers, Coles, JB Hi-FI, or Harvey Norman. for any client portfolios).

Post-Election Economic Activity

The results of the UK general election on June 8th have left many factors in a state of uncertainty in Britain. The country has been left with a hung parliament, with the Conservatives only securing 318 seats of the 326 they needed to win a majority. This political result has had effects, both positive and negative, on areas of the economy and investment markets.

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Previous trends have shown that, when there is anticipated disturbance in the political sector, investments in commodities such as gold increase as people try to hedge their bets against economic losses. In the run up to the election, there was increase of 64% in people investing in gold for the first time, while numbers of financial professionals buying physical gold were up 49% in the week leading up to the vote.

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Following the announcement of a narrow Conservative win the sterling experienced a sudden drop of 2% in value against the dollar to $1.2683, its lowest level in two months though it regained a little ground back up to $1.27 on Friday the 9th. It is predicted that sterling will continue to experience some level of volatility in the short term.

While the election results have hit some areas of the economy negatively, others are thriving after the news. The FTSE 100 ended on the 8th of June up 1%, while the Stoxx Europe 600 experienced an increase of 0.3%. Global businesses, such as Diageo, Reckitt Benkiser, and Unilever also observed upward movement, all trading at around 1.5% higher by the 9th. Increased value of shares of exporting companies, which make up three quarters of the FTSE 100, are expected to do better as the weakened currency is likely to rise income earned abroad.

The narrowness of the Conservative win will have an impact on how the upcoming Brexit negotiations are carried out as well. Theresa May gambled the Conservative status as the ruling party in the hope of gaining an even stronger position in the negotiations however, this has backfired with no party having an overall majority in the UK parliament. The weakened Conservative position means that a more lenient Brexit deal may be agreed on as opposed to the “hard” Brexit that May hoped for, with no trade deal.

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As the Conservative party enters into discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) about a possible coalition, economic uncertainty may continue. This coalition would see the DUP adding their 10 parliamentary seats to the Conservative seats, giving the party the majority it needs to pass legislation, and gain a stronger hold over the Brexit negotiations.

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence

Manifestations of artificial intelligence (AI) stretch back as far as Greek mythology however, it has only taken off in a huge way in recent years. As interest in this field grows more, big-name companies, such as Google, Yahoo, Apple, Intel, and IBM are competing to acquire private AI technology development companies, with nearly 140 companies having been acquired already. Market research firm Tractica has predicted that spending on AI will grow from $640 million in 2016 to $37 billion by 2025.

A front runner in the development of AI has been the UK, where London-based venture capital company Octopus Ventures first invested in the natural knowledge answer engine Evi (now the technology behind Amazon’s Echo) in 2008. The firm continues to be an active investor in AI, selling products, such as the app Swiftkey, to high profile companies like Microsoft. Octopus Venture’s Investment Director, Luke Hakes, believes that their AI successes are why the UK is now the inspiration for other countries in how AI can be commercialised, and this growing interest will have the effect of more funding being put into AI companies.

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As well as seeing the AI market itself grow exponentially, other companies are experiencing growth off the back of AI’s success. Companies who develop and make chip technology have seen a revival as the demand for new AI products had prompted the need for chips tuned to carry out very specific functions, and with the ability to store and synthesise information in novel ways. Companies such as Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, and Nvidia have all benefited from this growth, with Nvidia’s latest quarterly results stating that it has nearly tripled sales of chips to data centers involved in AI. 21% of the company’s revenue is now from computing tasks that include AI, amounting to $409 million for the last quarter.

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Growth in this sector is being spurred on as well-established companies implement AI technologies to enhance their user experience. Facebook has developed its own AI program, DeepText, that analyses posts to understand the context of them, recognises faces in photos to make it quicker to tag people, and is even able to identify people and their voices in video content. Outside of the online sector, much research is being carried out into the use of AI in the transport field. By 2035 around 76 million vehicles with some level of autonomy will be in use, comprising a market that will be worth $77 billion.

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Although much of the development into these technologies is relatively new, investment in AI seems to be strong and stable, with a predicted steady increase in the future.

(Please note: James O’Leary does not currently hold a position in Google, Twitter, Intel, IBM, Advanced Micro Devices or Nvidia. Henry James International does not currently own a position in Google, Twitter, Intel, IBM, Advanced Micro Devices or Nvidia for any client portfolios. James O’Leary does currently hold a position in Apple. Henry James International does currently own a position in Apple).

pixaAll content in this blog represents the opinion of James O’Leary

Discount December – Sales this Christmas Season

Happy New Year! 2017 is here, the holidays are over, and many of us are slowly getting back into work. The festive season may simply be a welcome break for millions of Americans, but it is a crucial time for the economy, a chance to up sales and make money in the last few weeks of the year. So how did Christmas 2016 perform financially?

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This year, the retail industry was taking no chances, with early sales and pre-Christmas deals set to catch the organised and the last-minute shopper alike. Up until the day itself, stores across America were offering discounts and promotions in a bid to prop up their bottom line and avoid, if possible, profit-margin-destroying left-over inventory post-festivities. This reflects a growing discipline among retailers, with many larger stores acting more quickly to close failing branches and only stocking as much inventory as they expect to sell.

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And it is a tactic which seems to have paid off. The National Retail Federation originally predicted an uptick in both online and in-store sales of 3.6%, but this week companies such as Customer Growth Partners estimate the holiday sales growth as being as high as 4.9% for 2016. A recent Wall Street Journal report states that 2016 may have been the best shopping year for retailers since 2005, when sales increased by 6.1%.

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This boost is credited to a combination of late-season and internet shopping, the latter of which increased by an estimated 19% over the holidays, according to a survey carried out by MasterCard. This may be good for the country’s sales overall, but department stores in particular have been badly hit by the public’s new preference for buying online. Retailers made a record $79.2bn from online sales between November 1st and December 20th, an increase of more than 10% on last year’s numbers. According to Accenture’s Annual Holiday Shopping survey, this year 84% of people said they planned to check Amazon before buying elsewhere – a trend which looks likely to grow in 2017.

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So, in spite of the more than $1 trillion spent in this year’s holiday sales, the consumer’s love for –  and often expectation of – a bargain, and the growing reliance on online stores to provide this could mean industry-defining changes for retail in 2017.

For questions about this, or any other financial matters, please reach out to us over Twitter or get in touch via telephone on 917-951-5170 or by email at info@hj-intl.com.

December Debt – The Price of Christmas in 2016

With less than a week to go until Christmas, many families and industries are going into overdrive in an effort to have everything ready for the holidays. Last week saw freezing temperatures across much of the US, in contrast with a warmly welcomed recovery from the oil and gas sector. Good news too for the financial sector, with Novembers Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey showing fund managers’ allocations to banking stocks had leapt up, with a net 31% overweight, up from net 25% last month. But how is this Christmas going to be financially for the average Joe? Studies suggest the outlook may be quite different.

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According to global performance-management company, Gallup, the average American adult will spend around $785 on gifts this Christmas, up from the $728 they planned to spend in 2015. This fits in with the gradual upward trajectory in Christmas spending seen over the last few years, but is still a long way off from the $900 average seen just before the recession hit. These are, however, only average spends, 54% of those who took the Gallup survey said they planned to spend between $500 and $1000 this Christmas.

Last year 78% of those buying gifts for Christmas did not expect to borrow to fund these purchases, but this year it may be a different story. In a poll run earlier this year by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research it was discovered that two thirds of Americans say they would have difficulty in find $1000 to cover an emergency, even in higher-income households. So, where are Americans finding this money to cover Christmas gifts?

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An article published on NerdWallet this week states that overall US household debt has grown by 11% in the last decade, with a considerable chunk of that being credit card debt. Another article in Magnify Money from January last year claimed that holiday debt added almost $1000 to American households’ debt.

And for those Americans who do not use their credit card, there are a pool of loan companies who go into overdrive to offer Christmas loans to families to help cover their holiday expenses. These tend to be glorified payday loans with extortionate rates of interest, which may leave individuals in so much debt that they are still paying it off next Christmas. What it means to be building an American Christmas on debt remains to be seen. Let’s hope that the USA achieves a 3% GDP rate of growth in 2017 and that middle-class America receives the gift that an expanding economy gives – an increase in disposable income and a brighter future.

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For questions regarding anything in this article, or all other investment matters, please do not hesitate to reach out to us via telephone on 917-951-5170 or by email at info@hj-intl.com.