There seems to be positive news on a number of fronts in the media universe, but the stocks seem to discount much of it.
Consider that the traditional media stocks all under- performed the general market in the latest quarter, with Publishing stocks down 12.7%, Radio down 5.4% and Television up a modest 3.0%, versus a 7.2% advance by the general market as measured by the S&P 500 Index, which hit new highs.
The gain in the TV stocks could be viewed as disappointing given the favorable industry developments in the latest quarter, including the prospect for heightened M&A activity, which has been a key driver for past TV stock performance.
What is happening? We believe that investors are not buying into the future and only trading on positive news. In our view, investors appear to be wary of looking too far into a future, possibly fearing an economic recession at some point. Certainly, the current economic recovery is in its 111th month, one of the longest recoveries in history. While it currently appears possible that this recovery may surpass the record 120-month recovery in the 1990s, it is not surprising that investors have a cautious eye on cyclical investments given the late stage of this economic cycle.
We would encourage investors to be cautious on investing in highly levered stocks and focus on companies with strong balance sheets. As such, investors should prune here and there and make investments selectively to strengthen portfolios. In our view, it is very likely that there will be a trading mentality in Media stocks, especially driven by news, in coming months. While we remain constructive, we encourage to be selective.
OUTLOOK - TRADITIONAL MEDIA
Political break through
Television stocks got a lift in the quarter from positive news on the regulatory front. The appeals court declined to overturn the FCC’s decision to reimpose the “UHF discount” rule. This rule allows broadcasters to count 1⁄2 of the market population of a station on a UHF band. Everyone knows the real motive of the implementation of the UHF Discount rule: it was to circumvent the current 39% ownership cap of US Television Households. As we stated before, we believe that the FCC would like to get rid of the antiquated rule, even though the courts allow it. The interest of the FCC is likely to lift ownership caps, which we believe it will do upon the recommendation of the Quadrennial Media Review, which we expect early next year. Once this is completed, we believe that the FCC will seek to do away with the UHF discount rule. Nonetheless, the recent FCC move highlighted the prospect of continued industry consolidation and M&A activity in the TV group, which has been a key driver for TV stocks.
In the very near term, however, we believe that TV stocks will be driven by additional favorable news. In our view, we believe that there are positive upside surprises, largely driven by the significant influx of political advertising. Many broadcasters were initially cautious about the level of political advertising spend this year given the lackluster level of political advertising in 2016. As such, many broadcasters indicated that political advertising may be roughly the levels of 2014. Notably, a number of broadcasters have now indicated that political is coming in fast and furious, indicating that political advertising may be as much as 50% higher or more than 2014 levels. Notably, political advertising carries very high margins, 80% to 90%. Consequently, we believe that the upcoming third and fourth quarters likely will have positive upside surprises on revenues, cash flow and earnings. With a favorable backdrop of heightened M&A and positive upside surprises on fundamentals, we believe that there is upside in the coming months in the TV stocks.
The view from Orlando
Radio executives converged in Orlando, September 25-28th for the annual industry trade convention, the NAB Radio Show. The backdrop for this confab was lackluster fundamentals for the industry in the first half, which were down in revenues on average 3%. We believe that there were two significant themes from the conference: 1) radio’s interest in becoming a player in the data driven advertising marketplace, and, 2) the prospect of lifting ownership rules.
There was a lot of buzz around radio’s development into data driven analytics and, specifically, around the data analytic firm, Analytic Owl. This service monitors radio advertising and determines an advertiser’s traffic lift on its web site shortly following the airing of the ad. While the solution is not ideal, it does allow the industry to be competitive with data driven advertising.
On the second front, industry execs seemed very excited about the prospect of lifting radio ownership rules. In our view, that prospect could be delivered in the FCC’s Quadrennial Media Review. Assuming that the Quadrennial Media Review would be delivered in the Spring of next year, it may take the end of 2019 before radio ownership rules could be lifted, if at all. The problem is that not everyone in the industry agrees with the proposed rules that the NAB and some industry leaders have agreed upon. The NAB suggestion to the FCC is to allow a company to own 8 FM stations in the top 75 markets, with no ownership limits on markets smaller than the top 75.
In addition, AM stations would not be counted against ownership limits. This would be a significant change from the current rule which allows 8 stations in the top markets, but only 5 can be AM or FM. In addition, in the smaller markets, only two stations can be owned, one AM and one FM. We believe that industry consolidation is likely to continue given the secular pressures on the industry. It also appears likely that there will be a lot of station swapping to take advantage of the economies from in market consolidation. While selective with our recommendations, we remain constructive on the industry.
Clearing the decks
The publishing industry seems to be preparing for the next economic downturn by shoring up balance sheets and lengthening debt maturities. Gannett (GCI: Rated Outperform) completed a $175 million, convertible notes offering in the latest quarter, which provides significant flexibility for the company to seek acquisition fueled growth. Notably, McClatchy (MNI: Rated Market Perform) recently refinanced and extended debt maturities by roughly 3 1⁄2 years, with interest costs largely at the same level it is currently paying.
The most notable company that recently made an aggressive step to reduce liabilities was tronc (TRNC: Rated Outperform), which will be renamed as Tribune Publishing Company, effective October 9th. The company recently sold its Los Angeles Times newspaper and California papers for a significant $500 million in cash. This allowed tronc to largely pay off its long-term debt, significantly reduce its unfunded pension liabilities, and maintain a large cash balance of over $100 million.
Not surprisingly, this move has heightened interest in the company as a takeover target. The recent speculation in news articles indicate that McClatchy Company (MNI: Rated Market Perform) may be interested in a merger. This would make sense. McClatchy is among the highest debt levered in the industry, currently 4.9 times debt to cash flow. A possible merger may allow the company to de-lever to roughly 3 times debt to cash flow on a “Newco” basis. The industry’s focus on getting its debt in order is a good move. Investors remember the last cycle when banks were unwilling to lend.
We believe that the publishing industry is among the most at risk for an economic downturn given the relatively high infrastructure cost of the business. As such, we encourage investors to focus on companies that appear to have favorable balance sheets and haves a favorable trajectory for its digital transition.
OUTLOOK – INTERNET AND DIGITAL MEDIA
INTERNET AND DIGITAL MEDIA
Data at the Center of Recent M&A Deals
M&A in the digital media and marketing sectors continued to be robust, with several large transactions announced during the quarter. The largest announced deals in the digital media/marketing sectors were Adobe’s $4.5 billion acquisition of Marketo, SiriusXM’s $3.3 billion acquisition of Pandora, and IPG’s $2.3 billion acquisition of Acxiom’s core data management business (IPG is not acquiring Acxiom’s LiveRamp business). Several of the largest deals in the sector revolved around data, analytics, and automation. For example, Adobe claims the Marketo deal will bring together its own analytics, content, personalization, advertising and commerce capabilities with Marketo’s lead management and account based B2B marketing tech. The two companies share a belief in the ability of content and data to drive business results. Marketo’s former COO stated that “adding Marketo to the Adobe product lineup is as much about data as it is about functionality”. The Marketo deal is seen by many as an effort by Adobe to take on Salesforce (which bought ExactTarget) and Oracle (which bought Eloqua) in the enterprise marketing space.
The IPG/Acxiom Marketing Services (AMS) acquisition was also a data driven deal. AMS brings anonymized data on 2.2 billion consumers and 1,600 data and analytics experts to IPG. IPG was already working closely with AMS and using Acxiom’s cross platform IDs to inform IPG’s media planning and buying process. IPG has always worked with first party data but the Acxiom acquisition enables IPG to activate data at scale in a privacy compliant manner, that it couldn’t do on its own. IPG’s CEO stated that “AMS provides IPG with the deepest set of capabilities for helping companies navigate the complexity of creating personalized brand experiences across every consumer touchpoint.”
Another data-centric deal was Salesforce’s $800 million acquisition of Datorama, a leading cloud-based, AI-powered marketing intelligence and analytics platform for enterprises. Datorama works with over 3,000 global agencies and brands to help them optimize their marketing campaigns, automate reporting, and make data-driven decisions faster. Salesforce expects that “with one unified view of data and insights, companies can make smarter decisions across the entire customer journey and optimize engagement at scale.”
INTERNET AND DIGITAL MEDIA COMMENTARY
Audio Companies Catch a Bid
The third quarter of 2018 was also notable for an increase in audio related acquisitions. In addition to SiriusXM’s acquisition of Pandora, we would note iHeartMedia’s $55 million acquisition of Stuff Media, a leading podcast company. The combination of iHeart and Stuff Media’s podcast programs create the 2nd largest podcasting programming company in the U.S. (based on monthly uniques), behind only NPR. Finally, we’d note Veritone’s $11 million acquisition of Performance Bridge Media, a podcast agency. Clearly, the on-demand audio marketplace seems to have gained the requisite scale and growth to garner attention from acquirers.
Digital Marketing/Advertising Stocks Continue to Perform Well
Through the first nine months of the year, stocks in the ad tech, marketing tech, and digital media sectors significantly outperformed the S&P 500 (which was up 9% through the end of September) posting returns of 67%, 53%%, and 23%, while the social media sector was down 5%. Our indices are market-cap weighted, and the ad tech sector benefited from the sector’s largest stock, The Trade Desk, which was up 230%. On the other end of the spectrum, Facebook (-7%) and Snap (-42%) dragged down the social media index.
Marketing tech stock are significantly outperforming the broader market year-to-date. The strong performance in the sector runs very deep, with several stock up more than 50% YTD, including LivePerson (+126%), Yext (+97%), Cardlytics (+93%), Hubspot (+71%), Salesforce (+56%), Adobe (+54%) and SendGrid (+54%). The group currently trades at a robust 7.3x 2018E revenues.
Year-to-date, the FAANG stocks are up 42%, led by led by Netflix (+95%), Amazon (+71%), Apple (+33%) and Alphabet (+15%), with only Facebook (-7%) underperforming the broader market.