sales of iphone 4Of all the canards, snares, delusions, and misinformation about markets designed to put the investor on the wrong foot, to increase the flow and likelihood of resources from those at the bottom of the web to the top, surely one of the most destructive is the idea that sales are more important than earnings, an idea that seems to have the market in its grip. The reaction of IBM to an increase in earnings above estimate of 8% and sales below estimate by 6%, with the stock dropping 5% is just one horse from that dump heap.

Same thing happened to General Silo when it announced great earnings but sales declined. Must make all these proud CEO's shake their heads in disbelief when they tell their boards that they can't believe that the stock is down when they're doing so well, and their every sale is at a profit and they are only selling profitable products rather than just selling anything they can to get cash.

Indeed, the first item reported now from the traditional income statement announcement is the sales number versus the corresponding quarter, and the surprise factor of sales. Compilations of companies that beat the bogey for sales are now almost as numerous and useless as those for earnings.

Sales are the easiest thing in the world to manipulate. From economics, the buyers have a demand curve for a product, with alternate uses and utilities for it. The marginal utility of each additional unit decreases. At a low price, they will use it and buy it for many uses. For example, the traditional explanation in Heyne where water is used for plants and baths at low prices but only for drinking at a high price.

From a practical standpoint, every business person knows a million ways to increase sales at the expense of profits. you can sell to bad credit risks. You can dump inventory at close to cost. You can offer discounts for bulk orders or pre orders. You can reduce the price and ask your customers to store it for a rainy day or some other use. You can sell to a wholesaler or distributer instead of the ultimate customer, especially for a price. You can justs turn over your product to your customers with a "I'll take 5% on this. Just enough to keep me going". Or you can produce a higher quality product with better terms and tell the customers what a bargain they're getting by taking it out of your hide. Or you can buy a division or company to expand sales, or work off your inventory to change the number.

Indeed there's no item in the expense or revenue side of the income statement that can't be manipulated to increase sales. From a value standpoint, the stockholders desire an increase in wealth, not an increase in sales. What gives them wealth is earnings, not sales.

Okay, where do all these crazy reactions to sales come from? There must be some academic study, doubtless done with retrospective data that shows that sales provides information. And some earnings aggregator sellers must have shown that sales is a important signal with data from one of the retrospective data files that are so misleading and cause so much havoc. Or perhaps there was one period with a turning point where style investing based on sales had some information value.

Of course, companies are very smart, and it's so much easier to manipulate sales than earnings because you don't have to have the complicity of the accountants or move one item on the balance sheet to never never land to change sales. So even if sales were once of reasonable signaling value, now they will be changed in cycles in the typical Baconian way, and of course the public will be behind the form even more than usual.

But in the interim, what a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of this ridiculous malarkey and the reactions of stocks thereto.

The funny thing is what must go on before the release of the income statements these days. The insider and the outside flexions for the big companies must keep the earnings in the hip for a few weeks on a need to know basis only with smug satisfaction that they have beat the guidances they gave out to the analysts and the favored institutions and that they have pulled the wool over the eyes of the accountants to a reasonable degree to pull the earnings into the right territory. Then the horrible realization must come that they forgot to run a sale of buy that division before the quarter occurred and the sales numbers actually show something below the bogey must arise, and their smug satisfaction turns to the agonizing thought that even though business is great, they're going to have to do a lot of explaining to the board as to why the stock is down. 

Paolo Pezzutti comments:

There are also other ways to try and increase sales and earnings at all costs. Apple is in my view the last example of a company which is struggling to keep up growth prospects at all costs. And the bigger the company becomes the more difficult it is. The problem of the antenna of the iPhone indicates that they did not give enough time to their engineers to test and make sure technically it was all fine…because of the hurry to come out with something new as soon as possible. Eventually, however, this approach to customers might painful. Hopefully they understood. 

Ken Drees asks:

Do consumers get conditioned over time that products need fixes and patches and it's just the way it works in tech– so no problem–send me a carrying case and a patch and we love Apple just the same?

Plus, Apple prices their new stuff way high on debut and people can't get enough of it and then they lower prices to get sales goosed–which pisses off the early buyers yet they seem to forgive next time around.

Also, what is your general opinion on dividends? In my market lifetime, dividends were always poo-poohed and shunned as a way to lose capital. Friends in business always reinforced that concept the putting money back into the company was more prudent. However in my father's lifetime dividends were an important investment consideration and if the dividend was solid or not, or if it grew each year and thereby showed business health. High dividend taxation rates affect investor sentiment about holding div paying stocks. The repeal of tax cuts in Jan will hike div tax rates. I wonder how retired people structure their investments to throw off income these days–bonds don't pay much, energy patch only real div sector that comes to mind.

You can't fake a dividend. 

Rocky Humbert comments:

Ken: You are correct in all of your statements about dividends. However, while you cannot "fake" a dividend, you can "cut" a dividend.
The interaction between dividends and taxes, dividends and management stock options, dividends and corporate cash balances/reinvestment are well understood. Also understood is that fact that a substantial portion of total market returns can be attributed to REINVESTED dividends.

Notwithstanding this, whether you cut a pizza into 8 slices or 7 slices doesn't change the size of the pizza. However, if you have eight friends over for dinner, serving 8 slices makes you look like a good host. Whereas serving 7 slices makes you look like a miser. This illustrates nicely the investor preference for dividends from time-to-time. If you don't ever have friends over for dinner, it shouldn't matter….

One thing that is poorly appreciated– and which I encourage you to consider– is the relationship between dividends and the "duration" (to use bond parlance) of an investors' stock portfolio. Here's an example: If you buy the 7-1/4% treasury bond of May 2016 at a price of 129, the duration is 4.9 and the convexity is 0.29. Whereas if you buy the 2.625% of April 2016 at a price of 103, the duration is 5.32 and the convexity is 0.32. So, the lower coupon bond has more duration and convexity even though it's a slightly shorter maturity date and has essentially the same Yield-to-Maturity. I'm sure the quants out there will find fault with this analogy, but I believe there's a similar effect in stock portfolios.

Jim Lackey comments:

No they are not Mr. Vic.. mid quarter updates– TXN or IBM or any of them– say all good, and why stocks gap so much is insider selling and we all know it. It's not all that bad as they raise the full year outlooks and TXN book TI bill ratios fall as a certain handset maker is on the ropes. But the joke is now vs 99 they can contract out manufacturing and ramp up and down production so fast all the old school book to bills or updates are well, perhaps useless. But a few still have their own factories, and if they buy new fabs from Klac LRCX or Nvls… I don't know how it's bearish in the time frame your looking at, but AMAT is all in Solar and that reminds me of used car sales, and one guy on the internet who went to a solar show and he said it reminded him of used car salesman and I thought good! Perhaps some sales will get done.  

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Samuel Butler scandalized his readers by suggesting that the banking system of Britain had replaced the C of E as the national church. I think he would have been bemused to find that the language of finance has now become completely theological, that wisdom takes expression in the form of discussions about "decent" returns on capital, etc. I know Butler would have laughed out loud at the discovery that in the 3rd millennium mankind had reached the point where money itself could only be discussed in terms of its moral meanings and the words "sinister" and "deflation" could seem perfectly compatible usage in a single sentence.

From Mr. Butler's pen:

"MANKIND has ever been ready to discuss matters in the inverse ratio of their importance, so that the more closely a question is felt to touch the hearts of all of us, the more incumbent it is considered upon prudent people to profess that it does not exist, to frown it down, to tell it to hold its tongue, to maintain that it has long been finally settled, so that there is now no question concerning it."

" I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy."

"Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises."

Those of us who do own companies - not just as thought experiments but as our accursed fate - truly envy Rocky his ability to find answers in the current MBA Book of Common Prayer; what we see on the street in California right now is that the only current action is being handled by the Lackeys and the few other over-traders who have never had the luxury of being able to ignore the current bid. Everything else is talk combined with (1) belief that the "cycle" will somehow continue as the Emperor peddles along on his imported energy-saving machine and (2) a desperate eagerness to get to the next meeting with the representatives of the official church.


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