The next billion phone users will be buying $10 smart feature phones, not $1000 iPhones

Smartphone sales plateaued in Q3, down 9% since Q3 2017’s peak of 1.55bn, as the chart shows.  But the bigger threat from smart feature phones – now retailing for as little as $11 – continues to grow as Reliance and Vodacom launch new models in India and Africa.

Smartphone sales are also seeing important shifts in market shares:

  • Samsung has never recovered its 32% share in 2013 and is now around 21%
  • Apple’s share has slid gently downwards from 18% in Q4 2016 to 12% today
  • Low-cost Chinese companies, particularly Huawei, have been the big winners

The Top 3 Chinese companies’ share has nearly trebled from 12% in 2013 to 34% today.  And Huawei has gone from just 5% in 2013 to 18% in the same period.

This has important consequences, and not just for the smartphone market.  President Trump has been attacking Huawei on grounds of national security, but consumers outside the USA – where Huawei has only a small presence – clearly like their phones. And it is hard for European or other governments to ban Huawei from major telecoms contracts, if their citizens are happily using Huawei phones.

This may, of course, change if Huawei continues to lose access to the latest Google versions of Android. But for the moment, at least, the US pressure has fired up nationalist support in China itself, where its market share reached 42% in Q3. Apple, meanwhile, saw its Chinese market share fall to just 5% in Q3 – a far cry from the days when it was the No 1 aspirational buy.

Apple’s issue remains its decision to focus only on the high end of the market. This worked well when it was perceived as having the “best phones”. But today, aside from Apple aficionados, it is hard to find many consumers who believe Apple offers features that other phones lack. And on that basis, it makes little sense to pay the vast premium being demanded for the brand image.

The writing has been on the wall for smartphone pricing for some time, as the Statista chart confirms.  The average global price peaked as long ago as 2011 at nearly $350 ($400 in $2019).  Since then, it has almost halved in inflation-adjusted terms to $215 today.

As I noted back in 2015, when Apple was riding high, it was inevitably going to have to introduce cheaper models to maintain market share.  But instead it chose to “double up” on the luxury end of the market, putting profit ahead of volume.  Last year’s decision to stop reporting unit sales for its key products was therefore no great surprise, given that no company wants to be always reporting bad news.

In turn, of course, this has driven a growing disconnect between the stock price and Apple’s revenue growth, as the chart shows. Between 2016-2018, they moved in line in terms of percentage change. Revenue has flatlined since Q3 2018’s peak of $266bn, whilst profit has fallen 3% due to declining iPhone sales.

But investors continue to bid up the stock price from its low of $142 at the start of the year to $260 today. Technical indicators confirm it as a ‘strong buy’, but as common sense would suggest, also warn that the stock is highly over-bought:

  • Of course, Apple might be able to repeat its iPhone success in its new target areas of wearables and services
  • But its decision to undercut the $1099 iPhone 11 Pro Max with a $699 version suggests volume is still important after all

One day, as I noted back in August, investors may start to realise that low cost smart feature phones with a 4G connection are the new growth area.  Reliance’s Jio service is now offering them in India for just Rs 800 ($11), half the original 2017 launch price, whilst Vodacom South Africa is also offering them att Zar 299 ( $20).

The next billion users are more likely to be buying these than iPhones. Suppliers to the industry might want to rethink their current strategies.  At some point, perhaps not too far away, consumers in western countries might also start to realise these can provide most – if not all – of the features that they really need.

 

Companies ignore the Perennials 55+ generation at their peril

Nearly a third of the the world’s High Income population are now in the Perennials 55+ generation.

Yet companies mostly ignore their needs – assuming that all they want are walking sticks and sanitary pads.  Instead, they continue to focus on the relatively declining number of younger people.

No wonder many companies are going bankrupt, and many investors are seeing their portfolios struggle.  As the chart shows:

  • The High Income group accounts for nearly two-thirds of the global economy
  • It includes everyone with an income >$12k/year, equal to $34/day
  • 31% of those in the world’s High Income population are now Perennials aged 55+
  • In other words, High Income Perennials account for a fifth of the global economy

This is a vast change from 1950, when most people still died around pension age.  But it seems very few people have realised what has happened.  When we talk about the global population expanding, we all assume this means more babies being born.  But in fact, 422m of the 754m increase in population between now and 2030 will be Perennials – only 120m will be under-25s.

It is therefore no surprise that central bank stimulus policies have failed.  Rather than focusing on this growth sector, they have instead slashed interest rates to near-zero.  But, of course, this has simply destroyed the spending power of the Perennials, as the incomes from their savings collapsed.

If the central banks had been smarter, they would have junked their out-of-date models long ago.  They would have instead encouraged companies to wake up to this new opportunity, and create new products and services to meet their needs.  Instead, companies and most investors have also continued to look backwards, focusing on the growth markets of the past.

The Perennials are the great growth opportunity of our time. Their needs are more service-based than product-focused – they want mobility,  for example, but aren’t so bothered about actually owning a car.  But it’s not too late to get on board with the opportunity, as the number of Perennials is going to continue to grow, thanks to the marvel of increased life expectancy.

I explore this opportunity in more detail in a new podcast with Will Beacham – please click here to download it.

Auto markets set for major disruption as Electric Vehicle sales reach tipping point

Major disruption is starting to occur in the world’s largest manufacturing industry.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs will likely be lost in the next few years in auto manufacturing and its supply chains, as consumers move over to Electric Vehicles (EVs).

As the chart from Idaho National Laboratory confirms, EVs have relatively few parts – less than 20 in the drive-train, for example – versus 2000 for internal combustion engines (ICEs).  There is much less to go wrong, so many servicing jobs will also disappear.

The auto industry itself was the product of such a paradigm shift in the early 19th century, when the horse-drawn industry mostly went out of business.  Now it is seeing its own shift, as battery costs start to reach the critical $100/kWh levels at which EVs become cheaper to own and operate than ICEs.

Unfortunately, this paradigm shift is coming at a time when global sales and profits are already falling. As the chart shows, sales were down 5.4% in January-August in the Top 7 markets versus 2018. And in the Top 6 markets, outside China, they were only 4% higher than in 2007, highlighting the industry’s current over-dependence on China:

  • India is suffering the most, with sales down 15% this year
  • But China’s woes matter most as it is the largest global market; its sales were down 13%
  • Europe was down 3% YTD, but on a weakening trend with August down 8%
    • All the major countries were negative in August, with Spain down 31%
  • Russia was down 2%, despite the economic boost provided by today’s relatively high oil prices
  • The USA and Japan were marginally positive, up 0.4% and 0.6% respectively
  • Only Brazil was showing strong growth at 9%, but was still down 28% versus its 2011 peak

EV sales, like those of used cars, are heading in the opposite direction. China currently accounts for 2/3rds of global EV sales and sold nearly 1.3m EVs in 2018 (up 62% versus 2017). They may well take 50% of the Chinese market by 2025, as the government is now focused on accelerating the transition via the rollout of a national charging network.

Interestingly, it seems that Europe is likely to emerge as the main challenger to China in the global EV market. The US has Tesla, which continues to attract vast investment from Wall Street, but it is only expected to produce a maximum of 400k cars this year. Europe, however, is ramping up EV output very fast as the Financial Times chart confirms:

  • The left-hand scale shows EV prices v range (km) for EVs being released in Europe
  • The right-hand scale shows the dramatic acceleration in EV launches in 2019-21

One key incentive is the manufacturers’ ability to use EV sales to gain “super-credits” in respect of the new mandatory CO2 emission levels. These are now very valuable given the loss of emission credits due to the collapse of diesel sales.

2020 is the key year for these “super-credits” as they are the equivalent of 2 cars, before scaling down to 1.67 cars in 2021 and 1.33 cars in 2022.  Every gram of CO2 emissions above 95g/km will incur a fine of €95/car sold. And as Ford’s CEO has noted:

“There’s only going to be a few winners who create the platforms for the future.”

VW NOW HAVE BATTERY COSTS AT BELOW $100/kWh
VW is likely to be one of the Winners in the new market.  It is planning an €80bn spend to produce 70 EV models based on standardised motors, batteries and other components.  This will enable it to reduce costs and accelerate the roll-out:

  • Its new new flagship ID.3 model will go on sale next year at a typical mid-market price of €30k ($34k)
  • Having disrupted that market segment, it will then expand into cheaper models
  • And it expects a quarter of its European sales to run on battery power by 2025.

The key issue, of course, is battery cost. $100/kWh is the tipping point at which it becomes cheaper to run an EV than an ICE. And now VW are claiming to have achieved this for the ID.3 model.

Once this becomes clearly established, EV sales will enter a virtuous circle, as buyers realise that the resale value of ICE models is likely to fall quite sharply.  Diesel cars have already seen this process in action as a result of the “dieselgate” scandal – they were just 31% of European sales in Q2, versus 52% in 2015 .

One other factor is likely to prove critical. The media hype around Tesla has led to an assumption that individuals will lead the transition to battery power.  But in reality, fleet owners are far more likely to transition first:

  • They have a laser-like focus on costs and often operate on relatively regular routes in city centres
  • They don’t have the “range anxiety” of private motorists and can easily recharge overnight in depots

The problem for auto companies, their investors and their supply chain, is that the disruption caused by the paradigm shift will create a few Winners – and many Losers – as Ford warned. 

Those who delay making the investments required are almost certain to become Losers.  The reason is simple – if today’s decline in auto sales accelerates, as seems likely,  the investment needed for EVs will simply become unaffordable for many companies.

 

 

Smartphone sales continue their decline, whilst $25 smart feature phones open up new markets

Global smartphone sales have now been falling for 8 consecutive quarters, since Q3 2017. They are now down 9% from their peak, as the chart shows, based on Strategy Analytics data.  As always in a falling market, Winners and Losers are staring to appear:

LOSERS

  • Apple’s market share fell to its lowest level for 10 years at just 11%; revenue and profit are falling
  • Samsung’s Q2 profits fell 56%, hit by Galaxy Fold problems plus Japan-Korea and US-China trade wars
  • Smartphones themselves are losing ground to smart feature phones that retail for just $25

WINNERS

  • China’s Huawei, Xiaomi and OPPO now have a combined 35% market share, double their Q2 2014 share
  • Huawei’s Operating System is being readied to compete with Android, as the US-China trade war continues
  • 85 million smart feature phones, developed for Reliance’s Jio telecom company will likely be sold this year

As discussed here before, the Western majors have failed to recognise this paradigm shift in the market.  Cash-strapped consumers are no longer prepared to pay $1000+ for the prestige of an up-market brand, as analysts IDC note:

“A key driver in Q2 was the availability of vastly improved mid-tier devices that offer premium designs and features while significantly undercutting the ultra-high-end in price”.

President Trump’s new China tariffs will, of course, create further problems for Apple and Google as these will:

  • Push up prices in the US domestic market and hit consumer demand in the critical Thanksgiving/Christmas period
  • Galvanise Huawei’s development of its new Operating System – helping it to become a major competitor in the global market

COMPANIES ARE FOCUSING ON THE WRONG MARKETS

But the really critical issue for most smartphone sellers is their continued focus on the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group. This was a great strategy during the Boomer-led SuperCycle, as there were vast numbers of Western Boomers with money to spend and a liking for innovative products. But not today, as the chart above confirms:

  • Increasing life expectancy means the Perennials 55+ generation is now the fastest growing segment
  • There were 500m Perennials in the Top 10 economies in 2000, and their numbers will double by 2030
  • And they represent an entirely different market opportunity

Perennials don’t need ever-more complicated “bells and whistles” on their phones.  They just want the basic features, clearly laid out. And they need their phones to be affordable, as their incomes decline as they move into retirement.

Equally important is the other major untapped market for growth –  the 3.4bn people in the world who currently don’t own a smartphone and can’t afford one.  As the Wall Street Journal has reported:

“Smart feature phones aren’t only inexpensive, but they also have physical keypads that are less intimidating than touch screens for those new to the technology. Meanwhile, their batteries last for days, a bonus in places where electricity is unreliable”.

These phones represent a major threat to smartphone sellers, and their supply chains around the world:

  •  As Reliance’s Jio network found after launching in 2016, millions of Indians could afford its ultra-cheap data plan, but couldn’t afford a smartphone
  • Many people in the developed world, old and young, would happily swap an over-complicated smartphone selling for an average $300+ for a more basic feature phone selling for $25

Already apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp have been modified to work on feature phones, further extending their appeal.  Google has also invested in Hong Kong’s KaiOS, which makes the operating system most widely used in feature phones.

The Orange network is also starting to realise the potential. It is rolling out cheap data services on the Jio model in the Ivory Coast, and plans to extend service elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile Indonesia’s WizPhone is about to offer a phone for $7, and is planning a launch in Brazil.

As the world moves into recession, losing companies will stick their heads in the sand. They will hope central banks somehow find a way out of the debt mess they have created. Winning companies, however, will go back to first base and focus on unmet market needs, such as for smart feature phones, and figure out a way to supply them profitably.

 

Smartphone sales decline begins to impact global stock markets

The bad news continues for the world’s smartphone manufacturers and their suppliers.  And President Trump’s decision to add a 25% tariff on smartphone component imports from China from June 25 is unlikely to help. Morgan Stanley estimate it will add $160 to the current US iPhone XS price of $999, whilst a state-backed Chinese consumer boycott of Apple phones may well develop in retaliation for US sanctions on Huawei.

Chances are that a perfect storm is developing around the industry as its phenomenal run since 2011 comes to an end:

  • Global sales fell 4% in Q1 as the chart shows, with volume of 330m the lowest since Q3 2014
  • China’s market fell 3% to 88m, whilst US volume fell 18% to 36m
  • Apple has been badly hit, with US sales down 19% in Q1 and China sales down 25% in the past 6 months
  • Foldables have also failed to make a breakthrough, with Gartner estimating just 30m sales by 2023

This downbeat news highlights the fact that replacement cycles are no longer every year/18 months, but have already pushed out to 2.6 years.  Consumers see no need to rush to buy the latest model, given that today’s phones already cater very well for their needs.

Apple’s volumes confirm the secular nature of the downturn, as its volume continued the decline seen in 2018 as the iPhone comes to the end of its lifecycle. Its market share also fell back to 13%, allowing Huawei to take second place behind Samsung with a 17.9% share.  This decline came about despite Apple making major price cuts for the XS and XR series, as well as introducing a trade-in programme. Meanwhile, Samsung saw its profits fall 60%, the lowest since its battery problems in 2017.

The President’s tariffs are also set to impact sales, as manufacturers have to assume that today’s supply chains will need to be restructured. Manufacturing of low-end components can perhaps be easily relocated to countries such as Vietnam and other SE Asian countries.  But moving factories, like moving house, is a very disruptive process, and it is certainly not easy to find the technical skills required to make high-end components – which represent the core value proposition for consumers.

This highlights how second-order impacts are often overlooked when big announcements are made around tariffs and similar protectionist measures.  Not only do prices go up, as someone has to pay the extra costs involved. But companies along the supply chain see their margins squeezed as well – Apple suppliers Foxconn and Pegatron saw their gross margins fall to 5.5% and 2.3%, the lowest level since 2012, for example. So they will have less to spend on future innovations.

We can, of course, all hope that the current trade war proves only temporary. But President Trump’s decision to embargo Huawei from US telecom equipment markets suggests he is digging in for a long battle. Ironically, however, Huawei was one of the few winners in Q1, with its volume surging 50% despite its planned 2018 US entry being cancelled due to congressional pressure.  And other governments seem notable reluctant to follow the US lead.

The bigger risk, of course, for investors is that the profit downturn caused by protectionism cannot be “solved” by central bank stimulus. Since 2009, as the chart of the S&P 500 shows, they have rushed to support the market whenever it appeared poised for a return to more normal valuations. But it is hard to see how even their fall-back position of “helicopter money” can counter the impact of a fully-fledged trade war between the world’s 2 largest economies.

There’s a great future for the European plastics industry in recycled plastic

Europe’s plastics industry is under major threat from the growing legislative and consumer backlash against plastic packaging.

As with the global industry, its licence to operate is increasingly challenged by images of plastic rubbish polluting the world’s oceans, alongside photos of baby fish dying because their parents mistakenly fed them plastic instead of food.

EU legislation on plastic packaging is already in place to respond to this concern and promote the arrival of the circular economy. The industry therefore now needs to urgently reinvent itself by developing solutions to tackle these problems and help reduce carbon footprint.

History, luckily, is on its side.  There was a similar turning point in the 1960s, when it implemented the far-sighted decision to switch from coal to oil-based feedstocks. As a result, it transformed itself into a world-leading source of the products that have now become embedded in our daily lives. And it maintained this lead for more than fifty years, until finally China’s growth allowed Asia to overtake it.

But over the past twenty years, however, it has stagnated as China became the manufacturing capital of the world since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Its newest steam cracker, a core technology for the production of chemicals and plastics, started up more than twenty years ago in 1994. And over the past decade, the North American industry has seen a $200bn renaissance due to the arrival of low-cost shale based feedstocks.

This decline matters as chemicals and plastics are central to the European economy, and a key enabler for a vast range of products from autos through to personal care. The industry directly employs 1.5 million people, and a much larger number indirectly in downstream manufacturing and service roles.

Plastics are also key to tackling a number of the challenges facing our society, as the EU has highlighted in its new Circular Economy strategy:

“Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. High-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste.”

But at the same time, the legislation highlights the urgent need to rethink the production, use and consumption of plastics in order to avoid the environmental damage currently being created.

The problem is that reuse and recycling of end-of-use plastics remains very low by comparison with other materials such as paper, glass or metals:

  • The Commission estimates that more than 2/3rds of plastics waste currently goes into landfill or incineration
  • As a result, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, between €70bn – €105bn annually, is lost after a very short first-use cycle
  • It also estimates that recycling all global plastic waste could save the equivalent of 3.5bn barrels of oil each year, and help curb CO2 emissions

The European plastics industry is therefore now at a crossroads, as continuing with a business as usual strategy makes little sense. After all, the new EU legislation requires all plastics packaging to be reusable or cost-effectively recyclable by 2030. And the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is successfully encouraging the world’s major brand owners and retailers to make similar commitments with an even tighter deadline of 2025.

This paradigm shift gives the European plastics industry the opportunity to stage its own renaissance. It urgently needs to start the technical development programmes that will allow it to adopt the circular economy agenda, and start substituting recycled feedstock for oil.

China, after all, is already moving down this track, with Hainan planning to ban the production, sale and use of the 120kt  single-use plastics currently used each year in the province by 2025. And the government is starting to build dozens of local “comprehensive resource utilisation” centres to boost recycling, whilst at the same time restricting the use of single-use plastics by courier and food delivery firms.

Obviously there will be costs involved.  But in principle the industry’s assets are ageing and often below world-scale. The scale of the write-offs required is therefore manageable. And by beginning the transition today via the use of chemical and mechanical recycling technologies, these costs could be amortised over a longer timeframe.

The industry has a remarkable record of generating revenue and profit growth from innovation. Reinvention to become a more service-based industry, focused initially on making a major contribution to reducing marine pollution, would enable it to regain its global leadership in an area where long-term growth is assured.

And who knows, if Hollywood were ever to issue a remake of 1967’s The Graduate, maybe Mr McGuire’s famous advice to a young Dustin Hoffman would become “There’s a great future in recycled plastics”.