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.

 

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.

The End of “Business as Usual”

In my interview for Real Vision earlier this month, (where the world’s most successful investors share their thoughts on the markets and the biggest investment themes), I look at what data from the global chemical industry is telling us about the outlook for the global economy and suggest it could be set for a downturn.

“We look at the world and the world economy through the lens of the chemical industry. Why do we do that? Because the chemical industry is the third largest industry in the world after energy and agriculture. It gets into every corner of the world. Everything in the room which you’ll be watching this interview is going to have chemicals in it. And the great thing is, we have very good, almost real time data on what’s happening.

“Our friends at the American Chemistry Council have data going back on production and capacity utilization since 1987. So 30 years of data, and we get that within 6 to 8 weeks of the end of the month. So whereas, if you look at IMF data, you’re just looking at history, we’re looking at this is what’s actually going on as of today.

“We look, obviously, upstream, as we would call it, at the oil and feedstocks markets, so we understand what’s happening in that area. But we also– because the chemical industry is in the middle of the value chain, you have to be like Janus. You have to look up and down at the same time, otherwise one of these big boys catches you out.

“And so we look downstream. And we particularly look at autos, at housing, and electronics, because those are the big three applications. And of course, they’re pretty big for investors as well. So we see the relative balance between what’s happening upstream, what’s  happening downstream, where is demand going, and then we see what’s happening in the middle of that chain, because that’s where we’re getting our data from.

“As the chart shows, our data matches pretty well to IMF data. It shows changes in capacity utilization, which is our core measurement. If if you go back and plot that against history from the IMF, there is very, very good correlation. So what we’re seeing at the moment– and really, we’ve been seeing this since we did the last interview in November— is a pretty continuous downturn.

“One would have hoped, when we talked in November, we were talking about the idea that things have definitely cooled off. Some of that was partly due to the oil price coming down. Some of that was due to end of year destocking. Some of that was due to worries about trade policy. Lots of different things, but you would normally expect the first quarter to be fairly strong.

“The reason for this is that the first quarter– this year, particularly– was completely free of holidays.  Easter was late, so there was nothing to interrupt you there. There was the usual Lunar New Year in China, but that always happens, so there’s nothing unusual about that.

And normally what happens is, that in the beginning of the new year, people restock. They’ve got their stock down in December for year end purposes, year end tax purposes, now they restock again. And of course, they build stock because the construction season is coming along in the spring and people tend to buy more cars in that period, and electronics, and so on.

“So everything in the first quarter was very positive. And one wouldn’t normally be surprised to start seeing stock outs in the industry, particularly after a quiet period in the fourth quarter. And unfortunately, we haven’t seen any of that. We’ve seen– and this is worth thinking about for a moment– we’ve seen a 25% rise in the oil price because of the OPEC Russia deal, but until very recently we haven’t seen the normal stock build that goes along with that.”

 

As we note in this month’s pH Report, however, this picture is now finally changing as concern mounts over oil market developments – where unplanned outages in Venezuela and elsewhere are adding to the existing cutbacks by the OPEC+ countries. Apparent demand is therefore now increasing as buyers build precautionary inventory against the risk of supply disruption and the accompanying threat of higher prices.

In turn, this is helping to support a return of the divergence between developments in the real economy and financial markets, as the rise in apparent demand can easily be mistaken for real demand. The divergence is also being supported by commentary from western central banks.  This month’s IMF meeting finally confirmed the slowdown that has been flagged by the chemical industry since October, but also claimed that easier central bank policies were already removing the threat of a recession.

We naturally want to hope that the IMF is right. But history instead suggests that periods of inventory-build are quickly reversed once oil market concerns abate.

Please click here if you would like to see the full interview.

Fed’s magic money tree hopes to overcome smartphone sales downturn and global recession risk

Last November, I wrote one of my “most-read posts”, titled Global smartphone recession confirms consumer downturn. The only strange thing was that most people read it several weeks later on 3 January, after Apple announced its China sales had fallen due to the economic downturn.

Why did Apple and financial markets only then discover that smartphone sales were in a downturn led by China?  Our November pH Report “Smartphone sales recession highlights economic slowdown‘, had already given detailed insight into the key issues, noting that:

“It also confirms the early warning over weakening end-user demand given by developments in the global chemical industry since the start of the year. Capacity Utilisation was down again in September as end-user demand slowed. And this pattern has continued into early November, as shown by our own Volume Proxy.

The same phenomenon had occurred before the 2008 Crisis, of course, as described in The Crystal Blog.  I wrote regularly here, in the Financial Times and elsewhere about the near-certainty that we were heading for a major financial crisis. Yet very few people took any notice.

And even after the crash, the consensus chose to ignore the demographic explanation for it that John Richardson and I gave in ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’.

Nothing seems to change.  So here we are again, with the chart showing full-year 2018 smartphone sales, and it is clear that the consumer downturn is continuing:

  • 2018 sales at 1.43bn were down 5% versus 2017, with Q4 volume down 6% versus Q4 2017
  • Strikingly, low-cost Huawei’s volume was equal to high-priced Apple’s at 206m
  • Since 2015, its volume has almost doubled whilst Apple’s has fallen 11%

And this time the financial outlook is potentially worse than in 2008.  The tide of global debt built up since 2008 means that the “World faces wave of epic debt defaults” according to the only central banker to forecast the Crisis.

“WALL STREET, WE HAVE A PROBLEM”

So why did Apple shares suddenly crash 10% on 3 January, as the chart shows? Everything that Apple reported was already known.  After all, when I wrote in November, I was using published data from Strategy Analytics which was available to anyone on their website.

The answer, unfortunately, is that markets have lost their key role of price discovery. Central banks have deliberately destroyed it with their stimulus programmes, in the belief that a strong stock market will lead to a strong economy. And this has been going on for a long time, as newly released Federal Reserve minutes confirmed last week:

  • Back in January 2013, then Fed Governor Jay Powell warned that policies “risked driving securities above fundamental values
  • He went on to warn that the result would be “there is every reason to expect a sharp and painful correction
  • Yet 6 years later, and now Fed Chairman, Powell again rushed to support the stock market last week
  • He took the prospect of interest rate rises off the table, despite US unemployment dropping for a record 100 straight months

The result is that few investors now bother to analyse what is happening in the real world.

They believe  they don’t need to, as the Fed will always be there, watching their backs. So “Bad News is Good News”, because it means the Fed and other Western central banks will immediately print more money to support stock markets.

And there is even a new concept, ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ (MMT), to justify what they are doing.

THE MAGIC MONEY TREE PROVIDES ALL THE MONEY WE NEED

There are 3 key points that are relevant to the Modern Monetary Theory:

  • The Federal government can print its own money, and does this all the time
  • The Federal government can always roll over the debt that this money-printing creates
  • The Federal government can’t ever go bankrupt, because of the above 2 points

The scholars only differ on one point.  One set believes that pumping up the stock market is therefore a legitimate role for the central bank. As then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in November 2010:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

The other set believes instead that government can and should spend as much as they like on social and other programmes:

“MMT logically argues as a consequence that there is no such thing as tax and spend when considering the activity of the government in the economy; there can only be spend and tax.

The result is that almost nobody talks about debt any more, and the need to repay it.  Whenever I talk about this, I am told – as in 2006-8 – that “I don’t understand”.  This may be true. But it may instead be true that, as I noted last month:

“Whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China. And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

I fear the coming global recession will expose the wishful thinking behind the magic of the central banks’ money trees.

CEOs need new business models amid downturn

Many indicators are now pointing towards a global downturn in the economy, along with paradigm shifts in demand patterns. CEOs need to urgently build resilient business models to survive and prosper in this New Normal world, as I discuss in my 2019 Outlook and video interview with ICIS.

Global recession is the obvious risk as we start 2019.  Last year’s hopes for a synchronised global recovery now seem just a distant memory.  Instead, they have been replaced by fears of a synchronised global downturn.

Capacity Utilisation in the global chemical industry is the best leading indicator that we have for the global economy.  And latest data from the American Chemistry Council confirms that the downtrend is now well-established.  It is also clear that key areas for chemical demand and the global economy such as autos, housing and electronics moved into decline during the second half of 2018.

In addition, however, it seems likely that we are now seeing a generational change take place in demand patterns:

  • From the 1980s onwards, the demand surge caused by the arrival of the BabyBoomers into the Wealth Creating 25 – 54 cohort led to the rise of globalisation, as companies focused on creating new sources of supply to meet their needs
  • At the same time the collapse of fertility rates after 1970 led to the emergence of 2-income families for the first time, as women often chose to go back into the workforce after childbirth. In turn, this helped to create a new and highly profitable mid-market for “affordable luxury”
  • Today, however, only the youngest Boomers are still in this critical generation for demand growth. Older Boomers have already moved into the lower-spending, lower-earning 55+ age group, whilst the younger millennials prefer to focus on “experiences” and don’t share their parents’ love of accumulating “stuff”

The real winners over the next few years will therefore be companies who not only survive the coming economic downturn, but also reposition themselves to meet these changing demand patterns.  A more service-based chemical industry is likely to emerge as a result, with sustainability and affordability replacing globalisation and affordable luxury as the key drivers for revenue and profit growth.

Please click here to download the 2019 Outlook (no registration necessary) and click here to view the video interview.