Airline stocks slide despite CEOs’ upbeat demand outlook
Stefani Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images
The NYSE Arca Airline index, which includes mostly U.S. carriers, was down about 6% Wednesday afternoon, on track for its biggest one-day percentage decline since last June. It outpaced a drop in the S&P 500.
Airline executives during a JPMorgan industry conference on Tuesday said they expect strong demand — and profits — in 2023, despite higher costs, with leisure travel continuing to lead the way. Consumer appetite for air travel has surged over the past year and higher fares have boosted airlines’ bottom lines.
But carriers also pointed to near-term problems like higher expenses like fuel and labor. United Airlines on Monday forecast a first-quarter loss from a potential new pilot contract and weaker-than-expected demand early this year, traditionally a slow period for travel.
Some executives said lucrative business travel is shifting because of more hybrid work models that allow customers to mix work trips with leisure in place of more traditional schedules.
“I think business travel has changed,” JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said at the conference. “Those day trips where you used to get up at 6 a.m., you’re back at 8 p.m. … you’re just not going to do that anymore.”
Hayes said that means shifts in the network.
“We came in with 15 Boston-LaGuardias as we thought that was a great idea. It turns out it wasn’t,” he said. “And that’s now going to be nine or 10 as we get later into the year.”
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said corporate travel has recovered more than 80% of prepandemic levels.
“As I tell many of my CEO friends across the industry and outside of the industry, I know where your employees are. They may not be in the office, but you can find them on my airplanes,” he said at the conference. “And that’s because of the new way of work, the new hybrid, new mobility. And I don’t think that’s changing.”
Shrinking food stamp benefits for families mean yet another challenge for retailers
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez | AP
This month, pandemic-related emergency funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is ending in most states, leaving many low-income families with less to spend on food.
More than 41 million Americans receive funding for food through the federal program. For those households, it will amount to at least $95 less per month to spend on groceries. Yet for many families, the drop will be even steeper since the government assistance scales up to adjust for household size and income.
For grocers like Kroger, big-box players like Walmart and discounters like Dollar General, the drop in SNAP dollars adds to an already long list of worries about the year ahead. It’s likely to pressure a weakening part of retailers’ business: sales of discretionary merchandise, which are crucial categories for retailers, as they tend to drive higher profits.
Major companies, including Best Buy, Macy’s and Target, have shared cautious outlooks for the year, saying shoppers across incomes have become more careful about spending on items such as clothing or consumer electronics as they pay more for necessities such as housing and food.
Food, in particular, has emerged as one of the hardest-hit inflation categories, up 10.2% year-over-year as of February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“You still have to feed the same number of mouths, but you have to make choices,” said Karen Short, a retail analyst for Credit Suisse.
“So what you’re doing is you’re definitely having to cut back on discretionary,” she said.
The stretch has made it impossible for some to afford even basic items. It’s still too early to see the full impact of the reduced SNAP benefits, said North Texas Food Bank CEO Trisha Cunningham, but food pantries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have started to see more first-time guests. The nonprofit helps stock shelves at pantries that serve 13 counties.
Demand for meals has ballooned, even from pandemic levels, she said. The nonprofit used to provide about 7 million meals per month before the pandemic and now provides between 11 million and 12 millions meals per month.
“We knew these [extra SNAP funds] were going away and they were going to be sunsetted,” she said. “But what we didn’t know is that we were going to have the impact of inflation to deal with on top of this.”
Shifting market share
So far, retail sales in the first two months of the year have proven resilient, even as consumers contend with inflation and follow a stimulus-fueled boom in spending in the early years of the pandemic. On a year-over-year basis, retail spending was up 17.6% in February, according to the Commerce Department.
Some of those higher sales have come from higher prices. The annual inflation rate is at 6% as of February, according to the Labor Department’s tracking of the consumer price index, which measures a broad mix of goods and services. That index has also gotten a lift from restaurant and bar spending, which has bounced back from earlier in the pandemic and begun to compete more with money spent on goods.
Yet retailers themselves have pointed out cracks in consumer health, noting rising credit card balances, more sales of lower-priced private label brands and shoppers’ heightened response to discounts and promotions.
Some retailers mentioned the SNAP funding decrease on earnings calls, too.
Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen called it “a meaningful headwind for the balance of the year.”
“We’re hopeful that everybody will work together to continue or find additional money,” he said on the company’s earnings call with investors earlier this month. “But as you know, because of inflation, there’s a lot of people whose budget is under strain.”
Credit Suisse’s Short said for lower-income families, the food cost squeeze comes on top of climbing expenses for nearly everything else, whether that’s paying the electric bill or filling up the gas tank.
“I don’t think I could tell you what a tailwind is for the consumer,” she said. “There just isn’t a single tailwind in my view.”
Emergency allotments of SNAP benefits previously ended in 18 states, which could preview the effect of the decreased funding nationwide. In a research note for Credit Suisse, Short found an average decline in SNAP spending of 28% across several retailers from the date the additional funding ended.
Some grocers and big-box retailers could feel the impact more than others. According to an analysis by Credit Suisse, Grocery Outlet has the highest exposure to SNAP with an estimated 13% of its 2021 sales coming from the program. That’s followed by BJ’s Wholesale with about 9%, Dollar General at about 9%, Dollar Tree at about 7%, Walmart’s U.S. business with 5.5% and Kroger with about 5%, according to the bank’s estimates, which were based on company filings and government data.
Retailers that draw a higher-income customer base, such as Target and Costco, should feel comparatively less effect, Short said. If nothing else, the dwindling SNAP dollars could shift shoppers from one retailer to another, she said, as major players seek to grab up market share and undercut on prices.
Fewer dollars to go around
Another factor could make for a bumpier start to retailers’ fiscal year, which typically kicks off in late January or early February: Tax refunds are trending smaller this year.
The average refund amount was $2,972, down 11% from an average payment of $3,352 as of the same point in last year’s filing season, according to IRS data as of the week of March 10. That average payout could still change over time, though, as the IRS continues to process millions of Americans’ returns ahead of the mid-April deadline.
Dollar General Chief Financial Officer John Garratt said on an earnings call this month that the discounter is monitoring how its shoppers respond to the winding down of emergency SNAP benefits and lower tax refunds.
He said stores did not see a change in sales patterns when emergency SNAP funds previously ended in some states, but he added that “the customer is in a different place now.”
Tax refunds can act as a cash infusion for retailers, as some people spring for big-ticket items like a pair of brand-name sneakers or a sleek new TV, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for The NPD Group, a market research company.
This year, though, even if people get their regular refund, they may use it to pay bills or whittle down debt, he said.
One bright spot for retailers could be an 8.7% cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments. Starting in January, recipients received on average $140 more per month.
However, Cohen said, the cash influx might not be enough to offset pressure on younger consumers, particularly those between ages 18 and 24, who have just started jobs and face milestone expenses like signing a lease or buying a car.
“Everything’s costing them so much more for the early, big spends of their consumer career,” he said.
The digital media rollup dream is dead for the moment — now it’s all about core brand strength
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
That’s where the digital media industry finds itself today.
After years of focusing on consolidating to better compete with Google and Facebook for digital advertising dollars, many of the most well-known digital media companies have abandoned consolidation efforts to concentrate on differentiation.
“What you’re finding is companies are trying to find a non-substitutable core,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments. “The era of trying to put these companies together is over, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”
A 90% decline in BuzzFeed shares since the company went public in 2021, a failed sales process from Vice, the collapse of special purpose acquisition companies, and a choppy advertising market have made digital media executives rethink their companies’ futures. For the moment, executives have decided that more concentrated investment is better than attempts to gain scale.
“Right now, everyone’s trying to get through a tougher market by focusing on their strengths,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said in an interview with CNBC. “We’re in this period now where we should just focus on innovating for the future and building more efficient, stronger, better companies.”
What’s happening in the digital media space echoes trends from the biggest media companies, including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. After losing nearly half their market values, or more, in 2022, those companies have emphasized what makes them different, whether it be distribution, brand or quality of programming, after years of global expansion and mega-mergers. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the word “brand” more than 25 times at a Morgan Stanley media conference this month.
“I think brands matter,” Iger said. “The more choice people have, the more important brands become because of what they convey to consumers.”
Making strategic decisions based on consumer demand rather than investor pressure is a pivot for the industry, said Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, which has acquired and developed a number of brands and sites aimed at women, including Nylon, Scary Mommy, Romper and Elite Daily.
“Too many of the mergers were driven by investor needs as opposed to consumer needs,” Goldberg said in an interview.
The rollup dream’s rise and fall
From late 2018 to early 2022, the digital media industry had a shared goal. Pushed by venture capitalist and private equity investors who had made sizeable investments in the industry during the 2010s, companies such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Bustle Digital Group, or BDG, were talking to each other, in various combinations, about merging to gain scale.
“If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times in November 2018, kicking off a multiyear effort to consolidate.
The rationale was twofold. First, digital media companies needed more scale to compete with Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. Adding sites and brands under one corporate umbrella would boost overall eyeballs for advertisers. Cost-cutting from M&A synergies was an added benefit for investors.
Second, longtime shareholders wanted to exit their investments. Large legacy media companies such as Disney and Comcast‘s NBCUniversal invested hundreds of millions in digital media in the early and mid-2010s. Disney invested more than $400 million in Vice. NBCUniversal put a similar amount into BuzzFeed. By the end of the decade, after seeing the value of those investments fall, legacy media companies made it clear to digital media executives that they weren’t interested in being acquirers.
Vice Media offices display the Vice logo in Venice, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
With no strategic buyer available, merging with each other using publicly traded stock could give VC and PE shareholders a chance to cash out of investments that were well past the standard hold time of seven years. Digital media companies eyed special purpose acquisition companies — also known as SPACs or blank-check companies — as a way to go public quickly. The popularity of SPACs picked up steam in 2020 and peaked in 2021.
Deal flow accelerated. Vox acquired New York Magazine in September 2019. About a week later, Vice announced it had acquired Refinery29, a digital media company focused on younger women. BuzzFeed bought news aggregator and blog HuffPost in 2020 and then acquired digital publisher Complex Networks in 2021 as part of a SPAC transaction to go public. Vox and Group Nine agreed to a merger later that year.
BuzzFeed, generally thought by industry executives at the time to have the strongest balance sheet with the best growth narrative, successfully went public via SPAC in December 2021. Shares immediately tanked, falling 24% in their first week of trading. The coming weeks and months were even worse. BuzzFeed opened at $10 per share. The stock currently trades at about $1 — a 90% loss of value.
BuzzFeed’s underwhelming performance coincided with the implosion of the SPAC market in early 2022 as interest rates rose. Other companies that planned to follow BuzzFeed shut down their efforts to go public completely. Vice tried and failed. Now it’s trying for the second time in two years to find a buyer. BDG and Vox, meanwhile, abandoned considerations to go public. Vox instead sold a 20% stake in itself in February to Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone and Variety.
The industry turns inward
Consolidation was always a flawed strategy because digital media could never become big enough to compete with Facebook and Google, said Integrated Media’s Miller.
“You have to have sufficient amount of scale to matter, but that’s not a winning formula by itself,” Miller said.
Vice’s deal for Refinery29 is a prime example of a deal motivated by scale that lacked consumer rationale, said BDG’s Goldberg.
“The digital media rollup has proven successful only when assets are thoughtfully combined with an eye toward consumers,” Goldberg said. “In what world did Vice and Refinery29 make sense in combination?”
Vice is engaged in sale talks with a number of buyers that fall outside the digital media landscape, CNBC previously reported. It’s also considering selling itself in pieces if there’s more interest in parts of the company, such as its TV production assets and its ad agency, Virtue.
Vice is a cautionary tale of what happens to a digital media company when its brand loses luster, Miller said. Valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, Vice is now considering selling itself for around $500 million, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the sale discussions are private.
A Vice spokesperson declined to comment.
“In the old days of media, with TV networks, if you were down, you could revive yourself with a hit,” said Miller. “In the internet age, everything is so easily substitutable. If Vice goes down, the audience just moves on to something else.”
Companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox and BDG are now trying to find an enduring relevancy amid a myriad of information and entertainment options. BuzzFeed has chosen to lean in to artificial intelligence, touting new AI-generated quizzes and other content that fuses the work of staff writers with AI databases.
BDG has chosen to primarily target female audiences across lifestyle categories.
Vox has focused on journalism and information across a number of different verticals. That’s a strategy that hasn’t really changed even as the market has turned against digital media, allowing Vox CEO Jim Bankoff the opportunity to continue to hunt for deals. Just don’t expect the partners to be Vice, BDG or BuzzFeed.
“We want to be the leading modern media company with the strongest portfolio of brands that serve their audiences on modern platforms — websites, podcasts, streaming services — while building franchises through multiple revenue streams,” Bankoff said. “There’s no doubt M&A is part of our playbook, and we expect it will continue to be in the future.”
Finding an exit
While executives may be making strategy decisions with a sharper eye toward the consumer, the problem of finding an exit for investors remains. Differentiation may open up the pool of potential buyers beyond the media industry. BuzzFeed’s emphasis on artificial intelligence could attract interest from technology platforms, for instance.
It’s also possible that there will be an eventual second wave of peer-to-peer mergers. While Integrated Media’s Miller doesn’t expect a future industry rollup, BuzzFeed’s Peretti hasn’t closed the door on the concept if market conditions improve. As executives invest in fewer ideas and verticals, the end result could be healthier companies that are more attractive merger partners, he said.
“If everyone invests in what they’re best at, if you put them back together, you’d have that diversified digital media company with real scale,” Peretti said. “That helps drive commerce for all parts of a unified company. I think it’s still possible.”
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.
WATCH: Axios’ Sara Fischer on BuzzFeed’s continuing struggles
Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations
Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images
The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.
Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the election results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.
“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.
Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that Curry is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”
“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.
More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.
The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who did not immediately confirm the results. The election results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.
Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.
Jim West for UAW Members United
Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.
Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.
The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.
Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.
For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.
Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.
The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.
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