In this podcast, Motley Fool analyst Jason Moser discusses:
- Recognizing short-term catalysts.
- Why home improvement is "one of the most obvious long-term trends out there."
- Travel and return-to-work are two trends worth watching.
Then, using language-learning app Duolingo (DUOL -0.48%) as an example, Motley Fool analyst Alicia Alfiere shares key questions to ask when writing an investment thesis, including:
- What are its competitive advantages?
- Who's running the company?
- Will broader trends help or hurt?
- Stocks discussed: BKNG (BKNG 0.29%), HD (HD -0.67%), LOW (LOW -1.01%), MSFT (MSFT 0.83%), and DUOL.
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This video was recorded on March 7, 2022.
Chris Hill: Tell the DJ to queue up ZZ Top because we're talking about investing trends with legs. Motley Fool Money starts now. I'm Chris Hill joined by Motley Fool senior analyst Jason Moser. Thanks for being here.
Jason Moser: Hey, thanks for having me.
Chris Hill: Everybody loves a good trend, right?
Jason Moser: Sure.
Chris Hill: We're investors, we love a good trend. Lately, I don't know if you've noticed as the market has continued its grim slide of 2022, that doesn't stop potential trends from emerging here or there. I wanted to talk with you about how to figure out which trends have legs and which ones don't. I'll just start with an example of one that I think for me anyway, doesn't really have legs, and it goes under the umbrella of because of reasons, this industry has sold off tremendously. Therefore, it presents an opportunity for investors because it's trading below where it should be. The one that leaves to mind for me that's come up several times over the past two plus years is the Cruise Industry, and that may be a good short-term opportunity for some people. I'm not interested in that.
Because it's not an industry that I think has great long-term tailwinds behind it, I don't mean to pick on the Cruise Industry, but you know what I'm talking about. There are some trends that get a lot of attention, but it's for short-term reasons.
Jason Moser: Yeah, I'm glad you said short-term reasons because I agree with what you're saying. I think the way I typically try to break this down in my own mind, and I've talked before about the way that I invest. As a long-term investor, someone who typically like to be a net buyer of stocks, I'd like to buy, I don't really like selling. Typically I am looking for companies that I feel they're going to be relevant for decades. Figuring out and following the long-term trend in differentiating that between what I would call a short-term catalyst, and so I think that the Cruise example there is a good example of something where there's a short-term catalyst. Before 2020, I don't know that Cruise ships were really a place where I was interested in investing, it sounds you feel the same way. It's just not an industry that you're all that interested in. I think that's how I start to at least look at this, because you could look at the Cruise liners for example, and say, "well, I'm not all that interested." But by the same token, it does feel there's a short-term catalysts in place that could result in value for shareholders if things continue to improve. The travel industry in general has been shellacked, but things are starting to come back.
There were a lot of questions early on in 2020 as to whether these major Cruise liners would even survive. They did a good job, I think of figuring out ways to survive and keeping their balance sheets in working order there, but I think for me, you see the benefit of a reopen and then say, alright, Cruise liners could benefit from that, the stock's been may start to reflect that optimism. But beyond that short-term catalyst, is there something there? Do you see more people clamoring to go on cruises as the years go by? I'm not convinced that's the case. I think it's a relevant industry. I think there are people who love to take cruises, but I think there are also a lot of risks that come with something like that. For me, it's trying to think about what direction the world is headed and I'll be honest with you, I'm sure you probably can relate to this as a parent. I looked at my kids, I have two daughters, they're are at sophomore junior and high school. I looked at them and their friends and what they're doing, what they're watching, the apps that they're using, ways that they're conducting their business, that to me starts to tell a little bit more about consumer behavior, trends that may be forming, things that matter to younger generations that will continue to matter even as they get older. I typically try to break it down between looking at a long-term trend versus a short-term catalysts in figuring out ways to discern between the two.
Chris Hill: If you think back to last year in the late spring, one of the big trends getting a lot of attention was what was referred to as the great reopening.
Jason Moser: Yeah.
Chris Hill: It seems we're at that point again, as Omicron levels continue to drop, vaccines continue to rise, more and more businesses, we talked about this last Friday on Motley Fool Money about some of the biggest tech companies in America opening up their offices, mask mandates coming down. You were talking to the folks at Cheddar, and I'm happy to share Jason Moser as a resource our with media outlets. [laughs] You're welcome Cheddar. But seriously, you were talking to them about this trend, weren't you?
Jason Moser: Yeah, we were talking about reopening, and to me it feels like reopening 2.0. We did go through a reopening before, where I think a lot of us are starting to get back out there and resuming somewhat normal behavior. This is the next iteration of that, where I think the wall start to come down and even more people start to go out and really get their lives back to normal. We were talking about ideas, investments, companies that will benefit from this next phase of reopening, and then what future they may have even beyond that, because I would look at reopening as definitely a short-term catalyst. This is not something where the long-term trend is for our economy to reopen, and so for me that doesn't mean that there aren't great ideas out there, that doesn't mean there's no money to be made, but by the same token, and I think, we said this a lot when we were talking about the stay at home stock, theme that we were delving into a couple of years ago.
You want to make sure that regardless, these are businesses that you feel will continue to do well even beyond the short-term catalysts. Because this short-term catalyst will end, and then you want to make sure that you're not left holding the bag with the business that maybe isn't going to continue to benefit beyond just that catalyst. For me, there are a lot of different ways you can look at the companies that will benefit from this. I mean, you're talking about incremental traffic in all places, people going back to work, office buildings getting busier, the areas around the office buildings getting busier, malls getting busier, so what companies can you expect a benefit there? To me, there are a lot of different ways you can look at it. I think travel is one that stands out immediately just because so many people are ready-to-go do something. We saw some of the snap-back in travel earlier through the course of this last couple of years, but it does look things continue to get even better.
I was looking through Booking Holdings, for example their most recent earnings call, they were talking about the fact that they are seeing the trends continuing to move in the right direction. They said the first half of February they saw meaningful improvement across all of their regions compared to January, but then they made this reference to gross bookings. They said gross bookings for the summer are higher than they were at this time in 2019, so that's encouraging for a number of different reasons and it sounds a lot of people are planning trips. I know that we are both planning to get a trip and I'm going to be going a few places here over the summer as well looking forward to that. But when you think about just the fact that gross bookings for the summer are higher than they were at this time in 2019, that's really encouraging. The nice thing about travel is it's truly a global opportunity. I think travel is going to continue to be a long-term trend that investors can benefit from, so Booking Holdings stands out as one way to look at this reopen 2.0.
Chris Hill: It is interesting. The difference, as you said, the long-term trend versus the short-term catalysts, because ultimately there has to be something sustainable. There has to be something about an underlying business that we as investors can see a pathway for growth. Which, and this may be just my preference, I always prefer organic growth as opposed to growth through acquisition. It's not to say that that doesn't work, there are plenty of businesses that have rewarded shareholders by going the route of acquisition. But to me, it's just preferable to see a business like I've talked before about Home Depot and Lowe's, and not that they do a tremendous amount of increasing their store count year-over-year, but you look at the way that they've grown out their online presence, their deliveries, that sort of thing, that's just easier for me to wrap my head around.
Jason Moser: Well, yeah. I think Home Depot and Lowe's, two very good examples of businesses that I think could certainly benefit here over the next several months as consumer traffic continues to pick up. We've seen the strength in the housing market over the past couple of years, and the neat thing about housing is whether you own or you rent, home improvement maintenance, all that stuff is always on the table. That's to me one of the most obvious long-term trends out there, because everybody needs a roof over their head. You look at Home Depot and Lowe's, the quarters that they just chalked up, to be able to maintain their gross margins in a time like this when inflation really is front and center, Lowe's actually expanded their gross margin very modestly. Home Depot, a little bit of pressure, but overall they've really been able to maintain prices very well and passes these costs along to consumers.
I think part of that is just due to the nature of the market that it serves, it's a necessary market. Then they love to throw the statistics out there, 50 percent of the homes here in the US are over 40 years old. A lot has changed in 40 years. The ways that we build houses, the ways that we've repair our homes and update and improve our homes. What that ultimately means is you get this massive installed housing base out there just in this country alone, that really requires a lot of what Home Depot and Lowe's are selling. They may not be the sexiest names in the world, and they may not like the world on fire in the near-term, but when you stretch the chart out, if you look at the way these companies performed through the years, 3, 5, 10 years, they are just tremendous performers. Lowe's in particularly, you look at what Marvin Ellison has done there, that has been just nothing short of spectacular. I think what we've got now is really two businesses there in Lowe's and Home Depot that you and I have likened before to MasterCard and Visa. It's almost like a which one should I pick? Why bother choosing? You could actually own both and get away with it just fine. It's not a bad idea, actually.
Chris Hill: Not a bad idea at all. Last thing and then I'll let you go. When you think about long-term trends, I suppose there are a couple of different ways you can think about them. One is to try and predict where the future is going and be right, not only about the direction, but the timing of how soon we're going to get there. I was on David Gardner's Rule Breaker investing podcast recently and on an episode that were set in the year 2052 and one of the jokes we made on that was that self-driving cars, still not a thing [laughs] and it may not be by the way. That's one way to do it, like OK, this is where the world is going. But another way to do it is to look at trends right now and say, OK, do I think this is going to be here in 20 years? You can say that about individual products, you can also say that about industries. It's why whenever someone has a new baby and he's like, I want to buy a stock for them. My answer is always Starbucks. Because I know that the way we drink coffee in 50 years is going to look a whole lot like the way we drink it now.
Jason Moser: [laughs] If it looks any different, Starbucks is probably going to be one of the companies that is innovating and iterating there. So you probably win either way. Yeah, I think to me, one of the trends that I think it's front and center right now for a lot of people is work, exactly how we're going to be working. We're talking about stay at home, now we're talking about reopen. It's been a weird two years. There're offices that never closed down and then there are other offices that just have closed down completely and you wonder what exactly the future holds. I look to a business like Microsoft, for example, and I think it's very telling that you've got a lot of these big tech companies that are reopening their offices. They're eager and excited to do that, and I think that's for a number of reasons. I think that you've seen some of the CEOs of these businesses, Twitter for example, they're talking about the fact that, yes, remote work is available, but it is harder. It makes things a lot more difficult. I'm sure probably you run into some challenges where remote work does make things harder.
But by the same token, there are a lot of folks that like that, convenience in being able to go do what they want to do when they want to go do it, it certainly expands that work schedule. For me, I look at the absolutes as being probably what you want to avoid. If you're saying, well, we're just going to be a virtual-only company, you're probably leaving something on the table there. But if you say that, well, everybody has to be at the office all the time, well, you're leaving some talent out there that you might not be able to get otherwise. To me, the hybrid work environment, that's what seems like the future holds. You look at a company like Microsoft, a company that's responsible for getting so many of those tools that we've been able to use, whether you're Slack or Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Teams and all of the tools that Microsoft provides, they help enable what ultimately I think we're going to see is the hybrid work environment where a lot of folks have the opportunity to do it however they want to do it, but companies still have a process and a philosophy in place that leaves everybody feeling included. I think that's probably one of the bigger challenges. I think that's going to be one of the things that companies will figure out as time goes on, is managing the remote and the physically present workforce together. Not saying that's an easy thing to do, but I think that's going to be something that companies are going to have to do. Because to me, again, it feels like you've take it to the extreme, if you go absolutes one way or the other, that to me seems to open up more challenges of opportunities the longer you play that out.
Chris Hill: Jason Moser, thanks for being here.
Jason Moser: Thank you.
Chris Hill: Remember back in high school when your English teacher taught you how to write a thesis statements, it's the main idea of your essay and you are not going to get an A without a strong thesis statement. It turns out that's one of those skills that comes in handy for investors like you and me. Here to talk through the nuts-and-bolts of an investment thesis is Motley Fool Senior Analyst, Alicia Alfiere. Thanks for being here.
Alicia Alfiere: Thanks for having me.
Chris Hill: Before we get into some of the key questions that can go into an investment thesis. Why do you think an exercise like this is helpful for us as investors?
Alicia Alfiere: First, when we think of an investment thesis, it's really a summary of what you think of the company and why you think it makes a good investment case, as well as some of the risks. It's really important, particularly now when we are seeing a lot of market volatility. The idea here is that I will help you cut through all the noise of that market volatility and focused on signals for your company and hopefully stop you from selling a company that's actually pretty good.
Chris Hill: I know that you've been using Duolingo, let's use that as an example here, and some of the key questions that people can ask when they are looking to build an investment thesis for any business, for any stock and it starts with really knowing the company.
Alicia Alfiere: This one sounds like a no-brainer, but there are actually companies out there that require a little bit extra time and research to be able to answer questions like, what does this company sell? Do? What problem are they solving? Who are their customers? How do they make money? That's really fundamental to understand. If we use Duolingo as an example here, Duolingo is a global mobile learning platform with the mission to develop the best educational content in the world and make it universally available. They offer a gamified approach to learning over 40 languages and they offer a lot of different solutions here. They have their flagship Duolingo Learning Language App, which is free. They have Duolingo Plus, which is a subscription. Duolingo English Test, which is a proficiency exam, and Duolingo for Schools. Essentially the problem that they're solving here, is making education accessible to the mobile generation and their lessons are pretty effective. According to their internal study, users with five Duolingo units were as proficient in reading and listening as students with four college semesters of language classes. Then in terms of how do they make money, again really important to understand. They make most of their money from their subscription products. The rest comes from the Premium Apps, so those are based revenues and revenues from their English tax.
Chris Hill: Every business has competition, so obviously it is worth spending a minute or two when you're putting together an investment thesis thinking about competitive advantages that a business might have.
Alicia Alfiere: Look at the competition within the industry. Is there a product or service sticky? Does the business have network effects? When we talk about network effects, think of a platform like Facebook. Where you have this virtuous circle of data which makes your users use it more, which brings in more data, which allows you to get more insights, [laughs] which again makes that product even more valuable. In terms of Duolingo they are in a highly competitive industry. Lots of options to learn new languages, whether it's a virtual or in-person classes, other apps and websites and there is substitution items that you could use as well like translator apps. But what advantages does Duolingo have? They have a strong brand, they have had over 500 million downloads and their flagship app is the top grossing app in the education category on Google Play and the Apple App Store. This strong brand recognition really helps to drive organic growth for them.
They also have strong network effects so 41.7 million monthly active users, which includes a US contingent that actually out numbers. Total US high school foreign language learners which a massive amount here. They have over a half billion exercises completed daily on the platform and as a result of that strong network, Duolingo beliefs, they have the largest collection of language learning data, and they feed this virtual cycle of their network by using their collection of data, to make learning experiences more efficient and differentiated for its users. In terms of platform stickiness, over 50 percent of daily active users have used the app for more than seven days in a row, and one million users have an active stretch of longer than 365 days. Pretty impressive there, but there are some tricky parts here for paid subscribers, it's a bit more complicated. About 40 percent of annual subscribers renew their subscriptions after a year or about nine percent of monthly subscribers renew their subscription after one year. They got some work to do here.
Chris Hill: At the Motley Fool, we're not just interested in the business, we're interested in the management as well. It's worth spending time figuring out, hey, who are the people running this business?
Alicia Alfiere: Absolutely. Take a look at who are the co-founders, who is leading the Company? Do they have a long-term vision? What's their culture like? Remember their employees are what make a vision come to life. If employees don't buy in, it's going to be really hard for a company to grow. For Duolingo, it was founded by Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker, two engineers who met at Carnegie Mellon. Luis is the CEO and Director, Severin is the CTO and Director. They're both heavily involved in the company, which we really like. For Luis growing up in Guatemalan, he saw how access to education can truly transform lives and when he met his kindred spirit in Safran the two embarked are creating an accessible, effective, and intelligent learning solution. While they started with languages, their long-term goal is to have language learning be just one of the education solutions that they offer. They've already started along this path. They have their Literacy App, Duolingo ABC, which teaches children how to read and they're working on an app to teach elementary school math. For culture, I like to look at website like Glassdoor to see what employees think. Do they like working there? Are they dedicated to vision? On Glassdoor, 93 percent of employees would recommend Duolingo to a friend and 97 percent approve of the CEO, so pretty solid results here.
Chris Hill: We say all the time investing is about the future. At some point when you're putting together an investment thesis, you got to check a couple of boxes in terms of what does the future look like for this business?
Alicia Alfiere: Yes. Think about the future. What's the market opportunity for them? Can they grow? How can they grow? Are there any broader trends that can help or hurt the company in the future? For Duolingo, they're a player in a growing market, the mobile learning space. Preferences for convenience, an on-demand services have driven a lot of consumers toward mobile solutions. Whether it's shopping or learning, and COVID accelerated the usage for mobile learning. Though the growth will probably edge away from some of that COVID highs, it's still expected to grow. Global language learning spending both online and offline, reached 61 billion in 2019 and is projected to grow to 115 billion by 2025. Within this market, online learning is growing fast. From 12 billion in 2019 to 47 billion in 2025. Perhaps the convenience and flexibility of mobile learning, as well as smartphone adoption overall, is broadening the demand for that language learning products. Since Duolingo's annual revenues were about 161 Million in 2020, they're only about 1.3 percent of the current market for online language learning, which gives them a ton of room to grow. They have a plan to grow, which is really important. They think that they could grow by increasing the number of users, converting free users to those paid subscription users, increasing subscription stickiness, which we already talked about, and expanding their solutions, beyond that language learning.
Chris Hill: We want to be bullish when we're thinking [laughs] about stock that we're considering adding to our portfolio. But at some point you have to put on the bare hat and think about what are the risks to this business?
Alicia Alfiere: Because every investment has risks, that's the nature of the beast and if you can't find one, you need to research more. Be curious, play the part of the skeptic and ask, what could go wrong. This is especially important in times of market volatility. For Duolingo, we already talked about some of the issues that they have here. Operating in a highly competitive environment and subscription retention numbers that could be better. But there's also another issue we didn't talk about, and that's low switching costs. What that means that it doesn't really cost a lot of money and it's not a huge hassle for users to simply change apps, or take in person costs instead and so that is another risk.
Chris Hill: You've clearly put in some work on Duolingo, tell me how the story ends. Is this stock you're adding to your portfolio or is it on your watchlist for right now?
Alicia Alfiere: Well, right now it's more on my watchlist. At the end of this process, what I like to do is summarize and actually, hey, what would the investment thesis look like? In this case, I would say Duolingo has gamified approach to learning, which has helped the company build a strong brand and benefit from strong network effects in some platform stickiness. With these competitive advantages, strong tailwinds from online education trends, a large market to expand into, and a plan for expansion, Duolingo is an intriguing company by subscription retention statistics and those low switching costs give me a bit of a pause for right now. I'm going to continue to follow them and research them because I find this company fascinating and a really value leadership's vision and plans for the future.
Chris Hill: Do you've more information about putting together your own investment thesis in our show notes. So check those out when you get a chance. Alicia Alfiere, thanks so much for being here.
Alicia Alfiere: Thanks for having me.
Chris Hill: That's all for today, I will be coming up tomorrow, three analysts share some of the biggest investing lessons that they've learned over the past 20 years. As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about and the Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against. So don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. I'm Chris Hill. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.