“It’s not some new type of nuclear bomb… It’s not a secret stealth drone army… (We’ve already seen plenty of those lately)… And it’s definitely not some crazy Area 51 mad-scientist experiment.
“To tell you the truth, it’s the furthest thing from a killing machine that you could possibly imagine. But its 41 million moving pieces are making top Chinese officials nervous.
“And this is your ONE SHOT to cash in…
“Before the fat cats on Wall Street beat you to the life-changing profits.”
That’s the lead-in to the latest teaser pitch from the Motley Fool, for their flagship Stock Advisor newsletter, and it’s teasing what they call the latest “jackpot” stock pick from Fool co-founder David Gardner.
Gardner has certainly had some hits over the years, including some incredible long-term winners that required abundant patience but generated 1,000%+ returns, stocks that you’ll always hear the Fool ads tout like Priceline.com, Amazon.com, America Online, Marvel, and a few other shining examples … but that’s not to say he hasn’t picked his share of stinkers as well.
So what is the growth stock that he’s picking this time for Stock Advisor?
Well, as the Fool has been doing lately they’re having a different employee carry the water for the Gardners in the promotional hype-filled ads — this time around it’s Frank Stewart, who is a graphic designer at the Motley Fool … and the letter that’s running over his signature is all about how America’s $2.89 trillion super weapon is … the “Creative Class.”
The argument (short version) is that the creativity of the American worker, particularly the “creative class” folks like Frank Stewart who come up with new ideas, new visions, and new inventions will continue to give us a leg-up on global competitors whose societies don’t yet nurture those “creative juices.”
And, more importantly for our immediate consideration, he says there’s riches to be made on the rising importance of this “class” of folks:
“I’ve had a little help from one of the most famous investors in the world. Don’t worry; you’ll meet him in a bit. He was able to pinpoint one shocking company that stands to profit from this surging $2.89 trillion American super weapon.
“For now, this company is lying in wait. But make no bones about it. They’re merely biding their time. Waiting for the opportune moment to step out of the shadows.
“And when they do, they’ll be poised to reap unheard-of profits …
“And you’ll be right there with them. Ready to vacuum up what can only be described as a Microsoft-like 46,211.70% return in the stock market, if they follow the path I’m convinced they’re on.”
The ad also goes through a pretty standard Fool littany of long-term optimism, which which I have some sympathy — it’s true that there are lots of reasons for concern, but there have almost always been abundant reasons for concern and the global economy has always grown over the long term and rewarded the strongest companies, including recoveries from wars and depression and everything else.
It might well be that current financial crises or debt problems are worse than past ones, but we all have a tendency to believe that our current crisis is the worst possible one … and that feeds the fearmongers. Past performance is no perfect indicator of future returns, and I certainly hope to prepare myself for any future crashes and to remain diversified and focused on the long term … but I’m more comfortable relying on 75-year trends than on the worrisome present.
But that might just be my personality — I’m an optimist by nature, so I get turned off by doomsayers and cheered up by those who look at positive potential for the future, you certainly might feel differently.
Back to the teaser pitch — what’s the secret pick that they hint at as “the remarkable opportunity…[that could]… ultimately go down as David’s biggest Jackpot! Stock yet…?”
Well, it’s a play on the “Creative Class” that Frank Stewart belongs to, and I suppose I do as well — he cites author Richard Florida in talking about this, and this quote from an article last year sums up the idea of this economic force pretty well:
“I define the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.”
Now, I won’t go off on my soapbox too much and say that the current us educational system is moving too much away from creative thinking and toward “teach to the test” rote learning that characterizes education in many other countries, including China and Japan where test obsession is said, by this ad at least, to help “stifle creativity.” I’m sure you all have your own thoughts on that matter.
No, we’re going to look at the company that the Fool is touting as a way to invest in the creative class … here’s more from the ad:
“Unfortunately, you can’t exactly invest in the Creative Class itself. But luckily for us, there IS an alternative.
“Now, I’m going to have to ask you to strap yourself in for this part…
“In fact, this will be the single most important sentence of my entire conversation with you today…
“You CAN invest in a company that DRIVES the Creative Class.”
OK, so what’s the company? We’re told that it’s …
“Like buying Microsoft in 1986.
“Right before it became the most powerful company on earth….”
OK, now you’ve got me interested. Here’s more to whet your appetite …
“But how did Microsoft make dreams like these come true? Easy. They found a fast-moving trend that was undeniably revolutionizing the American economy. A trend they knew would last for decades. Then they created a product nearly every one of those computers would need in order to function.
“Starting to sound familiar? It should. Because David Gardner’s next Jackpot! Stock is doing exactly the same thing. Microsoft had their personal computer revolution. And David’s next big winner has the rise of the Creative Class…”
“… this company’s trajectory is so similar to Microsoft’s that The New York Times ran a rumor a few years back saying Microsoft was considering buying them out.”
That’s all well and good, and saying that we’ve got the software locked up that will drive the creative class probably has many of you making guesses (probably even correct ones), but we don’t want to just guess… we get enough clues that we can be certain of a match, like these tidbits:
“… this company lets the Creative Class do their work as quickly and easily as possible.
“Think of the company as the paintbrush that the artist holds while he paints his masterpiece….
“I promise this isn’t some teenybopper social media fad. In fact, Amazon uses their software daily. So does Google. Same with IBM and GE. And Wells Fargo and Wal-Mart.
“Almost every established company needs this company’s software. Truth be told, I’m using it as we speak! In fact, there’s no possible way I could do my job without it.”
And then some specifics:
“Much like Windows, David’s next Jackpot! Stock has no real competitors in their business space. That gives them a dominant position in the market for the 41-million-person Creative Class. And obviously allows them to dictate pricing power and increase revenue margins.
“It’s no wonder they brought in $832.78 million in cold, hard profit during 2012 alone. That’s more than Facebook, LinkedIn, and Netflix combined. By a lot.
Heck, take a look at Amazon. They’re one of the most popular companies on the planet, and they lost $39 million in 2012….
“David’s next Jackpot! Stock has already climbed an impressive 81.26% in the past couple of years alone….”
So now you’re probably close to guessing who this is too, right? OK, fine, we’ll let the Thinkolator spit out it’s 100% certain answer now: This is Adobe Systems (ADBE), which does indeed sell the software platforms that power much of the work of many segments of the “creative class” … and which did indeed book profits of $832.78 million in 2012 (though recent quarters have been worse, and 2012 was a flat profit year over 2011).
ADBE is a very large company, with a market cap of about $26 billion, and I don’t think that this ad came over the transom before a couple days ago but it was likely written close to a month ago (or they at least wanted you to think that) because it teases that you must get in on the shares before the next earnings call on … September 17. Two weeks ago.
ADBE did release earnings on September 17, and they actually missed the average earnings estimate by a wee bit … but they said enough optimistic things about the future and about the adoption of their subscription pricing model that the stock bumped up close to 10% anyway.
Adobe has a lock on much of the market for their creative tools in web publishing and creative design, including such ubiquitous tools as PhotoShop, and their huge and complex programs with steep learning curves have created a network effect — not just because their tools are the best or only in their class, but because the switching costs in terms of new software licenses or training needs are very high. Some competitors, including Microsoft, have effectively bowed out of the core design space because they couldn’t compete with Adobe’s products, so in that way they’re a little bit like the Microsoft Office of the design and creativity world, and we all know that some of their products, like the .pdf file, are completely ubiquitous in every phase of modern technological life. Probably their product that faces the strongest competition is Flash, which powers web animation and more complex web experiences, since folks for years have been expecting HTML5 to take a bigger chunk of that marketplace, but it’s still used by millions.
So what’s going on? Well, Adobe has had some problems with (or at least some user griping about) keeping up to date and being nimble in updating programs, and their software often has high up-front costs that have turned off many — one of their responses has been to move, just like Microsoft is trying to do with Office, to a cloud platform that is paid for on a subscription basis, updated more frequently, and creates what is expected to be a more consistent and predictable revenue stream for Adobe. It’s not entirely clear how this will go with large customers over time, just as it’s not clear with the Microsoft Office transition, but apparently the initial signs are positive. They reiterated that last quarter, and the CEO went into more detail here in an interview back in June. It’s still early days on that front.
Adobe is expensive looking, as almost all David Gardner picks are — the forward PE is a hefty 33 or so, and analysts are only expecting growth of 15% or so in earnings. And the generally more cautious folks at Morningstar put a fair value of just $38 and think it’s at a “consider selling” level here at around $51. So this is not unlike many other Gardner picks in the past, he’s likely predicting a huge surge of increasingly predictable revenue and earnings increases over the coming years that will make the current worrying about whether it’s overvalued seem silly. And if the cloud software offering really takes off for them, it might bring in a lot of new customers who can’t afford the traditional software suite (the “Creative Cloud” bundled offering for “everything you need” is $49 a month, their last full suite of traditional software is more like $2,500).
It’s certainly an interesting and maybe risky proposition — I haven’t looked at this in much detail before reading the ad this morning, but my initial wonder is whether we’re going to see revenue shortfalls in this “Creative Cloud” transition as we get less of a lumpy revenue picture from new software releases. If we’re not seeing a big wave of $2,000 software purchases with the new software, maybe we’ll see a disappointing quarter or two even if it means we’ve actually got a much more appealing recurring revenue business from the Creative Cloud. If the company gets a dip because of something like that, it might be more appealing (and indeed, such a dip in revenues may be what’s happening already, I’m not sure about that).
Is Gardner right that this will be like buying Microsoft in 1986? Well, that I can’t tell you. It’s a company you’ve likely heard of, it’s big and established and has a huge “moat” in its core software products that many in the “creative class” can’t do their job without … but whether or not it’s a good buy here for your money, only you can make that conclusion. If you feel like sharing your conclusion with us, feel free to shout it out with a comment below.
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