Americans Can’t Stop Pampering Their Pets—Companies Want In | Kanebridge News
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Americans Can’t Stop Pampering Their Pets—Companies Want In

Firms that cater to humans adapt to the animal world. Ultrasounds for tree frogs. Telehealth for Stella.

By SHARON TERLEP
Fri, Jan 6, 2023 8:56amGrey Clock 3 min

Attention, CEOs: If not enough people are using your product, maybe animals will.

“Have you seen the numbers? They’re staggering,” said Jenna Mutch, a vice president at portable-ultrasound maker Butterfly Network Inc., referring to the rush of Americans who have brought home pets since the pandemic began. About 23 million households did, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Spending to pamper them is one of a few areas of the economy managing to defy inflation and avoid a post-lockdown pullback.

As a result, some companies that normally cater to humans are high-tailing it to pets.

Ms. Mutch heads commercial development for a newly created unit of her ultrasound company that sells scanners for animals.

Adapting human products for animals can be complicated. There’s the matter of animals’ size. Also, their shape.

Butterfly’s ultrasound machines can scan things ranging from as small as the reproductive organs of tree frogs to chonky mammals, including polar bears, according to Ms. Mutch. “We have to be very versatile,” she said.

Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. is adding hundreds of hotels where animals can stay the night. It offers virtual “pet expert teams” to address health and behaviour issues they might have while traveling, teaming with Mars Inc., the parent of veterinary operator VCA and Purina pet foods.

Snack-bar maker Clif Bar & Co. this summer started selling a line of jerky treats for dogs. Global food giant Mondelez International Inc. took over Clif in August. More pets and growing demand for all-natural dog food prompted the move, a spokeswoman said.

Petco Health & Wellness Co. gets dozens of proposals from companies looking to adapt their products to animals, said Chief Executive Ron Coughlin. Not all the ideas are fully baked. He passed on bringing acupuncturists to the company’s stores.

Although some consumers struggling with inflation are cutting back on nonessentials, they don’t seem to put pet stuff in that category. Spending on pet food was up more than 18% in the last year, and spending on supplies rose 8%, according to Jefferies Research Services.

Mr. Coughlin of Petco is confident the spending will continue as Americans become ever closer to their animals.

“If you look at 100 years ago, pets were in the wild. Forty years ago, they’re in our yard, and 20 years ago in the house,” he said. “Now they’re in the bed.”

Rebecca Goldberg, a physician assistant in Manhattan, has a mixed-breed rescue dog named Stella. When it comes to pampering dogs, Ms. Goldberg is middle of the pack. Hers sleeps on a dog bed, eats kibble as opposed to fresh or human-grade food, and enjoys regular treats.

But Stella, 5, also has a high-end, Carhartt-brand vest to keep her warm outdoors. And lately, Stella has become a remote patient for a veterinary telehealth company called Pawp.

Ms. Goldberg signed up for Pawp as part of a temporary deal offered by T-Mobile. She gets free telehealth services for a year and pays $14 a month to cover emergency visits.

The deal was attractive, she said, because Stella has a sensitive stomach and a propensity to eat things she shouldn’t, a combination that made for frequent vet visits. “Having a veterinary clinic in your pocket is amazing,” Ms. Goldberg said.

Pawp’s founder, Marc Atiyeh, is a veteran of a few industries, none of them animal-related. Before starting Pawp he worked in fintech, finance and mobile analytics.

“There is definitely a flock of players getting into this space,” he said. “You’re getting folks who are veterans of human healthcare or personal finance.”

Peggy Roe, who oversees customer experience and new ventures for Marriott International Inc., said the chain in 2021 started noticing more people asking animal-related questions as they sought vacation lodging—“people asking, ‘Are hotels pet friendly?’ ‘What size dog can I bring?’ ”

Seeing the queries, the company surveyed customers, and of around 300 respondents, 85% said they had pets and more than half planned to travel with them. And not just dogs. Customers expressed interest in traveling with cats, birds and even fish.

“We have hotels that accept all kinds of pets—they don’t discriminate,” Ms. Roe said.

She took Riley, her newly acquired golden retriever, on a road trip, stopping at Marriott properties along the way. There were some worries. How would the stay go over with other guests—and with Riley?

“There was that anxiety,” she said. “Is this going to be good for my dog? Are our other guests going to be upset? Is the staff going to be nice?”

She realised it wasn’t enough to simply provide options for people and their animals. Marriott had to ensure the comfort of both.

“There are the people who love pets, the people who love pets and don’t want to travel with them, and people who don’t want pets anywhere in their space,” she said.

Under a partnership with Petco, Marriott will highlight home-rental properties that are especially well-equipped for pets. Travellers can buy products such as dog beds and bowls from Petco and have them delivered.

“Inflation or not,” Ms. Roe said. “People aren’t going to leave their pets behind.”

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Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 30, 2023 7 min

A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe

 

Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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