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Q1 2024: Commentary From ARK’s CIO

April 17, 2024 | ETF

Broad-based global equity indexes[1] appreciated in the first quarter, despite a drop in the number of U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) rate cuts expected in 2024. Importantly, the Fed began to communicate that employment gains would not derail the decline in interest rates and that inflation is the much more important policy gauge. While the consensus forecast is for a soft landing, ARK still expects that a loss of pricing power will force corporations into employment cutbacks and a harder-than-expected landing. Indeed, the US economy seems to have been in a rolling recession, depressing sectors like housing, autos, and commercial real estate while inventories continue to build. In response, the potential growth in ARK’s Five Innovation Platforms[2] could play an outsized role in pulling the economy out of recession, salvaging corporate margins as inflation gives way to deflation in many sectors.

Rolling recessions suggest that the Fed should weigh the merits of rate cuts sooner than dot plots suggest. Unfortunately, the Fed still is focused on lagging indicators like wages and headline inflation. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has revised nonfarm payroll statistics down for eleven of the last thirteen months, suggesting that the labor market is weaker than government reports have suggested. The last time that the BLS revised nonfarm payroll employment statistics down for such an extended period of time was in 2007, months before the onset of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

  • The auto industry faced significant challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and, while sales did enter a V-shaped recovery in 2021, current unit sales are annualizing at a 15.5 million[3] annual rate, well below the pre-COVID range of 17-18 million units. In the early days of the pandemic, autos accounted for roughly one third of the inflation spike. Now, used car prices are down 15% year-over-year, down 21% from peak prices.[4]
  • Housing metrics like median prices, housing starts, and affordability also are sending troubling signals. At 4.4 million units, the number of existing home sales is just above levels last seen during the global housing crisis.[5] Rents for new tenants are declining roughly -4.6% year-over-year,[6] a rate higher than at any point during the financial crisis in 2008-2009. At the same time, a record number of apartment units are under construction, suggesting that rent deflation will push inflation into much lower-than-expected territory over time.
  • Real Gross Domestic Income (GDI)—which should equal real GDP over time—suggests that the economy is meaningfully weaker than Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The near-record wide difference is ~$450 billion.[7] Many global bellwethers are corroborating this weakness, several reporting year-over-year revenue declines during the fourth quarter: 3M (-1.8%), UPS (-7.8%), Kraft-Heinz (-7.1%), Exxon Mobil (-12.3%), Thermo Fisher (-4.9%), Home Depot (-2.9%), Cisco (-5.9%), Texas Instruments (-12.7%). In other words, Europe, the UK, Japan, and China already are in or are bordering on recession.
  • After boosting profitability with higher prices during the supply-chain-related bottlenecks in 2021-22, and again as unit growth disappointed in 2023, corporations now seem to be losing pricing power, to the detriment of profit margins. As measured by Bloomberg, the S&P 500’s gross profit margin declined from 34.8% on average during the past five years, and 34.6% during the fourth quarter of 2022, to 33.5% during the fourth quarter of 2023. In our view, this setback will intensify until the Fed cuts interest rates significantly and unless companies harness innovation like artificial intelligence aggressively, not only to drive productivity growth but also to create new products and services that replace legacy solutions. To limit the damage to margins in the interim, companies that hoarded employees during post-COVID labor shortages are likely to lay them off during the next year—and lower the rate of wage gains—further allaying the Fed’s concern about underlying inflation. As a result, nominal consumption could weaken beyond the recent soft spots associated with housing, autos, and other big-ticket purchases, forcing more price cuts and margin compression.
  • The US Small Business Optimism Index is in recession territory, worse than the COVID recession and the saving and loans crisis and entering GFC territory.[8]
  • M2[9] growth is down 1.7% on a year-over-year basis, a rate not seen since the 1930s.[10] While sequential declines seemed natural after the COVID-related surge, continued weakness could be pointing to recession. Additionally, because rising mortgage rates have trapped homeowners in their homes, growth in the velocity of money seems to be slowing down and could exacerbate the decline in M2, raising the odds of broad-based price deflation.
  • The ratio of the Commodity Research Bureau (CRB) Metals price index to the Gold price index is falling and is close to the lows recorded during the GFC in 2008-2009. Since the GFC and until last year, this ratio has correlated closely with long-term interest rates. If this relationship were to revert to normal, interest rates could collapse, or metals prices could rise significantly, or some combination of both.

While the Fed is focused on squelching inflation with higher interest rates, the bond market has been signaling trouble ahead. From March 2021 to July 2023, the yield curve[11] inverted from +159 basis points to -108 basis points,[12] hitting the steepest levels since the early 1980s when the Fed was fighting double-digit inflation. Since July 2023, the yield curve has entered a bear steepening phase, with long-term rates increasing relative to short-term rates, lowering the inversion to -39 basis points[13] and suggesting that both real growth and inflation could surprise on the low side of expectations. The Federal Reserve began increasing interest rates when the year-over-year Consumer Price Index (CPI)—a lagging economic indicator—reached 8.5% on a year-over-year basis in March 2022. Shortly thereafter, an inflationary surge influenced by geopolitical pressures and inventory hoarding peaked at 9.1% year-over-year. Since then, CPI inflation has dropped to 3.2%,[14] thanks to various deflationary forces––good, bad, and cyclical.

The Federal Funds Target Rate surged 22-fold in little more than a year. The deflationary ramifications of current Fed policy already are surfacing through bankruptcies in commercial real estate, both office and multi-family, and could culminate in another round of regional bank failures. If the Fed were to lower interest rates in response, companies sacrificing short-term profitability to invest and potentially capitalize on technologically enabled super exponential growth opportunities should be prime beneficiaries.

The Fed paused its tightening moves last summer. At the same time, in the technology realm, ChatGPT began to dramatize the seemingly miraculous breakthroughs that are likely to tip the scales even further toward broad-based deflation. Although creative destruction—the transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, for example—could obfuscate the boom associated with AI and other disruptive technologies evolving today, the waves of growth associated with the convergence among the 14 technologies involved in our five major platforms—robotics, energy storage, AI, blockchain technology, and multiomics sequencing—should start moving the needle on macro metrics increasingly and significantly during the next five to ten years.

In our view, history will show that inflation, initially triggered by supply shocks, was transitory and evolved into disinflation, then ultimately deflation. Consequently, interest rates are likely to surprise on the low side of expectations, broadening last year’s equity rally from a narrow subset of stocks.

During the first quarter of 2024, four of ARK’s six actively managed ETFs and both indexed ETFs underperformed relative to the broad-based global equity indexes, while two actively managed ETFs had mixed performance, underperforming and the S&P 500 Index but outperforming the MSCI World Index.[15]

ARK Autonomous Technology and Robotics ETF (ARKQ)

The ARK Autonomous Technology and Robotics ETF (ARKQ) underperformed broad-based global equity indices during the quarter.

Among the top detractors from ARKQ’s performance were Tesla (TSLA) and Iridium Communications (IRDM). Shares of Tesla detracted from performance amid wall street concerns about a slowdown in global electric vehicle (EV) adoption. In January, the company’s full-year earnings highlighted better-than-expected vehicle deliveries of 1.81 million, a 38% year-over-year growth rate, but forecasted a slowdown in volume growth in 2024 as the company prepares to launch its next-gen platform. At the end of the quarter, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is no longer limited by computing power in Artificial Intelligence training and will offer biweekly software updates to its Full-Self Driving (FSD) feature and a one-month free trial to all US-capable cars. Shares of Iridium Communications traded down after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings in February, noting increased competition from Starlink in its Maritime segment, with normalization expected soon.

Among the top contributors were NVIDIA (NVDA) and Trimble (TRMB). Shares of NVIDIA rallied after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings and hosted its annual developer conference. NVIDIA reported year-over-year revenue growth of 265% for the fourth quarter, an acceleration from 206% in the prior quarter, thanks to continued explosive growth in its Data Center segment. At its developer conference in March, NVIDIA released the new Blackwell chips, successors to the Hopper family of products that have been in high demand since the rise in large language model (LLM) training and inference. While Blackwell chip specifications were in line with previously leaked details, enthusiasm for NVIDIA’s product roadmap propelled its shares higher. Shares of Trimble appreciated after the company reported strong fourth-quarter earnings that surpassed consensus estimates, thanks to double-digit growth in the company’s Building and Infrastructure segment.

ARK Next Generation Internet ETF (ARKW)

The ARK Next Generation Internet ETF (ARKW) underperformed the S&P 500 Index while outperforming the MSCI World Index. Among the top detractors from ARKW’s performance were Roku (ROKU) and Unity Software (U). Shares of Roku slid after the company announced fourth-quarter earnings and Walmart acquired connected TV competitor, Vizio. Roku’s total revenue grew 11% year-over-year, surpassing expectations, and cash flow moved notably into positive territory. Total active accounts increased by 10 million, reaching 80 million and surpassing the combined subscriber count of the six largest traditional pay-TV providers. That said, now that Roku is expanding globally to meet consumer demand in lower-monetizing regions, average revenue per user was down by 4% year-over-year. While Walmart’s acquisition of Vizio will decrease shelf space for its TVs, Roku’s distribution is well-diversified, including other large retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and Costco. Shares of Unity Software traded down after the company reported mixed fourth-quarter results, guiding to 3% year-over-year revenue growth at midpoint for the full year of 2024, well below Wall Street estimates of 9%. Interim CEO Jim Whitehurst is streamlining operations strategically with an intensified focus on sectors outside of the gaming space.

Among the top contributors were Coinbase Global (COIN) and ARK 21Shares Bitcoin ETF (ARKB). Shares of Coinbase Global rallied along with the broad crypto asset market. The price of bitcoin broke through $70,000, setting an all-time-high in March, not long after the launch of 11 spot bitcoin ETFs. Coinbase also received positive news in its legal battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as the court dismissed the SEC’s charges against Coinbase Wallet, its self-custody solution—a significant win for Coinbase and for decentralized financial services in the US broadly. ARKB, an exchange traded fund that tracks the spot price of bitcoin (BTC), benefited from the same trends and from the upcoming “halving” of bitcoin—at which time its daily issuance will be cut in half—in April.

ARK Genomic Revolution ETF (ARKG)

The ARK Genomic Revolution ETF (ARKG) underperformed broad-based global equity indices during the quarter. Among the top detractors from ARKG’s performance were Pacific Biosciences (PACB) and Ginkgo Bioworks (DNA). Shares of Pacific Biosciences traded down after the company preannounced fourth-quarter results, including better-than-expected sales of sequencers but lower-than-expected pull-through of the more profitable consumables—a short-term mismatch, in our view. Shares of Ginkgo Bioworks depreciated after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings that missed top-line expectations and guidance. Ginkgo’s Cell Engineering segment added 78 new Cell Engineering programs in 2023, growing 32% year-over-year, and its revenue—excluding downstream value share revenue—grew 31%.

Among the top contributors were Beam Therapeutics (BEAM) and Nurix Therapeutics (NRIX). Shares of Beam Therapeutics rallied after the company announced fourth-quarter and full-year results. Thanks in large part to payments from Eli Lilly for Beam Therapeutics’ opt-in rights to Verve Therapeutics’ gene therapy programs for cardiovascular disease, the company’s net income swung from loss into profit. Shares of Nurix Therapeutics rallied in anticipation of the company’s presentation at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting, in which management was to share updates on NX-5948, its novel approach targeting Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) to treat relapsed or refractory B cell malignancies. On April 9th, the company presented data showcasing clinical responses in the brain, marking the first demonstration of a targeted protein degrader’s clinical activity within the brain, and paving the way for novel therapeutic strategies for treating leukemias and lymphomas involving the central nervous system (CNS).

ARK Fintech Innovation ETF (ARKF)

The ARK Fintech Innovation ETF (ARKF) underperformed the S&P 500 Index while outperforming the MSCI World Index. Among top detractors from ARKF’s performance were Twilio (TWLO) and Roku (ROKU), the latter for the reasons discussed above. Shares of Twilio traded down after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings and projected that revenue growth would slow from 5% year-over-year to 2-3% this quarter. During the quarter, Twilio announced that CEO and co-founder, Jeff Lawson, would be replaced by former President of Communications, Khozema Shipchandler, most likely a result of activist investor demands for near-term results over longer-term growth opportunities. As part of the leadership transition, Twilio launched an operational review of Segment, its customer Data Platform (CDP), and considered selling it entirely. Ultimately, management decided not to sell Segment and will seek profitability instead. In our view, the new team will not be as effective at integrating AI into Segment and Twilio.

Among top contributors were Coinbase Global (COIN), for the reasons discussed above, and Robinhood Markets (HOOD). Shares of Robinhood Markets rallied after the company reported strong fourth-quarter earnings, including revenue growth of 24% year-over-year that beat Wall Street estimates by 4 percentage points. The company also reported $4.6B in net deposit inflows for the fourth quarter of 2023, $1.3B of which originated in brokerage account transfers from competitors. AllianceBernstein initiated coverage on Robinhood with an “Outperform” rating in anticipation of continued strength across cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin broke through $70,000 and set a new all-time-high in March. Additionally, Robinhood unveiled a new credit card that appears competitive with other premium cards in the US, which strengthens our digital wallet thesis.

ARK Space Exploration & Innovation ETF (ARKX)

The ARK Space Exploration & Innovation ETF (ARKX) underperformed broad-based global equity indices during the quarter. Among the top detractors from ARKX’s performance were Iridium Communications (IRDM), for reasons discussed above, and Archer Aviation (ACHR). Shares of Archer Aviation were hit by a broad market pullback in electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) stocks that overshadowed positive fundamental developments. Notably, the company’s fourth-quarter earnings highlighted progress in its efforts to achieve certification and commercialization in 2025, including the ongoing construction of three conforming piloted aircraft that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will use in “For Credit” testing later this year.

Among the top contributors were AeroVironment (AVAV) and Trimble (TRMB), the latter for reasons discussed above. Shares of AeroVironment rallied after the company reported fiscal third-quarter earnings that surpassed consensus estimates. Demand for AeroVironment’s Switchblade product propelled triple-digit growth in its Loitering Munitions Systems segment. Management also raised guidance for fiscal year 2024.

ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK)

Invested in the highest conviction names in the Funds discussed above, the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK) underperformed broad-based global equity indices during the quarter. Among the top detractors from ARKK’s performance were Tesla (TSLA) and Roku (ROKU), for the reasons discussed above. Among the top contributors were Coinbase Global (COIN) and Robinhood Markets (HOOD), for the reasons discussed above.

ARK Israel Innovation Technology ETF (IZRL) & The 3D Printing ETF (PRNT)

Among ARK’s self-indexed ETFs, the ARK Israel Innovation Technology ETF (IZRL) underperformed the broad-based global equity indices.[16]

Shares of Pagaya Technologies (PGY) were the largest detractor from IZRL’s performance during the quarter, primarily because of a secondary equity offering. Pagay Technologies designs and develops applications for online lending, auto finance, student loans, and credit card loans. Shares of SimilarWeb (SMWB) were the largest contributor to IZRL’s performance this quarter. The company posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter results and guided for continued strength. SimilarWeb provides data analytics software for web and mobile application traffic.

Shares of Xometry (XMTR), an on-demand industrial parts marketplace, were the largest detractor from PRNT’s performance during the quarter. The company reported its fourth-quarter earnings and forecasted a slowdown in marketplace revenue growth for the first quarter of 2024, citing budget-conscious customers at the start of the year. Shares of Desktop Metal, a manufacturing technology company focused on end-use parts, were the largest contributor to performance during the quarter. Shares rebounded from all-time lows in February after the company expanded its 3D printing materials partnership with Evonik and continued higher after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings that surpassed consensus estimates. The company will re-prioritize its focus on cashflow and target positive adjusted- earning before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) in the second half of 2024 thanks to a ~$150 million annualized cost-reduction plan.

ARK’s statements are not an endorsement of any company or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security. ARK and its clients as well as its related persons may (but do not necessarily) have financial interests in securities or issuers that are discussed. Certain of the statements contained may be statements of future expectations and other forward-looking statements that are based on ARK’s current views and assumptions and involve known and unknown risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results, performance, or events to differ materially from those expressed or implied in such statements.

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