Behind the Scenes with Proactive, Inovio and Unilife

Note #1: Prior to publishing this article, the author filed detailed complaints with the US Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the parties and activities described herein.

Note #2: Due to the large volume of documentation obtained by the author, only a small portion is included in this article. However, the author has made efforts to ensure that the SEC and Seeking Alpha are aware of all findings, including those not detailed in this article.

Note #3: Many of the suspect articles referred to below have already been removed by Seeking Alpha. This can be seen by scrolling through Yahoo Finance, where the headlines still remain. However, the author had previously preserved electronic copies wherever possible in order facilitate ongoing investigation of the authors involved.

Investment overview

Following my recent article describing undisclosed stock promotions at CytRx Corp (CYTR) and Galena (GALE), using controversial IR firm The Dream Team Group.

These stocks have quickly fallen by 20-30%. Shares of InterCloud (ICLD) next fell by 30% on Friday following class action lawsuits and from concerns regarding paid promotions there by Dream Team writers Tom Meyer and John Mylant. The issues at InterCloud were also uncovered in the wake of my last article. All of these stocks are now down by at least 50% from their recent promotional highs.

Continue reading…

Behind the scenes with Dream Team, CytRx and Galena

Note: At least 13 recent articles covering CytRx have been removed from circulation at Seeking Alpha, the Wall Street Cheat Sheet, Motley Fool and Forbes. Many were removed in just the past two days. A list of these removed articles is shown at the bottom of this article. The author has preserved PDF copies of these articles at MoxReports.com.

In total, more than 100 articles tied to The Dream Team have now been removed from circulation in just the past two days.

Overview

A few weeks ago I received a surprising email asking me to be a paid stock tout for IR firm “The Dream Team Group”. I was asked to write paid promotional articles on Galena Biopharma (GALE) and CytRx Corp (CYTR), without disclosing payment. Rather than refuse outright, I decided to investigate. I began submitting dummy articles to the Dream Team rep (with no intention of ever publishing them). My goal was to determine how involved management from these two companies were in this undisclosed paid promotion scheme. Below I will provide detailed documentation (emails and attachments) which indicate that management from both Galena and CytRx were intimately involved in reviewing and editing the paid articles on their own stock at precisely the time they were looking to sell / issue shares.

Continue reading…

Links to pulled articles on CYTR

The following is a partial list of archived articles on CytRx which have been removed from circulation.  I expect to continue uploading additional articles on CytRx and other Dream Team clients going forward.

sa_cytr_2013_12_12_JohnMylant

sa_cytr_2013_11_19_JohnMlyant

sa_cytr_2013_10_13_JohnMlyant

wscs_cytr_2014_02-04_JohnRivers

wscs_cytr_2014_02_03_JamesRatz

wscs_cytr_2014_01_22_JamesRatz

wscs_cytr_2013_12_18_TomMeyer

wscs_cytr_2013_12_16_JamesRatz

wscs_cytr_2013_12_13_JamesRatz

wscs_cytr_2013_12_11_TomMeyer

wscs_cytr_2013_12_05_TomMeyer

wscs_cytr_2013_10_01_TomMeyer

Sungy Mobile Set To Burn US Investors

Company overview

Sungy Mobile (GOMO) is a US listed Chinese ADR. The company’s main product is a downloadable “app” for Android phones which allows users to customize their icons and wallpaper. The company currently has a market cap of approximately $900 million and trades on a PE ratio of over 100x. The stock is very liquid and trades $10-15 million (over 400,000 shares) per day. Short interest in the stock is negligible at just 282,483 shares (less than 1% of outstanding).

Investment summary

Sungy represents a compelling short sale opportunity in the near term. At prices above $24, the stock has near term downside of at least 50%, which would still leave it trading above its recent IPO price of $11.22.

Continue reading…

MiMedx set to fall further

My last short article discussed Farmer Brothers Coffee (FARM) and since that time, the stock has come off by nearly 20% without much of a bounce. Prior to that, I discussed Unilife (UNIS), which is now down by 15-20% for largely the reasons I predicted. Before that, I highlighted unacknowledged and low-priced product competition for Organovo Holdings (ONVO). At the time, the stock had been trading around $13.00, and now it has fallen to $9.00. Prior to that, my earnings call on Ignite Restaurant Group (IRG) correctly predicted a fall of around 30% in that stock.

But for today, I am focused on an even better near-term short opportunity in MiMedx Group (MDXG).

Continue reading…

Trouble Brewing at Farmer Bros Coffee (FARM)

Background

Farmer Brothers coffee (FARM) was founded in 1912 by Roy E Farmer. The company is headquartered in Torrance, CA, which location also serves as a manufacturing and distribution hub.

The company became publicly traded in 1951 and for a while was profitable and paid a dividend. Yet the company has now failed to generate any annual profit since 2007. In 2011, the company cancelled its dividend, citing ongoing financial circumstances.

The company is not widely covered on the research side, while much of the institutional holdings consist of passive index funds. As a result, the share price has gradually crept up from a low of around $7 in 2012 to over $24 by late 2013. Much is this has been due to strong performance by other stocks in the coffee space such as Starbucks (SBUX) and Green Mountain Coffee (GMCR).

Continue reading…

The big picture at Unilife (UNIS)

Investment considerations

As bulls and bears debate their longer term expectations for revenues at Unilife, many have missed the fact that there are near term catalysts which can be expected to have a very certain impact on the share price well before these longer term forecasts have a chance to play out.

Investors should also pay close attention to the stock promotion efforts which have accompanied the recent press releases and they should be aware of some nearly identical promotions in the past. As shown below, these types of stock promotions can often create more bounce in the share price than the actual news released by the company itself.

Separately, investors who wish to assess the longer term revenue prospects should make themselves aware of the current competitive environment. Many investors appear to have missed the existence of numerous competitors with similar product offerings who already have substantial cooperation from big pharma players.

As a final consideration, many investors have engaged in substantial debate over two negative articles which were published in Forbes in September. These articles contributed to significant volatility in the share price when they discussed a whistle blower lawsuit brought against Unilife by a former employee. Many investors appear to have never read the actual lawsuit and instead have simply relied upon the interpretation as represented by Forbes. Anyone with a longer term interest in Unilife should certainly read the suit themselves and come to their own interpretation. I have included as an Appendix a link to the full lawsuit text filing along with several text excerpts.

Section 1: Long term theses vs. near term catalysts

Last week was a volatile one for shareholders in Unilife (UNIS).

On Monday, the shares had traded as low as $4.03, closing at $4.15. But after the market closed, Unilife announced ”an agreement with Novartis to supply clinical products from one of its platforms of injectable drug delivery systems for use with one of Novartis’ targeted early-stage pipeline drugs”.

The mere mention of “an agreement with Novarits” had a predictable effect on the share price, and Unilife quickly traded as high as $5.25 in extended hours trading – an immediate gain of more than 25%.

These gains followed similar gains the previous week, following theannouncement of a long term supply agreement with Hikma Pharmaceuticals on November 20th. Just prior to this announcement, the stock had closed at $2.80.

After trading to as high as $5.25 in extended hours, the shares ended the week at $4.31, but had traded as low as $4.16 again on Friday. In other words, by the end of the week, Unilife had already given up almost all of its sharp gains following the Novartis release. The stock has already received price target upgrades from its three investment banks last week, but this appears to have provided very little support for the share price.

An outpouring of analysis on Wednesday added to the volatility in the share price, but appears to have not given much direction to the share price. In that one day, there were three large short articles and two large long articles published. These authors took turns repeating one another, contradicting one another and ignoring one another. All of this also happened to occur on the same exact day that CEO Alan Shortall was presenting at a conference in New York. Not surprisingly, the share price was very volatile that day, at times being down by 10% or up by 5%. It was equally unsurprising that the share price finally ended the volatile day almost entirely unchanged (up by just 2 cents).

The bull thesis is based on the opinion that this recent series of supply agreements will ultimately produce perhaps hundreds of millions in revenue from big pharma partners. However, even the bulls acknowledge that meaningful revenues are not expected to materialize until after several ramp up periods of as long as four years.

The bear thesis was fully detailed by Kerrisdale Capital which notes that recent announcements from Unilife are nearly identical to numerous announcements stretching back 10 years, each of which suggested that the onset of massive revenues was imminent. Such announcements had consistently caused the share price to soar dramatically, just as they have again done in the past two weeks. As they have been recently, analysts were then quick to upgrade the stock. Yet revenues for Unilife have continued to dwindle while Unilife has steadily issued nearly 40 million new shares in just the past few years.

For those looking to trade the stock, the inherent problem with both of these bull and bear theses is that both are predicated on how potential contracts and revenues will play out over a period of several years. Given the tremendous volatility in the stock recently, long term views may not be of ideal use.

Both sides are free to speculate on the longer term future of Unilife. However in the near term, one thing is quite certain: By the end of December, Unilife will likely be out of cash and the company is almost certain to issue a substantial amount of equity before the Christmas holiday. This is the near term catalyst.

Author Dr. Hugh Akston illustrated this catalyst quite clearly in a recent article. As of September 30th (i.e. two months ago, its last reported quarter), Unilife was down to just $7 million in cash. The company steadily burns around $3 million every month. The company did receive $5 million as an upfront payment from Sanofi in October, but Unilife has already disclosed that it plans on paying down a loan to Varilease for roughly that amount. As of right now, Unilife is therefore down to around $1 million in available cash vs. its consistent cash burn of around $3 million per month.

The incentive to conduct a very large equity offering is clearly substantial. Last week (following the sharp spike), Unilife had quickly risen by nearly 90% and was trading at its highest levels since 2011. But this is simply on a “nominal” share price level. In reality, the large number of shares which have been issued every year means that last week Unilife was closing in on its highest evervaluation (market cap) since coming public in the US. Some investors may not realize this given that the share price has fallen from above $10.00 to around $4.00 at present. Yet it remains the case that the market cap for Unilife had just hit within around 10% of its highest ever valuation since trading in the US.

The recent upgrades by Unilife’s investment banks were all based upon enthusiasm for the Novartis announcement. Yet these banks are not privy to any additional information beyond the press release, which we can all read equally well. The banks simply relied upon this simple press release to provide generous upgrades to their share price targets. Such jockeying for position ahead of a near term equity financing suggests that these banks are looking for an equity offering that will be bigger rather than smaller and which will provide millions of dollars in investment banking fees to whoever is selected by Unilife. Currying favor with the company by upgrading the stock should therefore have been fully expected. These upgrades have failed to support the stock, so it appears that the market has already come to this realization on its own.

Section 2: Evaluating the stock promotion efforts

When looking at the “big picture” at Unilife, investors need to understand that there is an active effort at stock promotion which has been going on for quite some time. The details from this particular effort are virtually identical to other stock promotions, some of which I have highlighted in past articles.

Here is how it typically works. (And readers should keep in mind that I am not specifically referring to Unilife in this description. I am referring to a cookie cutter process that can be seen very frequently across numerous micro cap reverse merger stock promotions)

In each case, the promotion involves a small, money losing reverse merger which supposedly has the potential for massive near term transformation along with billions in revenue potential. At some point, the company issues one or more press releases which happen to mention global mega giants within its industry. Specific terms which would allow for proper revenue forecasting are typically not disclosed for competitive reasons or due to “confidentiality”. The share price often moves to some extent based on these press releases. But much sharper gains appear when certain third party authors interpret these press releases for us and then issue massive multi bagger share price forecasts. Share prices can then often show additional gains of more than 50% in a very short period. But the gains are typically very short lived. Over time most of these promotion efforts end up giving up all of their gains, and in many cases they end of falling even further, for reasons that will be shown below.

On Friday, author Tech Guru weighed in once again to help us “parse” the debate on Unilife. He notes that he expects $50 million in revenue in 2014. By way of comparison, over the past 5 years, Unilife has generated a cumulative total of only around $25 million in revenues. But most of this came in 2010. More recently, revenues have dwindled to around $0.6 million per quarter. During this time span of several years, Unilife has repeatedly issued similar bullish forecasts which made statements such as:

we have been swamped with demand from a lot of other pharma companies who also have unmet needs.”

“We expect to be supplying this to many pharma companies in the near future,”Allan said.”

Past press releases dating back as far as 4 years include the following. (Note these are all PRIOR TO 2013, and as such should have already had an impact on revenues).

2010 - Unilife and sanofi-aventis Agree to Exclusivity List for Unifill(TM) Ready-to-Fill Syringe

2010 - Unilife and Stason Pharmaceuticals Sign Asian Distribution Agreement for the Unitract(TM) 1mL Safety Syringe

2011 - Unilife Signs Clinical Development and Supply Agreement with Global Pharmaceutical Company

2011 - Unilife Wins Supply Contract with Nation’s Largest Healthcare Alliance

2011 - Unilife Starts Unifill Syringe Sales to Another Pharmaceutical Customer

2011 - Unilife Commences Initial Supply of the Unifill® Syringe to Sanofi

2011 - Unilife on Schedule to Fill Initial Orders for Unifill Syringe

2012 - Unilife’s Bolus Injector Platform Targeted by Global Pharmaceutical Company for Use in Multi-Drug Program

2012 - Unilife Signs Long-Term Supply Contract for the Unifill Prefilled Syringe

In many cases, these press releases were just as exciting as the recent ones in 2013. They also consistently provided (very brief) boosts to the share price of Unilife as expected.

But the results have varied dramatically vs. expectations.

The points from these graphs demonstrate the following: the share price has been steadily declining for the past several years, even as Unilife has consistently issued millions of new shares. Likewise, revenues have dwindled by more than 70% while losses have grown substantially. All of this has occurred despite the consistent release of “news” from Unilife which has been largely similar to that which was released in the past few weeks.

It is therefore unclear how Tech Guru could be so optimistic regarding a tremedous surge in revenue next year.

A few months ago, I highlighted a different campaign by Tech Guru with Neonode Inc. (NEON), which appears to be nearly identical to the promotion of Unilife in virtually all respects. The similarities and parallels here should be patently obvious to anyone who has followed Unilife.

Tech Guru began writing on Neonode earlier in 2013. Between March and September, he wrote bullish articles on the company on average every 2-3 weeks. Neonode is engaged in licensing touch sensor technology, mostly to electronics OEMs.

Just like Unilife, money-losing microcap Neonode had put out several very promising press releases this year which could be linked to global giants within its industry. Over a period of months these included such heavy weights as Samsung and LG, along with automotive contracts with Volvo. Clearly this was going to be huge and transformational.

Just like Unilife, Neonode had been putting out nearly identical press releasesfor years, but consistently failed to generate meaningful revenues – despite the global giant partners. Just like Unilife, Neonode has never earned a profit in its numerous years in business. And just like Unilife, the press releases from Neonode were always kept vague and omitted the most relevant details, typically due to competitive or confidentiality reasons.

Given that multiple years of nearly identical press releases from Neonode failed to produce large scale revenues or any profits at all, it is unclear why Tech Guru would project that more identical press releases in 2013 would somehow lead to near term windfall profits and a skyrocketing share price. But by trumpeting names like LG and Samsung and predicting returns of more than 400%, his articles did cause the share price to briefly rise by around 60% to as high as $8.84 up from around $5.00 in March.

Just like with Unilife, the investment bankers were quick to upgrade Neonode based on nothing more than the very vague press releases. Investment bank Craig Hallum initiated coverage on Neonode when the stock price was just $3-4, and put a target of $7.50 on the stock, implying that they expected Neonode to double. The timing of this coverage was downright bizarre given that Neonode had just lost its largest customer, Amazon (AMZN), which had been responsible for 40% of its revenues at the time. But the upgrade worked and Neonode rose. By August, Neonode had still failed to replace its lost revenues and reported a notably large earnings miss which sent the stock plunging by more than 20%. What did Craig Hallum do ? They upgraded the stock again – now with a $10.00 target. This upgrade, along with more bullish articles by Tech Guru (predicting a $27 share price) sent the stock to just under $9.00. This sequence of events is all detailed clearly in my September article.

By now, this sequence of events should all feel very familiar to those who follow Unilife. So far they have been largely identical.

What happened next with Neonode was quite predictable. Neonode and its management sold $19 million in equity. Craig Hallum ran the deal (as expected) and made millions in fees. Meaningful revenues from the mega announcements may still be years away (if ever) and the stock price quickly fell by around 30% back to around $5.00 – right where it began. Prior to the offering, Tech Guru had been writing bullish articles on Neonode every 2-3 weeks for a 5 month period. This was a dedicated and persistent effort. But following the offering, the articles suddenly ceased for several months.

Many investors may wonder if such promotions can actually have a meaningful impact on the share price. The answer is a categorical “yes, they can”, especially if executed by a professional. This point can be made clear with a separate example.

Lately the Novartis news has taken center stage to the point where many investors have stopped focusing on the recent Hikma news from November 20th. The Hikma announcement caused Unilife to soar by more than 30% to $4.03. But after the initial surge, investors began a meaningful sell-off as they fully evaluated the news. It was only a double promotion from a paid subscription service called “The Focused Stock Trader” that sent Unilife soaring.

The graph below illustrates the sequence of events.

- Nov19 / 20 – Unilife announces Novartis news – stock rises to $4.03

- Nov21 – UNIS stock immediately trades down as low as $3.63 (down 9.9%) closes at $3.73

- Nov22 – 25 – UNIS struggles to hold above $4.00

- Nov26 – TFST promo article to paid subscribers only - UNIS immediately jumps from $3.85 to as high as $4.38 (13% jump and a new 52 week high).

- Nov27th – TFST article released on SA at 2:35 pm – stock jumps again from below $4.20 to as high as $4.50 (breaking yet another 52 week high)

- Nov28th – Thanksgiving – market closed

- Nov29th – Friday – stock closes at $4.40

- Dec 2nd – Stock closes at $4.15 (down 6%) hitting a low of $4.03 again (right where it began)

- Dec 2nd (after market close) – Novartis news released

The conclusion from this is that the stock had been quickly falling below $4.00 until it was pumped up by TFST and his distribution to his subscriber and then the follow through on Seeking Alpha. The stock was quickly losing momentum again, and the only thing the resurrected it was a new press release regarding Novartis.

TFST is a paid stock promotion letter. According to its results page, TFST is among the best investors in the entire stock market throughout the history of time eternal. Better than Buffet, Ichan or Soros by a long stretch. It notes that:

As our results show, The Focused Stock Trader recommendations were correct 52 out of 55 trades for an average return of 29.69% per trade with 2 trades generating returns in excess of 200%. The average holding period for our recommended trades, not including open trades, is 24 days. THE FOCUS STOCK TRADER HAS BEEN CORRECT 95% OF THE TIME GENERATING 30% EVERY 24 DAYS.

Apparently by following TFST, one can quickly become immensely wealthy. Fortunately, TFST makes its expertise available to the public, for anyone willing to pay $400 per quarter ($133 per month) or $1,200 per year ($100 per month). Based on this, it is very easy for TFST to pull in a 6 figure income from subscription revenue irrespective of the performance of any trades it recommends.

closer look at TFST reveals that many of these stock picks end up being for very speculative reverse mergers which demonstrate great volatility. The research underlying them is often questionable, yet TFST has apparently generated significant returns on the upside, quickly selling before these stocks fall back to Earth.

For example, back in August, TFST highlighted Organovo Holdings (ONVO). Histrack record notes that he had sold the stock for prices as high as $11.20. But when the stock was trading at over $12.00, I highlighted the fact that much of its gains were due to misinformation and inaccurate comparisons to 3D printing stocks such as 3D Systems (DDD) and Stratysys (SSYS). The article from TFST contains the exact type of misinformation that I had referred to. He noted that

Needless to say, Organovo can do for 3-D printing what Microsoft (MSFT) did for PCs and Ford (F) did for the automobile; make a long-sought after dream a reality.

Shortly after TFST was selling at $11.20, the stock quickly ended up falling below $8.00. The stock has recently jumped due to the CEO’s presentation at retailinvestorconference.com. But even on that conference, the CEO went out of his way to make clear that Organovo is NOT a 3D printing stock.

TFST clearly benefited from the rise in the Organovo even though its research was largely unfounded. So, what’s the harm ?

The harm is that when stock promoters put out unfounded research on tiny, speculative reverse mergers, investors end up buying into these stocks without understanding that there are very substantial risks. TFST’s next pick was Fab Universal (FU), which he ended up making a whopping 99% on, selling it at $10.75. Congratulations to TFST, however that stock has since been halted after a fraud expose by GeoInvesting. Prior to the halt, this stock had last traded at $3.07. Trading has not yet resumed. Anyone who has been stuck holding a Chinese microcap which has been halted due to fraud allegations would likely not hold much optimism for the future of Fab. TFST was smart enough to get out at $10.75, but its subscribers may not have been so lucky. On its website TFST notes that:

In our reporting, we will suggest the purchase point; however, it is up to you to decide when to close out the position.

Likewise, on Unilife, we will have no idea how quickly TFST will end up running for the exits. In fact, it may well be the case that TFST will have the benefit of selling to individuals who are still buying based on research provided by TFST. That advantage, along with over $100,000 per year in subscriber income, makes for a great business model for TFST.

A longer look at the TFST track record shows a predisposition towards speculative and volatile reverse merger stocks which often end up in the cross hairs of short sellers. Revolution Lighting (RVLT) which TFST was selling as high as $5.00 was later exposed by a short selling and fraud focused site the StreetSweeper. The stock subsequently fell by as much as 50% from where TFST was selling, and it now sits at around $2.80. But it appears to have been another great trade for TFST who got out early. Likewise, it is very difficult to understand how anyone could have ever recommended beleaguered OCZ Technology (OCZ) which has been on terminal status for over a year.

TFST had noted that :

Short sellers are still holding on, but perhaps not for long. OCZ’s short position is at an unsustainable 79.3%.

Within a month, the shares had already plunged by around 80%. Since that time the shares have fallen by more than 95% and now trade for around 10 cents. It looks like there was a reason why the short interest was so monumental.

Yet OCZ has continued to be a promo pump target even now. Ashraf Eassa recently warned that there is still a pump campaign trying to spread rumor of a buyout on this now dead stock.

In separate disclosure on November 29th, TFST noted that his holding periodwas as short as just 14 days. The point is that small reverse mergers can often pop due to the sensation which surrounds vague press releases. This is especially true when the press releases include the names of major, global industry players. As players such as TFST have demonstrated, the best way to profit from such hype is to buy the rumor and (very quickly) sell the news.

The promoters behind Unilife have demonstrated a consistent tendency to back speculative, money losing reverse merger stocks. As with TFST, other backers have found themselves on the opposite side from short sellers.

Tech Guru had previously penned an article to rebut the short thesis on Coronado Biosciences (CNDO). Coronado had the implausible idea of making medical treatments out worm eggs which grow on pig feces. Tech Guru sought to debunk the short thesis which had been highlighted again by such skeptics as the StreetSweeper.

In its “public oath” the StreetSweeper states that:

We aim to partner with the public in exposing corporate fraud and bringing its engineers to justice. To that end, we pledge to investigate credible allegations of misconduct and – if the evidence supports those accusations – report the truth about our findings. At the same time, we agree to disclose any conflicts that could potentially color our judgment. By embracing these core principles, we hope to protect ordinary Americans and deliver them news that they can trust.

Readers can take that “public oath” with whatever grain of salt that they like. The point from it is that sites such as the StreetSweeper do not focus on stocks which are merely overvalued by 10-20% or which might have a bad earnigs quarter. They are focused on catalysts which are far more dramatic and which imply far larger share price moves.

As with Unilife, the shorts made their case by saying citing a horrible track record by management, including huge share sales despite no revenues. In backing this company, Tech Guru was defending the indefensible. As should have been expected, the use of worm eggs from pig feces failed in clinical trials and the share price plunged from over $8.00 to as low as $1.25. Yet the elevated share price before the failure allowed management to raise over $200 million from stock sales over the past few years. The shorts were particularly focused on the fact that a small group of insiders had been repeatedly involved in similar speculative ventures which soared on the hype but which imploded following large share sales. Since the implosion of Coronado, Tech Guru has ceased providing further updates on the company.

The point from these examples is that generating excitement around tiny reverse mergers which generate little to no revenue is far easier than generating excitement around larger companies which are profitable and stable. This is precisely why promoters choose such companies. Yet by ignoring or denying the warning signs highlighted by the skeptics, these promoters can often encourage other investors to invest in stocks which have very significant (and unknown) downside potential.

Other Unilife bulls appear to be engaged in a different strategy when writing about Unilife.

In the past year, Fusion Research has gone from zero articles on Seeking Alpha to almost 400. A new article appears from them on almost every trading day, with the result that Fusion is now #1 on long ideas, #1 on services stocks and #1 on industrial goods. These rankings are based purely on number of hits.

Fusion describes itself saying:

Fusion Research is managed by a team that has been actively involved in the financial research industry for over 5 years. Our business is rooted in principles of trust, integrity and fundamentals-driven markets.

But it also notes that

We create strategic partnerships with companies and firms to gain unprecedented domestic and international following of our coverage.

In fact, a closer look at Fusion’s own website reveals that Fusion is actually an IT outsourcing firm which focuses on simple web development and HTML. There is a link where once can “learn more” about its investment research activities. But that link is broken and leads to nowhere.

In its almost 400 articles, Fusion has consistently written about mega cap stocks which have a huge built in following of thousands of readers. But it has also made it a point to write about smaller stocks which have recently shown dramatic price moves and which will also automatically generate a large number of hits.

The key point is as follows: During a two week period, shares of Unilife soared by as much as 88% on the back of two press releases which are encouraging but still far too vague for planning or forecasting purposes. Prior to this, the shares closed at $2.80 and the shares have already begun a substantial retreat.

The attention of promotional authors can often have an even larger impact than the news from the company itself. While this can often create great short term trading opportunities for those who are nimble, holding these stocks after they peak can end up producing substantial losses on the way down. Investors should be aware that those who promote such stocks often have zero intention of holding the shares and often intend to play it as a quick “buy on the rumor trade”. Other authors are simply attracted to the most volatile stocks which tend to generate the largest number of page views and typically do not even buy the stocks they are writing about.

Section 3: Competitive considerations for Unilife

Many of the recent articles have been overwhelmingly focused on highlighting the dramatic upside associated with Unilife, while downplaying the substantial risks of buying on this spike. They have also ignored the competition.

There is a reason why promotional authors tend to ignore the risks and competition: it works.

We can very easily see what happens when an author pays even moderate attention to risk elements after a stock has already spiked. Once the stock has spiked, any attention to risk can send it sharply lower.

On December 2nd, Dr. Thomas Carr wrote a very bullish article on Unilife entitled “Unilife: Set To Double In 2014?“. In his opening pitch, he notes that he is long the stock and that:

As it turns out, demand for Unilife’s unique medical dispensing technology is so strong and growing so fast that shares of the company may well be one of 2014′s best investments in the healthcare sector.

What was the result of this strong enthusiasm from one who identifies himself as a “doctor” ? The stock actually fell 7% that day. There are two reasons for this.

Despite his own personal bullishness and disclosing a long position in the stock, Dr. Carr was forthright enough to at least mention the substantial downside that comes along with Unilife. He noted that:

New and current investors should keep in mind the risks outlined above. The company may well be covering up past fraudulent activity. The Biodel deal may well fall through. Management may continue its unfortunate streak of over-selling its EPS potential.

But of much greater importance was the fact that Dr. Carr was among the first to pay more than passive lip service to the existence of substantial competition within this market.

Even Unilife itself discloses that there is meaningful competition in this space. But the mostly retail investor base in Unilife often seems to feel that Unilife is inventing a new product and will quickly command a monopoly in the space.

In its most recent 10K filing, Unilife discloses its view on the competition which already consists of some of the largest and best financed giants in the healthcare industry, saying:

We are aware of five companies which specialize in the production and supply of glass ready-to-fill syringes. These companies are BD, Gerresheimer, MGlas AG, Schott and Nuova Ompi. We estimate the market concentration rate for these five companies to be approximately 95%. We believe BD’s market share to be in excess of 50%, as it has supply relationships with most pharmaceutical companies and contract manufacturing organizations.

The point that investors need to realize is that this is not a soon-to-be-created new market which will be dominated by Unilife. It is already an established and highly competitive market.

In September, the big news for Unilife was the Sanofi contract which may eventually lead to meaningful sales of Lovenox in prefilled syringes. But in its September conference call, Unilife noted that

the IMS data for Lovenox for 2012 shows the sale of over 450 million prefilled syringes with Lovenox in it.

The point is that there are already hundreds of millions of units of being provided by competitors on the market two years before Unilife even plans on entering the picture in 2014. Many investors have been entirely unaware of this competitive reality and have assumed that Unilife is about to create a multi billion dollar monopoly.

Dr. Carr briefly listed a number of Unilife’s competitors within the space who have existing or pending product offerings which will largely compete within the same space.

In addition to Beckton Dickinson (BD), Gerresheimer, MGlas AG, Schott and Nuova Ompi (which were mentioned by Unilife), Dr. Carr also mentions such giants as Amgen (AMGN), Pfizer (PFE) and West Pharmaceuticals (WST). Medical giant Baxter International (BAX) is also active in prefilled syrniges. Baxter is valued at $37 billion based on annual sales of over $14 billion.

The point is that breaking in to this space will be difficult, even despite several encouraging potential supply contracts. The competition in this space is well established and extremely well financed and will have the ability to compete aggressively on volume, quality and price.

Conclusion

The market has now had the opportunity to digest in full the recent news from Unilife along with the ample analysis from third party authors. CEO Alan Shortall has had the opportunity to speak to investors in New York and the sell side analysts have already had their chance to upgrade the stock.

With all of these events now being mostly digested, the stock appears to be once again giving up its recent gains rather than continuing to surge higher.

The market may well be already pricing in an equity offering due to the realization that Unilife will likely be out of cash before Christmas.

Much of the sharp rises in the stock can be tied to recent promotional articles by authors who tend to focus on short term trades in speculative reverse merger stocks. In the past, some of these efforts have sensationalized press releases from other micro cap reverse mergers and have predicted a surge in near term revenues and multi bagger share price returns. This is an easy task when the press release includes the names of global giant heavy weights.

But when similar such press releases have been consistently issued for years without meaningful resulting revenues, investors should likely ask themselves how the latest series of press releases will create a result that is in any way different.

There is already existing competition in the specialty syringe space, with hundreds of millions of units being delivered even just for individual drugs such as Lovenox. Those who have been under the impression that Unilife has created a novel product and will soon be commanding a monopoly would do well to expand their research into the substantial competition in the specialty syringe space.

Appendix I – details of Unilife lawsuit

For those who wish to read the details of the Unilife lawsuit in their entirety, updating filings from August can be found at the following link at my website atmoxreports.com. Readers can also sign up for email alerts. There is no charge for this and email addresses are not shared with anyone. Ever.

Readers should also be aware that Unilife has already responded to the article on Forbes. A link to that response can be found here. However, readers should also note that there are a number of items in the actual whistle blower lawsuit which do not yet appear to have been responded to by management.

The lawsuit was brought by Talbot Smith, formerly an executive at Unilife who was hired in 2011. The suit notes that Smith was a Stanford graduate with a BS in Industrial Engineering and an MS in Operations Research. His starting salary was $230,000 plus various incentives including bonuses and stock options.

The gist of this lawsuit can be seen on the first page of the filing. The cited “causes of action” are a) violations of Sarbanes Oxley and b) violations of the Dodd-Frank Act.

Sarbanes Oxley (or “SOX”) was passed in 2002 in direct response to various accounting scandals including Enron, Tyco and Worldcom. SOX requires that top management certify the accuracy of SEC filings and dramatically increased the penalties for fraudulent activity.

Dodd Frank was passed into Federal Law in 2010 in response to the financial crisis which began in 2008 and also was designed to incorporate enhanced protections for investors.

As noted, the lawsuit was originally filed and received by the US Department of Labor/OSHA. The lawsuit notes that the Secretary of Labor did not make a final determination within the 180 day deadline, but that “sufficient prima facie evidence was found to begin an investigation” (page 2). As a result, the case was moved to Federal Court.

This filing is very long because it also incorporates original copies of the press releases and the 10K filing which are said to contain the inaccurate statements.

Some of the claims by Smith state that products being supplied by Unilife were not “validated” (as had been claimed by Unilife) because the FDA required activities had not been completed at the time that these statements were made to investors. Unilife subsequently brought in FDA auditors who stated that by the time of the audit, the validation could be considered complete.

These FDA claims will therefore be very difficult for either side to verify. The argument Talbot would make is that compliance would have been achieved well after he reported his observations to the FDA, but prior to the audit. The argument from Unilife is simply that this is not true.

Other claims should be less ambiguous. For example, on page 7, we can see Smith’s claim that the previous 10K filing made inaccurate statements to investors regarding shipments of “commercial” product by Unilife. Talbot backs this statement by noting that “no revenue had been collected from commercial sales of the Unifill product”. Ultimately, an audit by the SEC will be able to trace documentation of this claim and make a determination. This should be black and white.

Likewise, Talbot claims Unilife made false statements about its production lines. Talbot claims that at the time of the statements, two of the production lines were actually still in Denver, Colorado, and certainly not installed. Again, this should be a very black and white matter to resolve in an investigation.

In general, I am far less focused on the FDA issues because I believe that they will be far more difficult for either side to resolve. But on Page 11, the lawsuit describes additional product quality failures which had supposedly been reported by Smith via email. The lawsuit then notes that

The following day, Mojdeh told Smith to come into his office. Mojdeh instructed Smith that he should not put any concerns into emails because they could be used against the company in future legal action

Once again, an investigation will certainly dig up any emails prior to this conversation. Either the emails referred to by Smith exist or they do not, so there should be a conclusive result to an investigation by the SEC.

Other claims may be easy to document, even though actual “intent” may be hard to prove. On page 11, the lawsuit notes that:

Unilife also took actions to mislead investors about its customer demand and manufacturing capacity. To this end, Mojdeh directed Smith to have his team purchase 1,000,000 units of Unifill components per month in spite of the fact that there was no customer demand or manufacturing capacity to justify this level of purchasing. Mojdeh told Smith that the objective of the purchases was to make suppliers believe that Unilife was manufacturing at this volume, with the hope that the information would leak to the financial markets.

The point here is that proving that Unilife made unnecessary purchases at huge volume should be relatively straight forward. And this could easily be explained by the ballooning losses and dwindling revenues seen over the past 3 years. Yet actually proving the intent of Mr. Mojdeh will likely be a more difficult endeavor in an investigation or a courtroom.

On page 12, the lawsuit states that:

Another action that Unilife took to mislead investors was to run fake production when investors or customers were visiting the facility. On more than one occasion, scrap was run through the machines to make it appear that Unilife was making product when it was not. Product was placed on skids by the warehouse doors to give the false appearance that product was being packaged and send to customers when it was not.

Presumably the only way to get much resolution will be when the SEC subpoenas the warehouse workers who either did or did not perform these activities. The truth should be easy to get at because warehouse workers typically do not have a large financial inventive to bend the truth when faced with the potential for perjury charges. In addition, there are likely a large number of warehouse workers. Keeping a secret gets harder as the number of individuals increases.

On Page 13, the lawsuit notes that

Shortall made comments that were posted on the Yahoo! Finance message board on July 10th, 2012, indicating that Unitract was profitable with a 20% gross margin, when Unilife was in fact losing $1.00 per unit.

Again, this will be an easy one to either prove or disprove.

Conclusions regarding Unilife lawsuit

The details spelled out in the lawsuit vary between crystal clear and verifiable to murky and difficult-to-prove. Some investors may be inclined to wonder why we have not already seen some resolution to these matters given that they relate to issues dating back to 2011. Other investors may be inclined to feel that if we haven’t seen consequences yet, then there may simply be nothing to worry about.

In general, SEC investigations take considerable time and there are no “hints” along the way which would given guidance as to the eventual conclusion. For example, in October 2013 the SEC was just providing final resolution to the fraud case at YuHe International, which has been ongoing since 2011. China frauds were a big focus in 2011, and in October 2013 the SEC finally got around to issuing final judgment against China Media Express (“CCME”), also following fraud that was uncovered in 2011. The point is that these things can often take a few years before visible results are uncovered. No one should expect that there would have already been an immediate result just because these findings were made public over a year ago.

Disclosure: I am short UNISONVO. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Organovo set to fall by 50%

Investment overview

Shares of Organovo Holdings (ONVO) have recently skyrocketed due to widespread media coverage and an equally widespread misunderstanding of the company’s near term revenue potential. The stock has risen from $2.00 to over $13.00 in the past 12 months and is now valued at over $1 billion. To date Organovo has generated no real commercial revenues, but has brought in small amounts of money from grants and collaborations. The company hopes to launch its first commercial product, a 3D liver assay, in December of 2014, 13 months from now. A launch of any possible next products has not been announced or discussed, but would likely take several more years for any visibility. So for now, this one product is all that there is to hope for for the next few years.

Continue reading…

TearLab to plunge on steep earnings miss

Investment thesis

TearLab Corp (TEAR) has so far managed to drive moderate increases in revenue over the past year, but only by spending a disproportionate amount on marketing. The result has been ballooning losses in every quarter. The company has never earned a profit. Following dozens of recent calls to the offices of eye doctors, it has become apparent that the adoption of the TearLab product tends to be fleeting and driven primarily by the marketing spend. As a result, the temporary boost in revenues resulting from this marketing tends to be short lived and must be constantly replaced with new doctors who will give the product a trial. Investors should be concerned that TearLab now gives away its desktop reader for free in order to encourage doctors to make a trial of the product.

TearLab recently laid out a large seven figure pay package (roughly in line with a full quarter’s revenue) to hire Seph Jensen from Alcon Labs. His start date was scheduled to begin just prior to the upcoming earnings release. This expensive hire should also signal the company’s desire to telegraph a much needed turnaround to stem ballooning losses. The timing was likely urgent in order to have a visible solution in place prior to announcing disappointing earnings. TearLab is likely to report a much larger loss on revenues which are flat to down. The result is expected to be a share price decline of at least 25% to around $8.50 or below. The hiring of Mr. Jensen will be positioned as a means of addressing these problems going forward. On the earnings call he will certainly announce the company’s plans for reducing the ballooning losses.

Background information

Lately I have done quite well on several trades by aggregating information from non-market sources ahead of earnings releases and placing my bets accordingly. There is nothing illegal about this. Information which can be obtained by customers, suppliers and competitors is all fair game as long as it is not supplied by company insiders. As described below, Tesla (TSLA) follower Craig Froehle recently conducted similar analysis right ahead of the $25 plunge at that company.

In August, I wrote an article just before the release of earnings at Francesca Holdings (FRAN) which predicted that an earnings miss would lead to a 30% drop in the share price. A few days later, Francesca disappointed as predicted and the share price quickly fell from $25.00 to less than $18.00. Analysts had continued to maintain price targets as high as $38.00, so they were wrong by about 90%.

More recently, I predicted a similar 30% drop upon the release of earnings by Ignite Restaurant Group (IRG). Analysts had predicted that earnings might decline a bit, but continued to maintain price targets of around $17-18. Following the release of earnings this week, Ignite quickly traded down to below $11.99, also a nearly 30% decline from the time of my article a few days earlier.

To me, both of these trades were painfully obvious. Rather than rely upon the bullish views of sell side analysts, I turned off my computer and left my desk to conduct my own research in person. With Francesca, I visited numerous stores in various cities over the span of several months. I then called dozens more and scoured the internet for evidence of discounting. In its prior earnings call, Francesca had noted that its practice of deep discounting was coming to an end and margins would rebound accordingly. Analysts believed and repeated this view almost verbatim. But my months of research showed that the discounts were actually accelerating rather than declining. A steep earnings miss was all but guaranteed. When it was reported, the stock quickly plunged as it should.

Prior to writing about IRG, I visited and called numerous restaurants across multiple states and interviewed employees on each occasion. I also aggregated information on the availability of discounts. It was clear that the company’s turnaround strategy was failing and that traffic was falling despite heavy discounting. The combination of much lower traffic along with deep discounts meant that IRG was all but guaranteed to report a loss rather than the analyst-predicted profit for the quarter. As expected, the share price dropped to below $11.99, closing in on a new 52 week low.

This type of analysis is now becoming more widely used by a wider array of investors. Investors have come to realize that the reports and targets of sell side analysts are typically useless or downright dangerous. They are often little more than gratuitous quotes from management along with lofty share price targets which get re-raised every time the share prices rise.

Just prior to the release of Q3 earnings by Tesla, Seeking Alpha author Paulo Santos wrote an article highlighting Craig Froehle’s use of VIN number tracking to get an estimate of vehicle production and sales at Tesla Motors . Mr. Santos states that

The VIN data continues to be consistent with U.S. demand for the Model S having peaked, and indeed, it’s now consistent with that demand having already weakened substantially.

One day later, seemingly bullet proof Tesla began a plunge of more than $30. The point is that this type of grass roots analysis is becoming far more useful in predicting share prices and earnings than the reports of ever bullish sell side analysts.

An earnings miss at TearLab should now be obvious

Just one year ago, TearLab was trading at below $4. The stock has since risen as high as $15 – almost a quadruple. At its peak, TearLab hit just over half a billion in market cap.

The driver for the rise in the share price over the past year has been analyst enthusiasm over revenue growth. On a percentage basis, the revenue growth has in fact been quite large, in the range of triple digit percentages. But this is simply due to the fact that it is growing off of a very small base of just over $1 million. The rise from a $4 share price to a $15 share price has occurred even though revenues have risen from around $1 million to just around $3.5 million. Yet the quarterly loss has increased from $2 million to over $12 million.

Recently the stock has been trending down towards $10 in advance of the upcoming earnings release. The reason should become apparent.

TearLab most recently reported revenues of just $3.5 million, up by $1 million from the previous quarter. But its net loss ballooned from $8 million to $12 million in a single quarter. The problem is clear. In order to increase revenues by just $1 million, TearLab must incur a massively disproportionate increase in its net loss.

Over the past few quarters, this revenue trend has looked as follows:

(click to enlarge)

Analysts have been operating under the theory that at some point TearLab will end up generating enough revenue to break through the losses. But it should be kept in mind that the TearLab product has been on the market for over 5 years and significant sales have yet to materialize. The recent growth of $1-2 million in sales has been largely the result of a sharp increase in marketing spend. The result of the heavy spending has been the steep surge in losses.

This might be an acceptable strategy if it was one that led to a sustained increase in revenues in the long run. But with TearLab, it appears that the marketing spend is often successful only in getting doctors to agree to an initial test of the system for a limited period of time. When they fail to continue using it, it means that the marketing spend is largely wasted and the revenues evaporate. TearLab then continues with its marketing spend in an attempt to get more new doctors to conduct an initial rest of the system.

TearLab’s most recent earnings call was very brief. The company reported record revenues of over $3 million in a quarter, but the company lost over $12 million for the quarter. As a result, the company has already lost more in 1H 2013 than it did for full year 2012, its previous worst year ever.

The revenue vs. net loss for TearLab over the past 4 years is as follows. (The last column on the right is YTD 2013).

(click to enlarge)

Instead of discussing the earnings miss directly, the majority of the earnings call was spent hearing a panel of hand selected experts offer their praise for the TearLab system. Of the 4 individuals, 3 were eye doctors while 1 was the CEO of the OCLI eye practice.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it should come as no surprise that the panel of 4 which were hand selected by TearLab had very positive things to say about the product. Among the doctors, some of them had been long term TearLab supporters going back for multiple years. For example, Dr. Marguerite MacDonald is featured in TearLab’s investor presentation and has served as a TearLab promoter for several years (as seen here on YouTube in 2011). Her support for TearLab has been unwavering, but it sheds little light upon the adoption of the product by newer doctors who are not dry eye aficionados.

A much more instructive approach is to contact a wider assortment of doctors’ offices who are familiar with the product and get their review. In order to achieve this, one can simply call the numbers listed on TearLab’s website under “Find a Doctor“. When prompted for location, simply click “view all locations“. A convenient list of all TearLab customers (along with their phone numbers) then appears.

Over the past few weeks, I have contacted dozens of these doctors to ask about their recommendations for conducting a dry eye exam. I did not discuss any interest in TearLab as an investment.

As would be expected, there are a large number of doctors from TearLab’s list who do recommend a tear test. What does come as a surprise though, is that there are also a large number of doctors who have received the test over the course of the past year but no longer offer it, citing lack of need, inaccuracy or difficulty in getting reimbursed.

The doctors who do not recommend TearLab’s test end up recommending the more standard Schirmer test which has been used for many years along with a simple verbal assessment.

In fact, this should not come as a surprise. After more than 5 years, use of TearLab’s test is still the vast exception to the rule. Healthcare sites such as theMayo Clinic do not mention TearLab’s tear osmolarity test at all. Instead they recommend the Schirmer test or simple verbal assessment.

The list of doctors on TearLab’s website can be somewhat difficult to track. During the course of my research, there were a number of additions to the list, representing new doctors who appear to have been added in recent weeks. But there were also some deletions representing doctors who must have either returned or abandoned the test.

TearLab had previously noted that less than 5% of doctors have ever returned a test to TearLab. However this does not account for the units which have simply been discontinued in the practices of eye doctors nor does it account for doctors who have a test unit but see no reason to use it over verbal assessment which is easier and free and is not time consuming for the busy doctors.

The point from this is that the effect of TearLab’s marketing spend often appears to be only in getting some doctors to try the test for an initial and limited period. This clearly leads to a short term rise in revenue, but also a disproportionately large increase in marketing expense. When the revenue is only short lived, this becomes highly problematic. This is likely what we have been seeing over the past 5 quarters and it explains the slight rises in revenues along with much larger increases in the net loss at TearLab. TearLab appears to be constantly in search of new doctors to replace the ones who will not adopt the test after using it.

Looking at TearLab’s product

A heavy marketing budget can drive sales of virtually any product for short periods of time. But ultimately a product will need to justify itself if it is going to sell on its own.

The biggest problem with TearLab’s product is that is just isn’t necessary for the majority of eye doctors. It is certainly true that the product is well liked by specific dry eye specialists (such as those on TearLab’s last earnings call).

The TearLab test allows doctors to quantify tear levels with a numerical score. This is why the true dry eye only specialist practitioners like it. But for the regular eye practitioner, this level of information is simply superfluous and is certainly not worth paying for or taking the extra time from other waiting patients.

In most cases, doctors will simply ask their patients to describe their symptoms and then prescribe corrective measures accordingly. This is not only faster, but it is also free. It also addresses the problem to the satisfaction of the patient.

In some cases, doctors will use the industry standard Schirmer test.

The TearLab test does not offer the majority of practitioners any useable new information. Either a patient has a condition worthy of treatment, or they do not. This is primarily based on level of discomfort. The numeric score does not really add much additional value in a practical setting.

In addition, because the test costs less that $30, there is very little revenue potential for the eye doctor. As a result there is neither an overwhelming financial or medical incentive to use this test. It simply consumes time from office visits along with space on the desk for the TearLab unit.

This is why the test which has been around for more than 5 years still only shows a few million dollars in sales and why these sales only tend to increase when accompanied by a disproportionate marketing spend.

TearLab’s method of dry eye testing has been described as the “new gold standard” for dry eye testing since the early 1990′s – nearly 20 years. It is by no means a new technology waiting for widespread adoption.

In addition, TearLab continues to cite a whopping $1.5 billion market potentialfor the product based on hoped for sales to an estimated 50,000 eye doctors in the US. This massive market potential claim has been consistent for years. Yet after all of this time, new product sales continue to measure in just the hundreds of units for the entire year. The device simply doesn’t sell even after 5 years of marketing.

By this measure, use of TearLab’s test accounts for roughly 2% of applicable dry eye tests per year. And it should be remembered that even this low level is only the result of a very heavy marketing spend.

In effect, the heavy marketing spend has resulted in a small number of doctors trying the test for limited periods of time. But over the past 5 years, there has been no consistent adoption of the test at a meaningful level. While marketing spend may get doctors to try the test, it does not get them to continue using it. As a result, TearLab is on a never ending search for more new trial doctors.

The hiring of Seph Jensen

On October 1st, TearLab announced the hiring of Seph Jensen from Alcon Labs where he had previously served as Head of Surgical Marketing. The announcement quickly sent the stock soaring to as high as $12.33. Since that time, the stock has now retreated by around 15%, giving up most of its gains.

The reason for the quick jump in the share price was obvious. At Alcon Mr. Jensen oversaw $1.4 billion in sales. If tiny TearLab with just a few million in sales could attract this type of talent, then the company must be really headed in the right direction.

Unfortunately there also appears to be a very different explanation for the timing of this hire.

Mr. Jensen was set to start with TearLab on October 31st, just two weeks before earnings are to be announced. It is very likely that the company will report a large earnings miss. Hiring Mr. Jensen will not help to explain the miss which just happened. However, it will allow the company to show shareholders that it is attempting to do something to slow the ever increasing losses.

This view is supported by the fact that Mr. Jensen’s compensation package wasastronomical for such a small company with minimal revenues and ongoing losses. Mr. Jensen will receive a base salary of $370,000 which is moderate. But he will also receive up to an additional 50% of this amount as an annual bonus. He also gets a signing bonus of $250,000. So the initial payments amount to just under $1 million. However, he was also granted 300,000 shares worth of options with a staggering 10 year maturity. The value of these options alone is worth well over $2-3 million alone. For reference, even short dated 1 year at-the-money options on TearLab are worth around $2.50 per share at present.

All in all, the pay package awarded to Mr. Jensen is worth somewhere between $2-4 million at minimum, which is in line with a full quarter’s entire revenue for the entire company. For reference, the entire SG&A expense for Q1 was only $3.9 million. Yet a similar amount is now being awarded to a single executive. The point is that Mr. Jensen should be viewed as an extremely expensive hire for TearLab.

The timing of this very expensive hire coming just before earnings suggests that TearLab is looking to provide investors with some level of comfort in the face of another quarter of ballooning losses. In any event, there is nothing out there to suggest that there has been any change leading into this quarter which will stem the pace of the accelerating consecutive losses from past quarters.

Conclusion

In recent cases, aggregating non-market information helped me accurately predict a significant earnings miss which presaged a quick share price decline of around 30% in several stocks.

Prior to the release of earnings for Francesca and Ignite Restaurant Group, I came to the conclusion that an earnings miss was highly likely in each case. I came to this conclusion based on dozens of phone calls and in person visits which revealed that business was not going to live up to the highly bullish expectations of analysts who cover the stock. The on the ground information I obtained was far more useful that the reports from analysts which simply repeated the views of management.

Making dozens of visits and phone calls is far from a scientific approach, but it has proven to be consistently useful to me.

With TearLab, I have called dozens of eye doctors to ask about their use of the TearLab product. I specifically called the doctors who are currently (or were previously) listed on the TearLab web site as carrying the TearLab test.

While there are naturally a large number of doctors who do carry this test, there are also a surprisingly large number of doctors who had previously used the test but who no longer recommend it to prospective patients. Even among the doctors who do carry it, they do not necessarily state that it is part of their standard dry eye exam. The Schirmer test and verbal assessment tend to remain the standard even among many TearLab customers.

The conclusion from this is that the revenue gains from TearLab’s expensive marketing efforts in some cases end up being very short lived. In many cases the doctors noted that there were several options for evaluating dry eye conditions. But in only a few cases did the doctors immediately tell me that the TearLab solution was a must.

The conclusion I have reached is that TearLab is likely to once again show a very large increase in marketing spend which will be accompanied by revenues which are either flat to down. This is simply due to a relatively underwhelming adoption of the tear test despite the heavy marketing spend. The result will be a loss which is larger than last quarter and which is moderately to significantly larger than expected by the street.

Mr. Jensen will then be given the stage to explain how things are about to change in coming quarters.

I am expecting TearLab to fall to around $8.00-$8.50 following earnings, with potential for further downside in the weeks that follow.

In the meantime, TearLab is a company which sports a $350 million market cap despite cumulative revenues of just $15 million over the past 5 years running. During this time, cumulative losses are now approaching $50 million without a single profit, with losses continuing to grow each quarter.

Disclosure: I am short TEAR. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

IRG: Watch for a big earnings miss

Investment thesis

Restaurant stocks have been going through a very tough earnings season. Of the six restaurant groups to have reported so far, five have reported earnings misses. As a result, there has been significant share price weakness following earnings at companies such as Ruby Tuesday’s (RT), Darden Restaurants (DRI) and Dominoes Pizza (DPZ).

Ignite Restaurant Group (IRG) is on deck to report earnings and all signs point to a significant earnings miss. The shares have traded flat for 2 months and could see a decline of around 30%. Given the abundance of data points coming from all angles, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. A large sale by the backing private equity fund could also contribute to further pressure.

Background

Back in August, I made an earnings call just ahead of the reporting date for Francesca Holdings (FRAN). I predicted that the clothing retailer would report weak same store sales and that discounting would continue to pressure margins. My share price target called for a quick 30% drop. Within days, Francesca’s reported their results and they were exactly as predicted. Discounting had accelerated and margins had come under pressure. The shares quickly dropped by 30% to around $17.00.

In fact, these predictions were fairly easy to make. Most of Francesca’s competitors had already reported difficult results and their share prices had tumbled. Many of these competitors even operate in the same malls as Francesca’s such that they suffered from the same weak traffic. I also made it a point to visit in person and call numerous Francesca stores over a period of many weeks so that I had a solid idea about the discounting practices in place during the quarter. My article made all of this clear.

In short, no one should have been surprised by Francesca’s poor results. But the analysts were clearly surprised. They maintained their targets at over $30.00, only lowering them after the big miss. Clearly this helps no one. For some reason, they saw no need to conduct store visits and interviews to support their targets. Likewise, we can see that many investors were also surprised. These investors have just begun filing class action lawsuits against management for not revealing the discounting practices which I described in my article before the miss was reported.

Looking at the restaurant space, we can see a very similar phenomenon unfolding. It is now easy to see that the biggest loser in the near term is going to be Ignite Restaurant Group which is likely to decline by at least 30% following earnings next week. The company is suffering from 3 years of continuously declining sales at its recently acquired Macaroni Grill. These declines are now accelerating rather than reversing. Majority shareholder JH Whitney currently owns 68% of Ignite. However a registration statement filed in July now covers the sale of these shares. The timing for such a sale looks very good for Whitney. But it will certainly put heavy pressure on the share price.

According to its latest 10Q, Ignite is now down to just $1 million in cash. Current liabilities are $106 million vs. current assets of just $40 million. The company now has long term debt of $93 million plus another $13 million due within 12 months. For all of 2013 and 2012, cash from investing activities has more than consumed all cash generated by the business as the company tries to expand its way into profitability. However the company has been losing money in two of the past three quarters. In the one profitable quarter, net income was just $2 million on $118 million in sales.

The company still suffers from multiple weaknesses in internal controls which resulted in the restatement of several years of financial results. Following a plunge in the stock, there are still shareholder lawsuits outstanding. For these reasons, Ignite is among the weakest and most vulnerable of all of the restaurant groups.

As I did with Francesca’s, I recently called and visited numerous Macaroni Grills across two states. Interviews with staff there consistently revealed the existence of significant discounting along with fairly slow traffic over the past 6-10 weeks. The results of these interviews are just one of the reasons that I expect revenues to be flat to down with significant pressure on margins resulting in a noticeable net loss.

A second reason is that we can already see that most of Ignite’s close competitors have been pummeled by poor results. The significant and persistent slowdown in the casual dining space should now be widely known. This was identical to the disappointing results reported by competitors in advance of Francesca’s. Yet many investors ignored these obvious signs and only sold after the disappointment and plunge.

Ruby Tuesday’s is down by 25% in the past few weeks following difficult results and a poor outlook for its turnaround strategy. Darden Restaurants also took a hit of 10-15% following its weak earnings. Darden operates a number of casual dining chains including Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

Shares of BJs Restaurants (BJRI) are down by nearly 30% since its last earnings date. Shares of Del Frisco’s (DFRI) are down by nearly 20%. Shares of Brinker International (EAT) are down by more than 12% since August.

Even Dominos Pizza recently skidded when it missed earnings. Dominoes is at the low end of the price spectrum such that it is usually expected to be more resistant to sector wide slowdowns than many other competitors.

The only competitor to have done well this season has been Wall Street darling Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG). Chipotle continues to be a very strong stock that seems capable of doing no wrong.

In short, the environment for casual dining stocks has been consistently bad for most direct competitors. It should be noted that the majority of these competitors can often be found within close proximity near the same shopping malls and office complexes. As a result, their sales performances tend to be highly correlated.

Shares of Ignite have been basically flat over the past two months. However, volume has been low. This has been the case despite the fact that the problems at Ignite will have a noticeably greater impact than those of its competitors.

In its last quarterly earnings announcement, Ignite disclosed a loss of $2.5 million. Revenues had jumped to $228 million, but these were driven mostly by its recent acquisition of Romano’s Macaroni Grill in April for $61 million.

By looking deeper, we can see that growth for Ignite’s core business (which excludes the Macaroni acquisition) has basically stagnated. The revenues for Ignite have historically been dominated by its Joe’s Crab Shack chain. In its most recent quarter, revenue from Joe’s increased just 0.7%. Revenue from its Brick House Tavern chain did increase by an impressive 6%. However, given that Brick House now contributes less than 5% of revenue to Ignite (only 16 stores out of over 300), this increase does not move the needle much at all.

In order to combat the revenue stagnation at Joe’s, management plans to open up to seven new Joe’s locations during all of 2013. But obviously these new revenues will come with a fairly substantial startup cost and ramp up time so it will take some time before results are felt. It will also take time to evaluate the real cost-benefit of those new, incremental revenues.

The biggest disappointment this last quarter came from the Macaroni acquisition. Romano’s Macaroni Grill has been struggling for years, reportingsequential declines in each year going back to 2010. The struggles appear to be getting more severe and more expensive.

On its earnings call, management made some troubling revelations:

During the due diligence phase of our acquisition and right up to the February 6, signing of the letter of intent, Macaroni Grill’s comp sales were right around innegative 5%; from February through April 9, when we closed on the business, comp sales deteriorated to a negative 11.5%. While there was no secrete to us that Macaroni Grill sales had been challenged for an extended period of time, the pace of deterioration in the first quarter was significantly greaterthan we had anticipated, and we felt that we needed to act very quickly.

Management noted that it completed a $2 million media buy to attempt to boost sales. This did help to slow the decline moderately. But in the end, Macaroni Grill sales still decreased by 7.4% vs. the prior year. And it should be noted that even this dubious victory still cost management $2 million which went straight to the bottom line.

These observations reveal two significant problems which are going to drive the earnings miss and share price decline at Ignite.

The Macaroni Grill now dominates the equation for Ignite. As of June 30th, there were 186 Macaroni Grills, 134 Joe’s Crab Shacks and just 16 Brick House Taverns.

The decision to substantially lever up to acquire the declining Macaroni Grill is a questionable one. Revenue from the chain was already in decline in each of the past 3 years. It has already declined by nearly 30% in that time. This was prior to the declines in 2013 which now appear to be accelerating.

In 2012, Macaroni lost $6 million on $390 million in sales. Sales are already on track to decline a further 25% from that level this year, following a 10% decline the previous year. Nothing seems to be able to slow the decline.

Management seems to indicate that the problems at Macaroni were larger and more expensive than they had expected. They have also admitted that they were “overconfident” in their ability to make a rapid turnaround of the chain. In effect, we have already been warned of what to expect from management.

The Macaroni restaurants were being staffed very lightly to deal with ongoing declines in business. But new management hopes to ramp up business, and therefore chose to increase headcount by 1,700 jobs. Management noted that:

At any rate a significant investment was made and clearly more than we have planned.

But here is the biggest problem. In order to maintain any type of longer term profitability, Ignite simply must effect a successful turnaround of Macaroni. But turnarounds take lots of time and lots of money before the results are felt or known. It is almost a certainty that the next 2-3 quarters (including this one) are going to be dominated by substantial turnaround expenses from Macaroni. If the turnaround works, we will then likely see results in mid 2014. But until that time there will be lots of pain in advance of the hoped for gain. It also remains to be seen if the surge in expenditures for a few quarters will end up creating a sustained boost to the results of the chain once deep discounting comes to an end.

Management has already committed itself to substantial fixed costs by adding these 1,700 new jobs. Many of the hires would not have been in place for the full length of last quarter. As a result, the expensive effect of these hires on net income will not be fully felt until this quarter. Management will also continue to spend heavily on media buys and the advertising budget. But as we saw last quarter, even spending $2 million did not end up increasing sales. It only slowed the rate of decline.

Perhaps the largest negative impact will come from the discounting of customer bills that is necessary in order to attempt to lure customers in to the stores. We can see from their website that there are multiple promotions ongoing which promise discounts to customers. Sales of alcohol are a leading profit driver for these chains. But Macaroni is now offering half priced wine priced at just $2.75 to attract customers. Visitors are offered $5 off for signing up for the mailing list. Group parties who pre-book get 15% off. Each time I ate at Macaroni Grill, the staff gave me discount coupons to come back again and get more taken off of my bill. It is clear that Macaroni Grill is trying to increase absolute traffic by cutting prices wherever possible.

According to the wait staff I spoke with, a new line of bigger promotions will be rolled out this weekend. Those who wish to gauge the impact of future discounts should check on Ignite’s website once these promotions are announced over the weekend.

But we can see from past promotions that these discounts have previously failed to boost sales. Coupon histories can still be found online which show that during late 2012 and early 2013 Macaroni Grill was providing half priced food and “buy one get one free” offers. These offers were made at precisely the time that sales for Macaroni Grill were showing their largest declines.

These offers are a devils bargain for restaurants. They often end up losing money on them, but they feel that they have no other choice if they want to stimulate the nominal level of sales and traffic.

During the most recent quarter, the Macaroni Grill returned to “buy one get one free” promotions. “Happy hour” with loss leading specials now lasts as long as 5 hours. This leaves very few prime time hours during which to offset those losses.

What we will almost certainly see at earnings is that the heavy spending and discounting will help to move the needle on revenues, but it will come at an enormous cost to margins and will contribute to a large net loss.

Given the accelerated discounting, it is almost guaranteed that the net loss in the current quarter will greatly exceed the $2.5 million from last quarter. In fact, the loss could even significantly exceed the $8 million loss reported in December of 2012.

Heavy discounting to stimulate declining traffic was exactly what we saw in the retail space with Francesca’s which led to its recent 30% plunge. The malaise is also identical to what we saw with the turnaround strategy at Ruby Tuesday’s. By now, the short term results of this type of strategy should be predictable. Investors will be forced to tolerate near term losses in the hopes that a rebound will happen in several quarters. But in fact, most investors will tolerate no such thing. They will tend to sell their shares now and re-evaluate once the results of the turnaround strategy become better understood in a few quarters.

Part of the problem in the restaurant industry is that these discounts have been absolutely pervasive this year. When every restaurant out there is offering deep discounts, it does little to help the business of any one of them. Instead, it just means that deep discounts are needed just to lure customers away from the other deep discounting restaurants. For those who are interested, here is just one of dozens of coupon lists where consumers can get deep discounts on meals from Applebee’s, PF Changs, Sonic, Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden, Outback, Chili’s and on and on.

The conclusion is that many restaurants are now being forced to issue coupons and discounts. If they do not, customers will simply go to other chains which have large discounts. And when one restaurant stops discounting, consumers will just switch to the others that do. In the current environment, no one should be paying anything close to full price for meals in casual dining chains.

Share of Ruby Tuesday’s fell by 16% upon earnings. Stifel Nicholas describedthe situation for the brand in a research report as follows (readers should note that these comments appear to apply quite precisely to Ignite and other brands as well).

The persistent casual-dining sales slowdown has presented a more-than-challenging environment for an in-turnaround concept such as Ruby Tuesday that seeks to re-introduce consumers to its brand,” he said. “We continue to believe that mass-casual family dining names such as Ruby Tuesday willcontinue to underperform until the casual-dining sales softness that haspersisted throughout September shows signs of reversal.

So we now have the observations from above, along with statements from management and then comments from analysts. All of these consistently point to a very challenging environment for the comps and especially for turnaround stories like Ignite.

After viewing these similar assessments, no one has any excuse whatsoever to be surprised at a substantial disappointment from Ignite next week.

One question now is whether or not private equity firm JH Whitney intends to stick around for several more quarters to see if this acquisition can actually be turned around. The recent registration statement was filed in July. This was just a few months after the troubled Macaroni acquisition and just before the recent earnings disappointment was made known to investors. Whitney has two board seats at Ignite, so it should be fairly plugged in to the latest developments.

Whitney has already done well with this investment. The firm sold stock in the IPO at $14.00 and also received an $80 million cash dividend payment from Ignite before the IPO.

The acquisition of Macaroni has some interesting details. The target was acquired from Golden Gate Capital for $61 million in cash. Whitney and Golden Gate have some intertwined executive histories and they have also worked together in the past, most notably in taking Herbalife (HLF) private and then selling the company for a substantial profit.

The Los Angeles Times notes that

Whitney and San Francisco-based investment firm Golden Gate Capital Inc. acquired Herbalife for $700 million in 2002, putting up $176 million of their own money.

Shortly after the firm went public again in late 2004, it paid Whitney andGolden Gatemore than $110 million in dividends, filings show.

After the value of the shares more than doubled in 2005, Whitney sold a large portion of its holdings, raising $233 million.

In the case of Ignite, JH Whitney’s rush to get liquidity in the stock means it may have come public a bit before it actually was ready to be an answerable public company.

Ignite still lists 4 material weaknesses in its internal accounting controls. Previous weaknesses resulted in Ignite restating 3 years worth of financial statements just after the company came public. This caused a 25% plunge in the share price and resulted in lawsuits against the company and their underwriter for making material misstatements in the IPO.

It is somewhat surprising that the weaknesses have still not been remedied even 15 months after the IPO. Instead, the company has taken a JOBS Act exemption which allows it to continue operating with material weaknesses in internal controls. Under normal circumstances, this would be bad enough. But with Ignite trying to integrate a major acquisition of a very challenged and sprawling brand, this is almost a perfect formula for yet another restatement.

Conclusion

Right now is a great time for consumers who wish to eat out cheaply. Restaurants are aggressively competing on price to combat a sector-wide slowdown in traffic. These restaurants have demonstrated that they are more than willing to incur substantial losses in an attempt to maintain traffic. We have already seen earnings disappointments in 5 out of 6 reporting restaurants. Share prices have dropped accordingly. So what turns out to be great for consumers is in fact quite challenging to these restaurant groups.

Ignite is a far weaker restaurant group than most of its peers. The company’s balance sheet is very weak with just $1 million in cash and a deep current account deficit. The company has reported losses in two of the past three quarters. Last quarter began to feel the impact of the continued slowdown in the Macaroni Grill. Efforts to stem the decline are already proving to be very expensive but with minimal results. Management clearly has its hands very full in trying to integrate this large acquisition, such that ineffective internal controls have still not been remedied after 15 months.

Ignite and several analysts have already given us a very clear view about what to expect this quarter in terms of the restaurant slowdown and the impact on revenues and earnings. By trying to launch an expensive turnaround during a restaurant slowdown, Ignite is likely to exacerbate these difficulties substantially.

As a result, no one should be even remotely surprised when Ignite reports a much larger loss than last quarter. Shares should be expected to correct by around 30% to around $11-12 following earnings.

Disclosure: I am short IRG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.