“Iron rusts from disuse, stagnate water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen, even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind”
-Leonardo da Vinci
One thing Research Edge can’t be accused of is inaction or playing it safe. In the midst of a consumer recession, a financial depression and the worst market in a lifetime, we set out to build a new financial services firm. Our version of the “New Reality” financial services firm puts our clients first, without them, we have no business.
Every day of the week we are making calls, and in some cases they are “bold” calls – a client’s description not mine! We believe the only safe thing to do is to take the shots that need to be taken. Play it safe and you will stagnate. I was taught early on that taking calculated risks is the essence of hard work. In 2009, this is the difference between working for you and working for the government.
While many of the same Wall Street traditions still live on, it’s just not the same. Surprisingly, I learned last night that there is still way too much research capacity on the street. Darden Restaurants is a $3.7 billion company with 19 publishing analysts and 9 firms attending the annual analyst meeting that don’t cover the company. My guess is that a majority of the people on “the street” attending this conference are less focused on the business of making clients money, and are more focused on whether their employer is solvent or not.
As far as I’m concerned, the largest US financial services firms have already been nationalized and now it is just a matter of a formality. The debate over the status of some of the financial services firms reminds me of last year’s debate over whether GM is bankrupt or not! Of course it was bankrupt, and yes, the government is running our largest financial institutions. If we can get past this, we can focus on the “new normal” state of the economy and consumer spending. This implies that the market can focus on the facts and not speculate about what could happen. Yes, some of the facts about the economy are ugly, but looking beneath the surface there are some real signs of life.
As I thought about the firms attending the Darden analyst dinner last night, I realized that none of their firms allow their clients listen to their morning meetings, which is the cornerstone of our Tier 1 Macro product. In addition, every day the market is open the collective analysts at Research Edge can give you two dozen things to think about, and we only have six publishing analysts.
Shortly, I will be publishing our S&P 500 sector view which comments on the trends in the S&P 500 and the nine major sectors. As we look at the S&P 500 today, it’s quantitatively broken in terms of both the “Trade” and the “Trend”. The financials are the only sector to have broken the November 2008 lows, as reality has set in. Healthcare and utilities look the best, with the XLV (Healthcare Sector etf) having a great day yesterday. The “re-flation” trade and the aspirational consumer are sitting on the sidelines – think wants versus needs. Excluding Apple, nearly every technology company is a closet “industrial” company, and most are seeing cyclical weakness. See the RE Macro Sector view PDF for more details.
Relative to our constructive commentary on the consumer discretionary sector we were hit with a body blow as the economic backdrop remains ugly, which was highlighted by the initial jobless claims rising by 62,000 to 589,000 in the week-ended January 17th, matching a 26-year high! This makes the “E” in “M E G A” a little harder to swallow. We will see what next week brings. As the facts change, so do we.
Function in disaster and finish in style!
Management said that it is managing its business under the assumption “that this could be a protracted economic downturn...rather than just being a short-term blip.” To that end, management recognizes the need to make some real changes to its business, with value being the key to those changes. Management acknowledged that “faster and cheaper is the American way” so it is reviewing all aspects of its business to see how it can increase turnover times, decrease labor costs, create exciting new food products, etc. Specifically, management recognizes that the gap between QSR and casual dining has widened in terms of check averages and with faster and cheaper being what people want that EAT is effectively fighting against QSR for market share. This does not mean that EAT wants to compete on price with QSR, but instead that it needs to improve the relative value of the entire Brinker dining experience based on pace and convenience, better food quality and service, facility relevance, price and overall customer satisfaction at a lower cost. Ultimately, management knows that it must get more people into its restaurants.
After examining its entire restaurant portfolio, EAT announced that it will be closing 35 underperforming restaurants, which is expected to boost operating margins by 30 bps. Most of these closures are expected during 3Q with some to follow in upcoming quarters as current leases expire.
EAT had already significantly cut its capital expenditures in fiscal 2009 (down $99.6 million YOY in 1H09 from its reduced new unit development), but management again lowered its capital spending guidance to $110 million from its prior range of $135-$140 million. The company decided it would be prudent to push out the timing on some of its Chili’s reimages to provide increased financial flexibility relative to its current declining sales trends. Management is also committed to using its free cash flow and cash proceeds from the sale of Macaroni Grill to pay down debt and has suspended its share repurchases to further preserve its strong balance sheet in this difficult environment, in which it has little visibility of when trends will materially improve. That being said, EAT stated that after a weak start to January, that sales trends “have firmed up” in the last two weeks. Although two weeks do not make a trend, on the margin, some stabilization is a positive as it relates to recent results.
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This is not a contrarian view. Reports in the Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune this morning commented on Wal-Mart and other large retail chains’ plans to continue expansion on the mainland in 2009 –clearly 19% year-over-year is also enough to motivate them to invest in China.
Our China thesis holds that growth there will be helped tremendously by increasing domestic demand, as it will in derivative economies like Taiwan where exports to the mainland account grew to almost 20% of total exports BEFORE the recent political “panda diplomacy” thaw took effect.
As we all know, the Q4 meltdown spurred a sharp contraction in trade globally and regardless of relative strength China could not avoid the pain, even if they are better off than many of their neighbors (Korea for instance, which we are short via the EWY ETF, printed numbers showing a 5.6% contraction in GDP and an 11.9% contraction in exports). We knew the backdrop for all of this was in the cards, but that is looking in the rear view mirror. In the here and now, a 4 trillion Yuan spending package is just starting to trickle through the system and the five cuts in the key lending rate, initiated in Sept. are just starting to nudge the Dragon.
It is critical to remind ourselves that China is still a communist nation –as such the party leaders are very aware that they must stem job losses and rescue symbolic industries in order to sustain the minimal rate of economic growth assumed to prevent internal social problems. Critics of some of our work on China often point out, correctly, that there is a good deal of “massaging” in reported Chinese economic data -but you can’t fool your hungry people with fake data (something that Christina Kirchner is discovering too late in Argentina).
These leaders don’t run for election, they don’t need to build consensus and they don’t have to apologize for bending rules. To achieve the growth levels they need, the Chinese government will use ANY and ALL tools at their disposal -including shrugging off any protests by team Obama over currency manipulation no matter how loud.
We are Watching China and its derivative economies closely and as always will be looking to change our exposure as data points present themselves.