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On Target

Ok, here's an odd one... WWD reported that Target and Barney's are teaming up on a brand/marketing initiative. Yes, that's the same Target that sells everything from kids' underwear, to Weber grills, to eggs, and the same Barney's that sells Prada. Now there's an eye-grabber.

Even more interesting is that Target is the one originating the content. Target is trading up in prestige, and Barney's is trading down big time. This is a limited run, limited distribution campaign on Target's exclusive Rogan Gregory line. It's not a big revenue event by any means. But it shows a couple of interesting longer-term trends.

1) The 'content vs distribution' play in this space is dying a slow death. No longer can Wall Street box these companies into 'retailers vs brands.' The premium brands are earning the right to become retailers, and as we see with Target, the more successful retailers are earning the right to be viewed as brands in their own right.

2) Owning the consumer relationship matters now more than ever. Both our opinion and fact-based analysis on the secular landscape for apparel is not for the faint of heart. As the global supply chain is squeezed and stress-tested to a degree greater than at any time in history, it is the brands and retailers that are pushing the envelope with innovation -- both in product and marketing -- that will come out ahead.

3) Those that are not investing today in order to stay above water tomorrow will sink at a rate faster than they can lower their own expectations (never mind the Street's).

Macro Matters!

'Yeah, macro might matter, but this industry has a mind of its own.'
That's the most common feedback we get as to why macro calls don't work in apparel/footwear.

As much conviction as we have in the disastrous secular outlook for softlines (see 5/5: This Ride Is Far From Over), we're getting even more concerned about where we are in the cycle. What? Getting MORE concerned after earnings tank and the stocks get clobbered?

Yes. And it's all about Asia. It's macro.

Since we've gone live with our portal, I've been having fun searching out relevant charts and pictures that help tell an investment-significant story. This time, I'm going to blatantly plagiarize from my colleague Keith, with whom I share real estate on this site. Check out the excerpt below from his morning comment posted early today (be sure to click on the image to enlarge it).

Here's a few other recent events worth considering...
* India inflation report came in at a 3 year high. Singh is prepping for '09 re-election with containing inflation as a key point on the agenda.
* BoJ reverted to a neutral stance in light of rising cost pressures.
* Pakistan/Philippines food crisis.
* Singapore Central bank guided down last week in terms of growth. Growth was 7.7% last year. Now guiding to 4.6%. Best case, by 2009 growth is cut in half.

So Asia, which has been the source of stimulus for increased per capita consumption in the US due to lower costs, is going to continue to take it on the chin. We've seen some of the cost inflation already, and we think that there's much more to come. But the double whammy comes when growth in Asia slows as well, and an important growth market for US brands eases.

Growth slowing AND margins contracting?

Scary.

CBRL REDUX

During the late 1990's, as CBRL endeavored to maintain its strong, historical rate of growth, a number of issues lead, to a deterioration in the company's financial performance. Increased capital spending strained the CBRL system! More importantly, aggressive menu pricing and tight management of restaurant expenses threw the consumer value out of balance. The decline in operational performance, coupled with declining customer counts caused a significant decline in profitability.

As seen in the chart below the same management team is aggressively raising prices again! At a time when the typical CBRL customer can't afford to fill his tank with gas!

2Q08 EPS quality looked suspect.....
CBRL posted sluggish revenue growth of 3.6% in 2Q08. As expected higher operating costs caused restaurant operating income to decline 1.6%, but a 12.9% decline G&A versus last year enabled operating income to increase 7.5%. The balance of the EPS growth in the quarter was driven by a $0.05 per share gain on sale of real estate and a 34% decrease in outstanding shares outstanding.

Given the current traffic trends there is a high probability that 3Q08 EPS will look ugly too.....

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Oh Canada... Doh!

Sticking with our theme of the GIL CEO's superior 'capital avoidance loss radar' we'd note the following...
  • 1) The percentage of shares held by Canadian institutions accelerated in the back half of 2007, coinciding nicely with the 3.6m shares sold by (Canadian) CEO Chamandy.
  • 2) By the end of December (when stock sales were complete), all analysts still covering the stock today had a Buy rating, and price targets peaked at $48.

Danger Zone

With earnings season about halfway done (brands reported, but retailers have not) we've got a pretty good sense as to where the industry stands. It's not pretty. Sales are off, inventories and high, and margins are down. (Thanks McGough, tell me something I don't know). We know this is painfully obvious to just about everyone that watches the tape, but what might not be as obvious is how bad the industry is on top of increasingly easy compares.

The chart below show shows the spread between sales growth and inventory growth on the vertical axis, and the yy change in Gross Margin on the horizontal axis. The sample includes every publicly-traded company that makes, designs or sells apparel. The place to be is in the upper right-hand quadrant, where sales are growing faster than inventories, and margins are up. On the flip side, retailers never want to be in the lower left quadrant -- inventories growing too fast relative to sales and Gross Margins down.

Unfortunately, we're in that lower left quadrant today. Even more unfortunate is that 1Q is the first quarter of easy compares vs last year in the current cycle. Bulls might argue (correctly) that any move out of the lower left quadrant is a positive stock move. We'd note that K Mart was there in almost every quarter for the 5 years before it went under. Sears and Foot Locker are there perennially.

Importantly, over the past 5 years, the apparel industry was to the right of the vertical line (margins up) almost 90% of the time. This was the tail end of the multi-year margin tailwind we think is going away. We have no reason to think that the current quarter is an aberration in any way vis/vis what is yet to come in this industry.

Apparel: This ride is far from over.

What do semiconductors, toys, and footwear have in common? They've all been nearly 100% fully Asian-sourced since the late 1980s. Where is apparel different? An arcane protectionist system favoring the now-defunct US textile industry resulted in 60% of all US apparel consumption being sourced here in the US until 1994. Then the system was gradually pulled back, and the import penetration rate went higher, and higher, and higher. This has helped the margin structure of the industry more than just about any management team publicly admits. It is not difficult to build to an outcome where apparel profits do not grow for another 3 years.
  • The double whammy. The cost differential in manufacturing a garment is about 15 to 1 domestic/offshore. This was a clear boom for the US apparel industry. But people often look past the impact on existing import prices during an excess capacity/deflationary input cost environment. Factory owners locked up multi-year deals with US brands and retailers at fire-sale rates to ensure factories did not run idle. The bottom line is that 2-3% annual import price reductions combined with a 3-point average annual increase in the import ratio resulted in unprecedented cost savings for the industry. Our math suggests about $4-5bn, or about 3 points of margin per year.
  • Where'd the money go?? About 70% of the cash was passed through to consumers to stimulate demand. The other portion padded industry margins. The key call-out here is that pricing came down, per capita consumption rose dramatically, and margins went UP. We can't find many examples in other industries where pricing comes down and margins go up. This industry had lots of cake and ate it all.
  • Now what? 1) The import ratio just hit 99%. Ouch! Not much room to go there. 2) Apparel import costs are rising at the greatest rate since 1992. Unless oil is going back to $50, this industry has a lasting problem. Ouch again!

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