BigResearch Consumer Survey

According to a BigResearch survey of 4,198 respondents, 3 in 5 Americans (62.3%) think the economy is in the worst shape they've experienced in their lifetime. The May American Pulse Survey showed 77.1% of Democrats and younger people between 18-34 years old (65.8%) are most likely to echo this sentiment.

Less than six months out from the November election, most Americans (77.8%) are already tired of it and wish it was over. Regarding the media coverage they have heard to date, 31.5% feel the media favored Obama in their coverage during the primaries. Only 10.4% say the media favored Clinton.

Other key findings:
With the economy weighing on Americans' minds it may not only affect their vote in November, but also their campaign contributions in the interim. 36.5% say they will give less contributions to political candidates this year.

Regarding gas prices, 52.9% think the U.S. government should open the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling...71.6% of Republicans and 46.4% of Democrats agree.

Americans are using all forms of media more frequently than in 2004 getting information on the candidates for the Election, with television (62.9%) being the preferred medium followed by the Internet (45.9%) and newspaper (43.4%).

MCD - Holding The Line On The $ Menu

The news flow from the McDonald's annual meeting was consistent with past comments, but uncertainties remain.

Jim Skinner, McDonald's CEO, said the company remains committed to its low-price dollar menu. "This is not the time to be passing that on to consumers. They have long memories. We're the value leader. We always have been, and they expect us to continue to be the value leader. The company's low-price dollar menu, which offers items like double cheeseburgers for $1, has been popular with cash-strapped customers. The menu drives traffic to stores, and the additional volume has helped protect profits by knocking out some of the pressure from higher commodity costs.

Given the inflation pressures the company is seeing, holding the line on the Dollar menu puts the McDonald's system in a difficult position. In 1Q08, despite 2.9% same-store sales, higher commodity costs drove U.S. margins down 20 basis points for the quarter. In 1Q08, in the U.S. cheese costs rose 30% while beef and chicken both increased nearly 4%. For 2008, McDonald's expect U.S. chicken prices to rise nearly 6%, cheese up 14% and beef up slightly.

We understand the need to drive traffic, but at what cost and who is paying the price?

Democratizing Earnings Season

Ok, I've stuck to raw analytics with my postings, but I'm going to break rank for a quick minute. With earnings season just about done, we've all been dialed in to conference calls constantly. My math suggests 13 hours of time wasted on stupidity. The answer is to open up the queue beyond the sell-side. Let me vent for a minute...

1) If I hear one more analyst congratulating management on quarterly performance, I'm going to pull my hair out - especially when earnings are down 20% and they are beating their own guidance. Do I get congratulated for cranking out analytics? Does an investor get congratulated for having a good stock picks? No. Why? It's called a job...

2) Is it me, or is the number of analysts who are picked late in the queue and say All my questions have been answered increasing? That's like walking out of a library and saying 'I've read all these books already.

3) Here's a retail industry pet peeve. Why do analysts bother asking CEO's to comment on the supply chain partners that account for 25% of sales? What do they really expect to hear?? Yes, Wal*Mart has really messed up on our new product launch. Is Under Armour taking share from Nike? Well I'm glad you asked. The answer is that UA's share gain has slowed dramatically and we have more inventory than we'd like. These are things we'll never hear on a conference call.

I listened to 40 conference calls over 3 weeks. About an hour each. Roughly 35 minutes of Q&A. About 20 of them were excruciating. That's 13 hours of time wasted. Ironic that the best question tends to come from the constituent that naturally does not get air time on calls - the buy-side. Yes, this is partially by choice, but I'd argue it is more driven by the tradition of exclusion.

Exclusion is bad in any business.Especially this one.

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WEN - Talking Up His Book

As Keith pointed out yesterday, Bill Ackman would be talking up his book at the Ira Sohn conference.

Well apparently he made some comments about WEN!

Bloomberg is reporting that William Ackman believes WEN is worth $42. The WEN board has already determined that company is only worth $27 and agreed to be acquired by TRY. If Ackman is right the Peltz mystique will only grow bigger.

Personally, I think $42 is a pipe dream....

GMCR - Keeping an EYE on GMCR

Senior management at GMCR believes that there is a true evolution underway in coffee making with Keurig holding the number one market share. The coffee evolution goes like this - first, there was percolated coffee, then there was drip, now there is single-cup brewing. How big is the market? Currently, there are 90 million U.S. households that have coffee makers and now they have the opportunity to buy a single-serve system. And the numbers are impressive. In 1Q08, at home brewer unit sales were up 144% and Green Mountain K-Cups were up 68% YoY, respectively. The best part of the story is that that the razor-razor blade model is in full force and the more machines in the marketplace, the more K-Cups will be sold.

If all this is true why are key executives leaving and other insiders selling record levels of stock?

  • ValuationAt 20x EV/EBITDA the current rate of growth needs to be maintained or there will be multiple compression quickly. The chart is from our friends at FactSet.
  • Gross margins - Selling more, but at lower GMsIn 1Q08, GMCR's gross margin declined 220 basis points. The decline is largely due to the increase in sales of Keurig at Home brewers and related K-Cups, which have lower gross margins than most of the other products. GMCR is also experiencing higher green coffee and other commodity costs, and higher manufacturing costs due to the continued capacity investments. None of these issues appear to be going away any time soon, if ever. Despite a severe drop in gross margins in 1Q08, GMCR operating margin improved to 9.6% from 8.5%. The improvement in EBIT margins was driven by the lower SG&A as a percent of sales. Again, I believe that this is a trend that can last only so long, considering the current growth rate of the business.
  • The profitability of the Blade...From a consumer's point of view, brewing a cup of coffee from a Keurig home brewing system is slightly more expensive than traditional brewing methods. Therefore, critical to the GMCR investment case is the profitability of the K-Cups. On the internet, we find Retail prices for K-Cups are around $0.55 per K-Cup. On the most recent conf call management did not argue against prices in the wholesale channel at $0.30, with a 20% contribution margin. That implies a $0.06 profit per K-Cup. For licensed roasters, GMCR raised the royalty rate to $0.064 per K-Cup. The conclusion we can draw from this, is that on the surface there does not appear to be enough margin in the K-Cups for the supply chain to make any money.
  • The current need for cash is growing.The current need for cash is growing.

DKS: Drink Facts, Not Cool Aid

Apologies in advance if this sounds self-promotional (it's usually not my style) but I've been convinced for a while that the bullish consensus on Dick's is dead-wrong. The market drank the cool-aid and ignored the facts -- that unsustainable comp and margin drivers were masking one of the most aggressive rent structures in retail. It's unfortunate that the market does not care about these things until management says so.

Even with today's guide-down and subsequent downgrades, I don't think people really get the real story here. With the stock going from $27 last night to $20 pre-market, and now to $23, it's clear that the market is scratching its head and trying to make sense of what to do here. While every fundamental story has its price, there's still plenty of risk not priced in here.

It's IMPERATIVE to take a bigger picture view on this name. It is really a question of 'Then' versus 'Now.'

THEN: Over the last three years, Dick's has been blessed with the following.
1) A rock solid consumer.
2) The Under Armour comp cycle, which disproportionately helped DKS.
3) An easy competitive landscape - as Sports Authority was taken private by Leonard Green and subsequently closed stores. Also, other Sporting Goods retailers (like Hibbett) were behaving nicely as it relates to store expansion.
4) DKS took up its high-margin private label business from less than 10% to a low/mid teens rate today.
5) Major vendors like Nike, Adidas, Columbia, Champion and Russell funded DKS' margins through significant discounts and flat-out price rebates in order to hold off share loss to Under Armour. This was funded largely through lower sourcing costs due to cheaper Asian imports.

While the business was rocking and rolling, no one on Wall Street cared that Dick's has among the most aggressive rent structures in all of retail. In other words, it is moving into locations that its profitability cannot afford relative to Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy (examples of companies with whom it competes for retail space). As such, Dick's needed to promise higher rents in the outer years or sign less favorable terms to secure the locations. The strength in the business more than offset these higher costs, so Wall Street did not know (or care) about the risk. The stock was subsequently revalued from 8x up to 16x EBITDA.

1) The consumer took a 180 turn and is on very shaky ground.
2) The Under Armour comp cycle is done like dinner. Still a great brand, and still growing nicely. But the days of 75%+ growth at DKS are long over.
3) Competitors are actually adding stores again, and are starting to step on each others' footprint (Sports Authority in Florida, Academy in Texas, and everyone in California).
4) Private label is close to tapped out without sacrificing margin.
5) I'm convinced that vendor terms will be less accommodating than in prior years bc a) UA growth is slowing and the need for competitive response is not as great, and b) there's no way that vendors can be as generous when they are being faced with 8-10% increase in their cost of goods sold. Let's not forget that 'Dick's Sporting Goods' is largely an apparel and footwear retailer. It is absolutely not immune to higher product costs. Check out recent postings on the topic.

So now we're looking at a situation whereby all the factors that hid high occupancy escalators are ebbing, and the real risk to the P&L is being exposed. Yes, the stock is more fairly valued today than 24 hrs ago. But 9x EBITDA and 16x earnings relative to the rest of retail? I don't get it - especially when DKS is just starting what is likely to be at least a 12 month downward P&L trajectory.

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