Today I am getting a lot of questions as to why we coined this the “Great Recession”, and sometimes its just easier to capture a simple answer with a picture rather than prose. Today saw the release of the latest US GDP data, and Andrew Barber has incorporated that data in the chart below. That’s what The Great Recession looks like.
Most economists call a recession 2 consecutive quarters of falling GDP. So we have that - but what we really have here is the Greatest peak-to-trough belly flop versus consensus Wall Street expectations (think the ooh and the ahh of Private Equity and “Chindia” of 2007) in US history. No, this is NOT a Great Depression. Pre the Great One in the 1930’s, depressions happened all the time:
1. 1893-94 = GDP down -9%
2. 1907-08 = GDP down -10%
3. 1919 = GDP down -13%
My Partner, Todd Jordan, asked in an early note today, “what is a depression anyway?” Well Todd, I think it’s when people are depressed – and a lot of the shameless rats in this business should be… but it is definitely not what we are seeing here, from a US economic perspective, in 2009.
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Yesterday, I even read an article that said a bistro in Sydney is hoping to combat the recession by allowing its customers to decide what they want to pay for each menu item. Diners fill in the price they want, and the bill is calculated accordingly. Although this type of discounting seems a bit irrational, the prices being advertised at major casual dining chains in the U.S. continue to surprise me as they move increasingly lower. On a positive note, these lower prices have to help casual dining restaurants’ value perception relative to the QSR players. It is these low price casual dining offerings that cause me to believe that now is a difficult time for QSR players to push their more premium menu items.
CKR is one of those QSR players that has continued even in this tough environment to maintain its focus on more premium, quality products, which it states will allow the company “to attract those consumers looking for premium quality products as they trade down from more expensive dining options.” Management has criticized its competitors for aggressively discounting and selling “margin-impairing products.” Despite its claim, however, that CKR’s menu offers a strong alternative to casual dining, CKR has experienced a slowdown in same-store sales, particularly at its Carl’s Jr. concept. Fiscal 4Q09 comparable sales turned negative at Carl’s Jr. and remained negative in period 1 of FY10, down 3.6%. Today, CKR stated on its 4Q09 earnings call that period 2 same-store sales will likely be down mid single digits. Although the company is facing its most difficult comparison from FY09 in period 2, management attributed the continued weakness to industry discounting and the fact that its competitors are literally giving away food.
CKR is right to be concerned about margins, but a QSR menu strategy that relies primarily on premium priced products is going to suffer, particularly in light of the significant discounts also being offered by casual dining restaurants. Earlier this month, I said with regard to CKR that holding the line on value becomes harder to do as the decline in traffic trends begin to accelerate. To that end, with Carl’s Jr. same-store sales having turned negative during the fourth quarter and 2-year average same-store transaction growth trends negative for some time now, management said just this morning that it will be testing some value menu items on its Carl’s Jr. menu, such as 1/8 lb. burgers and some other mid-tier priced items that have been successful at the company’s Hardee’s concept. Management is not calling this “discounting” because these items will not be supported by media campaigns or promoted at specific price points. Instead, these new items are expected to offer a value option to its customers. Management can call these new lower priced items whatever it wants, but the fact that the company had to change its tune somewhat by offering more value items highlights just how difficult it is to push premium priced menu items in this environment. The casual dining operators have known this for some time now and have, therefore, adapted their menus and price promotions. Some QSR players, however, continue to maintain that this premium strategy will work as an alternative to casual dining. I am not yet convinced.
Here's who's doing what within Casual Dining:
• Chili's. On April 6, the chain will offer a "10 meals for under $7" deal. Officials declined to discuss details until closer to rollout.
• T.G.I. Friday's. This month, Friday's began a promotion featuring eight entrees priced at $9.99 — in some cases a 29% price cut. "We need to offer deep value to drive traffic," says Andrew Jordan, marketing chief.
• Applebee's. Since mid-November, the chain has offered a "2 for $20" special of two entrees and one appetizer. "While we can't fix the economic challenges, we are offering … value," says Shannon Scott, marketing chief.
• Outback Steakhouse. For months, the chain has marketed 15 meals for under $15. "We decided to get back to the DNA of the brand," says Dan Dillon, marketing chief.
• Texas Roadhouse. The chain recently launched an "Early Dine for $7.99" promo on weekdays. "We're trying to drive early-week traffic," says marketing chief Chris Jacobsen.
• Cheesecake Factory. A "Small Plates and Snacks" menu includes a $4.95 Pizzette, a flat, football-shaped pizza some folks are ordering as a meal. "We're making Cheesecake Factory more accessible," says Mark Mears, marketing chief.
• Morton's. Even Morton's has got a $99.99 steak and seafood dinner for two and $6 mini-burgers at the bar (Average check at Morton's is $97 per person). The goal, says CEO Tom Baldwin, is to drive sales. "These are unprecedented times."
There seems to be something very different about this recession than others. I don’t mean to be alarmist and I’m not suggesting that we are in a depression. I don’t even know what a depression is. Ronald Reagan once said, “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.” In our individualistic society, everything is local, so that description is as good as any.
Since we are a nation of individuals, what’s more disconcerting are the populist attacks on capitalists, and I would argue, freedom itself. Sure, we are used to the rhetoric from the MoveOn.org folks, but it is now coming from most of our government figures, and quite disingenuously I might add.
The rise of anti-capitalist sentiment is very evident in the reaction/response to the AIG bonus fiasco. There are many things wrong with this situation, the least of which are the bonuses themselves. Do I think AIG should have given contractual guarantees to incompetent people, some without performance metrics? Of course not. It was stupid and it was done before AIG accepted public funds. However, as soon as the government regulates stupidity, it also takes away the ability to be smart.
Capitalism works because smart people start smart businesses to make money by providing a product or service that someone else determines is worth more than the price. Inversely, Capitalism also works when people make bad decisions and in due course they go away and are replaced by smart people running smart businesses. Besides the likely constitutional issues, the taxing of bonuses at 90% will ensure that few smart people will work for AIG. Good luck in turning that company around.
I’ve always viewed capitalism as a major part of freedom. It’s economic freedom. The other major part of freedom is civil liberty. Is it not a violation of an individual’s civil liberties to be “outed” by Andrew Cuomo and Barney Frank as a recipient of contractual compensation? This situation is fast turning into a populist witch hunt, to quote one of my clients. I’ve been paid most of life through contracts but I am certainly not rich. I couldn’t imagine, in this country, having to be worried about my safety and the safety of my family because every crazy Robin Hood out there knows that I am due a bonus that may be more than they earn. This is not freedom.
Try and stay free out there.
No, that’s not a shocker. Ironically enough, some of those who are calling for the next Great Depression don’t have Depression style economic forecasts in their models to begin with (Roubini’s GDP and unemployment estimates for 2009, last I checked at least, were -5% and 9%, respectively).
For the Depressionistas you see, it’s all about being an alarmist, flying around in helicopters, and writing books – it is not about The New Reality, which is quite simply that the Bears are doing as bad a job managing the upside in this rally as the bulls managed the downside into March 9th. Risk works both ways…
The sequential ascent of the 4 week moving average for jobless claims is starting to decelerate (yellow line in the chart). Much like US Housing, or our bullish early cycle calls on semis to copper, when considering the second derivative, this is actually quite positive. With Obama’s 4M jobs coming on line, and both the US housing and stock markets stabilizing, I expect this to be a big economic story in Q2 of 2009 – US Employment is going to get less bad!
Everything that matters to our macro models happens on the margin. If US unemployment stops going up at an accelerating sequential rate, this will be one more bullish early cycle indicator that the Depressionistas will have to look back at and call it for what it was – The Great Recession.
Keith R. McCullough
CEO / Chief Investment Officer
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