Conclusion: We’re not at all surprised by the big guide-down at GES, as it’s been on our short list for the better part of a year. We knew this one was overearning, and guidance around margins was like a balloon being held underwater while interim management manufactured earnings sufficient to keep the stock afloat. That said, we wish we’d been louder about this potentially being the quarter where the balloon bursts. The good news is that management has not yet capitulated with its guidance. Earning the lower end of the $1.70-$1.90 guidance is optimistic at best, and if it gets there it will be through cutting costs that arguably should be reallocated to other areas of the business. Our point is that even with the stock trading down, we still like it on the short side. We think GES has 2 to 1 downside/upside.
The way we look at it, the Guess? brand is stalling in all but a few markets, the executive suite has a revolving door (losing 3 key executives in 5 months – two on the same day), and the only real bull case revolves around this being cheap on a more ‘normal’ earnings base of $3+ that it earned over each of the past two years. At $26, we might concur with the ‘cheap’ part, but unfortunately, the premise that GES can ever earn $3 again without significant capital investment (i.e. taking earnings down first) is wishful thinking. Carlos Alberini – the best thing that ever happened to GES -- left for greener pastures (Restoration Hardware) knowing that he was leaving peak earnings power in the dust.
We think that $3 will prove about elusive as Bigfoot, and until then you’re left with an annuity earnings stream of something closer to $1.50-$1.60. What’s a zero-growth earnings stream worth? Whether we use a no-growth retail multiple of 10-12x, or capitalize by a 10% cost of equity (we hate arbitrarily picking cost of equity, but 10% is probably close). Either way a mid-teens stock is not out of the question.
Not only would we argue that it is currently expensive on the real earnings power of the company (16-17x the $1.50 we think GES should earn), but there is literally nothing in place to get the brand momentum moving upward again.
One thing that’s important to consider is that it's 2/3 of GES’ business that is causing the problem – and that’s North America Retail, and Europe. Unfortunately, the company is blaming the economy – again. GES needs to understand – as we do – that investors absolutely have zero tolerance for a management team that does not have a process to drive its business in the face of a downturn in the economy. Is Ralph Lauren complaining about the economy? No. It’s growing its top and bottom line by driving its brand across product, channel and customer categories in a synchronized way. Guess, on the flip side, is really good at making excuses.
In the end, we think we’ll need to see new blood in the executive rank at GES who will then need to fight for – and win – the right to reinvest capital into the business to better stratify the brand and build an omnichannel strategy accordingly. We’d definitely put GES in the bottom quartile with its abilities in those areas. Until then, it’s a value-trap in the mid-$20s. We think best case upside is $30 on manufactured earnings upside through misplaced cost cuts. On the downside we think you've got $15 based on math above.
NOT A GOOD MOVE IN GES SIGMA THIS QUARTER -- AGAIN