LULU: Meaningful Margin Risk

Takeaway: LULU needed to shore up confidence after 1Q product issues. They blew it. There's margin risk. Maybe not a short. But definitely not a long.

Conclusion: LULU had to do one thing and one thing only this qtr -- instill confidence in the investment community that the recent product issue was a one-off, and it that management is on offense. Unfortunately, LULU blew it. Its quarter was hardly squeaky clean, the outlook is cloudy, and the CEO tendered the most surprising resignations we've seen in retail in a while. This remains a great global growth story in retail -- one of the best, actually. But there's margin risk to the downside. That matters at 33x earnings. It might be a lousy short. But we'd avoid it long.

DETAILS 

In the wake of the Luon pant fiasco throughout the first quarter, there was one thing and one thing alone that LULU needed to do with this print -- and that's instill confidence with the investment community that the right team is steering this ship, and that the issues that caused the stumble are temporary and not a sign of more systemic issues at the company. Unfortunately, the company dropped that ball with the announcement that Christine Day is resigning her post of CEO after 5 1/2 years on the job.

Quite  frankly, we were stunned by the announcement. For investors, this is the corporate equivalent of being bitten by your Golden Retriever. There was no warning. Usually when something happens so suddenly, it is the Board's decision, but this one sounds like it was all Christine. Could it be that the Luon pant debacle took its toll on her? Perhaps. But she already canned LULU's Chief Product Officer in April, and the company is in the process of broadening its executive team.  We'd be surprised if her departure was due to this issue alone.

Our sense is that Ms. Day -- who is held in extremely high regard by the investment community -- simply sees that the next leg of growth will be tougher to come by. To her credit, she saw the company through the period in '09 when it was a $3 stock and drove it up to $80. That's $11.2bn in value creation -- or a 27-bagger for those keeping score.

While LULU had several wins this quarter, like golf, tennis, men's and e-commerce, in the end, this quarter was hardly squeaky clean. Aside from the Luon issue, the company noted certain misses from a styling perspective, higher expected landed costs in 2H due to factory/production issues, SG&A deleverage through 2H14 as LULU ramps up its East Coast distribution center, and difficulty in finding store locations to facilitate Hong Kong expansion.

We still think that LULU is one of the few iron-clad brands in retail that can put up 20%+ organic top-line growth on a consistent basis for the next 3-5 years (the others are RH, FNP, UA and KORS). But unlike these other brands, we think that LULU has risk to the downside in its mid-20s margin as the company spends more to facilitate its growth. If we compare it to UnderArmour (or FNP or RH), for example, we see that UA has only an 11% margin, and even it is stepping up spending on the margin to maintain top line growth. We think that LULU will maintain a significant premium to UA, NKE, RH and FNP. But in doing so we still think that the risk is to the 20% range as margins (and even high teens) look to find a final resting place.

This still nets us a respectable 20%-ish EPS growth rate by any stretch (25% top line growth less 500bp due to margin erosion). But with the stock trading at 33x earnings (per the after-hours sell-off) we find it really tough to get excited about on the long side.