“The better part of valor is discretion”
– William Shakespeare
Thanks Bill, and the better or necessary part of consumer spending is the staples. Necessity is why staples are also called non-discretionary. With their discretion, will consumers be so valorous as to empty their wallets for things they want, rather than need? The almost vertical trajectory of discretionary consumer stocks suggests yes. On the contrary, sound analysis indicates that consumers face an almost impenetrable ceiling, triple fortified by the Three S’s: Savings rate, Stagflation, and Share of wallet. I’d add consumer credit (bad) to the mix but it doesn’t begin with an S, we like 3s, and our macro team will be addressing this topic shortly.
So while Geithner may say that “things are better than 3 months ago, 6 months ago, before this recession began”, I would ask two questions: By what metric and for whom? Geithner’s preferred metric lately, it appears, is the rate of change or the “less bad” thesis that Research Edge was espousing when everyone else thought the world was falling apart (March 9th ring a bell?). The stock market has already discounted “less bad”, then “stability”, and now is viewing the consumer as in “recovery” mode. This is what scares me.
“Recovery mode” implies, well…recovery. I’m certainly not seeing it in the consumer discretionary sectors of gaming, lodging, and leisure that comprise my analytical vertical. Is business less bad? Maybe, but I think the comparisons are just getting easier. The consumer is not necessarily getting stronger.
“Recovery mode” also implies some lasting duration. We are very worried about Q4 from a macro and consumer perspective. The threat of stagflation is real, maybe coming as soon as Q4. Stagflation is a consumer killer. In a stagflation environment, fewer consumers have jobs and the ones that do can’t buy as much as before. Will you take credit for that too, Mr. Geithner, when it happens? Your policies and your predecessor’s policies (as well as the Bernanke constant) have created a fertile environment for potentially massive inflation, yet unemployment continues to grow. Sure unemployment is growing at a slower rate (10% but it could’ve been 10.5%!). Congratulations - pop the champagne – at least the French consumer discretionary industry will benefit.
So if I’m out of work (thankfully I’m not) and my purchasing power begins to decline at an accelerating rate (rate of change cuts both ways Tim), am I really going to buy that 2nd boat, 8th Coach bag, or book that 3rd cruise this year, or will I feed my family. Want versus need.
This also gets us to the share of the wallet question. In an inflationary economy, a larger part of consumer spending will go to non-discretionary items. With stagflation, the size of the wallet shrinks. One of my industries has a third problem: even within the consumer discretionary segment, casino spending is shrinking as a % of Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) for the first time in 25 years. Now that’s a triple whammy!
So what do we do? Be careful and manage risk. We can’t ignore the warning signs just because the stock market and consumer stocks are going up. Timing, as always, is critical. This is where I defer to our timing tutor, Keith McCullough.
On a separate note, I will be taking many moments of silence today to contemplate what happened exactly 8 years ago on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday morning. The events of 9/11 had an impact on virtually every American. The impact was personal for many of us living/working in NYC that day. We move forward in part by looking back.