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THE CONSUMER’S MIXED SIGNALS

According to ICSC, chain store sales continued their weak start to 2011. In the latest week, sales fell 1.2% although year-over-year growth improved to 2.8%.  This was the third straight decline and the second largest one and since wintry weather has hit us (again), the inclement conditions were to blame for the weakness.  While growth of 2.8% was the second weakest in seven weeks, it was well above the prior week's 1.4%.

 

As a result of the weakness, the ICSC lowered its forecast for growth in January to about 2%. It was previously forecasting growth of about 2.5%, below December's 3.1% and the slowest growth since October.  Consistent with our view of consumer spending in 1H11, comparisons remain difficult.  While the Social Security tax cut provides upside risk to this outlook, the timing depends on how quickly the changes can be implemented.

 

On the positive side consumer confidence rose in January to the highest level in eight months! The Conference Board’s index of sentiment increased to 60.6 from a revised 53.3.  While this is a net positive today, a continued improvement in optimism and an improving labor market are needed to keep the momentum going. 

 

Is it sustainable?

 

Working against the potential for continuous improvement in confidence and consumer spending are declining home prices.  As our Financials analyst, Josh Steiner, noted in a note this morning, home prices are falling and he expects this to persist at an accelerating year-over-year rate through July 2011, and will continue to fall in absolute terms thereafter.

 

While the sales numbers may have been slowed by snowy weather in large parts of the country, overall sales trends remained constrained by weak-but-improving consumer fundamentals.  Specifically, the moderation in private sector job growth in the last two months highlighted that the labor market remains a drag on spending despite the drop in unemployment in December.

 

Meanwhile, wage income is generally improving, but only gradually and from a low base and most consumers are, voluntarily or involuntarily, not accessing credit to finance consumption.  As a result, expedited improvement in the labor market is needed to generate the necessary wage income to support spending.

 

Inflation is also a risk.  Gasoline prices continue to rise and are a drag on spending.  The average price gasoline has risen for eight straight weeks and was $3.16 per gallon last week.  Higher energy prices particularly hurt lower-income households who spend more disposable income on energy needs.

 

One of the key tenets of our Consumer Cannonball theme was the phasing out of government supported income payment.  While the government contribution to income growth dropped to essentially zero at the end of 2010, this has changed in early 2011 when Social Security withholding declined as a result of the tax bill. 

 

It is now consensus that sales growth in 2011 will accelerate thanks to the renewed government support.  Despite the uptick in confidence, weak fundamentals will remain a constraint and the government support will have a fading impact as we go through 2011, keeping consumers cautious and putting a governor on growth.  Furthermore, the decline in home prices is likely to dampen sentiment, particularly in the event that rates increase.

 

Despite today’s uptick in confidence, consumers will not lead the recovery in the near or intermediate term.

 

THE CONSUMER’S MIXED SIGNALS - housing vs consumer

 

Howard Penney

Managing Director


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THE CONSUMER’S MIXED SIGNALS

According to ICSC, chain store sales continued their weak start to 2011. In the latest week, sales fell 1.2% although year-over-year growth improved to 2.8%.  This was the third straight decline and the second largest one and since wintry weather has hit us (again), the inclement conditions were to blame for the weakness.  While growth of 2.8% was the second weakest in seven weeks, it was well above the prior week's 1.4%.

 

As a result of the weakness, the ICSC lowered its forecast for growth in January to about 2%. It was previously forecasting growth of about 2.5%, below December's 3.1% and the slowest growth since October.  Consistent with our view of consumer spending in 1H11, comparisons remain difficult.  While the Social Security tax cut provides upside risk to this outlook, the timing depends on how quickly the changes can be implemented.

 

On the positive side consumer confidence rose in January to the highest level in eight months! The Conference Board’s index of sentiment increased to 60.6 from a revised 53.3.  While this is a net positive today, a continued improvement in optimism and an improving labor market are needed to keep the momentum going. 

 

Is it sustainable?

 

Working against the potential for continuous improvement in confidence and consumer spending are declining home prices.  As our Financials analyst, Josh Steiner, noted in a note this morning, home prices are falling and he expects this to persist at an accelerating year-over-year rate through July 2011, and will continue to fall in absolute terms thereafter.

 

While the sales numbers may have been slowed by snowy weather in large parts of the country, overall sales trends remained constrained by weak-but-improving consumer fundamentals.  Specifically, the moderation in private sector job growth in the last two months highlighted that the labor market remains a drag on spending despite the drop in unemployment in December.

 

Meanwhile, wage income is generally improving, but only gradually and from a low base and most consumers are, voluntarily or involuntarily, not accessing credit to finance consumption.  As a result, expedited improvement in the labor market is needed to generate the necessary wage income to support spending.

 

Inflation is also a risk.  Gasoline prices continue to rise and are a drag on spending.  The average price gasoline has risen for eight straight weeks and was $3.16 per gallon last week.  Higher energy prices particularly hurt lower-income households who spend more disposable income on energy needs.

 

One of the key tenets of our Consumer Cannonball theme was the phasing out of government supported income payment.  While the government contribution to income growth dropped to essentially zero at the end of 2010, this has changed in early 2011 when Social Security withholding declined as a result of the tax bill. 

 

It is now consensus that sales growth in 2011 will accelerate thanks to the renewed government support.  Despite the uptick in confidence, weak fundamentals will remain a constraint and the government support will have a fading impact as we go through 2011, keeping consumers cautious and putting a governor on growth.  Furthermore, the decline in home prices is likely to dampen sentiment, particularly in the event that rates increase.

 

Despite today’s uptick in confidence, consumers will not lead the recovery in the near or intermediate term.

 

Howard Penney

Managing Director

 

THE CONSUMER’S MIXED SIGNALS - housing vs consumer


EAT: STRONG QUARTER WITH MORE TO COME

Brinker put up a strong number that didn’t blow the doors out from a comp perspective but certainly impressed on the margin line.

 

Brinker’s 2QFY11 results were strong, as I wrote this morning, and the earnings conference call suggested that the upside I am forecasting in comps is within reach.  Some interesting takeaways from the conference call:

  • Chili's guest feedback scores continue to improve with attentive service being a key component of the increase.  Management’s internal metrics are validated by what we see in external research when we compare ourselves to the competition.
  • The strong comp performance was largely due to the year-over-year compare not having very much 3 for $20 during the month.  Management stated that this was a sort of a preview of the effect they anticipate from the lapping of 3 for $20 after 10 week during this current quarter.
  • The kitchen retrofits have been yielding positive results and management stressed that the kitchen process has been simplified. Furthermore, the restaurant level margin improvement seen in 2QFY11 does not include the food prep benefit to labor costs because the changes were not fully rolled out until this month. 
  • Another labor initiative, team service, is working well for Chili’s.  Margins have been enhanced by this initiative and it has coincided with higher earnings for staff along with higher guest satisfaction stores. 
  • The outlook for continued comp acceleration is strong; the new lunch menu has tested strongly in three test markets with no advertising aside from some use of the company’s database.  While it is tricky to extrapolate the results of test markets to the broader system, I am confident that a broader rollout, complemented by a more robust advertising allocation, will perform strongly and bolster a traditionally-soft day part for Chili’s.
  • During a period of slowing top line trends for the casual dining category, EAT saw sequential improvement.  The Gap-to-Knapp, adjusting for the 53rd week, improved by 120 basis points from 1QFY11 through 2QFY11.

 

My conviction in this stock remains high and I believe further sequential improvement is to come on the top line as well as further margin enhancement.  Below is a chart showing Chili’s comparable restaurant sales and projections for the next two quarters.

 

EAT: STRONG QUARTER WITH MORE TO COME - eat sss

 

Howard Penney

Managing Director


UK: Welcome to Stagflation Country!

Position: Short Italy (EWI); Euro (FXE)

 

We’ve been hitting on the fundamental trend of stagflation pressure in the UK for months now, however it’s now official given that Q4 UK GDP fell -0.5% quarter-over-quarter (vs +0.7% in Q3) as inflation (CPI) stands at +3.7% year-over-year.

 

While we applaud the austerity measures the UK government has issued to cut its public debt and deficit levels for its longer term outlook, over the medium term these measures will equate to slow (or negative) GDP. (Versus the previous year GDP rose +1.7% in Q4, a slowdown from +2.7% in Q3 Y/Y).

 

The UK Statistical Office said that without the impact of weather the Q4 number would have been “flattish”. However the reality remains that with a higher VAT (from 17.5% to 20%), job cuts (~500K over next 4 years), and ~£81 Billion in public spending cuts over the next 4 years, the citizenry is feeling the squeeze (or biting the bullet) so that the economy may see brighter seas 2-3 years out, a strategy we also firmly believe President Obama needs to implement in the US.

 

The major components that drove the UK’s GDP print Q/Q include:

 

Services                        -0.5%

Industrial Production      +0.9%

Manufacturing               +1.4%

Construction                  -3.3%

 

As stagflation rears its ugly head, we’re seeing headwinds for its main equity market, the FTSE 100. The FTSE recently broke our immediate term TRADE support level of 5978, with intermediate term TREND support down at 5790 (see chart). 

 

UK: Welcome to Stagflation Country! - FTSE100

 

We sold out of our position in Germany (via the etf EWG) in the Hedgeye Virtual Portfolio yesterday as the DAX flashed overbought on our TRADE duration; we remain bullish on the TREND duration. We remain short Italy (EWI) and the Euro (FXE); we would be shorting the EUR-USD at current levels, with a cover at $1.33.

 

Matthew Hedrick

Analyst


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