How Starbucks' European Pronouncements Gave Me Whiplash

Sep.21.12 | About: Starbucks Corporation (SBUX)

Speaking on CNBC yesterday, Starbucks' (NASDAQ:SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz indicated that the long international nightmare that is Europe is over, saying he was seeing "glimpses of optimism" suggesting that "the worst is over."

The market fell all over itself in approval, sending the stock up about 3% between yesterday and this morning's trading. Jim Cramer was soon comparing Schultz to Steve Jobs.

There is something to the comparison. Schultz joins Jobs in the pantheon of great American entrepreneurs and CEOs. He has done a commendable job of turning Starbucks' American business around. In its third quarter reported in July, U.S. same-store sales were up 7%, part of a bumptious revival that has taken place stateside since Schultz returned to his CEO post in 2008 when the company was stuck in the mud.

Problem is, the one and only thing Schultz hasn't had a bead on all along is Europe.

Before traders take his utterances about Europe yesterday as an article of faith, they have to look at his disjointed track record. In September 2011, Schultz said that the company is "dramatically understored" in European countries such as France.

Full steam ahead.

But by April 2012, when Starbucks reported its second quarter and European business was crumbling, Schultz was suddenly wringing his hands: "The situation is very, very tough," he said. Schultz wasn't the only one, of course. UPS (NYSE:UPS), Ford (NYSE:F), DuPont (NYSE:DD) and others also reported trouble. It was nothing personal. European business troubles appeared systemic.

Two months later, Starbucks gave an update: There was more darkness at the end of the tunnel. Starbucks said that its business in Europe was struggling "more than expected" -- which was saying something. It already expected trouble. Looking forward, though, the company expected even more troubles.

Starbucks trimmed earnings expectations for the second quarter to $0.44-$0.45. Europe was the cause.

Taking a turn as the Seattle company's resident European doomsayer, CFO Troy Alstead said, "We continue to struggle from macro challenges in Europe. This was true in the first quarter, it was profoundly true in the second quarter, and it's even more than expected in the third quarter." Also in July, Schultz, for his part, put two new executives in charge.

And now, in September, things are looking rosier.

Is the company right this time, or was it wrong last time? Who knows. Were those newly appointed European executives, perhaps, miracle workers? Anything is metaphysically possible, especially when it comes to Schultz. Or did Europe's economy make a hairpin turn toward the positive? Again -- metaphysically possible, if unlikely. But Schultz's track record in Europe is neither long nor accurate. Before leaping back into the stock on strength, I'd think twice about taking a Schultz hunch on Europe as an article of faith.

A note on performance -- each Friday, we'll take a look back at my last five trading suggestions, when there has been two days to determine whether I was a "Hero" or a "Goat." For this week's last five, here goes:

On FedEx (NYSE:FDX): a goat. On Ford: a goat. On General Motors (NYSE:GM): a goat. On Oracle (NYSE:ORCL): a hero. And on Research In Motion (RIMM): a hero. That makes a bad week, which marks two bad weeks in a row. But remember: As any trader worth his or her salt knows, all that matters in the end is that your good trades outweigh your bad. We'll keep count as we go on…

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.