Nike Is Running To Stay In Place

| About: Nike Inc. (NKE)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The "that" in this case has nothing to do with old Seinfeld episodes and everything to do with Nike (NYSE:NKE). It is, in a word or several, a great company - one of the crown jewels of the American consumer goods industry, right up with Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT).

But do you really want to buy it, up nearly half a percent in trading yesterday after an appropriately cautious week? After all, Nike, which has been struggling mightily, reports first-quarter earnings after the close of trading today. And which side are you going to take? Yesterday's headiness? Or that week of abundant caution, in which the stock came off about 5% after running above 100 on September 19?

Handicapping an earnings report the day it's due defines risky. But considering the choice, I'd throw my lot in with that week's worth of cautious traders, which is why today, all told, we're suggesting selling the stock.

Here's the little we know for absolute certain: analysts are expecting earnings of $1.12 a share, which will amount to a sizeable loss from last year's first quarter. Back then (and who'da thunk 2011 would ever be considered the good old days) Nike earned $1.36 from June-August. Expectations are slightly higher for this quarter's top line. Analysts are expecting revenues of $6.43 billion versus $6.08 billion.

But even a slight beat won't impact the stock in any lasting fashion. That's because analysts have spent the better part of the last quarter ratcheting estimates down from $1.36. All beats are not created equal. In this case, a beat of diminished earnings estimates won't impress the market nearly as much as a beat of long-held assumption.

In the fourth-quarter, Nike broke its habit of hitting expectations (it had met or beat expectations in 17 of the previous 18 quarters, quite an admirable streak.) But in that turning-point of a fourth quarter, Nike broke its streak in a resounding enough fashion to furrow the brow of traders. Expectations were for $1.37 a share and Nike stumbled in with $1.17.

Their higher tax rate and a restructuring charge that led, in part, to the shortfall are of little concern. On the positive side, too, Nike may benefit in the first-quarter from the Summer Olympics and soccer's European Championship, though those twin benefits are baked into the current expectations, so don't expect too much of a surprise. There is also a big caveat: if the fourth quarter's past is prelude, these worldwide sports events might even push up the cost side of the equation, as Nike advertises and pushes new product.

Beyond that, though, Nike is pretty boxed in between higher labor and fuel costs (higher expenses are starting to become a Nike staple), a reeling economy in Europe and teetering economies in the United States and China. To its credit, the company, in casting its eyes upon this quarter's results, counseled the sort of caution that traders should heed today.

In what should serve as the central takeaway, a guiding note of caution, CEO Mark Parker told analysts on a conference call that the company (and I apologize for the groaner ahead of time) had lost its footing. Said Parker:

"We will see continued uncertainty in the global economy and commodities and labor costs will continue to fluctuate. Currency pressures have increased, especially in Europe and the emerging markets, and China's economy is expected to grow more slowly than we've seen over the past five years."

That's a lot threaded together - and none of it good. Unless Michael Jordan is planning a latter-day comeback, Nike is tied in a bit of a nasty knot. Nike, a company that had turned the art of hitting numbers into a science, is looking at the future with a puzzled blink.

As we bear down on Nike's earnings report today, you have a choice between siding with cautious Nike traders-or happy-go-lucky ones. Considering, I'd side with caution.

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.

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