Earnings Round 2 - Time for Retail, Restaurants and other consumer names. Yikes!?!

Aug. 01, 2010 3:22 PM ETFDX, DD, EQIX, CL, K, BKE, ZUMZ
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Long Only, Value, Medium-Term Horizon, Long-Term Horizon

Contributor Since 2010

We see Investment themes at work and at play every day in the economy — oftentimes across industries and categories — and other aspects of day to day life. It is the opposite of the typical Wall Street approach to research, which oftentimes overly focuses on a single industry at a time and results in missed opportunities. These themes are identified by looking at the intersection of shifting economics, demographics, psychographics, technologies, mixed in with regulatory mandates and other forces. In other words, looking at the real world that companies are operating in! Some businesses will adapt, while others will leap frog ahead riding these thematic tailwinds to profits and significant share price movements, and sadly there will be those left floundering too. For every Apple, there is a Palm and Blackberry. For every Facebook . . . a MySpace or Friendster. For every Netflix, there’s a Blockbuster. The list goes on and on, even in non-technology categories. By examining these thematic tailwinds, our goal is to identify mispriced securities relative to the business opportunities ahead and avoid those that are overly valued and or staring down the barrel of significant headwinds

The debate between corporate earnings growth and the economy raged this past week as companies such as FedEx Corp. (FDX), Equinix Inc. (EQIX) and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. (DD) delivered significant earnings growth year on year and compared with Wall Street's expectations.


A notable characteristic of this earnings period thus far is the relatively low number of negative disappointments on the earnings front. The key phrase in that prior sentence is "thus far," but more on this later. At face value, positive surprises when it comes to earnings are good, but as I have said many a time, we need to dig deeper, below the headlines, to understand what is really going on.


Upon closer examination, more than a few companies delivered better than expected performances for the June quarter on what we would call in-line or only slightly better than forecast revenues. Connecting the dots, this means we need to look at the cost side of the equation - raw materials, services and labor - that has improved for companies. Said another way, companies are reaping the benefits of productivity gains from not only technology but also squeezing incremental productivity from the existing work force.


By doing more with less, the concern about a jobless recovery remains, particularly following this week's unemployment claims and the results of the Federal Reserve Beige Book report released this week. Fresh unemployment claims remained over 450,000, while 4.57 million people were still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid for the week that ended July 17, up 81,000 from the previous week.


Meanwhile, the Beige Book report found that the U.S. economy is growing but so are the risks. The survey data showed that the vast majority of the 12 regions tracked in the report had modest economic activity, with better growth in Cleveland and Kansas City offset by slowing in Atlanta and Chicago. The report identifies high unemployment, cautious consumers and businesses and an ailing housing market as keeping the recovery from gaining strength.


Not surprising for regular readers of this column or those who follow the economic data flow.


Despite these signs, Wall Street expectations for the S&P 500's operating earnings have risen in recent weeks and now stand at $79.53 per share for 2010 and $92.19 for 2011. What strikes me most about the 2011 expectation is not that it suggests 16 percent year on year growth but rather that those expectations are the highest for S&P operating earnings for the past 10 years.


Overly optimistic?


I think so, especially when we factor in the notion that the vast majority of the domestic economy is fueled by the consumer and spending patterns. Consumer-related companies are one slice of corporate earnings reports that we have yet to really hear from, and hear from it we will in the next few weeks.


What we have heard so far, however, has been disconcerting to some but reinforces our notion of the trade-down effect associated with the cash-strapped consumer. When both the Colgate-Palmolive Co. (CL) and the Kellogg Co. (K) reported their respective earnings, both cut their outlooks for the balance of the year.


Consumers continuing to trade down to store-brand products fueled their reduced views. The concern is that both companies have been viewed by many investors to be safe ports in a storm because of their inelastic products such as soaps, oral care, cereals and convenience foods.


One has to wonder what the outlooks will be at more trendy, fashion-forward retail companies as well as higher-end retail and consumer-product companies when they update their respective views in the coming weeks. True Religion (TRLG), Wet Seal (WTSLA), The Buckle (BKE), Zumiez (ZUMZ) are but a few that jump to mind. From my perch, this raises the risks associated with corporate earnings. Given the strong move in the S&P 500, up more than 5 percent month to date as I type this despite weakness late this past week, and aforementioned prospects for upcoming corporate earnings, odds are we will see at least a modest pullback from current levels in my opinion.


In prior columns, I've shared strategies for protecting profits as well as how to position oneself for a potential retrenchment in the stock market. The parting thought this week would be to examine companies like II-VI Inc. and others that are productivity plays for businesses as well as those for-profit education companies.



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