American consumers are tightening their belts. So companies selling to households are pulling in their horns. Wall Street expects San Diego consumer companies such as Jack in the Box, Rubio’s, Charlotte Russe, WD-40, and Callaway Golf to face a double whammy: waning customer demand and rising costs of doing business.
Households are tussling with excessive debt, rising unemployment, wages that have been stagnant for 8 years, tightening credit, still-falling home values, and higher prices for food and energy. It’s little wonder that consumer sentiment has been running at close to its lowest rate for more than 25 years. “Credit growth will be slower in coming years, and so will economic growth,” says E. James Welsh, Carlsbad money manager.
“We’re passing out of a very, very long-term buildup in consumer spending,” says David Allen of North County’s Palomar Equity Research. “We reached the zenith in the last three or four years, and now we’re on the downside of the slope. Profits have become a larger percentage of [total economic output] while incomes have lagged. Consumers have made up for that by borrowing through credit cards, mortgages, home equity loans, whatever. So the average consumer is more indebted at a time unemployment and inflation are rising. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture.”
“Many consumer stocks got beaten up horribly, then had a run-up, and now have turned back down,” says Bud Leedom of Leedom Asset Management. He, too, doesn’t see solid signs of a consumer turnaround, although the dollar’s recent strength portends lower commodity prices that will translate into lower prices if the trend continues.
Mark Basham of Standard & Poor’s thinks full-service restaurants are being hit the hardest, and fast-food outlets will pick up some of that business. But you can’t see that in recent results of fast-food chains Jack in the Box and Rubio’s. Jack has suffered two straight quarters of traffic declines, and its Mexican chain, Qdoba, has had three, says Rachael Rothman of Merrill Lynch. The company’s bakery costs have soared 57.5 percent over the past year, while cheese prices have gone up 20 percent. One problem is that 43 percent of outlets are in California, where the economy founders. Rothman’s target on the stock is $26, above where it is now.
John Owens of Morningstar, Inc., is more bullish: he thinks the stock’s fair value is $40 a share. He likes the strategy of going upscale with Asian chicken salad, the 100 percent sirloin burger, and ciabatta burgers and sandwiches. On the other hand, Jack is going for the value market with such products as a nacho cheese sandwich. Early this month, the company lowered its forecast of earnings for the year but predicted they would still be up 7 to 9 percent. “That kind of growth in this challenging environment is impressive,” says Owens, citing “cutthroat competition” from Burger King, Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, and Wendy’s.
“Rubio’s has always lagged expectations,” says Allen. The Mexican fast-food chain, which has more than 180 outlets in Western states, lost money in its first quarter. Its second-quarter profit of a mere $335,000, or 3 cents a share, was down from $503,000, or 5 cents, in the same quarter of the prior year. The stock has been as high as $11.90 over the past year. It’s now trading around $6. Standard & Poor’s says the stock is worth $4.70. According to S&P, 87 percent of the companies it follows are more desirable investments than Rubio’s.
“The price of cheese, cooking oil, flour went way up, hitting Rubio’s, which hasn’t found a sweet spot yet,” says Leedom.
Charlotte Russe, which sells apparel to women in their teens and 20s through 469 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico, is not garnering Wall Street’s respect just now because of “extensive management upheaval,” says Allen. In July, the company said it would have a weak fourth quarter. Also, chief executive Mark Hoffman would retire. In early August, the company said its chief financial officer, Patti Johnson, was stepping down. Len Mogil, the interim chief executive, would temporarily fill her shoes. Then executive vice president Patti Shields said she was taking off too. Since July 1, the stock has plummeted from almost $18 to around $12.
The company gets 25 percent of its sales from California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada — states that are getting walloped economically. As a result, Charlotte Russe is “slowing the pace of expansion in response to difficult retail conditions,” says Jason Asaeda of Standard & Poor’s. The company earned $1.50 a share in 2006 and $1.43 in 2007 and should earn $1.21 this year and $1.15 next year, says Asaeda. That would be a pretty steady downspiral.
WD-40 makes a variety of household products. It has 80 percent of the U.S. market for its WD-40, the spray lubricant that people use to loosen up almost anything that sticks. The company also sells other lubricants, such as 3-In-One oil, heavy-duty hand cleaners, and household cleaners. Its Spot Shot carpet cleaner has half the U.S. market. Sales should grow by 4.34 percent this year, but they will decline in North and South America, says Loran Braverman of Standard & Poor’s. He thinks new products and higher prices will boost sales in the next 12 to 24 months, but growth will be “below that of other household product companies,” he says. Also, competition will stiffen.
S&P thinks WD-40’s stock price is ahead of itself. It gives the target price as $26. But the stock sells for about $8 more than that already. S&P would sell the stock. Leedom, however, notes that this company’s products are needed, not merely wanted: “It’s a pure consumer blue chip; they have been doing a good job,” he says.
In recent years, there has been a massive shift of wealth and income to the richest Americans. For example, the upper 1 percent now corrals more than 40 percent of the nation’s financial assets, such as stocks and bonds. Nonetheless, American Express recently announced extremely disappointing earnings and said that the affluent are cutting back on spending. Results have been mixed at retail stores catering to the carriage trade. Callaway Golf goes for the upscale market by selling golf clubs made of space-age metals for hundreds of dollars per club. But Erik Kolb of Standard & Poor’s expects Callaway’s sales to rise only 0.8 percent this year, compared with 11 percent last year. Drivers and irons might record percentage gains in the low single digits, but golf balls will be a problem, says Kolb.