Steps in the right direction but still more work to do. AMC on 2/17/19, LB reported 4Q18 earnings beat but provided weak 1Q19 and FY19 guidance. We note LB has taken steps in the right direction with the closure of Henri Bendel, the sale of La Senza, cutting their dividend in half, new leadership at VS lingerie and Pink and a planned 3% reduction in VS square footage in FY19. Still, much uncertainty remains with resurrecting VS’ brand image. Rarely do we see the initial pass of turn work without further tweaking of the strategy, and things could get worse before getting better. We look for improvement in VS’ gross margin before becoming more optimistic since full-price selling means consumers are returning and the product is resonating. In reaction to ongoing struggles, LB shares were down 7% midday.
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The January reading plummeted, falling two rankings from December’s reading of 3/10, suggesting investors started re-shorting stocks during the January rally after being sidelined at year end. In January 45.7% of retailers posted a short position >15% (up from 39.1% in December). Since we last published this report on 12/17/18, the XRT is up 1% vs. the S&P 500 +4%. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
Although many companies posted sales upside for the holiday season, we think the upside is the result of deeper promotions (despite clean inventory) in order to coax consumers to shop. CPRI and TPR reported quarterly earnings last week that echoed this sentiment. Both companies cited a promotional environment, among other issues, that resulted in misses on the top-line and on gross margin vs consensus. We expect general misses to gross margin and sales given the trend of deeper promotions over the last four quarters from a peak score of 43 or “Flat” in 1Q18 to 33 or “Deeper” in 4Q18.
Heightened supply risk for 2019. During 3Q18, retailers took a turn for the worse, as inventory increased modestly at a faster rate than sales. With no ability to raise prices to drive comp, retailers must rely on increased unit volume to drive sales growth. Note that this is a snapshot entering 4Q18. Most results, save for a few exceptions (e.g., TGT – PP, COST – PP, covered by Scott Mushkin, and LULU-OP), have missed holiday sales. We expect inventory exiting 4Q18 to show even higher inventory-related business risk.
The December reading rose for the second consecutive month, suggesting with valuations pulling in short sellers may be derisking. The November reading was 2 out of 10. In December 39.1% of retailers posted a short position >15% (was 42.2% in November). Since we last published this report on 12/17/18, the XRT is up 6% vs. the S&P 500 +2%. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
We believe 2018 may have been “peak season” for retailers. We continue to believe in the Retail Death Curve phenomenon. The 2018 lift in mall traffic was against easy compares and pent-up demand. Despite clean inventory in 2018, there was no evidence of broad-based pricing power. Retailers were as, if not more, promotional than prior year and “bought the comp.” Tax reform savings were reinvested in store-related wages and deferred capital spending – both contributing to a higher fixed cost infrastructure than before tax reform – adding to greater deleverage risk.
It’s preannnouncement season. Post-holiday preannouncement season is here. With up to 85% of sales completed, retailers know their 4Q fate. As such, we are publishing a post-holiday promo tracker update with our call outs on upside and downside performance for the quarter. Often, the holiday success or disappointment translates into a similar outlook for the forthcoming year. With valuations pulling back in 4Q, we believe our positive call outs are worth a look ahead of 4Q18 preannouncment season and as long-term outperformers in the sector. We expect preannouncements from at least the following companies: ANF, AEO, PLCE, EXPR, CPRI, LB, LULU, ULTA, URBN, W.
Sector Sentiment 2, on a Scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best): The November reading rose from the October reading of 1 out of 10 with 42.2% of retailers posting a short position >15% (was 44.4% in October). Since we last published this report on 11/14/18, the XRT is down 11% and therefore investors may have taken some money off the table. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
3Q18 Consumer Sentiment Poll scores 5. 1 out of 10 (vs 6.2 in 2Q18). Each quarter, we send out a brief survey to gauge investor sentiment prior to earnings, where 1 is “Terrible” and 10 is “Excellent.” Thanks for replying, if you did! Survey results are completely anonymous, and the greater the response rate, the more conclusive the results, so please consider participating next time.
There are many moving parts and LB will reveal its new strategy next spring. The current quarter and expectations for ongoing pressure in 4Q18 are backward looking in assessing LB’s ability to turn the business. We care about the prospects for a sustained turn beginning in 2019. Typically, year one of a turnaround exhibits further margin erosion (often material) before we see initiatives take hold. There are several historical examples of turnarounds to refer to (e.g. TPR - PP, KORS - OP, RL – Not Covered) where margins and comps worsened before recovering, and management lowered the bar meaningfully as they gave themselves breathing room to execute the right go-forward strategy. We believe LB has two category-dominant brands, but the work to resurrect VS’ brand image will take time, investment, and could get worse before getting better. In reaction to ongoing struggles, LB shares were down 18%.
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