Christmas is coming, and that means two sets of flurries are on the horizon – snow and retail news
. Now that the aftershocks of the 2008 financial collapse have had time to set in, this year will be a test to see how resilient consumers are in spending for the holidays. Retailers
, for their part, have been preparing by slimming down; most are carrying record low levels of inventories to avoid the need for post-rush markdowns. But as the fundamentals are uncertain, retail stocks have been rallying with the rest of the market – the Retail HOLDRs ETF (RTH) is less than 13% off its all-time high in July 2007, led by large allocations to Wal-Mart (WMT
), Home Depot (HD
), Target (TGT
), and Walgreen's (WAG
Large-cap, diversified retailers lack the appeal of a growing niche apparel company, for instance, but in many cases they look to be safer bets with decent upside in a market that's looking increasingly overextended. Wal-Mart and Home Depot attract my attention with relatively stronger moats for the retail industry and a consistent history of posting ROEs in the double-digits, and although they trade at higher earnings multiples than a company like GameStop (GME), I believe the sustainability of earnings favors the stodgier retailers. Earlier this year, investment funds that I co-manage (BCIC) sold GameStop stock on a belief that it is a value trap with illusory single-digit forward earnings multiples, as competition for video game sales increases, and video game makers look to connect directly with consumers and disintermediate brick-and-mortar stores. That stock is down 15% in the last week and is close to its 52-week low, one of the exceptions in a market that is making new 52-week highs.
There will be plenty of news on short-term sales trends involving consumer spending in the month of December, but there might be limited comparability with past years because the paradigm may have shifted in this newly frugal economy. If you're going to play with retail stocks, then, stay high quality and go with solidly entrenched middlemen. Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) is one retailer more off the beaten path that also fits that definition – a differentiated inventory strategy, improved pricing power after the Linens ‘n Things bankruptcy, and a modest valuation – and I'm happy BCIC owns it.
On the apparel front, Goldman Sachs (GS) analysts believe the sweater will be the go-to gift of 2009; while apparel is admittedly not my specialty, BCIC recently established a position in Ralph Lauren (RL).