Earnings season has all but wrapped up for another quarter, but department store retailers are adding a problematic book-end to a quarter that has generally come in ahead of expectations. Flat third quarter earnings were weighed down by widespread losses in energy and dampened again by the stronger dollar, factors that many investors thought would spare U.S. centric retailers. Following Wal-Mart’s surprisingly weak earnings outlook in October, both Macy’s and Nordstrom came to the earnings confessional this week to report weaker than expected sales and substantially reduced profit forecasts. For Macy’s, its red star seems to be falling, as elevated inventories are forecast to weigh on margins for the company’s most important holiday sales quarter. Despite recent evidence of elevated merchandise levels in traditional retail channels, the subsequent 15-20 percent declines in both retailers’ share prices speak to the traffic challenges afflicting both Nordstrom and Macy’s. Investors long retailing stocks will hope for better news from home improvement, off-price, and specialty retailers next week.
Sales Falling Flat?
Amid increasing concerns about U.S. retailing, news that October retail sales barely budged cast a further shadow on the industry. In our opinion, weakness for select retailers reporting quarterly numbers speaks more to their distribution strategies and product mix than to any deeper concerns about the health of U.S. consumers. Shoppers are buying more of what they want and need online at Amazon.com, disadvantaging traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers that lack the cars, footwear, and food that consumers still want to see and trial firsthand before they buy. Also at work are the weather and the dollar. A mild fall has hurt department store retailers’ apparel sales and the strong dollar has deterred foreign visitors from taking American shopping sprees. Notwithstanding company specific retailing challenges, we continue to believe that a healthy job market, low gas prices, and low interest rates support domestic consumption and will be a tailwind for the U.S. economy.
Oil -- Down but not Out
In addition to the hit that retailers took this week, energy stocks again took it on the chin as oil prices retest August lows. Refineries are going through what’s called the turnaround season, a time of reduced product output that coincides with a change in product emphasis from summer gasoline to winter heating oil. Refinery throughput slows and with it, crude demand. As investors fret about recent US inventory builds, we would observe that seasonal factors are at play that obscure the tightening of oil markets – tightening that coincides with falling U.S. production and flattening OPEC production. We don’t expect OPEC to cut production at its December 4 ministerial meeting, but we do believe it will acknowledge that markets are coming back into balance and accede to the cartel’s current level of output. With fuel demand continuing to grow at healthy levels and global supply flattening, the slack in oil markets is disappearing. We are bullish on oil and look forward to higher prices ahead.
Our Takeaways from the Week
- Retailers are book-ending third quarter earnings season, causing consternation for department store investors
- Oil prices are retesting late summer lows ahead of the upcoming OPEC meeting, amid increasing evidence that supply and demand are rebalancing