Light at the End of the Tunnel

Shawn-00397_cmykby Shawn Narancich, CFAExecutive Vice President of Research

Retailing Blues

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, 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


Notably Accomplished

  Shawn-00397_cmykby Shawn Narancich, CFA Executive Vice President of Research

Onward and Upward

As the sun sets on another round of quarterly earnings that again proved the ability of companies to stay ahead of expectations, investors are left to observe that the “mini-correction” stocks experienced a month ago proved to be a fleeting buying opportunity. With just a small handful of retailers left to report, blue-chip stocks at record levels are in part a reflection of corporate America’s winning scorecard for the quarter, one in which S&P 500 companies produced sales growth of 4 percent that combined with better margins and share buybacks to generate high single-digit earnings gains. Not bad for a quarter where many feared that a suddenly stronger dollar would wreak havoc with so many blue-chip companies doing business overseas.

Puts and Takes

Topping the list of key themes we've observed over the past month’s reporting season is a stronger U.S. economy that companies are seeing juxtaposed against incrementally weaker economic conditions in Europe and slower growth from China. The stronger dollar is a by-product of a globally decoupled economy. But while it creates challenges for multinationals translating earnings from countries using the weaker euro and yen, it has had a silver lining for the American consumer. The comparative strength of the U.S. dollar has coincided with lower commodity prices in general and oil prices in particular. Each one-cent-decline in fuel prices at the pump boosts consumers’ disposable income by $1 billion, providing a major boost to household budgets ahead of the holiday selling season.


Investors got their first glimpse into how this dynamic might play out with Macy’s kicking off the third quarter reporting season for retailers with mixed results. The company delivered earnings above expectations, but on disappointing same-store sales that fell in the period. Despite management lowering earnings expectations, investors bid the stock higher, perhaps acknowledging Macy’s solid track record of expense controls, capital returns and the stock’s undemanding valuation. Whether the twin tailwinds of lower energy prices and a strengthening job market will fuel better holiday sales of the apparel, accessories and footwear that Macy’s sells is open to debate, but our bet is that Americans will spend their newfound income; it might just be that what they’re after turns out to be new gaming consoles, smartphones and SUVs!

Rocket Science

Finally, we would be remiss to deny recognition of Europe’s impressive accomplishment of a space mission this week that, for the first time ever, landed a space probe on a comet. If only a continent with the bright minds required to pull off such a feat could realize and act upon the knowledge that its stagnant economy and accompanying 12 percent unemployment rate aren’t fixable by monetary policy alone. ECB leader Mario Draghi knows that newly enacted European style QE by itself won’t pull Europe out of its funk—only labor market reforms, a more competitive tax system, and lower power prices can pull off that deft landing.

Our Takeaways from the Week

  • With all but the last few retailers yet to report, corporate America has delivered another solid quarter of earnings that have helped push stocks to record highs
  • Tailwinds for the American consumer should result in healthy levels of holiday spending


"Putin" Russia Behind Us

by Shawn Narancich, CFA Executive Vice President of Research

Good Friday, Great Week

Shaking off another bout of Russian adventurism in the former Soviet Union, stocks moved further into record territory this week on the heels of a better than expected jobs report domestically and encouraging manufacturing reports both here and abroad. Investors have witnessed a slow but steady reversal of the early 2014 risk-off trade, with benchmark U.S. Treasuries retracing approximately half of their earlier year gains and the S&P 500 now up 7 percent from its early February lows. Despite cold and snowy weather that has put a damper on retail sales this winter, we continue to foresee a stronger U.S. economy this year, supported by a rejuvenated energy sector that is in turn producing a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing.


A monthly jobs report signaling net non-farm payroll gains of 175,000 is not ordinarily a reason to celebrate, but viewed against the cold and snowy weather of one of the nation’s worst ever winters, the fact that February employment gains approached the average levels achieved last year is notable. We are encouraged to observe that local and state employment, after being such a material drag for so long, posted gains during the month, but even more important is the continued employment gains reported in construction and manufacturing. Dovetailing with the detail of today’s jobs number was the purchasing managers report for February out earlier this week, which showed manufacturing expanding at a faster pace domestically. Given the encouraging economic data, we foresee the Federal Reserve continuing to pare its purchase of Treasuries and mortgage backed securities, as likely to be detailed at its next FOMC meeting March 19th.

This week, investors witnessed Russia’s ruble tumble in response to the country’s Crimea incursion, forcing the central bank to boost short-term interest rates in support of the currency, but also adding to the risk that Russia falls into recession.  With emerging market currencies under pressure and in turn creating inflationary problems beyond US and European shores, we see developed economies that have increasingly decoupled from their emerging market counterparts. Supporting our outlook for the world’s developed economies to outperform in 2014, Europe reported its best retail sales numbers in thirteen years and coupled that with surprisingly strong manufacturing growth.

Tales of the Cash Register

Over the past couple weeks, U.S. retailers book-ended a fourth quarter earnings season that once again produced a clear plurality of better than expected results. For the retailers, hits and misses were as numerous as in any quarter we can recall. On the plus side of the ledger, investors were pleasantly surprised by strong sales at department store operator Macy’s and by the home improvement retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot, which both reported strong finishes to fiscal years advantaged by the rebound in housing. Meanwhile, investors in Radio Shack and Staples were left to lick their wounds, as both these companies continue to suffer from sales lost to the digital economy in general and in particular. Both undershot investor expectations and are in the process of closing hundreds of stores to right-size their disadvantaged business models.

Our Takeaways from the Week

  • Stocks forged new highs despite geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe
  • Despite bad weather, the U.S. economy continues to make encouraging progress