Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Black (Plague) Friday for Retail

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. In addition to the term helicopter economics, we have also coined the term, helicopternomics, to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government and to update the old-fashioned term wheelbarrow economics.

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Profit for most U.S. retailers is determined by sales from the day after Thanksgiving (known as Black Friday) to the end of the year. There is an old saw in the trade that retailers actually lose money up to Thanksgiving day, and that shopping the next day determines the tone for the holiday season. As of now, that tone looks like it's going to be pretty cacophonous. Retail sales are being hit by a negative wealth effect caused by declining home and stock prices and a reduction in employment and available consumer credit. Without a good holiday shopping season, a wave of retail bankruptcies should be expected next spring - and this is one industry the Fed is not likely to bail out.

This past spring there were eight mostly mid-size retailers that went under, including Sharper Image, Levitz, Fortunoff and Linen 'n Things. In July the department store chain Mervyns declared bankruptcy and on November 11th, Circuit City. Crushing debt levels accumulated during the credit craze days in the early 2000s is what led to the first bankruptcy filings. The high debt load, which is common throughout the industry, combined with a tanking U.S economy will be responsible for the much bigger number of retail failures next year. The set up for Black Friday is bleak. In October, the consumer confidence figures were the lowest on record, literally falling off a cliff. Consumer spending plunged 1%. Same store sales were the worse in 35 years, with apparel retailers generally suffering the most. Discounters, such as Walmart did well however.

Don't expect relief from home prices or the stock market either. The just released Case-Shiller report has U.S. home prices falling 16.6% year over year in the third quarter. The stock market may close the year with the biggest drop on record, although it's too early to make that call. S&P 500 earnings were estimated to be down 21% in October, with financial and consumer discretionary firms bearing the brunt of the losses. Amazingly, brokerage analyst earnings estimates for 2009 have S&P profits increasing 17%, even though many of their own companies are only surviving because they are on the government dole. Recent reports have also indicated hefty outflows from mutual funds, close to 20% of the total so far this year, with investors increasingly losing confidence in the U.S. stock market.

Historians estimate that there was a 35% chance of surviving the bubonic form of the Black Plague during the Middle Ages. Hopefully, the survival rate in U.S. retail will be higher than that. Even healthier chains are closing large numbers of stores however. This pattern is likely to accelerate further and not just because of the bad economy. Rising real estate values have increased rents and have made the break even point for profit much higher than it used to be, just as sales are falling. The Internet of course, offers a cheaper alternative. Expect a lot of empty stores in the future. Also a lot less jobs in the industry. This in and of itself has major implications since retail is the largest employer in the private sector.

NEXT: When Silence Isn't Golden

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

1 comment:

River Bolden said...

Its sure going to be interesting to see the numbers after today.