The Marlboro Red Consumer Sentiment Indicator

The Marlboro Red Consumer Sentiment Indicator
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After last earnings season I noted without a strong rebound in consumer spending, I expect aggregate earnings growth to slow later this year (especially if declining energy prices cause credit to tighten). While asset inflation remains unchecked, consumer spending does not appear to be responding or accelerating. Two consumer companies on my possible buy list announced earnings this week – both suggest the operating environment remains challenging.

Casey's General Stores

Casey’s General Stores (CASY), the convenience store operator, reported results on Monday with sales and earnings that were less than expected. Specifically EPS declined to $0.76 from $1.19 during the quarter and $4.48 vs. $5.73 for the year. During the quarter, same-store fuel gallons declined -0.5%, while grocery same-store comps increased 1.5% and prepared food/fountain comps were up 3.2%.

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Management noted that similar to others in its sector, Casey’s “experienced downward pressure on customer traffic which had virtually impacted same-store sales across all of our categories.” Management blamed decelerating customer traffic on the weak agricultural economy, the difference in food away and food at home prices, and competitor promotional activities.

Management commented further on the agriculture economy saying, “The USDA anticipates either a flat to slightly declining farm income in calendar 2017. So we’d anticipate this piece of the challenging environment to continue to at least to the end of the calendar year.”

Labor costs were also discussed, with management calling labor very tight and wage pressures challenging. I thought the following comment was interesting, “It’s not uncommon for people to jump ship for $0.25 raise here and there, and so that has been a challenge.”

One of my favorite economic reports, the Marlboro Red Consumer Sentiment Indicator (MRCSI), was mentioned again this quarter and continued to suggest the consumer remains cautious. Management commented, “I mean one of the things that we faced in the cigarette category, we do see, albeit it’s gradual but it’s been continuing for the next several quarters, a movement away from carton to pack purchasing. We’ve also seen it moving away from full value purchasing to a more discounted brand, which could be a generic brand.”

And finally, management had some interesting comments on their fiscal 2017 expectations versus actual results. Management explains, “…there’s no question that when we put our goals out for fiscal 2017, I’m not sure we fully anticipated the customer response, the consumer response I should say in relation to the economic conditions.” Management went on to note they are taking economic conditions into account more this year than they did last year.

Although Casey’s stock declined 8% on the news, trading at 18x EV/EBIT, it continues to trade over my estimated business valuation. Casey’s is one of the many high-quality companies I follow and like, but in my opinion, remains too expensive to generate future adequate absolute returns. Hence, it remains on my possible buy list, but not in my portfolio.

United Natural Foods (UNFI), the distributor of natural and organic foods, also announced earnings results this week. Although results appeared as expected, annual sales guidance was revised lower and its stock declined -4%.

Management noted the grocery environment remains challenging (side note: Isn’t it interesting restaurants often blame grocery stores for taking market share, yet grocers continue to struggle? Maybe it’s not where the consumer is spending, but how much the consumer has to spend).

Specifically, management stated, “Net sales finished below our expectations in the third quarter driven by broad-based retail softness, the rationalization of business in conjunction with our margin initiatives and lack of inflation.”

“Same-store sales in many of our retail customers were under pressure or negative during the quarter. Our retail customers are facing competitive pressure not only from other food retailers but also from many channels now carrying assortment of better-for-you products.”

“…when you look at general same-store sales and year-over-year, quarter-over-quarter, many of the retailers across most of the channels are facing some real headwinds in terms of growth. And as part of that, we’ve seen certainly a fair number of store closings as retailers are coming together. And so in the near term, that’s been a real headwind for us.”

Kroger reports next week, hopefully providing us with more useful grocery and consumer data points. That said, for those waiting for the consumer to get the U.S. economy out of its 1-2% growth funk, further patience may be required. From a bottom-up perspective, I’m not seeing it.

Article by Absolute Return Investing with Eric Cinnamond

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