Tiffany (TIF) reports so-so 4Q12 earnings

the results

Before the opening bell this morning on Wall Street, TIF reported 4Q12 (the company’s fiscal year ends in January) results.  Sales were up 4% year on year during the quarter, at $1.2 billion.  Net earnings were up 1% yoy, at $180 million.  That works out to eps of $1.40, vs. the $1.39 reported for 4Q11.  But it was $.04 above the brokerage house consensus of $1.36.

For the full year, sales were up 4% at $3.8 billion.  Net income was $416 million, down from $465 million in fiscal 2011.

In its earnings release, TIF also gave its first guidance for fiscal 2013.  It expects sales to be up by 6%-8% and eps to move roughly in line–but possibly with a touch of positive operating leverage evident later in the year.  1Q13 will be relatively weak (TIF fingers marketing costs and high raw material prices as the culprits), but earnings comparisons will likely improve from then on.

As I’m writing this, shortly after the open, TIF shares are up almost 3% in a market that’s up by about half a percent.

I don’t see why.

my take

TIF is an exceptionally well-managed company with a powerful brand name in the Americas and the Pacific, and in a business, luxury goods, that has strong long-term growth prospects.

This is the first time in five quarters that TIF results have exceeded the Wall Street consensus.  That’s a plus, although the “beat” is at least partly due to analysts’ low-balling their estimates after having whiffed four quarters in a row.

Management guidance of 6%-9% eps growth for fiscal 2013 is also a low-ball number, in my view.  I think +10% is easily attainable but believing in +15% would be a stretch.

my issue is valuation

I’ve owned the stock in the past but don’t now. Based on management guidance, the stock is trading at 20x year-ahead earnings, which is about as high as the PE has gotten over the past decade.

–Yes, there have been short periods when the multiple has spiked higher, but who wants to count on this happening again.

–Yes, there may be another, say, 5% to count on in the stock as earnings come in better than guidance.  But a professional investor should be looking for the potential +30%s and the +50%.  There’s just not enough upside here.

–Yes, there’s recurring speculation that some EU luxury conglomerate may buy TIF.  But, again, is this enough of an investment thesis?  In my view, no.  If the stock were trading at 15x earnings, however, it would be a different story.

what catches my eye in the release

TIF still doesn’t have its balance sheet completely back under control.  A while ago, when world economic prospects looked brighter, TIF decided to boost its inventories significantly.  That was so as not to lose sales for lack of stuff to sell, as well as to support a quickened store expansion plan.    …an aggressive, but very sensible strategy.

As global growth started to fade, TIF put on the manufacturing brakes.  But at 1/31/13, inventories were still $161 million higher than a year earlier.  And debt, net of cash, was up by $176 million.  That’s the reason, I think, why TIF bought back no stock during 4Q12, despite the fact the shares spent much of December in the mid-high $50s–vs. TIF’s full-year average buyback price of $66.54.

Comparable store sales in the Pacific, ex Japan and ex currency effects, were +6% for 4Q12.  I interpret this figure as saying sales there, which I view as the key factor that could make fiscal 2013 surprisingly good for TIF, have passed their low point.  TIF is penciling in a “mid-teens” total sales increase for the region–implying, I think, +10% for comparable store sales.  In a better Chinese economy and with clarification of the new government’s view on luxury goods consumption, that figure may be way too low.   If there’s one thing TIF bulls should monitor, this is it.  If there’s one thing that could change my mind about the stock, this is it.

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