new CEO for Tiffany (TIF)

TIF has languished for a number of years, for several reasons:

–the waning of the important Japanese market

–the shift of Chinese jewelry buyers away from foreign firms and toward local creations

–the recession, which lowered spending on jewelry worldwide

–perhaps most important, a lack of success in providing new designs for regular customers.

The company’s greatest strength is its brand name.  It’s unique in being able simultaneously to appeal to ultra-wealthy customers spending $10,000+ a pop and to ordinary people looking for a $200 trinket to have wrapped in the iconic blue box.

Oddly, in the discussion of TIF’s merchandising as being “tired” that I’ve been reading, analysts and (especially) reporters have been referring to this ability to serve low-end customers while still retaining the aura of exclusiveness that attracts the wealthy as a weakness.  Hard to understand.

At the same time, what’s being missed is the hole that has long existed in the TIF merchandise lineup–items that appeal to customers wanting to spend $2,000-$10,000. This middle ground is dominated by firms like Bulgari, which coincidentally have little presence among TIF’s customers in either of its market segments.

That’s wha’s so intriguing about the appointment of Allessendro Bogliolo, a former Bulgari executive, as TIF’s new CEO–something no one’s mentioning.

the Bain luxury goods worldwide study, winter 2015

I haven’t owned Tiffany (TIF) for a long time, but the ticker is still on my screen.  Watching the stock slide on a weak earnings report yesterday prompted me to look for the latest Bain study of the luxury goods industry, which was published about a month ago.

Although structural change is not the main focus of the report, that’s what really jumps out to me from it.

exiting the twentieth century…

Fifteen years ago, the personal luxury goods market was perhaps 40% European purchasers, 35% American and 25% Asian, most of that being Japan.  Each purchased primarily in his own region.

Although the report doesn’t mention this, the pricing structure for identical items was/is 100 in Europe, 120 in the US and 140 in Asia.  This difference is partly a function of import tariffs outside Europe, partly a judgment about what the market would bear.  Asian sales were unusually lucrative because, in addition to the much higher selling prices, wholesale margins were significantly higher and most profits recognized in Hong Kong, where the corporate tax rate for international concerns is zero.

Virtually all sales were at full price.  European luxury goods makers had few retail stores;  their distribution was primarily wholesale.

…and now

 

Chinese consumers, who represented 1% of the market in 2000, accounted for about a third of all purchases in 2015.  Japanese consumers, who were about a quarter of the market at the turn of the century, now make up about 10%.

Today, sales in Europe and the US each make up about a third of the personal luxury goods market, with Japan and China dividing the rest about equally.  However, more than half the European sales are by extra-regional tourists.  About a third of US sales and 25% of Japanese are also by tourists.  Tourist sales in China are negligible.  I’m not sure why; high prices and counterfeiting are my guesses.

Looked an nationalities a different way, European customers buy 90% of their luxury goods in Europe in 2015.  Americans bought almost exclusively in the US, with a tiny fraction in Europe.  Japanese consumers made 40% of their purchases outside Japan, primarily in non-China Asia, with the US and Europe taking smaller slices.  Chinese consumers bought only 20% of their luxury goods domestically last year.   They made about 30% of their purchases in Europe, another 25% elsewhere in Asia and the rest in the US and Japan.

One of the factors driving the large tourist market is, of course, the much higher domestic prices for Asians.  A second is the significant currency depreciation of the yen and the euro, which have made not only foreign stays but also foreign luxury goods purchases much less expensive.

10% of the global market is now in off-price stores.  That’s double the percentage of three years ago.  Markdown sales, including off-price stores, accounted for about a third of the market last year.

7% of sales are online, most of that in the US.

an inflection point

Bain thinks–correctly, in my view–that much greater awareness of regional price differentials, significant recent currency fluctuations, the rise of markdown sales at a time of steady price increases by luxury goods manufacturers have all conspired to undermine the belief that branded luxury goods have enduring value.

I suspect there’s more at work as well–generational change and the rise of new high-end local brands with greater appeal to younger customers.

TIF

Back to TIF for a moment, the company’s announcement that it expects a 10% fall in earnings for fiscal 2015 and “minimal” earnings growth in 2016 limits its near-term appeal.  At some point, though, it could become attractive again, despite ructions in the overall luxury goods market.  …$50 a share?

 

a promising 1Q13 for Tiffany (TIF)

my bottom line on the stock

I no longer hold TIF.  Great company, expensive stock (the current 22x fiscal 2013 eps is at the high end of the company’s historical PE range).  Also, thematically, I’d prefer to get Consumer Discretionary exposure through firms that cater to average Americans, the segment where I think spreading economic rebound will bring the best year-on-year earnings gains, rather than the affluent.

Nevertheless,

TIF is an important bellwether

for how the wealthy, foreign tourists and China are feeling. So the results are well worth monitoring.   All three  groups appear to be starting to come out of their recent spending funk.

April quarter results

Tiffany reported 1Q13 (ended April) results before the bell yesterday.  They were surprisingly good.  Worldwide sales were up by 9%, yoy.  Eps came in at $.70, also up 9% over the $.64 posted in the year-ago quarter.

The figures were massively better than the consensus estimate of Wall Street analysts, who had penciled in $.52 for the April period.  This is also the first quarter in the past five where yoy earnings gains have been significant.  And 1Q13 exceeded the previous high water mark for the first quarter of $.67 a share set in 2011.  Good news.

all regions looking up

Here are TIF’s yoy sales gains by region:

US          +6% in 1Q13   vs    +2% in 4Q12

Asia Pacific          +15%   vs     +13%

Japan          +2%    vs     -6%

Europe          +6%     vs      +3%

Total         +9%  in 1Q13     vs.     +4% in 4Q12

a dividend increase

Two weeks before the earnings report TIF’s board increased the quarterly per share dividend from $.32 to $.34.  On the one hand, the rise comes at the normal time of year for TIF.  And the bump up is smaller than 2012’s.  On the other, if we make the reasonable (to me, anyway) assumption that the board of directors is targeting a payout of 25% of cash flow and/or a third of profits, the dividend increase signals there’s still upside to the Wall Street consensus.

More important, the board is comfortable that business is improving.

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.

a weak 3Q12 for Tiffany (TIF)

the results

Before the New York open on November 29th, TIF announced 3Q12 earnings results (the company’s fiscal quarter ended October 31st).  Sales were up 4% year on year.   Profits for the three months, however,  were down 30% yoy at $63 million, or $.49 per share–lower than the company had guided to during its 2Q12 conference call.  TIF also revised down its expectations for the full fiscal year to eps of $3.20-$3.40 vs. its prior guidance of $3.55 – $3.70.

What’s behind the earnings miss?

Business was better than expected in Europe and Japan. It was so-so in Asia-Pacific—comparable store sales down 4% yoy—but in line with management’s view. In the US, however, which still comprises about half the company, sales weren’t as good as TIF had expected.

Not only that, but product mix was a problem. Purchases of items costing over $500 each held up well. Sales of less expensive silver jewelry, however, flagged. And they carry higher margins at the moment.

 How can sales be up and profits still fall by almost a third?

As I interpret TIF’s actions in preparing for 2012, the company expected a sales advance for the year of around 10%. So it increased sales space and added staff with that kind of increase in mind. Those extra costs are now acting against the company (negative operating leverage) because sales aren’t yet high enough to absorb them fully.  That cost the company about $6 million in operating profit in 3Q12, I think.  More important,

TIF also build its inventories aggressively. The fundamental choice a firm makes is between:  do I keep inventories small and risk losing sales?  …or do I keep the shelves full, at the risk of having too much?  Based on its sales forecast, TIF picked the second.

In addition, in carrying out its strategy TIF appears to have acquired or made goods containing gold when the yellow metal’s price was relatively high. That decision has two consequences that have also turned into temporary negatives. Because their costs are high, those pieces carry lower gross profit margins than TIF has shown in recent quarters. This wouldn’t be a big deal if sales were growing as rapidly as TIF thought. Better to lose a couple of points of margin on a necklace or ring rather than have a customer walk out empty-handed because there’s no merchandise in the store. But when sales are slow, as they are now, lower-margin merchandise can end up being a big chunk of sales for an entire quarter or two.  As I reckon it, this cost the company about $30 million in operating profit in 3Q12.

At some point, however, maybe in 4Q12 or 1Q13, TIF will have sold all these items and gross margins should rebound.

Finally, to carry out all its plans and still continue to buy back its stock, TIF’s debt has gone up by about $250 million yoy.  Interest expense is $4 million higher in 3Q12 than in 3Q11, as a result.

Do TIF’s quarterly earnings matter at this point?

Yes and no. The stock dropped by about 10% in the pre-market Thursday before rebounding to close down 6% or so. To my mind, that’s not much of a negative reaction, considering how big the earnings shortfall was vs. expectations and how strongly the stock has performed in recent months.

To my mind, investors have clearly been betting that we’re at or near a business cycle low point for high-end jewelry sales. They’re buying TIF in anticipation of a significant upturn in profits. For these investors, the overall story is still intact. Their timing may have been a bit off, but they’re not worried.  And, in my view, TIF’s management didn’t do anything crazy.  It carried out an intelligent plan for 2012 that’s been undermined by a weaker than expected world economy.

On the other hand, I suspect it will be difficult for the stock to advance from the present level without the company demonstrating that the low point is behind it.

One other note: it seems to me that the area of concern for Wall Street based on 3Q12 results can’t be China, even though sales there were down yoy. Why do I say that? Chow Tai Fook Jewellery, which caters solely to the China market, was up 4% overnight in Hong Kong.

the curious case of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery (HK:1929)–Tiffany (TIF), too

…toss in Wynn Macau (HK: 1128), as well.

Chow Tai Fook

Chow Tai Fook is a Hong Kong-based jeweler that IPOed there last December.  The company’s main business is chuk kam (24 karat) gold objects, the stuff that’s sold by weight, not market up by 100% (or more) over direct costs.  It’s not only decoration, but you can bury it in the back yard if you’re wary of banks.  And you can wear your wealth to work, in case you find out you have to flee the country right away.   (You wouldn’t chuckle if you’d lived through 1940-1960s China.)

The firm has expanded from the SAR into the mainland, and from chuk nam to high-end “fine” jewelry designed to flaunt your wealth, not hide/preserve it.  In recent years, the latter has become an increasing percentage of Chinese jewelry consumption.

a December 2011 IPO

The IPO was anything but a rousing success.  The stock was priced at HK$15, to raise US$ 2 billion.  But it came to market just as Beijing’s efforts to slow down the domestic economy were causing affluent mainlanders to cut back consumption.

The issue closed on day one at $13.80–and headed south from there.  It finally bottomed some months ago at HK$8.40.  Ouch!!

…so, what’s curious?

Here’s the thing.

The economic evidence over the past few months is that China is slowing further, despite signals from Beijing of its change to a more expansive government economic policy.

The EU is a mess.

US industry is slowing down and the “fiscal cliff” is getting closer.  Burberry and Tiffany have revised down earnings, in large part because of disappointing sales in China.  So too have tech companies like Intel.

Nevertheless,

since July 27th,

Chow Tai Fook share are up by 26.5%–vs. the Hang Seng index up 6.9%

BTW, Wynn Macau shares are up by 30.0% over the same time span

TIF began rising a little earlier in the month, but has gained almost 25% from its low–compared with about an 8% rise in the S&P 500.

why this good performance?

It’s a little like the case of Benjamin Button, whose body went through the opposite of what nature usually does.

Possibilities:

–If this were ten or fifteen years ago, I’d say investors are seeing through current weakness and beginning to discount in advance the recovery that the government policy change will likely bring.

But reacting to government cues is not the winning strategy it once was.  That’s partly because the economic problems the world faces today are more structural than cyclical.  Also, the rise of hedge funds has reoriented markets sharply in the direction of short-term trading than they have ever been.

Besides, luxury goods makers like Hermes and LVMH haven’t experienced the same stock price lifts.

–new bets on China?  But, if so, why no response from Hermes, LVMH or Coach?  Also, why would UK-US (lower-end) jeweler Signet be having better stock performance than the other three?

–influence of EU investors?  My impression has been that a lot of the damage to Hong Kong stocks during the middle months of 2012 was due to panicky selling by EU-based investors.  The clear new bullishness emanating from Europe may be resulting in portfolio managers plowing back into Asia.  That might explain why 1929 or 1128 are doing well.  But why TIF?  …or why SIG and not LVMH?

–minimizing exposure to the EU?  For aesthetic reasons, I like this better than “bets on China,” because it’s a more sophisticated wager–one based on avoiding a bad experience rather than necessarily having a good one.  Still, why TIF?

You could build a “synthetic” TIF-ex-the-EU, by combining SIG +1929.  Not a perfect replacement, but if the main idea is to avoid the EU probably an acceptable one.

my take

I’m sure there’s a method to the apparent madness.  At this point, however, I don’t know what it is.

I could say that professional investors are shifting their portfolios toward secular growth areas (as opposed to more cyclical ones) where they see profit growth will be the strongest next year.  Yes, that’s true, but it’s what most managers always do.  So it’s flirting with tautology.  The crucial question is why jewelry and casino gambling?

Is there something special about these two areas?  …or is there something awful about everything else?

One thing I am convinced of is that solving the puzzle correctly can bring investing rewards.

I own 1128 and 1929 but none of the rest of the names I’ve mentioned here.  I have no burning desire to add to any–although if I can figure out what’s going on I might develop one.

If someone were forcing me to buy  one of the names, it would probably be 1929.  The fact that it’s the most speculative of the stocks is not a coincidence.  I should knock off the caffeine instead.

Tiffany’s 2Q12: interesting stock market reaction

the report

Prior to the New York open on August 27th, TIF announced its 2Q12 (ended July 31st) results.  Earnings were up by 2%, year on year, at $92 million.  Eps were $.72/share, also up 2% yoy.  Ex non-recurring items, which depressed 2Q11 eps by $.16, the yoy earnings comparison was negative–down 17%.

Quarterly sales came in at $887 million, also a 2% yoy advance.   Negative currency effects–a 2% decline of Asia-Pacific currencies against the dollar, and a 9% fall of European, reduced that figure from what would have been a 3% constant currency gain.

EPS were a penny below the Wall Street consensus of $.73.

Although TIF said its 2Q12 performance met its expectations, it lowered full-year guidance for the seond time in two quarters.  The new full-year eps range is $3.55-$3.70 vs. guidance of $3.70-$3.80 announced with 1Q12 results.

The stock?  It rose by 7%+ on this news.

the details

the Americas 

Same store sales were down 5% yoy, and minus 9% in the flagship store in NYC.  All the weakness came from domestic customers.  Sales to foreign tourists were flat, with a falloff in EU buying offset by increases in Asian visitor purchases.

Florida, Texas, and Guam were notable areas of strength.

Asia-Pacific

Same store sales were down by 7%, two of those percentage points due to currency weakness.  Slight price increases, lower unit volume.

Japan

12% same store sales growth in local currency, offset somewhat by 2% yen weakness vs. the US dollar.  Continuing recovery from Fukushima-related weakness.

Europe

2% same store sales growth was more than erased by 9% currency weakness.  Continental Europe was stronger than the UK.  Foreign tourist buying made the figures look better than they would have been from local customers alone.

the balance sheet

It’s not something I’ve commented on before.  But the yoy change is remarkable.

During 2Q12, TIF raised $250 million in long-term debt, $60 million of which went to retire maturing borrowings.

Total debt now stands at $940 million, cash at $367 million.  A year ago, the figures were $694 million and $565 million.  Put another way, the company has gone from net debt of $129 million to net debt of $573 million, a $444 million negative swing, over the past twelve months.

The figure means TIF invested close to half a billion dollars in excess of funds generated by operations in business expansion.  Most seems to me to have been used to build inventories, with a modest amount for expanding the store network.

market reaction has been positive…

…even though there’s evidence of a continuing slowdown in high-end jewelry buying in both the US and China.  Nevetheless, TIF shares appear to have bottomed around $50 in June.  They’ve been rising steadily–and outperforming the overall market–since.

my take

TIF shares are up over 20% during July and August, despite the weak business outlook.  I hadn’t expected this.  I’d thought the stock would likely languish until there were clear signs of a pickup among either Asian or US customers.

Yes, the company is very well-managed.  The newly raised debt gives it a larger cash cushion, in case its business remains in the doldrums for an extended period.  It seems clear to me that TIF has, prudently, shifted out of rapid expansion mode and into a more defensive cash generation stance.  If this turns out to be the last downward earnings revision, the stock was inexpensive at $50.

Still, I think it’s interesting that the market is willing to pay for an anticipated recovery in TIF’s business so far in advance.  It conveys to me the suggestion of an underlying bullishness among market participants that contrasts sharply with bearish media sentiment.

As for TIF shares themselves, I’d prefer to wait either for a price in the mid-$50s or the 3Q12 earnings announcement rather than buy here/now.