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Economy

How retail stocks went from ‘recessionary playbook’ to market casualty

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Richard Thalheimer remembers the last time inflation was proving so challenging to US retailers: it was when he was trying to get The Sharper Image off the ground in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

In 2006 he left the consumer gadgets chain he founded, selling his stake before its 2008 bankruptcy. Ever since, he has been investing the proceeds of the watches, massage chairs, iPods and Razor scooters he sold, building a portfolio worth up to $350mn with stocks including Amazon, RH and Home Depot.

“It’s been so much fun,” he said. “Until this year”. 

As inflation races at levels last seen four decades ago, the retail sector that made Thalheimer wealthy is now making other investors poorer and stoking recession fears. This week, unexpectedly bad earnings announcements from Walmart and Target, two of its largest constituents, led to their steepest stock market falls since Black Monday in 1987.

Days earlier, analysts had been touting such companies as defensive shelters from the storm in tech stocks that had slashed the valuations of companies from Amazon to Netflix. Early this week, Baird named Walmart its top “recessionary playbook” idea.

But the shockwaves from Walmart and Target rippled through the wider retail sector and gave market bears a new concern: that inflation may now be biting consumers even before the Federal Reserve starts raising interest rates more aggressively.

Retailers were the biggest drivers of a broad market rout on Wednesday that pushed the S&P 500 stock index to its worst one-day fall in almost two years.

Until this week, the S&P 500’s consumer staples sub-index, which includes “big box” retailers such as Walmart along with businesses like pharmacies and food manufacturers, was still roughly unchanged for the year. The only other parts of the index that had avoided declines were energy and utility stocks, which had benefited from surging energy prices.

By the close of Thursday, however, the sub-index had fallen almost 9 per cent and was on track for its worst week since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

Line chart of Share price (rebased) showing US retailers hit by consumer pullback and rising costs

The retailers’ earnings flagged up not just one cause for concern, but three: that price increases may have reached the limit of what consumers will tolerate, that retailers are struggling to contain their own costs, and that unpredictable demand and new supply disruptions are forcing them to build up inventories.

The first of those three is being most closely watched for its broader economic resonance. “You’ve got a consumer that is starting to pull back,” said Steve Rogers, head of Deloitte’s consumer industry centre, whose surveys suggest that 81 per cent of Americans are concerned about rising prices.

Americans’ bank accounts may not have changed dramatically since last year, he said, but headlines about inflation have shaken their confidence. Some are trading down or holding off big purchases as a result, he added, particularly in discretionary categories such as clothing, personal care and home furnishings.

Walmart, long seen as a bellwether of the US consumer, noted that high inflation in food prices “pulled more dollars away from [general merchandise] than we expected as customers needed to pay for the inflation in food”. 

Rogers and others, however, see retailers’ own cost pressures as a clearer driver of their changed fortunes than consumer pullback. At Walmart, for example, US fuel costs last quarter were over $160mn higher than it had expected — more than it could pass through to customers.

“We did not anticipate that transportation and freight costs would soar the way they have,” echoed Target’s chief executive Brian Cornell. Higher wages and costs for containers and warehouses are also weighing on retailers’ profit margins.

Some of those higher costs stem from the third force at work: a disrupted global supply chain that has left retailers scrambling to secure stock at a moment when demand for it is uncertain. “Their inventories are exploding,” Cathie Wood, chief investment officer at Ark Invest, wrote in a Twitter post on Walmart and Target.

The reason for carrying more inventory than usual is that “they lived through the stock-outs of the past two years and know what that cost them”, said Rogers.

Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon indicated that some of the build-up was deliberate, saying: “We like the fact that our inventory is up because so much of it is needed to be in stock.” Still, he admitted, “a 32 per cent increase is higher than we want”. 

Target’s inventories rose even further, up 43 per cent from a year earlier, and it conceded that it had failed to anticipate consumer spending shifts in categories from televisions to toys.

“We aren’t where we want to be right now, for sure,” said Target chief operating officer John Mulligan, adding that “slowness in the supply chain” had forced it to carry more stock as a precaution.

Wayne Wicker, chief investment officer at pension plan manager MissionSquare Retirement, said it should not be surprising to see signs of consumers reining in some spending, but said this week’s results were nonetheless a “wake-up call” for some investors because many companies had until recently claimed they were handling inflation challenges well.

Walmart and Target both provided upbeat forecasts in their previous quarterly update, and did not pre-announce any changes before this week’s reports.

“Part of the price decline was reflecting the fact that the management of these large companies didn’t provide any indication that they were going to have such a miss,” Wicker said.

For Denise Chisholm, Fidelity’s director of quantitative strategy, this week’s reports did not provide convincing evidence that the economy is in trouble, but they spooked investors who were already nervous after earlier sell-offs.

Despite the visceral market reaction to Target’s results, for example, its new lower forecasts would only return profit margins to pre-pandemic levels.

“If there’s any differentiating factor compared with [previous bear markets], it has been the strength of earnings, so any kind of concern over earnings gives more volatility from a near-term perspective,” Chisholm said. But, she added, “despite a lot of the concern in the market, it is hard to reach an empirical conclusion that says recession is any more likely given what we’ve seen”.

Thalheimer, whose portfolio is down by about $50mn from its peak, thinks markets overreacted this week and is already wondering when it will be time to consider snapping up beaten-down retail stocks.

“During most of the big sell-offs of my lifetime — 2009, the [bust following the] dotcom bubble or 1987 — almost every one of these times within two years you [saw] very strong recoveries,” he said.

That will happen again, he believes, but with the combined uncertainties around supply chains, the war in Ukraine and historic inflation, “there are going to be some choppy waters ahead”.





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Economy

Travel chaos and cost of living leave Britons holidaying at home

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Air travel chaos and cost of living worries have spurred a surge in bookings by Britons for domestic summer holidays, offering hope to a sector struggling with financial pressures and a worsening economic outlook.

UK domestic holiday businesses had feared 2022 would spell an end to the summer staycation boom of the pandemic’s first two years, when onerous travel restrictions and fears of catching Covid-19 deterred holidaymakers from international travel.

But inquiries and late bookings for domestic summer holidays have jumped since early June, after flight cancellations caused major travel disruption during the school half-term holiday and balmy weather swept across the country.

Last-minute bookings for summer holiday accommodation from Sykes Holiday Cottages, one of the UK’s leading holiday rental agencies, were up 22 per cent at the start of June, compared with the same period last year.

Just under 40 per cent of Britons said they were more likely to choose a domestic holiday instead of an overseas break than before the pandemic, according to polling conducted in mid-June and published on Friday by VisitBritain, the UK’s tourist board.

Of those choosing a staycation, 65 per cent told VisitBritain it was because UK breaks were easier to plan, 54 per cent said they wanted to avoid long queues at airports and the risk of cancelled flights, and 47 per cent said it was because UK holidays were more affordable.

“Whether families think they can’t afford a summer getaway abroad, or they’ve had their flights cancelled, or the potential of sitting with four kids for 12 hours in the airport has just scared them off, many are opting to stay at home,” said Sir David Michels, president of the Tourism Alliance, a lobby group. “That’s a net-positive for the UK tourism industry.”

Michels said he did not expect demand for domestic holidays this summer to surpass the heights of summer 2021, but it was possible levels of demand could mirror last year.

He added that sterling’s depreciation this year “certainly wouldn’t hurt” the domestic market as it would “put some people off” travelling overseas. The currency is down 9.3 per cent against the dollar and 2.2 per cent against the euro since the start of 2022.

Cottage bookings on Awaze, a vacation rental company, for June were flat compared with 2021 and up 21 per cent on 2019, while bookings for August this year were 6 per cent higher than the same month last year and 46 per cent up on 2019. July was slightly down on 2021 levels.

Graham Donoghue, chief executive of Sykes Holiday Cottages, said the UK was “continuing to ride the staycation wave despite the return of foreign travel”.

“Uncertainty around Covid restrictions has seemingly been replaced with another worry — overseas travel disruption — while an increased pressure on household budgets is leading to many turning to staycations as the better value option,” explained Donoghue.

On Thursday, British Airways check-in staff voted to strike later in the summer over pay, setting the stage for yet more air travel disruption.

Travellers queue at security at London’s Heathrow airport on Wednesday
Lengthy delays at airport have increased the appeal of UK staycations © Frank Augstein/AP

Henrik Kjellberg, Awaze chief executive, said the travel chaos had “benefited” the domestic tourism market as holidaymakers looked to “avoid the stress and hassle” of overcrowded airports.

He said people had been “introduced to the charms of staycations” during the pandemic and they were “here to stay”, adding that pandemic travel restrictions had combined with a “gradual trend of people thinking more and more about their CO₂ footprint” to encourage more families to consider holidaying locally.

Meanwhile, members of the trade body UKHospitality reported a 20-30 per cent uplift in inquiries over the platinum jubilee weekend in early June from customers searching for holidays in late summer or over the school half-term holiday in October, according to Kate Nicholls, chief executive.

Nicholls said the extension of the staycation boom would provide a lifeline for independent businesses, which have been hit hardest by cost pressures resulting from supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine.

“British holidaymakers will tend to go for the less obvious options,” said Nicholls. “There’s a proportion of customers who will always go branded, but there is also a proportion of domestic visitors who are much more confident about going off the beaten track and looking for independents, looking for boutique options.”

The success of domestic tourism has become more significant because inbound tourism is not expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

The task for the industry now is to convince British holidaymakers to keep returning in future summers. “If the sun keeps shining, I think it’s going to be a much fuller UK with UK residents than summers before the pandemic,” said Michels. “We’ve now had three years of lots of people holidaying at home. I don’t think this is going away.”

“The longer this trend lasts, the stickier those habits become and the more beneficial it will be for communities across the country,” said Nicholls.



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Rising rates raise prospect of property crash

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Brenda McKinley has been selling homes in Ontario for more than two decades and even for a veteran, the past couple of years have been shocking.

Prices in her patch south of Toronto rose as much as 50 per cent during the pandemic. “Houses were selling almost before we could get the sign on the lawn,” she said. “It was not unusual to have 15 to 30 offers . . . there was a feeding frenzy.”

But in the past six weeks the market has flipped. McKinley estimates homes have shed 10 per cent of their value in the time it might take some buyers to complete their purchase.

The phenomenon is not unique to Ontario nor the residential market. As central banks jack up interest rates to rein in runaway inflation, property investors, homeowners and commercial landlords around the world are all asking the same question: could a crash be coming?

“There is a marked slowdown everywhere,” said Chris Brett, head of capital markets for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at property agency CBRE. “The change in cost of debt is having a big impact on all markets, across everything. I don’t think anything is immune . . . the speed has taken us all by surprise.”

Listed property stocks, closely monitored by investors looking for clues about what might eventually happen to less liquid real assets, have tanked this year. The Dow Jones US Real Estate Index is down almost 25 per cent in the year to date. UK property stocks are down about 20 per cent over the same period, falling further and faster than their benchmark index.

The number of commercial buyers actively hunting for assets across the US, Asia and Europe has fallen sharply from a pandemic peak of 3,395 in the fourth quarter of last year to just 1,602 in the second quarter of 2022, according to MSCI data.

Pending deals in Europe have also dwindled, with €12bn in contract at the end of March against €17bn a year earlier, according to MSCI.

Deals already in train are being renegotiated. “Everyone selling everything is being [price] chipped by prospective buyers, or else [buyers] are walking away,” said Ronald Dickerman, president of Madison International Realty, a private equity firm investing in property. “Anyone underwriting [a building] is having to reappraise . . . I cannot over-emphasise the amount of repricing going on in real estate at the moment.” 

The reason is simple. An investor willing to pay $100mn for a block of apartments two or three months ago could have taken a $60mn mortgage with borrowing costs of about 3 per cent. Today they might have to pay more than 5 per cent, wiping out any upside.

The move up in rates means investors must either accept lower overall returns or push the seller to lower the price.

“It’s not yet coming through in the agent data but there is a correction coming through, anecdotally,” said Justin Curlow, global head of research and strategy at Axa IM, one of the world’s largest asset managers.

The question for property investors and owners is how widespread and deep any correction might be.

During the pandemic, institutional investors played defence, betting on sectors supported by stable, long-term demand. The price of warehouses, blocks of rental apartments and offices equipped for life sciences businesses duly soared amid fierce competition.

“All the big investors are singing from the same hymn sheet: they all want residential, urban logistics and high-quality offices; defensive assets,” said Tom Leahy, MSCI’s head of real assets research in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “That’s the problem with real estate, you get a herd mentality.”

With cash sloshing into tight corners of the property market, there is a danger that assets were mispriced, leaving little margin to erode as rates rise.

For owners of “defensive” properties bought at the top of the market who now need to refinance, rate rises create the prospect of owners “paying more on the loan than they expect to earn on the property”, said Lea Overby, head of commercial mortgage-backed securities research at Barclays.

Before the Federal Reserve started raising rates this year, Overby estimated, “Zero per cent of the market” was affected by so-called negative leverage. “We don’t know how much it is now, but anecdotally its fairly widespread.”

Manus Clancy, a senior managing director at New York-based CMBS data provider Trepp, said that while values were unlikely to crater in the more defensive sectors, “there will be plenty of guys who say ‘wow we overpaid for this’.”

“They thought they could increase rents 10 per cent a year for 10 years and expenses would be flat but the consumer is being whacked with inflation and they can’t pass on costs,” he added.

If investments regarded as sure-fire just a few months ago look precarious; riskier bets now look toxic.

A rise in ecommerce and the shift to hybrid work during the pandemic left owners of offices and shops exposed. Rising rates now threaten to topple them.

A paper published this month, “Work from home and the office real estate apocalypse”, argued that the total value of New York’s offices would ultimately fall by almost a third — a cataclysm for owners including pension funds and the government bodies reliant on their tax revenues.

“Our view is that the entire office stock is worth 30 per cent less than it was in 2019. That’s a $500bn hit,” said Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, a professor or real estate and finance at Columbia University and one of the report’s authors.

The decline has not yet registered “because there’s a very large segment of the office market — 80-85 per cent — which is not publicly listed, is very untransparent and where there’s been very little trade”, he added.

But when older offices change hands, as funds come to the end of their lives or owners struggle to refinance, he expects the discounts to be severe. If values drop far enough, he foresees enough mortgage defaults to pose a systemic risk.

“If your loan to value ratio is above 70 per cent and your value falls 30 per cent, your mortgage is underwater,” he said. “A lot of offices have more than 30 per cent mortgages.”

According to Curlow, as much as 15 per cent is already being knocked off the value of US offices in final bids. “In the US office market you have a higher level of vacancy,” he said, adding that America “is ground zero for rates — it all started with the Fed”.

UK office owners are also having to navigate changing working patterns and rising rates.

Landlords with modern, energy-efficient blocks have so far fared relatively well. But rents on older buildings have been hit. Property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton suggested this week that more than 25mn sq ft of UK office space could be surplus to requirements after a survey found 72 per cent of respondents were looking to cut back on office space at the earliest opportunity.

Hopes have also been dashed that retail, the sector most out of favour with investors coming into the pandemic, might enjoy a recovery.

Big UK investors including Landsec have bet on shopping centres in the past six months, hoping to catch rebounding trade as people return to physical stores. But inflation has knocked the recovery off course.

“There was this hope that a lot of shopping centre owners had that there was a level in rents,” said Mike Prew, analyst at Jefferies. “But the rug has been pulled out from under them by the cost of living crisis.”

As rates rise from ultra-low levels, so does the risk of a reversal in residential markets where they have been rising, from Canada and the US to Germany and New Zealand. Oxford Economics now expects prices to fall next year in those markets where they rose quickest in 2021.

Numerous investors, analysts, agents and property owners told the Financial Times the risk of a downturn in property valuations had sharply increased in recent weeks.

But few expect a crash as severe as that of 2008, in part because lending practices and risk appetite have moderated since then.

“In general it feels like commercial real estate is set for a downturn. But we had some strong growth in Covid so there is some room for it to go sideways before impacting anything [in the wider economy],” said Overby. “Pre-2008, leverage was at 80 per cent and a lot of appraisals were fake. We are not there by a long shot.”

According to the head of one big real estate fund, “there’s definitely stress in smaller pockets of the market but that’s not systemic. I don’t see a lot of people saying . . . ‘I’ve committed to a €2bn-€3bn acquisition using a bridge format’, as there were in 2007.”

He added that while more than 20 companies looked precarious in the run-up to the financial crisis, this time there were perhaps now five.

Dickerman, the private equity investor, believes the economy is poised for a long period of pain reminiscent of the 1970s that will tip real estate into a secular decline. But there will still be winning and losing bets because “there has never been a time investing in real estate when asset classes are so differentiated”.



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Economy

Chinese banks lend Pakistan $2.3bn to avert foreign exchange crisis

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A consortium of Chinese state banks has lent $2.3bn to Pakistan to help the country stave off a foreign payments crisis, finance minister Miftah Ismail said on Friday.

Confirmation of the support from China, a close economic and military ally of Pakistan, came on the same day Islamabad announced a one-off 10 per cent ‘super tax’ on important industries that is intended to lead to a stalled $6bn IMF loan package being resumed.

“I am pleased to announce that Chinese consortium loan of Rmb15bn ($2.3bn) has been credited in to SBP [State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s central bank] account today, increasing our foreign exchange reserves,” Ismail said in a tweet on Friday evening.

A senior government official said the arrival of the loan was “one of the signals that we’re about to return to the IMF programme”.

China had quietly urged Islamabad to repair ties with the IMF “as an essential step to improve Pakistan’s economic health and avoid a default”, the official said.

The Chinese loan will raise Pakistan’s liquid foreign reserves of $8.2bn to $10.5bn and could help shore up the rupee, which has slumped against western currencies.

Pakistan began to receive IMF payments in 2019 under a 39-month loan programme, but the fund has so far given only about half of the $6bn agreed.

In recent months, sliding confidence in Pakistan’s economy has prompted concerns it could follow Sri Lanka in defaulting on international debt.

Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was elected by parliament in April following the ousting of rival Imran Khan, unveiled on Friday the new super tax to be levied on manufacturers of cement, beverages, steel, tobacco and chemicals.

“The government has decided to impose a 10 per cent ‘poverty alleviation tax’ on large-scale industries of the country,” Sharif tweeted.

Business leaders widely criticised the move and share prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange fell nearly 5 per cent after news of the tax emerged. Analysts said the decision would further fuel inflation, a central concern for households across Pakistan.

Zaffar Moti, a former KSE director, said: “This is a major setback for the economy. The government has decided to further tax those who are already paying their taxes.”





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