Investors aren’t buying what retail’s selling — or at least they’re not paying up for it like they used to.
Valuations of U.S. retail and fashion stocks have taken a turn for the worse in 2016. Shares in the textiles, apparel and luxury-goods space are down about 9.7 percent so far this year, while the S&P 500 has grown 4.3 percent.
Many fashion companies are trending toward enterprise values of five times their earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for the past year, or even lower. That’s a big step down from a decade ago when EBITDA multiples closer to 10-times were not uncommon in the sector.
The reality now is much lower for many players: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is trading at an average of 4.3-times EBITDA; Gap is at 4.6-times, and the once skyrocketing Michael Kors Holdings is at 6.1-times, according to Capital IQ. Even Nordstrom Inc. — a retail leader that has differentiated itself with customer service, digital acquisition and bricks-and mortar-expansions, but nonetheless seems vulnerable to consumer pullback — trades at a multiple of 6.4-times.
In those days not too long ago when retail was seen as prime hunting ground for investors, those rock-bottom valuations would signal retailers that were ripe to be acquired by bargain-hunting private equity firms or consolidated into competitors intent on empire-building.
Not anymore. As retailers, real estate firms, analysts and even consumers try to figure out the future of the mall, investors are downright wary of jumping into a retailer that might follow the likes of Sports Authority or even Aéropostale and end up in liquidation or bankruptcy court.
With competition and costs for shipping rising along with e-commerce’s growth; consumers spending more on tech or experiences than fashion; lower foot traffic in stores, and fears of the next recession, investors are backing away from all but the top-tier retail and fashion players — and right now that means companies that are growing or seen as safe havens for one reason or another.
That territory is occupied now by Nike Inc. (with an average EBITDA multiple of 18.4-times), which is riding the activewear boom; the off-price giant TJX Cos. Inc. (11.4-times), and Victoria’s Secret-sexy L Brands Inc. (10-times), even though the intimate-apparel brand’s growth has lagged in recent quarters. (There are also some companies getting credit for turnarounds, including Coach Inc., trading at 12.8-times.)
The bad in the market has helped make the good look all the better.
“People are willing to pay more now for consistent, quality growth so they can sleep easy,” said Simeon Siegel, an analyst at Nomura Securities. “The comfort in knowing that it’s an investment as opposed to a trade is worth a premium multiple these days. It’s left up to the companies to show the investing world that they have company-specific levers they can pull” to drive growth.
The companies that get top dollar from investors generally bring with them big sales numbers, operational savvy and commanding positions in good, or reasonably steady, markets. They have blazed a clear enough trail that investors can sense where the firms are headed.
For the larger part of the market, no one knows what the next turn of the wheel will bring — from what their costs and margins will be to what their customers will want to who their competitors will be.
“There’s less wallet for apparel,” said Lisa Clyde, head of global consumer & retail corporate and investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, noting homeownership is down, rents are up and health-care costs are rising.
She said the next round of dealmaking might be focused on pinching pennies for the digital evolution instead of driving sales.
“There could be further consolidation and it would be driven this time not by the traditional focus of purchasing synergies but this time around leveraging the cost of having an omnichannel platform,” Clyde said. “It does feel like something’s got to give and that, on paper anyway, should happen.”
For now, retail seems to be adrift in the markets, faring well enough to keep the lights on but not growing fast enough to generate real investor interest.
“The three-year outlook for retail is dim in many investors’ eyes,” said Paul Trussell, analyst at Deutsche Bank. “The starting point of that…is the rate of change going on in the business has really narrowed the number of companies that people feel good about and confident about in their projections over a long period of time.
“Obviously, Amazon is the number-one reason for that drastic rate of change and the ongoing investment spend that each company has to make in order to keep up with Amazon,” he said.
Apparel has also suffered a general style malaise that’s left no one — from customers to investors — very interested.
“To be bullish and to believe that valuations can take a step up you have to believe that the conversation that we’re having on denim today is truly the beginning of a new wave in fashion and people updating their closets,” Trussell said.
Although the analyst said there was hope for holiday and first-quarter 2017 sales since last year’s haul at retail was so bad (more of the rule that the bad makes lackluster look good), he pointed to broader economic trends as a concern for investors.
“No one wants to make big bets if we were 12 to 18 months away from a recession,” he said.
Retailers are generally considered early cycle stocks, with businesses that are among the first to pick up after a recession. And while U.S. GDP is expected to keep growing in the near term, it’s been over seven years since the Great Recession ended and the economy typically takes a breather more often than that. On average, U.S. recessions have been separated by fewer than five years since the end of World War II, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“Retail is most definitely out of favor,” said David Shiffman, cohead of Peter J. Solomon Co.’s global retail group. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen consolidation through bankruptcy and liquidation and we’ve seen more in this part of the cycle than we had seen even through the recession back in ’08 and ’09.”
Shiffman said that some very sophisticated private equity firms interested in retail are now investing around the sector instead of in full-price stores themselves.
“We’ve seen them alter their investment thesis and invest in business services or infrastructure,” he said.
For example, Apollo, working in conjunction with Nike, has laid the groundwork for an Americans based supply chain for active apparel and KKR and Thomas H. Lee Partners have both bought extreme value retailers that scoop up excess inventory.
With fewer buyers, dealmaking in fashion has been spotty.
Ascena, for instance, bought Ann Inc. just over a year ago in a cash and stock deal that valued the parent of Ann Taylor and Loft at $2 billion Now, the acquirer has an enterprise value itself of just $2.28 billion despite its $7 billion in revenues.
Other specialty retail deals have since played out in bankruptcy court, such as when Pacific Sunwear was bought by Golden Gate Capital or when landlords Simon Property Group and General Growth Properties joined with Authentic Brands Group to scoop up Aéropostale.
The Aéropostale deal stands out in that it was the mall operators that had the biggest interest in keeping the chain alive.
With uncertainty reigning and retail shares lagging, Wall Street is now more interested in bigger game — for instance, hoping for an initial public offering from Snapchat-parent Snap Inc.
“There’s a big disruption in the whole VC world and the whole unicorn universe of trying to spot the next mega-company,” said Elsa Berry, managing director and founder of Vendôme Global Partners. “Everyone looks for big and splashy and sometimes things are built slower. The market is very short-term focused and I feel doesn’t really understand the value of long-term planning.”
Hope could come from abroad. After years of whispers that large Chinese producers were ready to buy Western brands, Shandong Ruyi Group closed this month on its deal to buy Paris-based SMCP — corporate parent to the quickly growing Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot chains.
“The Chinese are going to continue buying. There are so many reasons why that will be a growing part of m&a: They have so much capital, the Chinese government is pushing it and, ironically, less in innovation and high-tech because they’re afraid of the bubble in their own stock market.
“In China, you have 200 million 30-plus consumers who are very different from their parents and they have no debts and they want the same things, they want seamless execution across all channels, but it’s a huge country,” she said.
That still-growing market might at least offer a investors a chance to get a piece of what not too long ago drove fashion stocks in the U.S. — some good old fashion sales growth.