Aug

24

 A common mistake that stock people do I think is to pay attention to the increase in sales numbers. What does this have to do with future profits? I would think there is zero correlation given the earnings change since sales are so easy to manipulate by such things as discounts, pre-orders, and incentives for early buying, and reducing inventory et al. How did this ridiculous emphasis on the sales increase become as or more important than earnings relative to expectations in affecting stocks after the earnings report? I recently met with a pairs trading outfit and gave them 100 reasons I don't think it works, but it was from the seat of my pants. The main reason was of course that it goes against the drift. It hedges against the 10,000 fold return.

Gary Rogan writes: 

If sales increase while profits are decreasing, that's a bad sign. However when profits increase while sales are decreasing, this may be very good, but it can't go on too long. Sales trends gained influence as a counterbalance to profit growth being fudged. When you have profits, sales, and cash flows all increasing in unison and indebtedness not increasing, that's as good as it gets. 

Jeff Watson comments: 

Profits increasing while sales are decreasing are usually a sign of increased productivity, better inventory management, better management of labor, and better management of capital. Although Gary says this scenario can't go on too long, it really can go on forever. 

Gary Rogan replies: 

Well clearly it's mathematically possible to decrease sales by .1% per year and increase profits by .1% per year close to forever so "too long" was perhaps a bit harsh, but at some point in the real world gross margins become so high as to make further advances impossible due to competition or substitution. My statement was prompted by not being able to recall a real scenario of sustained profit growth and sales decline resulting in a good outcome having looked at hundreds of income statements, but I've never made a study out of it nor have I looked at multi-year trends. When customers are buying less of your stuff year in and year out that usually means they are not excited about your stuff, because they don't like it but perhaps in this case because the price is too high for them to use more of it. When customers get into the habit of using less of your stuff, that's hard to fight. 

Jeff Watson adds:

The Chair is 100% correct. Going back to Sears as an example…their aggressive pricing will only squeeze their retail operation out of business(if continued long enough), as prices this low are unsustainable in the long run. If a store has a 30 percent increase in sales after implementing a big sale, but it's gross profit goes from 22% to 6% or less, is that a good business plan? Even though Sears is not increasing labor to handle the increase in sales, the model is still badly flawed. I understand that one of the most important things in retail is buying right, but I suspect that most of the things Sears is selling is a loss leader. Maybe they are subscribing to the old cliche, "We might be losing a little money on each sale, so we'll make up for that with the increase in volume."

Russ Sears writes:

Coming from the world of insurance, when things sell unexpectedly well the actuaries double check their pricing. The agents and the market will quickly spot when you are selling $1 or risk coverage for 99 cents. When I started, before rate books were online, a printing error cut-off the $1 handle of 70 year old women term life insurance rate per $1,000 (this was highest age we sold term to). The month after the book went out we had more 70 yr. old women apply for insurance than we had in the past several years combined.

In other words sales increases often indicate increase in claims volatility. Sales increases make me wonder if management really knows what they are doing. One wonders if this rule holds for the retail and stocks in general. 

Carder Dimitroff adds: 

I may be naive, but in some sectors I believe the top line could be critical for long term investments. I'm thinking of regulated and capital intensive companies like electric utilities, gas utilities, water utilities, pipeline companies, transmission line companies and MLPs. In a different way, I'm also thinking of non-regulated utilities, such as independent power producers, refineries and REITs.

In all these cases, if the top line falls, the bottom line is plagued by fixed costs, such as interest, ad volerem taxes, depreciation and amortization.

The second derivative of revenues in such cases is capacity factor. Low revenues suggest low capacity factors. Low capacity factors suggest troubled assets and long-term challenges. The assets could be partially stranded by market conditions.

An example is marginally efficient coal plants. With low market prices for natural gas, many coal plants find themselves out of merit and not dispatched (zero earnings for producing energy). When natural gas prices return, marginal coal plants are again deep in the merit order and they are dispatched frequently or continuously.

Julian Rowberry writes: 

An internet marketing equivalent of over valuing sales figures is over valuing social media subscribers. Twitter followers, facebook likes, page views, ad clicks etc are all very easily manipulated.

Leo Jia adds: 

Here is my two cents regarding growth vs non-growth.

The present value of a business without growth is much lower than that of a similar sized growing business. So one obvious question to any business owner is whether he would like to receive more money or not if the business is to be sold today. The answer is obvious. But one may counter: since he is making good profits on the business, why would he sell it today? Well, isn't that the beauty of modern finance produced through Wall Street? To sell it today, the entrepreneur can collect today all his future earnings projected based on the best periods of his business performance, and with that reward, he can move on with his life, rather than be tied up by the business which may turn sourer later and cause him to suffer.

Why would Wall Street care more about growing businesses? Those people who bought out the entrepreneur have an even higher reward outlook than his and would seek higher profit on the investment.

Art Cooper writes: 

An example of this currently in the news is Hormel Foods, described in the article "Spam Sales Boost Hormel's Profit" on p B4 of today's WSJ.

The article notes that Hormel's Q3 earnings rose 13%, led by strong growth in products such as Spam and Mexican salsas, continuing a trend of higher YoY earnings. "Even so, rising commodity costs and shoppers' resistance to higher prices are pressuring its profit margins, which could affect its results in future quarters."

HRL's price has been roughly flat for a year.


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