Polo Ralph Lauren's bespoke results portend more upside ahead

You know it's an especially painful downturn when even the better-off among us stop shelling out for luxury brands. The last time we went through a recession upscale retailers like Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) actually held up pretty well. This time? Not so much.

That's why the company's second-quarter earnings report was somewhat reassuring. True, Polo blew past Street estimates, but then it's done that for at least nine quarters in a row. More encouraging was an expansion in gross margin (an indication that the company is getting some pricing power back), as well as its better outlook for sales in 2010.
Caution is of course the the only reasonable attitude in such uncertain times -- but then that makes some of management's commentary stand out all the more in relief.

"I am of the opinion the customer has begun to move back into a more balanced point of view," Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer, said on a conference call with analyst and investors Tuesday. "Those that have money are beginning to spend it again."

In the shorter term it looks as if a lot of the value has already been squeezed out of Polo's shares: The stock's up more than 70 percent this year, beating the S&P 500 ($INX) by nearly 60 percentage points. So, yeah, the really easy money looks to have been made.

But longer term, Polo looks still looks like a good bet. For one thing, it has a long history of just crushing the broader market. Pull up a three-, five, or ten-year chart and see for yourself. The stock has outperformed by about 35, 110 and 380 points, respectively, over those periods.

And it's not like the relative valuation is unattractive. (Wednesday's sell off certainly offers a more compelling entry point.) The stock trades at a slight discount to the broader market despite having stronger growth prospects, according to Thomson Reuters. It's also at a slight discount to its own five-year average. Furthermore, by price/earnings-to-growth (PEG), it's about 15 percent cheaper than the market. (The PEG ratio measures how expensive a stock is relative to its growth prospects.)

Analysts' average price target leaves about eight percent upside in the next year or so. That's not too shabby, but not too exciting, either. On the other hand, if the more affluent start to spend in earnest as the recovery gains steam, Polo shouldn't have much trouble breaking through that collective guess.

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