Retail Stocks Are for Suckers: Why Their Rally Won't Last

TargetWhat is going on with the stock market these days? The Dow Jones Industrial Average is on a tear, up something like 6% so far this year. If it keeps on going at this rate, we'll wind up going into 2013 at Dow 18,000.

Wildfire success like we've seen in the stock markets lately has a lot of folks throwing caution to the wind, and looking for ways to get a piece of the action, to not get left out of a stock market on steroids. As one professional talking head recently told The Wall Street Journal, "the decline in market volatility" means it's time to take "a more aggressive approach for the calmer market ... picking more economically sensitive companies, such as ... retail stocks."

Sorry, Charlie. Retail stocks are for suckers. Here's why:

Retailers in the Discount Bin

On the one hand, it's understandable that investors might be attracted to retail today. A lot of these stocks got hit hard in 2011, and that has a lot of folks thinking they must be cheap. Over the past year, shares of Target (TGT), for example, have lagged the S&P 500's performance by a good 5%. Kohl's (KSS) is down 5% in absolute terms, and Sears Holdings (SHLD) has lost a whopping 45% of its market cap.
More recently, though, shares of these three companies have been outpacing the rest of the market pretty handily. Kohl's and Target are both up nearly 10% from the beginning of 2012, while Sears has rocketed up 65% from where it ended 2012.

So if retail stocks are starting to join in the rally, but they're still significantly cheaper than they were a year ago, that must mean you should buy them, right?

Wrong. Here's how retail stocks average, price-wise, across a small variety of subsets from the group:


Average P/E


Apparel stores


American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch

Sporting goods


Dick's Sporting Goods, Foot Locker

Department stores


Kohl's, J.C. Penney

Discount stores


Walmart, Target

Mind you, I'm not saying there are no bargains to be found anywhere in retail. Within each category, individual stocks may be either more or less expensive than the average. (They may also be absurdly overvalued, as is the case with stock "star" Sears -- up 65% in a month, but entirely devoid of profit.) But as a general rule, within each subset and throughout the industry in general, retail stocks cost significantly more than your average stock on the S&P 500, where trailing P/Es hew closer to 15.1.
And don't even get me started on the "e-tailers." Blue Nile (NILE) at 48 times earnings? (AMZN) at 136 times? Crazy overpriced.

Growing, Growing, Gone!

Now, most investors know that you can't view P/E in a vacuum. A high-P/E stock may still be a bargain if its growth rate is good enough, and according to most analysts, growth prospects for retail look pretty good. On average, analyst estimates tell us that most retail companies should grow their earnings at about 14% per year over the next five years.
That prediction may turn out to be optimistic.

A couple of weeks back, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its fourth quarter 2011 GDP report showing consumer spending rising "sharply" for the second quarter in a row. You have to assume this report had something to do with the sudden optimism about retailers. But here's the thing: Even if the data are right, and even if consumers are spending more right now, they won't be able to keep it up for long.

According to the number crunchers at the Consumer Metrics Institute, there's something strange about the sudden spike in consumer spending last quarter. Consumers' "disposable income was flat, indicating that some of that improvement ... may simply be retail sales brought forward as a consequence of deep holiday discounting on the part of retailers." Moreover, CMI warns that in the absence of wage growth, "the fourth quarter splurge on goods is likely coming from a draw-down in savings."
But as anyone who's ever overdrawn a checking account (and been dinged with a bank fee) knows, savings eventually run out.

(The old joke springs to mind: "What do you mean I'm out of money?! I've still got checks right here in my checkbook.")

Suckers Rally

And here's the real moral of the story: Even if consumers still have checks, they may not have much money left to continue shopping. If and when their wallets run dry, so too will the rally in retail stocks.
Anyone who buys into the retail stock rally without considering this risk is getting played for a sucker.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith does not believe in the rally. And he doesn't own shares of any company mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of, Walmart Stores, and Dick's Sporting Goods. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of, Blue Nile, and Walmart Stores and have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Walmart Stores.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

What is Short Selling?

Make a profit when stocks prices fall.

View Course »

Introduction to ETFs

The basics of Exchange Traded Funds and why ETFs are hot.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

The Motley Fool also said Sunbeam was a good looking stock and they had all the reasons why it should go up. I bought it - it tanked. Sorry MF - I don't listen to you anymore.

February 14 2012 at 8:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


February 14 2012 at 9:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

walmart sucks, drives mom and pops business out, sell cheap crappy low quality products, im not impressed.

February 14 2012 at 12:28 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I work at Walmart ,They ...Recycle ,Almost everything,PROMOTE employees,to the top level management ,give food to foodbanks ,provide an associate{employee} assistance program...etc.We do not want unions,...we have that choice...we make that choice!!!We work for our money! IFFF more folks did what we do AMERICA would be better off.Some people make that choice,we like having that choice.....THAT is what AMERICA was founded for. The problem with AMERICA is Govment intervention.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

February 13 2012 at 5:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to goldoker's comment

You are soooo right!!! Bravo, Goldoker!!!

February 13 2012 at 7:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The way for companies to avoid unions is to treat their employees fairly. That is what unions offer; fair treatment and decent wages. If you're happy with what you're making and how you're treated, you would never vote for a union to represent you. IBM offered their employees fair treatment and unions were never successful at getting a winning vote to represent the employees.

February 13 2012 at 7:31 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

The casual observer to the employees of WalMart needs to look at the facts, WalMart hires and fills positions based on the companys needs, store mgrs are paid more, they are smarter-trained and take care of their duties, lower level employees are hired-trained and receive the pay they agreed to, if your job is to round up shopping carts, you are paid the minimum for that job, most anyone can do that job, your easily replaced, therefore the pay is equal to the task,
people need to quit complaining about the pay at WalMart, just look at the caliber of some of the employees, their employment history and you can see why it is the way it is, would you pay top dollar for some of what they employ, probably not, you would be broke and gone real soon. Also, kinda strange to criticize their methods when you shop there 10 tiimes a month!!!

February 13 2012 at 2:24 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Richard's comment

mygawd .....wouldn't they have had a field day if the garment district was still in full swing ! and this bs going on right alongside it !!!! piece work,pressers,rackman,elevator operators etc LOL ! and some of us were extremely skilled as well and made a whole dollar per garment on our ""homework"".

February 13 2012 at 5:46 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I understand that Walmart provides jobs for the "working poor" and as such they are entitled to "food stamps" and "healthcare assistance".... are we, tax payers subsidizing employees of the biggest retailer in the country? I understood as well that the 6 heirs to Walmart are worth more than 75% of the working population... Anyone know differently?

February 13 2012 at 2:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jmac4110's comment

WHEN THE PARAMETERS and ""limits"" were changed,WHAT do YOU THINK HAPPENS ? and WHAT ADM DID THIS ? and again,do YOU know WHY ?

February 13 2012 at 5:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Occupy now that is real change!

February 13 2012 at 1:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Millions unemployed or unemployed so where is the money coming from to boost sales? Debt eats whats left of the economy weighed down by the losses in equity. Nice try on spinning but not buying into the BS.

February 13 2012 at 1:56 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Look at the real job market now rethink the optimism.

February 13 2012 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"...contributor Rich Smith does not believe in the ralley. And he doesn't own shares of any company ...."

Of course he doesn't. He owns shares in the industries that will benefit from a decline in the industry that he's bashing.

What a shallow and contemptible disclaimer.

February 13 2012 at 12:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply