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    HomeBusinessAs the market enters correction territory, don't blame the US consumer

    As the market enters correction territory, don’t blame the US consumer

    • The S&P 500 is on the verge of a correction and the Nasdaq already entered one, but many consumer earnings data points show a mostly bullish picture.
    • Home sales are being helped by mortgage buydowns, fliers are still shelling out for premium seats, and Amazon is hiring 250,000 seasonal holiday workers.
    • “Where am I seeing softness in [consumer] credit?” said JPMorgan chief financial officer Jeremy Barnum, repeating an analyst’s question on the bank’s earnings call. “I think the answer to that is actually nowhere.”

    An Amazon.com Inc worker prepares an order in which the buyer asked for an item to be gift wrapped at a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, U.S., November 12, 2020.

    Amazon.com Inc | Reuters

    The initial third-quarter report on gross domestic product showed consumer spending zooming higher by 4% percent a year, after inflation, the best in almost two years. September’s retail sales report showed spending climbing almost twice as fast as the average for the last year. And yet, bears like hedge-fund trader Bill Ackman argue that a recession is coming as soon as this quarter and the market has entered correction territory.

    For an economy that rises or falls on the state of the consumer, third-quarter earnings data supports a view of spending that remains mostly good. S&P 500 consumer-discretionary companies that have reported through Oct. 25 saw an average profit gain of 15%, according to CFRA — the biggest revenue gain of the stock market’s 11 sectors.

    “People are kind of scratching their heads and saying, ‘The consumer is holding up better than expected,'” said CFRA Research strategist Sam Stovall said. “Consumers are employed. They continue to buy goods as well as pursue experiences. And they don’t seem worried about debt levels.” 

    How is this possible with interest rates on everything from credit cards to cars and homes soaring?

    It’s the anecdotes from bellwether companies across key industries that tell the real story: Delta Air Lines and United Airlines sharing how their most expensive seats are selling fastest. Homeowners using high-interest-rate-fighting mortgage buydowns. Amazon saying it’s hiring 250,000 seasonal workers. A Thursday report from Deckers Outdoor blew some minds — in what has been a tepid clothing sales environment — by disclosing that embedded in a 79% profit gain that sent shares up 19% was sales of Uggs, a mature line anchored by fuzzy boots, rising 28%.

    The picture they paint largely matches the economic data — generally positive, but with some warts. Here is some of the key evidence from from the biggest company earnings reports across the market that help explain how companies and the American consumer are making the best of a tough rate environment.

    How homebuilders are solving for mortgages rates

    No industry is more central to the market’s notion that the consumer is falling from the sky than housing, because the number of existing home sales have dropped almost 40% from Covid-era peaks. But while Coldwell Banker owner Anywhere Real Estate saw profit fall by half, news from builders of new homes has been pretty good.

    Most consumers have mortgages below 5%, but for new homebuyers, one reason that rates are not biting quite as sharply as they should is that builders have figured out ways around the 8% interest rates that are bedeviling existing home sellers. That helps explains why new home sales are up this year. Homebuilders are dipping into money that previously paid for other incentives to pay for offering mortgages at 5.75% rather than the 8% level other mortgages have hit. At PulteGroup, the nation’s third-biggest builder, that helped drive an 8% third-quarter profit jump and 43% climb in new home orders for delivery later, much better than the government-reported 4.5% gain in new home sales year-to-date.

    “What we’ve done is simply redistribute incentives we’ve historically offered toward cabinets and countertops, and redirected those to interest rate incentives,” PulteGroup CEO Ryan Marshall said. “And that has been the most powerful thing.”

    The mechanics are complex, but work out to this: Pulte sets aside about $35,000 for incentives to get each home to sell, or about 6% of its price, the company said on its earnings conference call. Part of that is paying for a mortgage buydown. About 80% to 85% of buyers are taking advantage of the buydown offer. But many are splitting the funds, mixing a smaller rate buydown and keeping some goodies for the house, the company said.

    Wells Fargo economist Jackie Benson said in a report that builders may struggle to keep this strategy going if mortgage rates stay near 8%, but new-home prices have dropped 12% in the last year. In her view, incentives plus bigger price cuts than most existing homes’ owners will offer is giving builders an edge. 

    At auto companies, price cuts are in, and more are coming

    Car sales picked up notably in September, rising 24% year-over-year, more than twice the year-to-date gain in unit sales. But they were below expectations at electric-vehicle leader Tesla, which blamed high interest rates, and at Ford

    “I just can’t emphasize this enough, that for the vast majority of people buying a car it’s about the monthly payment,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on its earnings call. “And as interest rates rise, the proportion of that monthly payment that is interest increases.” 

    Maybe, but that’s not what’s happening at General Motors, even if investor reaction to good numbers at GM was muted because of the strike by the United Auto Workers union. 

    GM beat earnings expectations by 40 cents a share, but shares fell 3% because of investor worries about the strike, which forced GM to withdraw its fourth-quarter earnings forecast on Oct. 24. Ford, which settled with the UAW on Oct. 25, said the next day it had a “mixed” quarter, as profit missed Wall Street targets due to the strike. Consumers came through, as unit sales rose 7.7% for the quarter, with truck and EV sales both up 15%. GM CEO Mary Barra said on GM’s analyst call that the company gained market share, posting a 21% gain in unit sales despite offering incentives below the industry average.

    “While we hear reports out there in the macro that consumer sentiment might be weakening, etc., we haven’t seen that in demand for our vehicles,” GM CFO Paul Jacobson told analysts. But Ford CFO John Lawler said car prices need to decline by about $1,800 to be as affordable as they were before Covid. “We think it’s going to happen over 12 to 18 months,” he said. 

    Tesla’s turnaround plan turns on continuing to lower its cost of producing cars, which came down by about $2,000 per vehicle in last year, the company said. Along with federal tax credits for electric vehicles, a Model Y crossover can be had for about $36,490, or as little as $31,500 in states with local tax incentives for EVs. That’s way below the average for all cars, which Cox Automotive puts at more than $50,000. But Musk says some consumers still aren’t convincible. .

    “When you look at the price reductions we’ve made in, say, the Model Y, and you compare that to how much people’s monthly payment has risen due to interest rates, the price of the Model Y is almost unchanged,” Musk said. “They can’t afford it.”

    Most banks say the consumer still has cash, but not Discover

    To know how consumers are doing, ask the banks, which disclose consumer balances quarterly. To know if they’re confident, ask the credit card companies (often the same companies) how much they are spending. 

    In most cases, financial services firms say consumers are doing well.

    At Bank of America, consumer balances are still about one-third higher than before Covid, CEO Brian Moynihan said on the company’s conference call. At JPMorgan Chase, balances have eroded 3% in the last year, but consumer loan delinquencies declined during the quarter, the company said.

    “Where am I seeing softness in [consumer] credit?” said chief financial officer Jeremy Barnum, repeating an analyst’s question on the earnings call. “I think the answer to that is actually nowhere.”

    Among credit card companies, the “resilient” is still the main story. MasterCard, in fact, used that word or “resilience” eight times to describe U.S. consumers in its Oct. 26 call.

    “I mean, the reality is, unemployment levels are [near] all-time record lows,” MasterCard chief financial officer Sachin Mehra said.

    At American Express, which saw U.S. consumer spending rise 9%, the mild surprise was the company’s disclosure that young consumers are adding Amex cards faster than any other group. Millennials and Gen Zers saw their U.S. spending via Amex rise 18%, the company said.

    “Guess they’re not bothered by the resumption of student loan payments,” Stovall said.

    The major fly in the ointment came from Discover Financial Services, one of the few banks to make big additions to its loan loss reserves for consumer debt, driving a 33% drop in profit as Discover’s loan chargeoffs doubled.  

    Despite the fact that U.S. household debt burdens are almost exactly the same as in late 2019, and declined during the quarter, according to government data, Discover chief financial officer John Greene said on its call, “Our macro assumptions reflect a relatively strong labor market but also consumer headwinds from a declining savings rate and increasing debt burdens.”

    At airlines, still no sign of a travel recession

    It’s good to be Delta Air Lines right now, sitting on a 59% third-quarter profit gain driven by the most expensive products on their virtual shelves: First-class seats and international vacations. Also good to be United, where higher-margin international travel rose almost 25% and the company is planning to add seven first-class seats per departure by 2027. Not so good to be discounter Spirit, which saw shares fall after reporting a $157 million loss.

    “With the market continuing to seemingly will a travel recession into existence despite evidence to the contrary from daily [government] data and our consumer surveys, Delta’s third-quarter beat and solid fourth-quarter guide and commentary should finally put the group at ease about a consumer “cliff,” allow them to unfasten their seatbelts and walk about the cabin,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker said in a note to clients.

    One tangible impact: United is adding 20 planes this quarter, though it is pushing 12 more deliveries into 2024, while Spirit said it’s delaying plane deliveries, and focusing on its proposed merger with JetBlue and cost-cutting to regain competitiveness as soft demand for its product persists into the holiday season.

    As has been the case throughout much of 2023, richer consumers — who contribute the greater share of spending — are doing better than moderate-income families, Sundaram said.

    The goods recession is for real

    Whirlpool, Ethan Allen and mattress maker Sleep Number all saw their stocks tumble after reporting bad earnings, all of them experiencing sales struggles consistent with the macro data.

    This follows a trend now well-entrenched in the economy: people stocked up on hard goods, especially for the house, during the pandemic, when they were stuck at home more. All three companies saw shares surge during Covid, and growth has slacked off since as they found their markets at least partly saturated and consumers moved spending to travel and other services.

    “All of the stimulus money went to the furniture industry,” Sundaram said, exaggerating for effect. “Now they’ve been falling apart for the last year.”

    Ethan Allen sales dropped 24%, as the company said a flood in a Vermont factory and softer demand were among the causes. At Whirlpool, which said in second-quarter earnings that it was moving to make up slowing sales to consumers by selling more appliances to home builders, “discretionary purchases have been even softer than anticipated, as a result of increased mortgage rates and low consumer confidence,” CEO Marc Bitzer said during Thursday’s earnings call. Its shares fell more than 20%. 

    Amazon’s $1.3 billion holiday hiring spree

    Amazon is making its biggest-ever commitment to holiday hiring, spending $1.3 billion to add the workers, mostly in fulfillment centers. 

    That’s possible because Amazon has reorganized its warehouse network to speed up deliveries and lower costs, sparking 11% sales gains the last two quarters as consumers turn to the online giant for more everyday repeat purchases. Amazon also tends to serve a more affluent consumer who is proving more resilient in the face of interest rate hikes and inflation than audiences for Target or dollar stores, according to CFRA retailing analyst Arun Sundaram said.

    “Their retail sales are performing really well,” Sundaram said. “There’s still headwinds affecting discretionary sales, but everyday essentials are doing really well.

    All of this sets the stage for a high-stakes holiday season.

    PNC still thinks there will be a recession in early 2024, thanks partly to the Federal Reserve’ rate hikes, and thinks investors will focus on sales of goods looking for more signs of weakness. “There’s a lot of strength for the late innings” of an expansion, said PNC Asset Management chief investment officer Amanda Agati.

    Sundaram, whose firm has predicted that interest rates will soon drop as inflation wanes, thinks retailers are in better shape, with stronger supply chains that will allow strategic discounting more than last year to pump sales. The Uggs sales outperformance was attributed to improved supply chains and shorter shipping times as the lingering effects of the pandemic recede.

    “Though there are headwinds for the consumer, there’s a chance for a decent holiday season,” he said, albeit one hampered still by the inflation of the last two years. “The 2022 holiday season may have been the low point.” 

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