Grocery Shopping At Walmart

The large grocery store chains used to have virtual monopolies on food shoppers’ wallets. However, over the last five years their fortunes have changed, and their stock prices have lagged. The pressure has come from a two-pronged attack, discounters and healthier food stores. Walmart mostly and Target to some degree in the former group, and the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in the latter group.

Some of the traditional grocery stores have seen the light and are attempting to shift their store offerings to be more like a Whole Foods. Safeway, for instance, has begun a remodeling campaign under the “Lifestyle” concept to regain some of the market share it has lost in recent years. Time will tell if the move works, but at least they are trying, so their odds are far better than those simply muddling along with razor thin margins and no plan to at least maintain the business they have.

This weekend I shopped at Walmart for groceries for the first time. That was a big step for me. I hate shopping at Walmart. I find their stores a miserable experience. While the prices are low, the departments aren’t well organized and much of the shelves look like they haven’t been restocked in weeks. More times than with any other store, I can wander around for 5 or 10 minutes looking for the aisle I need. This is a sharp contrast to Target stores, which I find to be fully stocked and very easy to navigate.

Anyway, back to Walmart and groceries. I usually visit the local grocery store, more out of convenience than anything else. However, I finally bit the bullet and realized I could save some decent money in Walmart’s grocery aisles. After a successful trip, I came home and compared Walmart’s prices to those I paid during my last trip to the local grocery chain. I wanted to know how much the savings really amounted to. Turns out, Walmart’s regular prices are 30% below my neighborhood grocery store. Even when you factor in the local grocer’s sale prices, Walmart still saved me 20%.

While I still prefer to go elsewhere, I will be making more trips to Walmart for staple items that I know I can save a good amount of money on. For me, that seems to be groceries and toiletries. With Walmart continuing to expand their food selection and Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s growing their store bases at 20% annual rates, the traditional grocery chains better adjust, as Safeway is attempting to do, or else they will become extinct fairly quickly.

Whole Foods Reacts Poorly To Results

I feel for shareholders of Whole Foods Markets (WFMI). Yesterday the company reported 20% growth for yet another quarter and boosted its 2010 revenue goal to $12 billion from $10 billion. In a bid to please shareholders, the company also announced a $4 special dividend, a regular dividend increase of 30%, a two-for-one stock split, and a $200 million stock buyback plan.

Getting all four of those surely sounds like a good thing, but WFMI shares are down $9 in pre-market trading. The reason is quite simple. Whole Foods is a very high multiple stock and Q3 earnings didn’t come in ahead of estimates, which many were banking on. Despite a growth forecast of 20% annual growth through 2010, the stock is under pressure.

This is undoubtedly due to the stock’s high P/E. The company should earn about $3 next year, but that equates to a price-to-earnings ratio of 48 before today’s drop. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many investors who are willing to pay more than that for a stock, even if WFMI’s outlook is very bright and the company can deliver on its growth goals.

What Happened To Buffett’s Budweiser Stake?

Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) filed with the SEC on August 15th and listed its current public stock holdings as of June 30th. Interestingly, there was a notable name absent from the list; Anheiser Busch (BUD).

Now, you may recall BUD came out in late April and said it had learned that Berkshire, Buffett’s holding company, had taken a meaningful stake in it. The stock reacted by jumping $3 to $48 on the news, and many investors bought BUD shares simply because Buffett did.

The question I have is, how come recent SEC filings show no such stake in the beer giant?

BWLD Raises Guidance, Catches Upgrade

Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) raised Q2 guidance last night and the stock is up 11 percent today. As a result, KeyBanc Capital Markets/McDonald upgraded the stock this morning from “buy” to “aggressive buy.” This call is stupid for several reasons.

First, who still has 2 different forms of buy ratings these days? The buy/strong buy distinction was one used daily back in the bull market of the late 1990’s, but most firms have gone to a 3-tier rating system; buy, neutral, and sell. Having both “buy” and “aggressive buy” should cause an immediate loss of credibility in the eyes of investors.

Along the same lines, what is the difference between these two ratings? What constitutes buying a stock versus buying a stock aggressively? I’d love to hear an explanation. Finally, why does one only want to buy a stock at $30.07 (yesterday’s closing price) but when it opens at $33.89 today, they want to buy it more aggressively?

All in all, I doubt Wall Street research can get any worse than this.

10:53am – Oh, I forgot one more thing. Who names their investment bank KeyBanc Capital Markets/McDonald? Even Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Discover dropped the “Dean Witter Discover” after realizing how horrible it sounded.

Krispy Kreme Bankrupt?

While I haven’t been short Krispy Kreme (KKD) stock over the last year, I wish I had been. The shares have fallen from $40 each to $7 today, an all-time low. Having ignored this stock since the IPO due to a terribly high valuation and a personal preference for the product at Dunkin Donuts, I finally decided to do some due diligence this week after hearing whispers of the company’s ultimate demise.

As a contrarian, whenever I hear rumors of possible bankruptcy, I take notice. Often times people spread bankruptcy rumors when they are short a particular stock, regardless of whether the risk is really there or not. One of my best trades in recent years was picking up shares of then-troubled Nextel (NXTL) in 2002 when the stock was pricing in tremendous bankruptcy risk due to a mountain of debt.

After carefully examining the company’s finances, investors would have realized that although debt levels were too high, the company’s wireless business was so strong that cash flow from operations would be able to cover the firm’s interest expense. The Nextel story is about to be closed, as Sprint (FON) has agreed to buy the company for about $30 per share. Not bad for a stock that bottomed out at $2 per share less than three years ago.

Back to Krispy Kreme. As you may have read in recent months, KKD has had poor accounting practices in the past, resulting in a CEO resignation recently. Evidently, the company has used the repurchase of stores from franchise owners to boost financial results. In the midst of a full accounting review, the company missed its deadline to file financial statements for the last quarter, due in late January.

Normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The company’s new management is on track to clean up the books, file financial statements, and move on to turnaround the company’s business. However, KKD has a $150 million credit facility that freezes should the company miss a regulatory filing deadline, which it did. Given the internal accounting probes, numerous legal issues, and restructuring going on right now, KKD needs some additional cash to weather the storm and continue to fund operations. But since their credit facility is frozen, they can’t borrow any money until they file.

As a result, newly appointed CEO Steven Cooper is scrambling to cut costs in order to ensure they don’t run out of money before they can tap their credit. KKD’s creditors have extended a deadline for the financials until late March, so current cash must last for six more weeks, assuming the March deadline can be made. To help, the company has sold its corporate jet (why did they have one to begin with?) for $30 million and announced plans to lay off 25% of its workforce at the company’s corporate headquarters.

The interesting thing about this whole story is the talk of possible bankruptcy. KKD is hardly overly leveraged. They have about $120 million in total debt, but the interest rate is less than 3 percent. Operations generate positive free cash flow and the company’s tangible net assets are more than $250 million. Sales at KKD’s 435 stores nationwide are $700 million annually. Interest expense ran $1.4 million last quarter, hardly dramatic.

While I still have some DD to do today on KKD shares, it appears that the largest issue with the company is not its debt load, but rather the ability of their accountants to file accurate financial statements. The company’s operations can adequately fund the debt after these legal and regulatory issues have been resolved. Of course, there is always a chance that things could get worse and they would not hit their deadlines. However, it seems unlikely that the creditors would choose to force KKD into default when the operations seem not only salvageable, but also potentially extremely valuable.

As for trading this situation, it depends on which side of the fence you fall on. I haven’t made a conclusion yet, and don’t know if I will opt to put on a trade or not, but you really have two choices that make sense. If you think bankruptcy is a real option, then short the common stock and buy some calls to hedge your position. If you think they’ll survive, buy the common along with some puts to protect you, should they happen to file Chapter 11.

Sleepless in Seattle

On their quarterly conference call earlier this week, Starbucks (SBUX) management indicated they envision room for 30,000 of their stores worldwide. Given that after years of rapid expansion they have yet to even reach 9,000, we can assume sleep is not something the Seattle-based premium coffee chain focuses too much on.

The stock has been on fire, having doubled in price over the last year to a recent $55 per share. Is it too late to get in? Well, it depends on your personal investment philosophy. Momentum investors love to see stocks like Starbucks defy gravity, and there is no doubt they have contributed greatly to its meteoric ascent lately. The question is, what can investors expect in the future?

I can’t recall a time Starbucks has been this richly priced. The p/e has actually risen throughout this year, despite the fact that multiples usually contract when larger companies get big enough that growth will inevitably have to slow. Fiscal 2005 earnings are expected to rise another 20% to about $1.14 per share, giving SBUX a forward p/e of 48. Much like one of their hot chocolates, the shares seem very, very rich.

Starbucks bulls can surely explain why the company deserves such a valuation. Among them, a 20% growth rate, the ability to charge $4 for something that one can buy somewhere else for $1 even though it is not four times as tasty (some may disagree), and the list goes on. The S&P 500 does trade at about two times its growth rate, so perhaps one can justify a 40 p/e for Starbucks stock. Given the company’s 30,000 store goal, it’s clear that the growth story is not going to end anytime soon.

The question remains, how long can the company maintain its 20% annual growth rate? And importantly for investors, what happens to the stock’s 48 forward p/e when growth slows to 15 percent, and then to 10 percent? That multiple clearly has little room to rise, and a significant way to fall at some point in the future. The stock’s upward move has actually accelerated over the last year or so, as momentum investors have chased the stock. This despite the fact that as the company continues to grow, it will become harder and harder to maintain its high level of growth.

If you have a sizable capital gain in Starbucks stock, perhaps it would be prudent to take some of it off the table. Here is one statistic to end with. Assume SBUX is able to maintain its 20% earnings growth rate for the next three years, through 2007, and as a result, posts 2007 earnings of $1.64 per share. If the stock trades at a 40 p/e at that time, then shares will fetch about $65 each. This would imply a return to investors of 6 percent per year between now and 2007. Hardly breathtaking, but surely a possible scenario.