Jeans. Long ago, this word evoked the most pedestrian of images — blue, rugged, simple, cheap. But over the past few decades (and a few million acid washes and knee holes later), jeans became the stuff of high fashion, selling for exorbitant prices.
So it’s logical to think that the premier makers of high-end denim should be minting money, right? Well, not exactly. While jeans have demonstrated staying power as a fashion statement, some of the biggest names in denim are far from a long-term lock as an investment.
Here’s a look at three jeans companies — Guess (NYSE:GES), True Religion (NASDAQ:TRLG) and Joe’s Jeans (NASDAQ:JOEZ) — you’re better off leaving on the rack:
Of this group, Guess is the oldest and the largest. Guess was one of the premier jean brands of the 1980s, then fell by the wayside in the ’90s to Gap (NYSE:GPS), Calvin Klein and others. But since the aughts, Guess has been heading in the right direction in several areas.
Guess increased sex appeal in its ads to improve popularity. It diversified both its offerings, adding accessories and perfume, and its finances — Guess’ revenues outside the U.S. and Canada have gone from 20% of total revenues in 2005 to almost half last year. Earnings have increased an average of 28% annually in the past five years, debt is next to negligible and GES has been increasing its dividend since 2007, currently yielding 20 cents, or 2.5%.
However, Guess stock has fallen almost 30% since a November 2010 peak above $50. Its most recent quarterly earnings of 71 cents per share were down 5%, and analysts expect similar drops in earnings across the next couple quarters and FY 2012. The Street does expect GES earnings to grow 10% in FY13, but that still would far lag an industry-wide expectation of about 23%. Though it has a fair forward P/E of about 12, the growth concerns raise a red flag.
True Religion, while still a bit diversified in its offerings, is a purer play on jeans. It’s also a worse one. True Religion is a much smaller operation than Guess, though similar in that it also sells its clothes through other retailers. Its jeans run in a range between $220 and $320, so it’s safe to call TRLG a luxury stock. And a look at its share price shows True Religion definitely is behaving like other luxury stocks — TRLG is up 70% in the past year.
What’s troubling is that True Religion’s stock movement doesn’t reflect the company’s performance. TRLG’s earnings growth on a quarterly basis has been extremely inconsistent during the past two years. Also, while its full-year 2011 adjusted earnings reported Thursday were up 1 cent per share from 2010, at $1.88, they’re still 4 cents shy of 2009 earnings. Q4 2011 adjusted earnings also were down 2 cents down from 2010 levels, and well short of Wall Street expectations — and True Religion stock was hammered for it Friday, losing 27% in a single day!
But even if you think of buying on the dip at around $28, TRLG still isn’t a that much of a bargain, trading around 12 times expected 2012 earnings. And with no dividend, there’s nothing convincing me to stick around and wait for better times.
I saved the worst for last. Joe’s Jeans is a tiny company that sells jeans in the $100-$200 range, as well as other clothes and accessories. And there’s not much good to say about it. Its fourth-quarter earnings were … whoops! We don’t know. JOEZ was tentatively slated to report on Thursday, but as of this writing, it didn’t show. What we do know is the company lost 3 cents per share in its previous quarter, and analysts expect Joe’s Jeans to break even for the year, then earn 3 cents per share in FY12.
But don’t bother. Joe’s Jeans is dangling off the Nasdaq cliff — JOEZ has traded below $1 since April, so the company was given a six-month delisting warning from the Nasdaq in June, then got a six-month extension in December. And at about 70 cents per share, the company is as close as it has been to a buck since August.
In other words? This stock is sunk. If you’re dead-set on playing Joe’s Jeans, be aware that it has very thin daily volume and has a microcap market size ($45 million). So even though it doesn’t trade on the pink sheets yet, it is for all intents and purposes a high-risk penny stock gamble — not an investment.
You’re better off spending your money on a pair of Levi’s.
Kyle Woodley is the assistant editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @KyleWoodley.