U.S. equity markets have been much choppier so far in 2018, to say the least. Volatility has doubled. February saw the first market correction in two years. And since then, U.S. stocks have swung back and forth, with a number of big one-day moves along the way.
One of the more recent catalysts of the market’s nervousness has been an increasing fear of a trade war. What started with tariffs on imported aluminum and steel could end … well, anywhere. Given that the U.S. and China alone traded over $650 billion in goods and services, a tit-for-tat escalation could hurt both economies. And should other countries get involved, the worldwide impact could be severe.
All that said, the market hasn’t exactly plunged so far. And I tend to agree with James Brumely, who on this site called from some much-needed perspective on the confrontation. Trade alone isn’t a reason to flee the U.S. equity market, and it isn’t enough of a reason, alone, to sell or short a specific stock. Stocks like Deere & Company (NYSE:DE), Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) and Boeing Co (NYSE:BA) are obvious short targets, but they have already have sold off, and perhaps too far.
But for these 10 stocks, trade fears add to an already-existing short case. For investors who see trade war risk as a real possibility, all 10 can provide hedges against long positions, or aggressive short bets. And for investors more sanguine on a tariff battle, there’s still enough reason elsewhere to at least consider taking a short position.
Stocks to Short: Wynn Resorts (WYNN)
To be sure, it would take a tremendous escalation for trade issues to hit Wynn Resorts, Limited (NASDAQ:WYNN). So at the moment, the risk of WYNN getting caught in the crossfire of a U.S.-China confrontation looks slim.
That said, the risk also could be enormous. Wynn’s concession in Macau expires in 2022. If China truly wanted to take a scalp, Wynn, Las Vegas Sands Corp. (NYSE:LVS), and MGM Resorts International (NYSE:MGM) all could potentially be at risk of being replaced.
Even a lesser action like adding additional concessions to the additional six in Macau could have a significant competitive impact on revenue and profits. And Wynn would be most at risk in this scenario, as it generates the greatest share of its earnings in Macau relative to its two other U.S.-based counterparts.
Again, that is a doomsday — and still relatively unlikely — scenario. But even some re-pricing of that risk could hit Wynn stock. And that’s not the company’s only problem in the region. As the Macau Daily Times (an English-language paper) reported, the sexual harassment allegations surrounding former CEO Steve Wynn present a risk to the company’s concession renewal.
Steve Wynn’s complete exit from the company may ameliorate that problem. But there’s also the risk that a trade war could hit the Chinese economy — and slow the stream of high rollers visiting Wynn’s properties in the enclave and driving baccarat profits on the Vegas Strip.
Add to that the possibility of a sale of its unfinished Massachusetts property and even rumors of a tie-up with MGM aren’t likely to keep WYNN afloat. And if any of the negative scenarios here actually play out, Wynn stock easily could tumble 20% or more.
Stocks to Short: RBC Bearings (ROLL)
The short case for RBC Bearings Incorporated (NASDAQ:ROLL) in this environment has a couple of different aspects. The first is that the company is a major supplier to the aerospace industry, which drives roughly two-thirds of revenue. So with Boeing stock one of the biggest victims of trade war fears, ROLL should have similar exposure of its own.
The second is that RBC has a good deal of exposure to steel prices, which could hit its margins. Normally, RBC has been able to pass increases along to customers, but Boeing and others may not pay up if it has its own margin concerns to worry about. The other one-third of ROLL revenue comes from industrial companies in construction and mining, oil and gas, heavy truck and rail, among other sectors. Those customers, too, could feel some pain from higher tariffs, and rising costs, making pass-through pricing difficult in that segment as well.
Meanwhile, ROLL hasn’t taken much of a hit yet and it looks rather expensive. While BA stock trades at less than 20x forward EPS, ROLL is at a whopping 26x. Profit growth really hasn’t been that impressive the last few years; instead, investors are pricing in what the company expects to be a strong performance starting in the second half of this year. But if margin pressure gets in the way – and RBC already has disappointed on that front in the past – growth will disappoint, and that premium multiple will come down.
RBC doesn’t have much of a short interest — barely 1% of the float — and it has held its valuation for some time. But the chart of late looks weaker, and if trade fears do ramp up, ROLL seems likely to head down.
Stocks to Short: Harley-Davidson (HOG)
Harley-Davidson Inc (NYSE:HOG) already was a heavy short target before the events of the last few weeks. That’s still the case, with almost 15% of the float sold short. And those shorts are winning, with HOG down nearly 17% YTD after a disappointing Q4 earnings report in late January.
I wrote ahead of that report that Harley-Davidson was riding into irrelevance, and I still believe that to be the case. Sales are stagnant even in a growing economy. The idea that millennials are going to buy loud, unsafe Harleys strikes me as somewhere between overly optimistic and delusional. To be fair, Harley-Davidson has struggled with the strong dollar, but even as the yen has strengthened, competitors like Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. (OTCMKTS:YAMHF) are having success.
Trade concerns only add to an already-solid short case here, even with HOG trading at a ‘cheap’ 11x forward EPS multiple.
Harley-Davidson has admitted it could see a “significant impact” on sales in the case of rising tariffs. The European Union already has targeted the company in response to the initial steel and aluminum tariffs. HOG stock didn’t need any more bad news, but considering its debt, higher input costs, and lower sales, there’s a combination for a very severe downturn in Harley-Davidson stock, particularly if trade wars escalate.
Stocks to Short: Cloud Peak Energy (CLD)
President Trump has made no secret of his desire to help coal companies, and he has already taken steps toward that goal. But a battle with China very well may do more harm than good — and impact coal stocks like Cloud Peak Energy Inc. (NYSE:CLD).
It’s China whose demand actually has driven higher U.S. coal exports of late. But China could pull the rug out on that growth. China clearly has targeted Trump’s base in its initial response — and that could lead to either tariffs on coal and/or a pivot to other suppliers like Australia and Indonesia.
As the weakest publicly traded producer, that makes CLD worth a look from the short side. Cloud Peak is reliant on thermal coal, unlike, say, Arch Coal Inc (NYSE:ARCH), whose coking coal is used in steel production. Demand for thermal coal (used for power production) is in a long-term decline both in the U.S. and abroad, no matter how the Administration tries to help.
Heading into 2018, Cloud Peak was expecting a ~20% increase in exports in 2018 — without that demand, sales and profits are likely to fall. The stock already has fallen 44% just since mid-January, as investor sentiment clearly has turned negative.
Adjusted EBITDA was stable in 2017 after a significant decline the year before – but a rebound looks unlikely. With a concerning high debt load, and borrowing costs of 12%, there’s a potential for a restructuring down the line. (Both Arch and Peabody Energy Corporation (NYSE:BTU) have recently emerged from bankruptcy themselves.) Any pressure from a trade war could accelerate that timeline — and provide 100% return to a short.
Stocks to Short: LSI Industries (LYTS)
Admittedly, LSI Industries, Inc. (NASDAQ:LYTS) is an out-of-the-box short here. The case for shorting LYTS perhaps isn’t quite as strong, and comes down more to a potential trade ahead of the company’s first quarter report later this month.
But LSI, who manufactures lighting and signage for retail companies (among them gas stations), does have exposure to trade fears in a number of ways. The first is in terms of input cost inflation. Per the company’s 10-K, raw materials account for 60% of the company’s cost of sales. And the cost of those raw materials already is rising — climbing 5-6% in fiscal 2017, with inflation continuing into calendar 2018.
So far, LSI has been able to offset those hikes with internal improvements. Indeed, LYTS stock soared after a strong fiscal Q2 report in January. But the pressure may be rising. And with China a major manufacturer of LED lighting, tariffs could disrupt that supply chain for LSI as well.
At the same time, the overall lighting market remains weak. And retrofitting spend may come down further if LSI customers see reason to be nervous about the broader economy. With LYTS trading at a mid-teen EBITDA multiple, the combination of slowing (or negative) revenue growth and higher costs could lead to an ugly fiscal Q3. And it could send LYTS down big, particularly if that EBITDA margin drops toward 10-12x.
Stocks to Short: Callaway Golf (ELY)
Callaway Golf Co (NYSE:ELY) is another short based on the thesis that raw material costs will rise. Callaway obviously has substantial sensitivity to metal prices — steel in particular — which could affect margins.
And that would be a problem for Callaway, because its sales growth simply isn’t that torrid. The company expects just 2-3% revenue growth in 2018, outside of help from a recent acquisition. Callaway has done a phenomenal job of late taking market share, including in golf balls, but flat end markets suggest any pricing pressure could be an issue long-term.
Meanwhile, ELY stock is hardly cheap, trading at roughly 25x the midpoint of 2018 EPS guidance. Add to that potential pressure in the Chinese market itself – Asia ex-Japan drove 6% of 2017 sales – and there’s a case to make a quick buck on the short side from ELY. Moderate EPS growth projections just a bit and cut the EPS multiple down to a still-hefty 20-22x and Callaway stock drops as much as 20%.
Stocks to Short: PolyOne (POL)
Keeping with the input cost theme, PolyOne Corporation (NYSE:POL) may be an under-the-radar victim of tariffs. The specialty chemical manufacturer already is struggling with pricing pressure, leading to weakness coming out of its Q4 earnings report in January. China’s initial tariff list included 44 chemicals, which raised alarms in the petrochemical industry served by PolyOne.
So far, PolyOne has been able to offset the pricing pressure, with 2017 the company’s eighth straight year of adjusted EPS growth. But a multi-year economic recovery has helped, and consensus expectations of 15% EPS growth this year look too high.
Here, too, there’s a case for a combination effect of both lower margins and lower sales. And while POL isn’t particularly expensive at 15x forward EPS, the cyclical nature of the space generally leads to low multiples. It’s not hard to see POL stumbling at some point this year, which at least could send the stock back toward the mid-30s range at which it traded last year — roughly 20% downside from current levels.
Stocks to Short: Campbell’s Soup (CPB)
As I’ve written several times in the past, I don’t particularly like the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space. Within that space, Campbell Soup Company (NYSE:CPB) looks like one of the weakest offerings – and an attractive short on its own.
Indeed, 12% of CPB’s float already is sold short. And with the stock down by one-third from 2016 levels, the shorts have been right so far. I don’t think that trade is over yet, either.
Campbell’s is the most indebted among major food companies. Investors were unimpressed with the company’s expensive acquisition of Snyder’s-Lance, and soup sales are falling. CPB may look cheap on an EPS basis, but including the debt its EV/EBITDA multiple still is in line with faster-growing companies. And that debt could pressure the stock if Campbell’s can’t execute a turnaround over the next couple of quarters.
On top of all of that, Campbell’s aluminum prices are going to rise – as the company itself has said. And with little room for the company to raise prices in a brutal grocery space, that could further pressure margins.
More broadly, Campbell Soup hardly seems a good business at the moment. It’s a low-growth giant at a time when smaller, nimbler companies are winning in food. All told, CPB still looks like a short. And to hedge that short, investors can go long J M Smucker Co (NYSE:SJM), which has a few of the same category risks and much, much better rewards.
Stocks to Short: Tiffany (TIF)
Tiffany & Co. (NYSE:TIF) could have a very real problem if a trade war escalates. Growth already is pretty tepid, with the company’s Q4 sales and full-year outlook both disappointing investors last month. TIF stock still looks reasonably expensive, at 22.5x the midpoint of that EPS guidance. As both Luke Lango and Will Healy argued on this site, Tiffany already looked like an avoid at best.
The company is struggling with its engagement ring business. Millennials aren’t interested. But the company’s one clear growth engine was…China. China represented roughly 60% of the company’s Asia-Pacific sales in 2017, according to the 10-K. That’s about 16% of the company’s total sales. And the Asia-Pacific region was the one bright spot in terms of 2017 sales, with 8% constant-currency growth, most of which came from China.
Take that growth driver away – whether through tariffs, regulation, or anti-American sentiment from Chinese customers – and Tiffany starts to look a low-growth dinosaur. And that’s not a profile that is going to garner a 20x+ EPS multiple. TIF stock has bounced largely on turnaround hopes and the growth opportunity in Asia. If one of those two pillars of the bull case crumbles, Tiffany stock is going to do the same.
Stocks to Short: La-Z-Boy (LZB)
The entire consumer furniture space, including La-Z-Boy Incorporated (NYSE:LZB) has been choppy at best for years now. And that’s a pretty significant concern. Given a strong U.S. economy and a solid (if not roaring) housing market, profit growth should be much more impressive than it has been, particularly the past few years.
That’s particularly true for LZB, whose 4-4-5 strategy has involved buying licensed stores and building out new locations. Yet increased marketing costs and higher raw material prices have pressured margins, and LZB shares really haven’t moved for about four years now.
The short case for LZB is that potential trade pressure will be just enough to tip earnings negative – and push the stock down into the mid-20s, at least. La-Z-Boy imports from Chinese suppliers; it could face cost inflation there. Steel prices could hurt. So could polyurethane (used for foam) if chemical tariffs are expanded.
Meanwhile, La-Z-Boy will struggle to take pricing. Wayfair Inc (NYSE:W) is competing on price (and losing money in the process). Smaller rivals Bassett Furniture Industries Inc. (NASDAQ:BSET) and Hooker Furniture Corporation (NASDAQ:HOFT) both have cited success in the motion upholstery category – the most important for La-Z-Boy.
With no debt on the balance sheet, LZB isn’t likely to plunge. But investors looking for a quick double-digit return on trade fears, or a weak fiscal Q4 report in June, should consider shorting or selling calls in LZB.
As of this writing, Vince Martin is long shares of Hooker Furniture Corporation, and has no positions in any other securities mentioned.