AutoZone Stock Needs Preventative Maintenance, Not More Stock Buybacks

AutoZone (NYSE:AZO) just approved $1 billion more for buybacks of AutoZone stock. Over time, the auto- parts retailer has delivered positive returns for the owners of AZO stock through this strategy.

However,these buybacks have strained the company’s balance sheet. Moreover, the attitudes of the young towards auto repairs, as well as changing technology, have created concerns about AZO stock and its peers. Given AutoZone’s risks and potential headwinds, I would advise against buying AZO.

At first glance, AutoZone stock looks like a solid pick. In good times and in bad, people need working cars. When a part needs to be replaced, customers willingly spend money to keep their vehicles on the road.

Moreover, with a forward price-earnings (PE) ratio of 15.5, AZO stock is hardly expensive. O’Reilly Automotive (NASDAQ:ORLY), Advance Auto Parts (NYSE:AAP), and Genuine Parts Company (NYSE:GPC) all trade at higher multiples.

AutoZone Stock Faces New Threats

However, when one looks under the hood of AZO, things look less pretty. As my InvestorPlace colleague Josh Enomoto points out, the young tend to outsource more of their repair work. Also, at a time in which cars have become computers on wheels, more of the work requires trained technicians with advanced degrees.

Also, with the industry trending toward electric cars with fewer parts, consumers could have less need for auto-parts dealers in general. Potential competition from the likes of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) also remains a threat.

In fairness, all of these negatives will also affect AZO’s direct peers. Moreover, if changing trends threaten their future, those headwinds have not appeared in their profit forecasts. Of the four major parts dealers, analysts expect every one except Genuine Parts to post average-annual-profit growth of at least 12.5% per year over the next five years.

However, of the four primary auto-parts retailers, AZO has the weakest balance sheet. For one, its current liabilities exceed its current assets. In layman’s terms, this means the company cannot easily meet its current obligations. This situation has persisted for years, and AZO keeps itself in business by allowing its accounts payable to keep growing. Of AZO’s major peers,  O’Reilly is the only other one to have followed this strategy.

Buybacks Could Endanger AutoZone Stock

In this sector, only AZO maintains negative stockholders’ equity. Put simply, this means AZO owes more than its net worth. This occurred because of its aggressive stock buyback strategy. Now, with the board of directors approving another $1 billion worth of buybacks of AutoZone stock on Mar. 20, those who own AZO should become even more concerned.

This figure nearly matches the almost $1.34 billion the company earned in net income in the previous fiscal year. Since beginning its stock -repurchase program in 1998, the company has authorized $21.9 billion in share buybacks. As a result, it has spent an amount on buybacks of AutoZone stock that nearly matches the company’s $24.9 billion market cap.

AZO’s peers also conduct share buybacks. However, they have not undermined stockholders’ equity in the process. For this reason, if revenue growth turned negative within the auto parts industry, AZO would probably be hurt more than its peers. The negative equity could force the company to dump massive amounts of AZO stock in an environment of falling prices, merely to shore up its balance sheet.

To avoid this potential issue, investors can pay Advance Auto’s 17.7 forward multiple and profit from its higher growth. They could buy also GCP stock, which has a forward multiple of 17.4, and benefit from its 2.8% dividend yield and its 62 straight years of payout hikes. In either case, investors would be substantially safer than with AutoZone stock and only pay a slightly higher multiple.

The Bottom Line on AutoZone Stock

AZO’s balance sheet makes AutoZone stock a high-risk play despite its modest valuation. Given the recession-proof nature of the company’s products and the past growth of AutoZone stock, one might consider AZO a buy.

However, fewer customers are repairing their own cars and the competition it faces could squeeze its profit margins further. Moreover, the company has taken buybacks of AutoZone stock to such an extreme that stockholders’ equity has turned negative.

With that negative equity, the auto-parts retailer faces the danger of having to dump AutoZone stock if it needs cash to stabilize its balance sheet. So until AZO stabilizes itself, investors should stay away from AutoZone stock.

As of this writing, Will Healy did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned stocks. You can follow Will on Twitter at @HealyWriting.

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