Shares of Express (NYSE:EXPR) dropped on Wednesday, March13, after the mall apparel retailer reported fourth quarter numbers which largely missed estimates, while delivering a first quarter guide which widely missed estimates. Broadly speaking, there wasn’t much good in the fourth quarter earnings report. Investors immediately recognized that. Express stock dropped more than 15% in early Wednesday morning trade.
But, Express stock has since rebounded. As of this writing, EXPR is down just 6% in Wednesday afternoon trade, and has rallied 10% since the open.
The ostensible implication is that the post-earnings sell-off in Express was overdone. The stock got way too cheap for its own good, and quickly rebounded. But, will this rebound continue?
I’m not convinced. I love to buy the dips in fundamentally undervalued and technically oversold stocks. But, there is a significant and increasing lack of clarity when it comes to the long term Express growth narrative, and that lack of clarity is coupling with continued weak numbers to erode the long term bull thesis on Express stock.
As such, it’s tough to say with any certainty that Express stock is fundamentally undervalued here.
So long as that remains true, Express stock will have a tough time rebounding. That’s not to say it won’t rebound. It might. All you need is one good quarter to light a fire under this stock. But, waiting for that one good quarter is a big risk, and as a risk-adverse investor, I’m more comfortable sitting on the sidelines with this name.
The Numbers Aren’t Good
Broadly speaking, the numbers at Express just aren’t good.
Comparable sales growth is negative. Comps came in at down 6% in the quarter, versus the consensus estimate for a 3.3% drop. Worse yet, it’s not like this negative comp is the result of a bad retail environment.
Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN) reported a 3% comp in the overlapping period. American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO) recorded a 6% comp. Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) had a 3% comp quarter, while Tilly’s (NYSE:TLYS) said holiday comps rose nearly 6%.
In other words, negative comps at Express is an Express-specific problem. That’s not good. It gives credence to the theory that, as the traditional retail world is shrinking and giving way to the ecommerce world, consumers are increasingly passing up on shopping at Express. Long term, if this continues, that creates a pathway for Express to the retail graveyard.
In other bad news, ecommerce sales growth slowed sharply to 5% in the fourth quarter, down from what was a streak for 20%-plus and 30%-plus digital sales growth quarters. Merchandise margins fell back 150 basis points due to promotional activity. The SG&A rate keeps going up against falling sales.
Occupancy costs are rising, too. Cash on the balance sheet in falling. Meanwhile, the first quarter guide calls for a 10% drop in comparable sales and for profits to swing from a narrow gain in the year ago quarter, to a wide loss this quarter.
Overall, there wasn’t much, if any, good in the Q4 earnings report. That’s not to say that a turnaround isn’t in the cards. But, it is to say that a turnaround looks increasingly unlikely, especially considering most other mall retailers are bouncing back, and Express is not.
Long Term Value Is Elusive
Because the numbers have been bad for so long and continue to be bad in an environment that is largely favorable for retailers (healthy economy, healthy consumer confidence, low unemployment, big wage gains, so on and so forth), the long term value behind EXPR stock is elusive.
On one hand, this is a company which could miraculously leverage celebrity endorsements, real estate optimization, and reinvigorated ecommerce growth to drive a big turnaround in sales and margins. In that scenario, Express could realistically net $0.50 in EPS within the next several years, making today’s $5 price tag seem rather anemic, especially considering about half the current market cap is covered by cash on the balance sheet.
On the other hand, sales may not turnaround anytime soon. Margins may keep falling, and expense rates may keep rising. If so, EPS will likely be stuck in the $0.25 range for the foreseeable future, making today’s $5 price tag actually seem steep, especially considering that the big cash balance is only going down (cash and equivalents have been chopped in half over the past several years).
At this point in time, it’s unclear which one of those scenarios will come true. If anything, the bear thesis has more merit than the bull thesis given the Q4 numbers. As such, Express stock isn’t worth the risk here.
Bottom Line on Express Stock
With really beaten up retail stocks like Express, all you need is one good quarter to light a fire under the stock and spark a huge rally. But, investors have been waiting for that quarter from Express for a long time. Most signs indicate this wait won’t be over anytime soon. That’s why I’m more comfortable on the sidelines when it comes to EXPR.
As of this writing, Luke Lango was long URBN and TLYS.