Thursday, February 25, 2010

No Slave to Fashion

I tend to be a skeptic by nature. So at a time when the economy is weak, employment numbers are terrible, consumer credit is contracting, and foreclosures are rising, I am particularly skeptical of high flying stocks whose fortunes depend on spendthrift consumers.

True Religion Apparel (TRLG) comes to mind. This is a company that sells incredibly pricey jeans to both men and women. Because I can't bring myself to pay more than $25 or $30 for a pair of Levi's, I am particularly perplexed as to why anyone in their right mind would pay $250 for one pair of jeans. My daughters say this proves I am out of touch. I prefer to think instead that it proves there are a lot of consumers out there who are not in their right minds.

It's true that I am not a slave to fashion, but I do have some appreciation for the stuff. After all, my wife subscribes to Vogue, and her brother Serge Gandzumian is a professional designer who has achieved some success and fame with his Lithuanian company SwanPh. Thanks to capitalism, those who really care about fashion have lots of choices; unlike in this parody of Soviet fashion made famous by an old Wendy's television commercial.

Don't get me wrong. I actually liked TRLG back when it was selling for $11 per share. I even recommended the stock in March 2009 to subscribers of my newsletter, the Forbes Growth Investor. However, now I have to wonder if it still makes sense to own the stock.

My concern has nothing to do with fundamentals. TRLG is selling for about two times sales and 12 times the low end of expected 2010 earnings. Furthermore, the company has lots of cash on hand and no long-term debt. Its latest financial release was actually quite good. Revenues and profits are still growing nicely. Although sales are falling in the company's U.S. Wholesale segment, they are surging in the more profitable Consumer Direct segment. This segment includes the growing number of company-owned stores where TRLG commands the highest prices for its products. Yet at the same time, the overall operating profit margin is slowly declining. It will probably go lower in the near term as the company ramps up advertising expense.

The stock jumped higher immediately after the earnings announcement. Although I remain bewildered, I have to ask. Does anyone know where I can buy some True Religion jeans for my daughters at a big discount?