A Stock to Go with Those Jeans

10 Jul

A stock that has recently come onto my radar screen is that of American Eagle Outfitters (AEO). I must admit that I do not shop at their stores, but I do walk by them during my infrequent sojourns to the local mall. I find the stores to be clean, well put together, and the fashions to be relevant (as judged by the fact that the teens walking around the mall are wearing what I see in their store). I also know a few teens in the core AEO demographic who provide me with knowledge on what fashion trends are out there (I bought the stock for one of them). The company’s core target is 15-25 years olds, and its new concept store, Martin+OSA, targets 25-40 year olds.

Obviously the most important thing for a teen retailer is to have the knowledge of not just current fashions but what will be fashionable in the near future. Keeping “on-trend” is crucial. AEO management has consistently done this for the past ten years or so, by using focus groups and extensive market research to remain relevant. And its clothes are lower-priced than Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF), one of its main competitors, which bodes well for less heady times for retailers.

AEO shares are just 2% off a 52-week low, and are probably sitting there because of concerns about revised (downward) quarterly guidance. But it is the longer-term that I am concerned with, and there is much to like here. For one, I like the recently announced 23 million share buyback, representing 10%+ of outstanding shares. Its Chairman (and founder) owns about 14% of outstanding shares, so his interests are aligned with minority shareholders. The stock trades with roughly 15% of its market cap in cash and a free cash flow yield of nearly 10% based on its 2006 results. Even with growth slowing (which it inevitably will), the company can throw off lots of cash.

At first glance, it looks like the company has no long-term debt on the balance sheet, but it holds about $975 million (present value) worth of operating leases off-balance sheet. That makes its true debt-to-total capital ratio about 40%. So you’re really getting a 12% return on total capital (20%+ return on equity) at a P/E of 13.5. If the company can continue to grow at 5-10% over the next few years, this works out to a fairly cheap price, even if the growth is lumpy. And if its new Martin+OSA stores take off, the shares could look very cheap in retrospect 5 years from now. At current prices, the market seems to be offering a good price for the core business and what more or less amounts to a call option on the Martin+OSA brand for free. And if Abercrombie continues to fall (down over 4% today), its shares could start to look attractive.

Full disclosure: As mentioned, long AEO.

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