This article is a reprint of my March 4, 2008 RealMoney column
When I started looking at NBTY (NTY) when it showed up on one of my screens recently, I realized a good chunk of my typical Whole Foods (WFMI - Annual Report) bill was going to their products. NBTY makes vitamins, sport supplements and other products under the brand names Nature’s Bounty, Vitamin World, Puritan’s Pride, Holland & Barrett, Rexall, Osteo-Bi-Flex, Flex-a-min, Knox, Sundown, MET-Rx, WORLDWIDE Sport Nutrition, American Health, DeTuinen, Le Naturiste, SISU, Solgar, and Ester-C.
The health food shops where I pick up my supplements (which are served through NBTY’s wholesale segment) account for nearly half the company’s total sales. The North American Retail segment (457 Vitamin World and 80 Le Naturiste shops) provided 11% of 2007 sales, European Retail (626 stores under a variety of brand names) was 31% of company revenues and the Direct Response/e-commerce segment provided 10%.
These are clearly consumer products, clearly discretionary, and clearly at risk to a consumer slowdown. Given a price of just over ten times earnings and a 10% free cash flow yield, it is also clear investors are aware of this. However, there could still be some downside given that in 2000 valuations troughed at 8.8 times earnings and 0.6 times sales.
For NBTY, the slowdown hit hard in the December 2007 quarter with flat sales and falling margins. That said, the company appears well prepared to weather a slowdown, having cut its debt load from $500 million to $210 million over the last two years. Moody’s recently upgraded its outlook to positive, which is nice for a company with high yield debt in a time of extreme credit market jitters.
The wholesale division has been the company’s strong point, with improving gross margins over the last year. The other half of the business has been poor, requiring store closings in North America. Although European retail performed relatively well in 2007, it was primarily due to currency related issues. In the first quarter, European retail sales declined 4% in local currency.
NBTY is trying to right the retail ship through its store closings and other cost saving moves. The company ended 2007 with 35 fewer stores than it started with. 71 leases are due for renewal in 2008, and the company expects to close 23 more in 2008. NBTY also plans 10 to 12 new store openings this year. In the first quarter, five stores were closed and two opened. These efforts will only be made more difficult if a recession materializes.
I have a few concerns over earnings quality. For example, in each of the last two years the company has reserved less than the actual amount charged for sales returns, bad debt and promotional incentives (an under-reserving trifecta.) However, overall earnings quality measured using the accrual ratio appears strong.
Source: Zacks Research Wizard, compiled by William A. Trent
I’m also nervous about a stock that has had such a big run over the last few weeks. But then again, I had the same concerns about Tupperware (TUP) and it has continued to outperform after rebounding from the same January low. (As a side note, American Oriental Bioengineering (AOB) could represent a catch-up play here.)
The options aren’t generating a particularly good premium right now, so there doesn’t seem much point to a put-write strategy. On the other hand, buying the March $25 puts for $0.15 (as I am writing this) seems like fairly cheap insurance on a long position, given my concerns about the recent run-up.
All in all, though NTY looks fairly cheap so do most retailers and consumer companies. Unless we can get through another quarter without a significant earnings miss or downward revision it just seems too early to call a bottom here.
Disclosures: William Trent has no positions in the stocks mentioned.
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