Under Armour – Closing the Short, Taking a Victory Lap

Sometimes you nail it. I think it’s important to be objective and analytical regarding wins as well as losses – you have to see what you did right and attempt to replicate this in the future.

I started getting bearish in May of 2016 and looking for shorts. Unfortunately, we have been in a downright bull market ever since, and the economy is roaring. Luckily, I decided to focus on individual stocks to short, which worked out much better than if I had just gone short the whole S&P.

My original rationale

In June I got short Under Armour. At the time I wrote:

Under Armour is running into issues with its distribution channels, and I think its trying to cover it up. They announced a new inventory management system – I think the channels are stuffed and they can’t move the inventory. Inventories and Accounts Receivable are both rising faster than revenues – a huge red flag. Sports Authority went BK, a sign of the troubles at its distributors. It’s biggest customer is Dick’s Sporting Goods, which hasn’t run into trouble yet, but Dick’s is also launching its own athletic wear line to compete with UA. Oh yeah, and the Steph Curry’s are probably the worst reviewed shoe of all time, plus the Warriors lost.

My main motivation centered on inventory management. I felt like something fishy was going on when the company announced a new inventory management system at the same time GAAP financial statements were throwing out tons of red flags. Moreover, I could easily see an alternative rational for rising inventories – awful sales at the major retailers. 2016 saw some of the worst same store figures in years for all the major department stores. These department stores were huge holders of Under Armour inventory. I reasoned the trouble down the channel ought to affect Under Armour eventually.

I also cited the high valuation – 70X trailing earnings at the time – as a huge motivation for the short. I knew that a PE of 70 was generally expensive compared to a PE for Lululemon of 37, and a PE for Nike in the mid-20’s. I felt that Under Armour’s growth was going to decelerate to the rate of growth for the general athleisure industry. This is a problem of a) growing too large, b) increasing competition, and c) fewer channels of distribution to expand to. If Under Armour’s growth was slowing to the rate of the industry, then it deserved the same PE as the rest of the industry. I knew the high valuation gave the short room to run on the downside if things started to work out.

It’s tough shorting a market darling in a bull market

It wasn’t easy to hold the short. Here’s what I wrote in September:

UA is starting to stress me out. The latest quarterly earnings really bore out core points of my short thesis – the accounts receivable continue to rise, and inventories continue to climb, with management making a mountain of excuses. But I was troubled by one comment they made on the call. Management compared the number of distribution outlets UA has to the number that Nike has, with the argument they still had substantial room to expand distribution.
A big chunk of my thesis was that UA had benefitted for years from growth in distribution channels. But I figured that it was running out of new channels to grow into, and would start to suffer lower growth. I also postulated that the recent Sports Authority’s bankruptcy and weak same-store sales from the department stores were contributing to the bigger charge-offs and inventory build-up, and I thought that management was trying to obfuscate this by announcing they were changing their inventory management system.
The problem with this thesis is that if UA can still expand distribution – like they just announced with Kohl’s – there may be a while left before the negative fundamentals start to catch up.

I also was stressing out because my rationale on valuation wasn’t working out. Instead of the valuation of Under Armour going lower, Lululemon and Nike went up. I was also stressed because I saw David Einhorn covered his short in UA and thought most of the downside was already in. In retrospect, one of the cardinal traits of good investors is the ability to be able to bet against investors you respect when your thesis remains intact. This will be a lesson going forward to focus on doing my own work, and not rely too heavily on off-hand comments in a hedge fund’s latest quarterly letter.

But there were signs things might work out after all

There were a few things that strengthened my short thesis in the fall of 2016. Competitive pressures started to intensify. With Lululemon doing so well, it was bound to take athleisure market share. I saw more and more athleisure coming out from generic lines and smaller market share brands, like Gap’s Athletica.

The other piece that added to the short for me was the investment in connected fitness. I think in the long run, these investments may be a great way of differentiating Under Armour, and may establish the brand as a stand out from its competitors. But it may take years for these investments to pay off, and in the short run, it sucks out capital and pushes profit margins lower.

Pushback often helps clarify your thesis

My articles on betterstockideas.com get cross-published to Seeking Alpha. On SA I got some pushback on the international growth at UA. But here was my argument on why the fast international growth at UA didn’t matter… yet:

“Thanks for the insight. I may be getting myopic based on my focus on my home market, and I may be rationalizing here, but here’s my argument on that point.
International makes up 15% of UA’s revenue as of the Q2 2016. When UA was growing in a nascent market in North America, it grew revenues at about 30% a year, and I’d assume it will expand in International markets at approximately the same rate.
N.A., in the meantime, will probably grow at a maximum of 10% (and more likely in the mid single digits) because of the constraints of 1) lack of new distributors to expand to, and 2) an increase in the number of competing products.
That means overall growth will be stuck at approximately 13% for the next two years, as opposed to the 25% that management has been projecting. If the market is believing management, then the growth will be half of what’s expected currently, and the P/E ought to contract correspondingly. Moreover, the hits to gross profit from possible accounts receivable write-downs and inventory liquidations mean that the damage on the bottom line ought to be magnified.
I’m not saying UA won’t succeed in its goal of grabbing market share globally, and in the long run it may be a great investment. I just think that any meaningful impact to operating profits from the international and connected fitness business lines are at least 3 years out. In the meantime, I think it will take a hit to earnings, and it’s already at a high P/E. Some of the macroeconomic variables look negative and I think it’s a good time to hold some shorts. UA seems to fit the bill.”

And,

[30% international growth] may be an underestimate. You could also argue that management has learned lessons from the U.S. rollout that allow it to expand faster internationally.
I hadn’t yet looked at trailing International growth, which was 69% for 2015. I don’t think 100% is reasonable, but it could be something like 60% for 2016-17 and 50% for 2018.
That gives overall revenue growth of about 18-19% for the next two years. If UA gets back to its historic high of 11% operating margin, at current interest and tax rates, we get $1.10 in EPS.
Is UA really worth 35X 2018 earnings? I don’t think so. I don’t actually think margins can get back to 11% and there is a substantial risk of operational missteps that give a lot of downside potential and limited upside.

The above was my rationale on valuation. I built out my own messy excel model, and came to maximum reasonable EPS of 87 cents, based on more reasonable international growth figures (50% slowing to 40%), North America growth around 10%, and operating margins coming down figures closer to the more recent 8-9%. At 30X earnings, I figured a price target of $26 was a good target for the short.

A first victory

Under Armour dropped big in early November 2016. The inventory issue I had focused on started to become difficult to ignore, as inventory started piling up faster and faster. Connected fitness continued to pressure operating margins. Management dropped the forecast for operating margins. I put together some of my thoughts at the time:

“My downside target based on a 30 PE of 2018 earnings gave me a stock price of $25-26. The upside was $50-51 based on a 40 PE of 2018 earnings if margins ever come back to historic highs. Is the short still worth it?

One thing I’m working on is holding my winners. I’ve noticed a consistent pattern of getting out of my positions months before the trend ends. I think there is a realistic possibility that Under Armour overshoots to the downside. After all, the company still has write-offs of inventory and accounts receivable that will pressure margins for the foreseeable future.

I recently went to an Academy near my apartment, and half of the (nearly empty) floor was covered in Under Armour merchandise. The channels are full. The company says it can expand the number of channels, but I have doubts regarding the potential sales of these channels. Kohl’s (NYSE:KSS) isn’t going to sell as much Under Armour as Macy’s (NYSE:M).

UA is constrained until international and DTC grow big enough to overcome the relatively weaker North America sales.”

I closed part of my short immediately after the fall, and I regretted it. However, I might do the same thing again in a similar situation. Right after a big fall it may be prudent to take some off the table. The problem is, the more times you “take some off the table”, you are left with nothing on the table when the big win comes. Luckily, I had already noticed my tendency to close my positions too early. I was re-reading one of the Market Wizards books at the time and I noticed one of the consistent themes was getting comfortable holding winners and cutting losers. The ability to hold winners as long as your thesis stands is another trait of great investors, and will be another take-away from this experience.

Sleuthing pays off

I did a bit of sleuthing in October, visiting sporting goods stores. I was inspired by a book called the Sleuth Investor, recommended by a friend, Nick Bodnar. I was really surprised by a visit to Academy, where half the floor was Under Armour. There were entire walls of $30 Under Armour baseball caps. Who the heck buys this stuff? Moreover, who buys this stuff from Academy? The visit made a huge impression on me.

Watching Under Armour investments – the new headquarters

I also found a new reason to short Under Armour in the fall of 2016. I started developing a new theory on shorting. A stock’s earnings multiple ought to be related to the amount of capital it can easily reinvest into its business and the kind of return it can get on that reinvested capital. A choice Warren Buffett quote:”The best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return.

If a company is worth more if it is employing a lot of capital at high rates of return, the reverse should also be true: a company is worth less if it employs a lot of capital at a low rate of return. Moreover, if a company changes from a high rate of return on capital to a lower one, the multiple ought to change as well.

Under Armour has been reinvesting a lot of its capital. In the early years, it was reinvesting capital directly into making more t-shirts, shoes, socks, and other high margin products. These investments had a very high return on capital. In 2016, the reinvestment rate started to go up dramatically. What were these investments for? They were massive investments into Under Armour’s new headquarters in Baltimore.

Now, my brother lives in Baltimore, and Kevin Plank is a demi-god in that town. I’ve heard a lot of hoopla about the things Kevin Plank is doing in Port Covington. I have a ton of respect for the man. His plans for the development and rebuilding of old parts of Baltimore are wonderful, and the fact that he’s using tons of his own money in the project makes me pretty hopeful that Baltimore may be revitalized from the huge investment.

But I heard a story that made me wince. From the Washington Post:

Under Amour was taking in well over $1 billion in annual revenue when Plank went to the board of directors in 2012 and said that, in addition to building a new headquarters to accommodate the company’s growth, he wanted to buy and develop a much larger section of Baltimore.

The answer was: Under Armour isn’t a real estate developer, stick to shirts and shoes.

The fact that Plank would go to the board to develop real estate, for what is essentially a charitable endeavor, makes me question a lot of things. I think he may be conflating his personal desires with the business at this point. I think he has been taking his eye off the ball if he is not sticking to “shirts and shoes”. It is clear that he has been spending a ton of time on the Port Covington developments, lobbying politicians and selling it to investors. How much time has he devoted to the future direction of Under Armour in America? Has he noticed the accounting changes over the past several quarters?

Moreover, what is he really hoping to gain from the new HQ? Is it really being built to maximize profits for Under Armour? Or to maximize employment in Baltimore?

In any case, an investment in a new building for the company’s headquarters is likely going to have a lower rate of return than investing in a new factory to make clothes, Under Armour’s primary business.

The latest developments

The departure of the CFO Chip Mallow confirms my suspicions that there was something funky going on with the inventory management system that the company was touting in mid-2016.

Inventory write downs tanked gross margins this quarter, dropping to 44.8% from 48% a year earlier. Kevin Plank had this official statement: “We are incredibly proud that in 2016, we once again posted record revenue and earnings, however, numerous challenges and disruptions in North American retail tempered our fourth quarter results”.

The disruptions in North American retail did not start in the 4th quarter. On the contrary, the 4th quarter has been much stronger down the channel. What Under Armour is experiencing now is the delayed effect of the pseudo-recession that occurred in Q1 2016.

Revenue growth slowed down – approximately 12% growth, close to my calculations of about 13%. I think this is a rate that is more sustainable long term. With a good margin and reinvestment at a decent rate, the company could support a 30-40 multiple in this market.

The long run view for Under Armour

I think the bulls and bears for Under Armour both make a lot of good points. While I have obviously been a bear, I think a lot of it comes down to time frame. In the future, International is only going to be a growing slice of the pie. The great thing about a fast growing division is that the division starts to affect the overall revenue growth exponentially as it becomes a bigger and bigger share of revenues. International revenue came in at a strong 55% year on year growth, but they are still only 16% of revenues. In a couple of years, we will hit an inflection point where international is more important to overall growth than North America, and at that point, the overall revenue growth rate should pick up.

If management is willing to take the hit on inventory in one quick and painful write-off, and discounts at the retailers can clear the channel, the company will have a lot of productive growth ahead of it.

The HQ, while perhaps of dubious return to shareholders, will eventually be finished, freeing up the free cash flow to go to more productive uses. Given the timeline of large construction projects, this should probably happen about the same time that overall growth hits an inflection point.

The investments in connected fitness will likely help differentiate Under Armour from the pack of knock-offs and competitors. Smart clothing is an upcoming trend, but we are still at least a few years away from widespread use. The investment in MyFitnessPal has probably helped establish the brand, and increased the mindshare of Under Armour. They now have a platform to easily integrate smart clothing if and when this becomes a viable business line.

In a time when few companies are actually reinvesting, and most are simply focused on buying back shares and cutting costs, a company that is willing to invest in its brand and future products stands out. But valuation has to come to terms with the fact that North American growth is slowing.

The price has surpassed my original target of $25-26 a share, closing at $21.44 per A share today. Like I said in November, I think stocks often overshoot to the downside. There is no telling how far the stock can go to the downside, because even a 30 multiple, close to the overall market multiple, puts the stock price at $13-14 a share.

I am closing because I don’t think the stock is grossly overvalued at this point. I am still not willing to turn around and go long, because I demand a lot of margin of safety on my longs, and I’d need to see a lower valuation to get comfortable with owning Under Armour. But I think long investors can be reasonably hopeful in the longer term. I am certainly no longer a stolid bear on the company. More like an inconstant bull.

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