With a critical earnings report for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015 coming up shortly, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is in no mood to celebrate. Historical earnings performances have been muted since FY2014, and given the current lackluster economy, Wall Street has turned its back on the equity market apologists and are keeping their expectations in check for the imminent Q4 results.
Consensus estimate for WFM stock’s earnings per share is $0.35, or what the actual EPS was from a year-ago period. What this suggests is that investors broadly have low standards for Whole Foods’ weakest season and that they don’t foresee much growth during this time — otherwise, the EPS target would surely be higher.
And who could blame them? Year-to-date, WFM stock is down nearly 41%, a fairly shocking fall from grace considering since the onset of the Great Recession. Even more concerning from a technical perspective is that most of the losses occurred from singular events, either from poor earnings performances or from investors reading between the lines. That demonstrates extreme volatility for the company as well as the fact that little bullish support exists compared to the number of bears that are encircling the stock.
But on paper, the negative sentiment for Whole Foods appears incongruent with its overall financial health. Strength of balance sheet is accentuated by WFM’s cash-rich status. In addition, total assets exceed total liabilities by more than 200%, and net tangible assets has increased steadily over the past four quarters. From an income perspective, WFM maintains a positive track record in top-line sales and earnings, while profitability margins show no sign of serious decline.
However, one glaring note is the differential between revenue and net income. For FY2011 and FY2012, WFM’s annual average sales growth rate was nearly 38%. In the next two years, that magnitude dropped precipitously, falling to nearly 12%. The deceleration between the two growth rates is -68%.
Contrast this with WFM’s net income growth. Between FY2010 and FY2012, annual earnings growth moved along at just a hair under 14%. In the next two years, the growth rate fell, but within a range of acceptability to 10%. The reduction in magnitude is -29% — steep, yes, but nowhere near -68%.
Logically, we can conclude that Whole Food’s market has hit a plateau. With annual revenue trends shedding more than two-thirds of valuation, most of the recently attracted customers have gone on to cheaper alternatives. The only realistic hope, then, is for Whole Foods to maintain profitability against its core customers.
But Wall Street is not about maintenance — it wants growth in sales, which in turn drives return on capital. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Whole Foods cannot offer. With the middle class being steadily gutted by a lagging labor market and taxation policies that border on the insane, consumer traffic has simply left the building.
That means the best investors can expect is for WFM earnings to remain largely static. Currently, the trailing EPS is $1.67, giving the company a P/E ratio of a tick under 18. However, if the trailing EPS falls to $1.50 or lower, the P/E ratio could swing to 20 or higher, making it a riskier proposition at current market value.
Because the upcoming earnings report could dramatically shift the fundamental picture for Whole Foods, those who initiate positions early are taking a major gamble that may be too rich for some people’s blood.