Thursday, May 19, 2011

Families Are Under Increasing Pressures

The commercial correctly says that "depression hurts". Beyond that human tragedy is the economic toll. Galloping food costs, spiraling gasoline prices, and increasingly expensive imported products sold at Wal-Mart are pummeling the world psyche. Whether it's the Chinese, American, Greek, or Arab worker, they are all feeling the pressure of rising prices.

Several years ago, when prices were rising but at a slower pace, consumers had a few coping mechanisms. Rising home values, home equity lines of credit, and credit cards were available to minimize the pain. European and American middle class members enjoyed a life style that they couldn't afford. Those cashflow avenues have painfully shut for millions while daily living costs have accelerated annually. The world's citizens are becoming increasingly depressed.

How do you financially cope if you do not have access to credit? First, you nix any thoughts of discretionary purchases and make do with what you already own. Second, you travel less or differently and you trade down on daily product purchases. House brands will gather steam and brand names will see margins erode to compete. Third, debt payments will be stretched, defaulted, compromised, or eventually discharged in bankruptcy. Lastly, throughout the ordeal, consumers will agitate for pay increases and look for other, higher paying, employment. Even with high unemployment, employee churn will result in some wage pressure.

The foregoing scenario is damaging to individuals, governments, companies, and the world economy. Unless consumers find more cash, problems lay ahead. Corporations, so far, aren't handing out large increases in pay as the emphasis is still on cost control and the labor pool is far from tight. The US has determined that a .7% increase in Social Security is appropriate for its senior citizens; not a lot of extra cash to help offset rising prices. We all know the problems that the European countries face attempting to bail out their member states and keeping their banks solvent, thereby leaving little to improve lifestyles. The Chinese have been raising wages, but far less than the inflation they are experiencing.

Where am I going with this rant? It's time to be very careful, but an investor will probably still be wrong. Some galloping commodities, like silver, after parabolic rises will revert to the mean. Lighten up on those parabolic performers. If inflation isn't here yet, per the Fed, it sure is developing fast. Faster than economies are recovering. Get real confident about a company's ability to sustain margins and volumes or jettison the position. Buy some protection: inverse ETFs or puts or institute some short positions.

I sold Brunswick, boats/motors/bowling, short a couple of weeks ago and am toying with doing the same to Diamond Foods. DMND has been growing by acquisition and just announced a deal for Pringles. I suspicion that P & G got the best of the deal as DMND is assuming $850MM of debt and giving P & G shareholders 57% of the resulting company. Commodity input costs are going to impact margins, the debt load will be a lot larger, the company more complex to manage, and there will be lots of selling shareholders once the stock is distributed. Diamond will also likely reduce debt by selling some additional shares. I haven't pulled the trigger yet, but I'm pretty sure i will shortly. The stock has been a darling, but it is now selling for a very extended valuation and that's before the Pringles component is added and P & G wouldn't be disposing of the division if it was a barn burner with a stellar future.

Brunswick is counting on consumers to return to the boating market and Diamond is hoping that consumers keep buying snack foods at their current pace and practice. I don't think either will happen. Someone once said " A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking" and I'm tired. The end.

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