Short Wayfair: home furniture won’t deliver

Online furniture retailer Wayfair is chronically unprofitable and faces too much competition, says Matthew Partridge.

One of the most volatile stocks over the past 18 months has been the American online retailer Wayfair (NYSE: W). It nearly tripled from $66 in April 2018, reaching a peak of $171 in March. However, since then the stock has tumbled to $105, a drop of around 40% from its spring peak. It's easy to see why the market used to be so enthusiastic about the group. It has been growing so quickly that sales are expected to be over ten times higher this year than in 2013.

Wayfair suffers from poor profitability

However, if you take a closer look, it's even easier to spot why investors have started to get cold feet. For one thing, the company has a poor record when it comes to turning sales into actual profits. Indeed, the tenfold increase in sales has been outweighed by a 15-fold increase in losses per share. Even though analysts expect the losses to shrink slightly over the next few years, they will still be ten times their 2013 level. The company is also in the horrible position of having negative net assets: its debts are $605m greater than its assets.

Wayfair's losses aren't particularly surprising when you consider that its main business is selling home furniture, a difficult market to make money from consistently.

Consumers tend to spend a long time shopping around for the best deal before committing to a purchase and a large percentage of goods tend to be returned. What's more, Wayfair is far from the only company in this rather crowded market. Not only does it face competition from the established "big box" physical retailers such as The Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond, which are still a force in US retail, but it also has to find a way to fend off online competition from Amazon.

In addition to facing strong competition, Wayfair is vulnerable to any economic turbulence in the US in the near future. As you'd expect, there is a strong historical link between home furniture and housing sales, so if the American housing market starts to stumble then demand for home furnishings could fall. Both house sales and prices are still increasing, but the rate of growth has slowed considerably, and surveys suggest that consumers and homebuyers are increasingly worried about what's going to happen over the next year. Nobel laureate Robert Shiller expects prices to start falling.

The upshot is that while Wayfair's shares have fallen a lot, I think that they will continue to decline. I suggest that you short it at the current price of $105, at £33 per $1 (compared with IG Index's minimum price of £9 per $1), covering your position if Wayfair rises above $135. This gives you a total downside of £990.

How my tips have fared

Over the last fortnight six out of my eight long tips have risen. JD Sports has increased from 750p to 769p, Safestore from 671p to 692p and Superdry from 423p to 439p.

Bausch Health Companies has increased from $20.59 to $20.91. Volkswagen has also moved up, from €153 to €163, while International Consolidated Airline Group has climbed too, from 468p to 502p.

Sadly, however, Bellway has dropped from 3,354p to 3,291p and Ted Baker has collapsed from 925p to 494p, triggering the stop-loss at 709p. Overall, my long tips are making a profit of £2,358, down from £2,856.

My short tips have also had mixed results. While there hasn't been a dramatic Ted Baker-style reversal, three out of the five tips have appreciated. Tesla went up from $241 to $257, Netflix also increased from $266 to $286 and Uber advanced from $29.64 to $31.12.

Meanwhile, Weis Markets fell from $38.32 to $36.02, while bitcoin decreased from $8,331 to $8,321. This meant that the total profits that my short tips are making fell from $1,953 two weeks ago to $1,786 now. Still, at least all five of my short tips are still in the black. As well as being forced to close my Ted Baker tip, I recommend closing the open position on Superdry since it is still losing money six months after I recommended it in April (Issue 943).

This means that henceforth the number of long and short tips will be equal at six each. This also means that my remaining tips are making a profit of £5,511, while the losses on my closed tips have gone up to £6,356.

Over the next few months I'm going to make it a rule to close any position that I've held for longer than a year, unless there are really exceptional circumstances.

The stockmarket generally responds better when the cuts have come after a series of hikes. LPL Financial found that after five of seven of these occasions, the market was higher six months later with an average return of 7.5% (equivalent to an annualised return of 15.6%). However, it's important to note that in the two most recent cases, in 2001 and 2007, following this theory would have lost you money as the stockmarket was down by 9.5% and 14.6% respectively six months after the Fed started cutting.

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