Whole Foods Market Inc. (NASDAQ: WFM) may have posted a 33% gain to earnings and it may still have a lot of growth ahead of it. The reality is that the company is running into a valuation issue. Even if it gets traded like a luxury goods seller rather than a grocery store chain, the valuation argument has to start coming closer to home here.
The company beat earnings by $0.05 at $0.65 per share and revenues rose almost 13% to $3.39 billion versus Thomson Reuters estimates of $3.38 billion. Whole Foods even raised guidance for its Fiscal year of 2012 to a range of $2.28 to $2.32 earnings per share from a prior target of $2.21 to $2.26 and against a consensus target from Thomson Reuters of $2.27 EPS. It also raised revenue guidance for 2012 to a range of 13.5% to 15% and that looks mostly in-line with the expected figure of $11.6 billion expected.
Whole Foods is a great growth story, it is an incredibly well run organization, and it deserves a premium over traditional grocery stores which run on razor-thin margins. Whole Foods has far higher margins and its expansion of its own 365 private-label brand is likely going to help it capture even higher margins even though the products are generally priced lower than other organic and natural brand-label foods.
So, everything is positive… except for our headline. The guidance is not exactly far higher than what was already expected. At the mid-point of its new earnings range, Whole Foods stock trades at a massive 33.9-times the fiscal September 2012 consensus estimate and it trades at 1.2-times expected revenues.
Compare Whole Foods forward 2012 valuations of 33.9-times earnings and 1.2-times sales to The Kroger Company (NYSE: KR) and Safeway Inc. (NYSE: SWY). Kroger trades at only 10.6-times earnings and only about 0.14-times sales; Safeway trades at 12-times expected earnings and only 0.17-times total sales.
The good news for the bulls is that Whole Foods has always been a premium stock. It is even easy to argue that Whole Foods will always trade at a premium to grocery chains. It has the whole lifestyle trade attached to it. Whole Foods is far more of a fun experience compared to most grocery stores, at least until the bill comes. Whole Foods is arguable the biggest luxury brand that there is.
The bad news is simple. Valuations at some point just have to give. At $77.93 and after the stock hit a new high of $78.31, how can it rise? The consensus target from analysts is $79.29 and even if that gets raised it can only rise so much. With a $13.99 billion market cap, it is worth roughly two-thirds of the combined values of Safeway and Whole Foods while it is expected to generate only about 8% of the combined sales of the two food giants.
A great company, at a price that just feels too high to justify on any traditional financial metrics. The stock can run up on news. It just looks too hot now under rational evaluations.
JON C. OGG