Apparel Industry Keeps Watch on Wall Street’s Financial Crisis

FROM:apparelnews

Could Wall Street be the Grinch that stole Christmas?

With dire financial news a daily occurrence, retailers and apparel manufacturers are wondering what the holiday season has in store for them.

reebok”>http://www.himfr.com/buy-reebok_cap/”>reebok capThe current economic downturn grew worse on Sept. 15, when investment bank Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. became the biggest company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Barclays, the third-largest British bank, bought Lehman’s U.S. operations.

Soon, Bank of America Corp. announced it was acquiring troubled brokerage firm Merrill Lynch & Co., in hot water for losing large sums from mortgage-related debt. And the U.S. government gave the world’s largest insurer, American International Group Inc., an $85 billion bailout.

Now everyone is taking stock of their investment portfolio, jobs and mortgages to figure out where they stand. Even if consumers are on fairly solid ground, bad financial news breeds concern among shoppers starting to make up their holiday lists.

“Consumer psychology plays a very important part this time of year. If consumers are scared about the economy, it will clearly limit their spending,” said Scott Krugman, a spokesperson for the National Retail Federation, a retail trade group headquartered in Washington, D.C.

He noted that shoppers were shy to spend during this year’s Back-to-School season, when retail sales increased only 1.1 percent in August compared with the same month last year. So the holiday season isn’t looking particularly bright. “The [tax] stimulus checks helped a little bit, giving consumers more financial flexibility,” Krugman said. “But it was clear that consumers were holding back.”

In addition, luxury goods are no longer a safe harbor.

John Arguelles, president of Lloyd Klein, said the couture collection created by designer Lloyd Klein and sold at the company’s store in Los Angeles experienced a sluggish season after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing recession in 2001. He expects the same thing now.

“A lot of our clients have an assessed wealth based on the value of their holdings. If their holdings value drops, they feel poor, and if people feel poor, they spend less,” he said.

He said this may not affect the woman who buys a $200 dress, but the customer who shops for couture wear selling for $2,000 to $10,000 pulls in her purse strings.

“People are scared to death,” said Sunnie Kim, president and chief executive of Hana Financial Inc., which serves the apparel and textile industries in Southern California. “Therefore, consumers will continue to do without nonessentials, which in turn will continue to stall the economy in general.”

Esmael Adibi, director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange Calif., said he believes consumer spending will be much lower for the next two to three quarters, meaning it won’t pick up before next spring. “All of us, in one way or another, are exposed to the equity market, and the fact that prices are collapsing means the value of our holdings is declining,” he said. “It is the negative wealth effect. If you feel you aren’t as wealthy as before, you spend less.”

However, Ike Zekaria, co-owner of Windsor, the Southern California–based juniors clothing chain with 43 stores in 13 states, is a little more optimistic. He said his customers are more oblivious to the economic downturn because they are only 18 to 25 years old. “They are not tied in to what is happening with interest rates, loans and the ability to get a loan,” he observed. “But no one seems to have an answer for the future. Everyone is being urged to stay the course, stay calm and do the same thing you were doing.”

Apparel manufacturers have several things to worry about. A slump in consumer demand obviously means fewer orders. But credit is likely to get tighter, too.

“For those companies that are in a stronger financial position, credit is still available,” said Steven Reiner, managing director of the West Coast office for investment banking firm Financo Inc. “But for the broader group of companies, credit may come from a nontraditional source, such as a hedge fund, and might be more expensive.”

Jeffrey Van Sinderen, a retail analyst in the Los Angeles office of B. Riley & Co., said everyone will be affected by the credit crunch. “I think it affects everybody, from the wholesalers to the retailers right down to the average consumer, because today it is harder to get a loan than a week ago,” he said. “The terms are probably going to be less attractive. You may have to have more assets if you are a company or cash flow to be able to qualify for certain kinds of loans.”

Also, factors that give loans based on accounts receivable are being more cautious, scrutinizing retailers to make sure they are credit-worthy. “They are keeping a very close eye on everyone,” Zekaria said.

Mergers and acquisitions is another area with a few speed bumps. With less credit to acquire companies, deals may be slow to mature or could fall to the wayside until later.

“For a good 18 months, mergers and acquisitions have gotten much more difficult,” Van Sinderen said. “The LBOs [leveraged buyouts using debt to acquire a company] are not happening. It is going to be harder and harder to do deals.”

However, for anyone with a ton of cash, now might be the time to pick up a bargain. “Where there is turmoil, there is tremendous opportunity,” said Ken Wengrod, president of FTC Commercial Corp. in Los Angeles, which works with fashion companies.

One business-investment advisor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was working on several deals for Chinese investors to buy apparel companies or retailers. But the company owners were balking at the low offers. “I had three people call me in the last two days, all saying they’d now take the offer. But it’s too late for that. The buyers have dropped their price by 25 percent.”

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