Nike Should Watch Its Back

It doesn't seem quite alarmed enough by its worst first half in 15 years.
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Nike CEO Mark Parker and I must have different interpretations of what it means to "raise the bar."

In a statement in Nike's fourth-quarter earnings report on Tuesday, Parker said he was proud Nike had "raised the bar of what's possible." And then Nike disclosed that growth in North America futures orders -- a mechanism that lets retailers order Nike goods several months in advance of delivery -- slowed for the fourth straight quarter, indicating demand for its products continues to wane. Its revenue and gross margin also came in lower than Wall Street expected, sending its stock down 6 percent in after-hours trading. 

Cloudy Future

Growth in Nike's futures orders slowed for the fourth consecutive quarter

Source: Bloomberg Intelligence, company filings

At Tuesday's close, Nike's stock had fallen more than 15 percent this year, on pace for its largest first-half decline in 15 years. This is only the seventh time the stock has fallen this much in the first half of any year since the company went public in 1980. 

The other six years included such episodes as Phil Knight giving up day-to-day management of the company in 1983 and 1984; Nike coming under fire just after the 1990 recession for using factories with sweatshop conditions; and the recession of 2001. 

Nike Drops The Ball

Nike's stock hasn't started the year this badly in 15 years: Its stock has tumbled 15% in the first half only six other times since it went public in 1980.

Source: Bloomberg

It's not that there's one glaring mistake Nike is making this time around. It's that the company has gotten a bit too comfortable being the dominant brand in an industry that for years had few real competitors.

That has changed. Adidas has apparently woken up from its years-long nap, with retailers such as Finish Line praising the "explosive growth" in Adidas' Superstar sneakers. Under Armour and Skechers are fiercely coming after Nike in apparel, as well as casual and retro footwear. Hundreds of "athleisure" brands, from Lululemon to small yoga outfits, are nibbling at the masses of casual athletic-wear shoppers, who in the past might have bought Nike sneakers by default, just because it was the only brand they recognized at the mall. 

Adding to Nike's troubles are Brexit-induced foreign-exchange headwinds and weakness at key retailers such as Macy's and Sports Authority, whose bankruptcy recently prompted Under Armour to cut its annual sales forecast.

The pain at retailers, along with a shift away from high-priced basketball sneakers to lower-priced running shoes, has led to lower selling prices across the industry. Average selling prices in North America decreased for the first time in the third quarter since Bloomberg Intelligence Chen Grazutis began tracking the data in September 2013.

It doesn't have to be this way. A bit of humility and hunger could go a long way in stirring up change at Nike. The race to succeed Parker as CEO, outlined in a Bloomberg News story this week, could be just the thing Nike needs to boost sales, as the three men battling for the top spot try to show who is more capable of moving the needle at the gigantic company. Then again, it could also stall any kind of change, if it prompts executives to cling to the status quo in order to keep their jobs. 

Wall Street has remained bullish on the stock: Of 34 Nike analysts followed by Bloomberg, 25 have a "buy" rating. None say "sell." And despite the fact that Nike's stock has been falling for seven months -- its longest monthly losing streak since 1981, according to Bloomberg data -- analyst price targets have barely budged. With Nike's stock now trading at 21 times forward earnings, 12 percent below its historical average, many on Wall Street call the pullback a buying opportunity. 

Nike certainly thinks so: On Tuesday it said it spent $3.2 billion to buy back shares in the past year. 

Wishful Thinking

As Nike's shares drop, analysts' future expectations haven't budged

Source: Bloomberg

But despite the cheery disposition at Nike and on Wall Street, it looks like investors are starting to lose patience.

Nike would be wise to take its newly emboldened competitors a little more seriously. As Nike founder Phil Knight said in a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, following a similar year of stock declines, Nike might be a giant in the athletic gear industry, but it's a "fragile giant." Nike, he said then, "can't take our eye off the ball, because if we lose it, we'll have a bitch of a time getting it back." That's even more true today.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Shelly Banjo in New York at

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    Mark Gongloff at

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