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Not Sold on Kenneth Cole

The retailer's stock has fundamental woes, and its sector isn't looking any better.

In this week's small-cap spotlight, Frank Curzio and Larsen Kusick take a close look at Kenneth Cole Productions (KCP) . Shares were recently trading at $18.68, just above the 52-week low, but is this diversified retailer looking at more losses or has it finally bottomed?

Curzio: Few Reasons to Buy This Stock

In mid-2004, Kenneth Cole implemented a three-year strategy that included raising prices on its New York label and repositioning products into high-end retail outlets such as



, Bloomingdale's and


(JWN) - Get Nordstrom Inc. Report

. Also, the plan was to make Reaction into a lifestyle brand.

But after three years and counting, it seems the company is still struggling to implement its business model and, with the current climate for retailers becoming dire, it's hard to find a short-term catalyst that would move shares higher.

Kenneth Cole: Fashion Do or Don't?

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Looking at the company's latest conference call, management tried to explain the evolution of its brand strategy. First, the Kenneth Cole brand becomes dominant with the sub-brands underneath, and stores over time become just Kenneth Cole and New York goes away.

Then management went on to say that it launched apparel at Kenneth Cole but women's apparel stays in Reaction for the time being and will probably go to Kenneth Cole, but it hasn't yet. Marketing and merchandising resources are being used to re-energize growth at Kenneth Cole, but this has come at the expense of footwear. But management believes that it can get Reaction back on track.

In other words, after three years of investors being patient, there is still confusion on what management's business strategy is and the timing could not be worse as consumer spending is slowing and we may be on the brink of a recession, which is not a good scenario for retailers in general.

Management also noted in the call that international sales were strong. Sales were up 50% from the comparable period, but taking a closer look, they account for only 3.5% of total sales. This is a bright spot for the company, but not a short-term catalyst, unless the company is able to integrate the Le Tigre brand that it purchased last quarter sooner rather than later. Financially, Kenneth Cole has a very strong balance sheet, with about $4.80 a share in cash and no long-term debt. But its wholesale segment, which accounted for roughly 60% of revenue last quarter, declined 13.9% from last year. This is significant, and management said that it expects continued softness in this segment going forward.

On a positive note, the stock trades at less than one times sales and pays a 4% dividend, much higher than the industry average. This may attract income investors but they may be better off investing in

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than a retailer that pays a high dividend but lacks a comprehensible business strategy.

Finally, after buying back 282,300 shares last quarter, the company has 1.4 million left under its repurchasing plan. These positives reduce downside risk, but I don't see any short-term catalysts to make me want to purchase the stock here.

Kusick: Few Reasons to Buy This Sector

I think Frank is being a little too tough on Kenneth Cole. Yes, it's true that management seems to change its mind an awful lot when it comes to the intricacies of branding, and while I don't profess to be an expert on marketing, I can't imagine the company's recent strategy decisions being put in any textbook for MBAs anytime soon.

However, when it comes to retail/fashion, the buying public remains the ultimate judge of a company's brand, regardless of the intricacies of management's strategy. In this respect, Kenneth Cole remains on solid ground. The company's third-quarter results, reported a little over a month ago, showed a continuing uptrend in same-store-sales, with the strength of the Kenneth Cole brand evidenced by the 7.5% growth in licensing revenue.

In addition, investors should be emboldened by the company's rock-solid balance sheet ($96.7 million in cash and securities on hand combined with zero debt as of Sept. 30) and attractive cash flow ($48 million in EBITDA during 2006). Throw in the 4% dividend that Frank mentioned and you have a pretty solid stock for those looking for a small-cap retail play.With apologies to Shakespeare: Retail ... ay, there's the rub.

The real question is if an investor should be looking at retail in the first place. Kenneth Cole is one of a number of stocks that are suffering in the face of lower consumer spending and questions as to when macroeconomic conditions will improve. 2007 is shaping up to be a brutal year for the sector, with many companies (including Kenneth Cole) showing a 40% to 50% decline in EPS this year.

As you can see in the above table, analysts are expecting a rebound in earnings for 2008, but I'm more than a bit skeptical that things will be perking up so quickly. Up to now, analysts have been far too hesitant to admit that these stocks are dogs. But there already is a lot of pessimism priced into these names, and patient investors may find that picking up some shares of Kenneth Cole, especially with the 4% dividend, may not be a bad decision.

For me, however, the risk of extended weakness in U.S. consumer spending is too great, and I would look for a company that has more significant international exposure. As Frank pointed out, Kenneth Cole's international sales make up only a small portion of total revenues. On this basis my preference is for

Ralph Lauren

(RL) - Get Ralph Lauren Corporation Report

, which generated 20% of its revenues outside of the U.S. and Canada last year, and has stated a long-term goal of having its business spread evenly between Europe, Asia and North America.

Have a small-cap you'd like to see covered? Email Curzio and Kusick.