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Is It Safe? VF, Polo, Coach Face Stinginess

VF Corp., Polo and Coach are vulnerable to lower consumer spending even as their share prices soar.
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TSC Ratings provides exclusive stock, ETF and mutual fund ratings and commentary based on award-winning, proprietary tools. Its "safety first" approach to investing aims to reduce risk while seeking solid outperformance on a total return basis.

U.S. apparel and accessories companies have risen at twice the pace of the

S&P 500

index's 30% increase since a stock market rally started March 9.

Investors thought a bottoming of consumer confidence meant

VF Corp.



Polo Ralph Lauren





were ripe for stock picking, given that the clothing companies' shares had been crushed. Coach, a maker of luxury handbags, has more than doubled since March 9. Polo and VF Corp., the maker of Lee jeans and the The North Face winter gear, also surged. But then VF Corp. cut its 2009 outlook Tuesday, and its stock tumbled. All three companies will face stingy customers for the rest of the year.

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The Conference Board's April consumer confidence index jumped to the highest level since November, a report showed Tuesday. The gauge climbed to 39.2 from 26.9 in March and 25.3 in February, indicating an accelerating pattern. However, the economy is still deteriorating, and much of the renewed confidence is a result of the stock market rally. The economy shrank at a worse-than-expected 6.1% rate in the first quarter, the government said Wednesday.

Survey respondents for the consumer confidence report harbor misconceptions about the economy. For example, those anticipating fewer jobs in the months ahead declined to 33.6% in April from 41.6% in March, and respondents expecting more jobs increased to 13.9% from 7.3%.

Those are troubling signs because economists forecast continued job losses into 2010. Consumers have unrealistic expectations about the pace of the economic recovery. Their optimism led to an increase in so-called discretionary purchases during the first quarter, rising 2.2% after falling 4.3% in the fourth quarter.

VF Corp. reported a 33% decline in quarterly profit, cut its 2009 outlook and announced it will no longer provide quarterly guidance, citing a lack of visibility and mounting unemployment. But the S&P 500 Apparel Retail Index, which includes

TJX Cos.





, managed to jump as much as 3%.

Investors are discounting signs of weakness. About two weeks ago,

General Growth Properties


, the second-largest U.S. shopping-mall operator, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It's possible that retailers will stomach another sales drop as unemployment rises. If the stock market undergoes a second-quarter correction, which many technical analysts believe is inevitable, consumers will experience a crisis of confidence and rein in spending.

Polo, Coach and VF Corp. are positioned to survive another sales downturn because of their strong cash positions and reasonable debt levels. But their stock prices are overheated and are due for a pullback, with heavy put-options volume foreshadowing the dip.

The Ratings ranks VF Corp. and Polo "hold," and Coach "sell."