During the covid pandemic spending habits changed. People were spending more time at home even if they weren't in full lockdown mode.
There simply wasn't much to do as restaurants were only takeout-and-delivery, movie theaters, concerts and sporting events were not welcoming audiences, and travel opportunities were limited. So people spent where they could — and in some cases made certain companies look stronger than they are.
Peloton (PTON) - Get Free Report might provide the strongest example of a covid-related-demand surge that sharply exceeded the normal-times demand for at-home connected fitness. The company pulled forward demand: Anyone who might have bought a Peloton bike over the next few years bought one almost immediately.
That sent short-term sales surging but did not lead to a sustainable business.
Best Buy (BBY) - Get Free Report suffered from the same issue to a point as well. People sped up their technology purchases because they were both bored and, in many cases, needed to enhance their work-from-home setups.
For Best Buy, the demand just shifted, and normal device-replacement patterns settled back in, but once gyms reopened, Peloton simply became a microniche product.
Many retailers including Home Depot, Lowe's, Costco, Walmart and Target benefited from covid-related purchases and faced some struggles as the pandemic eased, but their woes were relatively minor.
A pandemic-popular digital retailer is in trouble
Before the pandemic, online furniture retailer Wayfair (W) - Get Free Report always seemed like an odd business model. The company sold furniture — something people generally like to try before they buy — in a purely online model.
There's a reason that most of the direct-to-consumer mattress companies have opened brick-and-mortar stores or sell their products through traditional retailers. People want to lie down on a bed before they buy it.
People might buy a desk or certain other pieces of furniture without trying them, but the idea that there's a huge online market to sell high-priced beds, couches, and chairs that people can't test out first is hard to picture.
The pandemic, however, sharply increased demand for furniture. People needed home-office setups, wanted to upgrade their beds and couches, and generally focused on their homes (since they were stuck there).
That was very good news for Wayfair, which saw a Peloton-like surge in sales. But once the pandemic's influence lessened, people went back to the traditional way of buying furniture.
That has left Wayfair struggling, with a meaningful risk of bankruptcy, according to RapidRatings, which tracks the financial health of companies.
Wayfair faces a possible bankruptcy
"Wayfair Inc's Financial Health Rating was a very unimpressive 20 (0=worst, 100=best) for the four quarters ending June 30, 2023, and represents a 1-point downgrade as compared to a year earlier," according to Rapid Ratings.
That rating puts the online retailer in the bottom half of Rapid Ratings' high-risk group "with an estimated probability of default of 11.41% over the next 12 months," according to the report.
Wayfair, "with its once-promising pandemic-era business surge, now finds itself in treacherous waters," said Rapid Ratings Executive Chairman James Gellert in an email to TheStreet."In an era of abundant and inexpensive capital, Wayfair was able to stay afloat because they had time on their side. However, the clock is ticking. Higher interest rates and a risk-on market environment are causing a capital retraction."
Essentially, it's harder for Wayfair to raise money to cover its losses.
"This scenario has exposed underlying issues that many companies, like Wayfair, have been grappling with for some time. With a concerning FHR rating of just 19 out of 100, Wayfair's vulnerabilities are coming into sharp focus,” he added.
Wayfair, which did not answer a request for comment from TheStreet, did comment on its financial position in its second-quarter earnings report. Chief Executive Niraj Shah said that since last year the company had been working on a plan to strengthen its business.
"For the past few quarters, you've seen us execute against that plan — to lower our costs, focus on the basics, and earn more customer and supplier loyalty," he said.
"And you've seen the tangible impact of this plan as our performance has continued to improve. I'm pleased to share today that we've passed one of our key milestones and we are reporting positive adjusted Ebitda and positive free cash flow."
Wayfair has cut its losses over the past six months to $401 million from $697 million in the year-earlier six-month period. The company currently has roughly $3.4 billion in assets and $6 billion in liabilities.
Historically, over 90% of companies that have defaulted were rated 40 and below on our scale. So there is a high correlation. The distinction between bankruptcy and default is that there are defaults that don't end in bankruptcy but have caused economic loss. In general, they are often used interchangeably though there are technical differences.”
Gellert made it clear in his comments that the company faces significant risk of financial peril.
"Historically, over 90% of companies that have defaulted were rated 40 and below on our scale. So there is a high correlation. The distinction between bankruptcy and default is that there are defaults that don't end in bankruptcy but have caused economic loss. In general, they are often used interchangeably though there are technical differences,” he added.
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Las Vegas Strip faces growing bed bug problem
With huge events including Formula 1, CES, and the Super Bowl looming, the Las Vegas Strip faces an issue that could be a major cause for concern.
Las Vegas beat the covid pandemic.
It wasn't that long ago when the Las Vegas Strip went dark and people questioned whether Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts, and other Strip players would emerge from the crisis intact.
In the darkest days, the entire Las Vegas Strip was closed down and when it reopened, it was not business as usual. Caesars Entertainment (CZR) - Get Free Report and MGM reopened slowly with all sorts of government-mandated restrictions in place.
The first months of the Strip's comeback featured temperature checks, a lot of plexiglass, gaming tables with limited numbers of players, masks, and social distancing. It was an odd mix of celebration and restraint as people were happy to be in Las Vegas, but the Strip was oddly empty, some casinos remained closed, and gaming floors were sparsely filled.
When vaccines became available, the Las Vegas Strip benefitted quickly. Business and international travelers were slow to return, but leisure travelers began bringing crowds back to pre-pandemic levels.
The comeback, however, was very fragile. CES 2022 was supposed to be Las Vegas's return to normal, the first major convention since covid. In reality, surging cases of the covid omicron variant caused most major companies to pull out.
Even with vaccines and covid tests required, an event that was supposed to be close to normal, ended up with 25% of 2020's pre-covid attendance. That CES showed just how quickly public sentiment — not actual danger — can ruin an event in Las Vegas.
Now, with November's Formula 1 Race, CES in January, and the Super Bowl in February all slated for Las Vegas, a rising health crisis threatens all of those events.
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The Las Vegas Strip has a bed bug problem
While bed bugs may not be as dangerous as covid, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Legionnaires’ disease, and some of the other infectious diseases that the Las Vegas Strip has faced over the past few years, they're still problematic. Bed bugs spread easily and a small infestation can become a large one quickly.
The sores caused by bed bugs are also a social media nightmare for the Las Vegas Strip. If even a few Las Vegas Strip visitors wake up covered in bed bug bites, that could become a viral nightmare for the entire city.
In late-August, reports came out the bed bugs had been at seven Las Vegas hotel, mostly on the Strip over the past two years. The impacted properties includes Caesars Planet Hollywood and Caesars Palace as well as MGM Resort International's (MGM) - Get Free Report MGM Grand, and others including Circus Circus, The Palazzo, Tropicana, and Sahara.
"Now, that number is nine with the addition of The Venetian and Park MGM. According to the health department report, a Venetian guest reported seeing the bloodsuckers on July 29 and was moved to another room. An inspection three days later confirmed their presence," Casino.org reported.
The Park MGM bed bug incident took place on Aug. 14.
Bed bugs remain a Las Vegas Strip problem
Only Tropicana, which is soon going to be demolished, and Sahara, responded to Casino.org about their bed bug issues. Caesars and MGM have not commented publicly or responded to requests from KLAS or Casino.org.
That makes sense because the resorts do not want news to spread about potential bed bug problems when the actual incidents have so far been minimal. The problem is that unreported bed bug issues can rapidly snowball.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shares some guidelines on bed bug bites on its website that hint at the depth of the problem facing Las Vegas Strip resorts.
"Regularly wash and heat-dry your bed sheets, blankets, bedspreads and any clothing that touches the floor. This reduces the number of bed bugs. Bed bugs and their eggs can hide in laundry containers/hampers. Remember to clean them when you do the laundry," the agency shared.
Normally, that would not be an issue in Las Vegas as rooms are cleaned daily. Since the covid pandemic, however, some people have opted out of daily cleaning and some resorts have encouraged that.
Not having daily room cleaning in just a few rooms could lead to quick spread.
"Bed bugs spread so easily and so quickly, that the University of Kentucky's entomology department notes that "it often seems that bed bugs arise from nowhere."
"Once bed bugs are introduced, they can crawl from room to room, or floor to floor via cracks and openings in walls, floors and ceilings," warned the University's researchers.
spread social distancing pandemic
Americans are having a tough time repaying pandemic-era loans received with inflated credit scores
Borrowers are realizing the responsibility of new debts too late.
With the economy of the United States at a standstill during the Covid-19 pandemic, the efforts to stimulate the economy brought many opportunities to people who may have not had them otherwise.
However, the extension of these opportunities to those who took advantage of the times has had its consequences.
A report by the Financial Times states that borrowers in the United States that took advantage of lending opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic are falling behind on actually paying back their debt.
At a time when stimulus checks were handed out and loan repayments were frozen to help those affected by the economic shock of Covid-19, many consumers in the States saw that lenders became more willing to provide consumer credit.
According to a report by credit reporting agency TransUnion, the median consumer credit score jumped 20% to a peak of 676 in the first quarter of 2021, allowing many to finally have “good” credit scores. However, their data also showed that those who took out loans and credit from 2021 to early 2023 are having an hard time managing these debts.
“Consumer finance companies used this opportunity to juice up their growth at a time when funding was ample and consumers’ finances had gotten an artificial boost,” Chief economist of Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi told FT. “Certainly a lot of lower-income households that got caught up in all of this will feel financial pain.”
Moody’s data shows that new credit cards accounts that were opened in the first quarter of 2023 have a 4% delinquency rate, while the same rate in September 2022 was 4.5%. According to the analysts, these levels were the highest for the same point of the year since 2008.
Additionally, a study by credit scoring company VantageScore found that credit cards issued in March 2022 had higher delinquency rates than cards issued at the same time during the prior four years.
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Credit cards were not the only debts that American consumers took on. As per S&P Global Ratings data, riskier car loans taken on during the height of the pandemic have more repayment problems than in previous years. In 2022, subprime borrowers were becoming delinquent on new cars loans at twice the rate of pre-pandemic levels.
S&P auto loan tracker Amy Martin told FT that lenders during the pandemic were “rather aggressive” in terms of signing new loans.
Bill Moreland of research group BankRegData has warned about these rising delinquencies in the past and had recently estimated that by late 2022, there were hundreds of billions of dollars in what he calls “excess lending based upon artificially inflated credit scores”.
The Government's Role
Because so many are failing to pay their bills, many are wary that the government assistance may have been a financial double-edged sword; as they were meant to alleviate financial stress during lockdown, while it led some of them to financial difficulty.
The $2.2 trillion Cares Act federal aid package passed in the early stages of the pandemic not only put cash in the American consumer’s pocket, but also protected borrowers from foreclosure, default and in some instances, lenders were barred from reporting late payments to credit bureaus.
Yeshiva University law professor Pam Foohey specializes in consumer bankruptcy and believes that the Cares Act was good policy, however she shifts the blame away from the consumers and borrowers.
“I fault lenders and the market structure for not having a longer-term perspective. That’s not something that the Cares Act should have solved and it still exists and still needs to be addressed.”
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Inflation: raising interest rates was never the right medicine – here’s why central bankers did it anyway
We need to start cutting rates, but there’s something that has to happen first.
Inflation remains too high in the UK. The annual rate of consumer price inflation to September was 6.7%, the same as a month earlier. This is well below the 11.1% peak reached in October 2022, but the failure of inflation to keep falling indicates it is proving far more stubborn than anticipated.
This may prompt the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to raise the benchmark interest rate yet again when it meets in November, but in my view this would not be entirely justified.
In reality, the rate hikes that began two years ago have not been very helpful in tackling inflation, at least not directly. So what’s the problem and is there a better alternative?
Right policy, wrong inflation
Raising interest rates is the MPC’s main tool for trying to get inflation back to its target rate of 2%. The idea is that this makes it more expensive to borrow money, which should reduce consumer demand for goods and services.
The trouble is that the type of inflation recently witnessed in the UK seems less a problem of excessive demand than because costs have been rising for manufacturers and service providers. It’s known as “cost-push inflation” as opposed to “demand-pull inflation”.
Inflation rates (UK, US, eurozone)
Production costs have risen for several reasons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, central banks “created money” through quantitative easing to enable their governments to run large spending deficits to pay for furloughs and other interventions to help citizens through the crisis.
When countries started reopening, it meant people had money in their pockets to buy more goods and services. Yet with China still in lockdown, global supply chains could not keep pace with the resurgent demand so prices went up – most notably oil.
Oil price (Brent crude, US$)
Then came the Ukraine war, which further drove up prices of fundamental commodities, such as energy. This made inflation much worse than it would otherwise have been. You can see this reflected in consumer price inflation (CPI): it was just 0.6% in the year to June 2020, then rose to 2.5% in the year to June 2021, reflecting the supply constraints at the end of lockdown. By June 2022, four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, CPI was 9.4%.
The policy problem
This begs the question, why has the Bank of England (BoE) been raising rates if it’s unlikely to be effective? One answer is that other central banks have been raising rates. If the BoE doesn’t mirror rate rises in the US and eurozone, investors in the UK may move their money to these other areas because they’ll get better returns on bonds. This would see the pound depreciating against the US dollar and euro, in turn increasing import prices and aggravating inflation.
Part of the problem has been that the US has arguably faced more of the sort of demand-led inflation against which interest rates are effective. For one thing, the US has been less at the mercy of rising energy prices because it is energy self-sufficient. It also didn’t lock down as uniformly as other major economies during the pandemic, so had a little more space to grow.
At the same time, the US has been more effective at bringing down inflation than the UK, which again suggests it was fighting demand-driven price rises. In other words, the UK and other countries may to some extent have been forced to follow suit with raising interest rates to protect their currencies, not to fight inflation.
How harmful have the rate rises been in the UK? They have not brought about a recession yet, but growth remains very weak. Lots of people are struggling with the cost of living, as well as rent or mortgage costs. Several million people are due to be hit by much higher mortgage rates as their fixed-rate deals end between now and the end of 2024.
UK GDP growth (%)
If hiking interest rates is not really helping to curb inflation, it makes sense to start moving in the opposite direction before the economic situation gets any worse. To avoid any damage to the pound, the answer is for the leading central banks to coordinate their policies so that they cut rates in lockstep.
Unless and until this happens, there would seem to be no quick fix available. One piece of good news is that the energy price cap for typical domestic consumption was reduced from October 1 from £1,976 to £1,834 a year. That 7% reduction should lead to consumer price inflation coming down significantly towards the end of 2023.
More generally, the Bank of England may simply have to hope that world events move inflation in the desired direction. A key question is going to be whether the wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza result in further cost pressures.
Unfortunately there is a precedent for a Middle East conflict leading to a global economic crisis: following the joint assault on Israel by Syria and Egypt in 1973, Israel’s retaliation prompted petroleum cartel OPEC to impose an oil embargo. This led to an almost fourfold increase in the price of crude oil.
Since oil was fundamental to the costs of production, inflation in the UK rose to over 16% in 1974. There followed high unemployment, resulting in an unwelcome combination that economists referred to as stagflation.
These days, global production is in fact less reliant on oil as renewables have become a growing part of the energy mix. Nonetheless, an oil price hike would still drive inflation higher and weaken economic growth. So if the Middle East crisis does spiral, we may be stuck with stubborn, untreatable inflation for even longer.
Robert Gausden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.recession unemployment economic growth reopening bonds monetary policy mortgage rates currencies pound us dollar euro governor lockdown pandemic covid-19 recession gdp interest rates commodities oil uk russia ukraine china
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