Harley-Davidson’s Slow Decline Is Getting Hard To Watch

Harley-Davidson’s Slow Decline Is Getting Hard To Watch
Photo: Harley-Davidson

Harley knows what it’s future looks like with, perhaps by as soon as next year, more sales internationally than in the U.S., the continuation of a long-term trend. It’s desperately trying to prop up U.S. sales, but the LiveWire hasn’t been selling great, and its core demo is ageing out. Revenue numbers for 2019 released today were also a lot worse than expected.

Let’s go to Reuters first off for some of the numbers:

Motorcycle revenue fell an annual 8.5% to $US874.1 ($1,295) million in the December quarter, faster than a 3.4% fall predicted by analysts in a Refinitiv survey.

Its shares, after falling as much as 7%, pared losses to trade 2.5% lower at $US33.96 ($50) on Tuesday afternoon.

[…]

Its bike sales in America last year were the lowest in at least 16 years. Falling sales in the past 12 quarters have forced the company to tighten the supply of its bikes to prevent price discount pressure and protect profit.

In 2019, the shipment volume of its bikes in the United States was the lowest in at least two decades. Global shipments were the lowest since 2010.

In a reflection of the demographic headwind, the motorcycle maker’s stock price has declined by 44% in the past five years. By comparison, the S&P 500 Index .SPX has gained 63%.

For 2019, Harley, reported earnings of $US423.6 ($628) million, or $US2.68 ($4) per share, down from $US531.5 ($788) million, or $US3.19 ($5) a share in 2018.

Harley is still a profitable company to be sure, with $US423.6 ($628) million in earnings for 2019, off from the $US531.5 ($788) million it earned in 2018. Harley profits were up in the fourth quarter of 2019 compared to the same period last year, but the trend lines remain the same.

Most worryingly for Harley, they are posting falling sales numbers at a time when the economy is strong.

Per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“These are declines on top of declines on top of declines. Years of declines,” said analyst Brian Yarbrough with Edward Jones Co. “If we hit a recession in the next two years, then all of their (sales) targets are off the table. There is no way they are going to hit those targets then.”

Things have gotten so bad that Harley’s CEO Matt Levatich was asked during a conference call if the company would consider selling itself, to get shareholders the most for their money and to perhaps give different ownership a shot at turning things around. Levatich’s answer—that Harley would always do what’s best for its shareholders—amounted to a non-answer, but at some point on the call Levatich did say that 2020 would be a “pivotal year” for the company and it’s hard to disagree.

Still, for my money the most worrying number in all of this is in international sales. That’s a place where Harley should feel like it can grow, but year-over-year international sales also fell last year. That they fell at a slower rate than domestic sales—thus inching Harley closer to its goal of a 50-50 split between the two—should come as little consolation.

Still, the company will hope to do better in 2020, and it might, given its ambitions overseas, but the window for Harley to fix all this is pretty swiftly closing. And I agree with Levatich to the extent that it could be around this time next year when we learn if a turnaround is even possible.