Columnist Lee Schafer provides short takes on economic incentives and choices, business strategy and performance, market moves, what business leaders are saying and doing and other topics that pique his interest.

Target's investors mostly shrug off data breach

Posted by: Lee Schafer Updated: December 27, 2013 - 3:07 PM

A quick scan of investment research this week confirmed what I suspected -- the massive theft of customer data from Target Corp. that’s been called the gravest crisis in the company’s history has been largely shrugged off by the investment community.

Investors appear to be treating Target’s as more or less the kind of thing that can happen to any major retailer, much like an occasional hailstorm for Minnesota corn farmers.

There have been other losses of customer data at retailers such as the The TJX Companies, Inc. and DSW, Inc. While painful in the short run those incidents appeared to have had little long-term impact on the business.

It’s mostly seen as a massive headache for Target’s managers when they already had plenty of other things to work on.

Only one of the major securities firms following Target appears to have brought down its earnings estimate for the fourth quarter, when Faye Landes of Cowen and Co. put out a note on Christmas eve morning that reduced her estimate for the fourth quarter from $1.52 in earnings per share to an estimate of $1.40 per share. She dropped her estimate of comparable store sales a bit as well.

The company has not updated it’s guidance for the quarter to account for the data breach, but Landes wrote that the publicity surrounding the data breach couldn’t have helped store traffic any in the last few shopping days before Christmas, and her reduction in Q4 estimates was a common sense response.

A couple of other analysts wrote recently that the one thing that's a little different in the case of Target is that the company has its customer loyalty program tied to its own branded credit and debit cards, called REDcards. So the hackers victimized some of Target’s best customers.

But this data theft would only be a significant story for investors if fallout from it would be enough to bring down estimates of earnings and sales growth for 2014 and 2015. As it stands right now, the thinking appears to be that the damage will be largely contained in this year’s fourth quarter.

It’s worth noting that even if the data breach is perceived as more hassle than substantive problem, it’s still not that easy to find analysts who are enthusiastically recommending the stock or who saw the dip in share price after the news broke as a wonderful buying opportunity. Landes said it's wiser to steer clear of Target's stock. 

Target still has all of the same challenges it had before the theft. Its expansion into Canada is still a work in progress, and the company has yet to show it can end a recent streak of quarters with declining customer traffic in U.S. stores.

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