The Gun Business Ain’t Gettin’ Any Better. In Fact, It’s Gettin’ Worse.

Once again I have the honor and pleasure of presenting to my reading audience the monthly portrait of the gun business as rendered by the background check data published by the FBI.  Believe it or not, the gun industry is the only consumer product industry whose health and welfare can be understood with reference to government-issued data which doesn’t lie. Because no matter how many guns are floating around, no matter how many gun transfers do or do not require  background checks, unless the gun makers can make and sell more guns, sooner or later it’s bye-bye guns. And since most gun shops try to keep the new-gun inventory as light as possible if only because the damn things cost so much, the overall number of new-gun transfers recorded on the background-check form (ATF4473) really gives a very accurate picture of what’s happening on the factory floors.

             And what’s happening is that the gun industry is in the dumps.  For October, the total number of completed 4473 forms covering gun transfers was 928,474.  A year ago, the October number was 1,056,548, a month-to-month drop of 12 percent.  Since the beginning of the year, handgun transfers have totalled 5,281,038.  Over the same period in the last year of the Obama regime, handgun transfers were 6,492,102. That’s a drop of nearly 20 percent.

The only problem with these numbers is that the 4473 form doesn’t distinguish between the transfer of new and used guns. But we can assume that the breakdown between new and used guns in most gun shops is somewhere around half and half. So if the entire retail gun segment has sold around 2,600,000 new guns this year, there’s a reason why the price of Smith & Wesson stock has dropped from $28 to $14 since 2016.

In 2013, the year following Sandy Hook when Obama tried (but failed) to pass a new gun law, the gun industry produced around 5 million handguns, which was the biggest single production year the industry ever had.  That same year, in rough numbers, the FBI processed 5,750,000 handgun background checks.  In other words, dealers cleaned their shelves.  Now here’s the real number to consider.  The population of the U.S. in 2013 was 316 million (give or take a couple of hundred thousand) the population at mid-2018 is estimated to be 327 million and change.

So here’s the bottom line. So far this year the number of new hand guns that entered the civilian arsenal was somewhere around 795 guns per 100,000 population; in 2013 that same number was 1,012.  In other words, the per-capita purchase of new hand guns since 2013 is down by more than 20 percent.

If you can find another consumer industry that can sustain itself over any period of time when its market drops by 20 percent, give me the name and I’ll short the stock.  What we have here folks, is a consumer industry whose market share is not only slowing down, but isn’t even keeping pace with the size of the potential market itself.  Because if the population of the U.S. goes up roughly 1 percent a year, no consumer industry will survive over the long term if the size of its market doesn’t at least increase by the same 1 percent. This isn’t rocket science, by the way, it’s simple business math.

All these numbers would be slightly less dismal had I looked not just at data on handguns but data covering all guns manufactured and sold. The reason I didn’t bother to break down sales of rifles and shotguns is that the gun industry has all put its product eggs into the handgun basket.  Now you can always pretend that an AR-15 is a personal defense weapon even if it happens to be a long gun. But walking around with a concealed weapon doesn’t mean that you can strap on an AR-15.

The joke in the gun business is that if you want to make a million, start with two million. It may not be a joke.

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Want To Make A Million In The Gun Business? Start With Two Million.

Although it’s less than a month before the replacement of that notorious gun-grabbing President with a guy who really understands the need to carry a gun for self-defense, the real question is whether the next four years will be a milestone or a millstone for the gun industry, since gun sales have traditionally been a function of whether or not you can buy a gun. And if there’s a chance you won’t be able to buy a gun, you run out and grab as many as you can. But if there’s no gun ban on the horizon, oh well, need a new set of tires for the car.

trump5            The problem in trying to figure out whether the gun industry will continue strong under (ugh) Trump or begin to slow down is difficult to figure out because it’s next to impossible to get a real fix on exactly how many guns are actually sold.  Or to put it more exactly, how many new guns are sold.  Because remember, a NICS background check is conducted every time a gun goes across a dealer’s counter, and since most gun shops carry a healthy assortment of used guns, many NICS phone calls just mean that a gun already in the civilian arsenal is changing hands. Ditto for many of the guns which go from an auction website to a dealer’s shop, particularly for interstate sales.  Obviously, the civilian gun arsenal increased enormously under Obama – Smith & Wesson stock didn’t jump from $5 to $30 between 2009 and 2016 just because the company makes some nice-looking guns. On the other hand, that same stock has lost 30% in value since November 8th, which says something about the industry’s future prospects under a President named (ugh) Trump.

But if I had a nickel for every time a stock went up or down because market predictions turned out to be incorrect, I also could buy a new set of tires for my Subaru without selling one of my guns.  Remember when gasoline prices went over $2 a gallon back in 2005 and the experts were all predicting a $10 price by the end of the decade?  We’ll have some rough idea about the health of the gun market when Smith & Wesson releases its 10-Q for the quarter ending September, 2017.  But the number of new guns produced and sold each year is not necessarily an accurate measure of whether a pro-gun President like (ugh) Trump will help or hurt gun sales.

The real problem is trying to figure out the size of the potential market; i.e., how many people out there might be interested in buying a gun. Because when all is said and done, the success of any consumer product is based not so much on its replacement rate (consumers who already own the product buying a new one) but on the number of new consumers who decide that a particular product is something they just must have.

What apparently has happened under Obama is that the replacement rate for guns has soared – the same people who started out as gun owners in 2008 just kept buying more and more guns. These folks didn’t need to be educated on why Obama was a threat; as long-time gun owners they always knew that a gun ban might be in the works. And most gun owners had lived through the terrible Clinton gun and magazine bans enacted in 1994.

As for new consumers entering the gun market, I’m not so sure that the slow but steady decline in the percentage of American households with a legal gun will continue under (ugh) Trump, and I’m going to tell you why. Because what this election showed, if nothing else, is that a lot of people bought Trump’s message that government doesn’t work.  Which is exactly the long-time message used by the gun industry to sell self-defense guns. On the other hand, if Trump (ugh) makes government more efficient, do you really need to protect yourself with a gun?

              Wishing Everyone a Healthy and Happy 2017.

 

Want To Make A Million In The Gun Business? Start With Two Million.

If you think I’m kidding about losing your rear end in the gun business, I can tell you that if I had been holding one million shares of S&W stock three weeks ago I would have been worth roughly $30 million bucks and the same pile of shares today would fetch about $8 million less.  Meanwhile, the financial media is abuzz with the idea that the great run-up of gun sales thanks to you-know-who in the White House has finally come to an end. On the other hand, according to FBI-NICS, the number of background checks is at an all-time high. So what’s really going on?

First of all, we need to remember that most of the guns manufactured in the United States come from companies that are still in private hands.  The only publicly-owned companies that provide detailed numbers are Smith & Wesson and Ruger, which together account for roughly 20% of all guns made each year in the US, but because of imports to the US market, their overall share of the gun business is somewhat less.

As for FBI-NICS background checks, these numbers are also not quite what they seem.  The gun industry would like you to believe that NICS checks are continuing to zoom upward, but the report issued by the FBI each month counts every time the telephone rings at the NICS call center in West Virginia, whether it’s for a gun transfer or not.  And in fact, roughly half the background checks each month are for reasons that have nothing to do with gun transfers at all, namely, to check the validity of gun licenses, pawn redemptions, etc.

The reason why several stock analysts downgraded S&W stock was because handgun transfers dropped 13% from February to March, with the decline in long gun transfers also noticeable but not quite as severe. And while the sell-through numbers posted in Ruger’s latest 10K report indicates that products aren’t piling up on anyone’s shelves, the bottom line is that gun sales simply haven’t been all that strong since the post-Sandy Hook gun-control furor died down.

Before I get into the NICS numbers in more detail, first, NICS doesn’t distinguish between new and used guns, which means, to begin with, that using NICS to judge the health of gun-making companies isn’t such a bright idea. Second, since NICS covers transfers, not the number of guns transferred, the monthly numbers for handguns and long guns are certainly undercounted, but nobody knows by how much.  On the other hand, NICS data is a good measure of gun transfer trends, which obviously reflects the health of the industry as a whole.

With that in mind, let’s look at monthly NICS transfers for March and start back in 2005.  Total gun transfers that March were 580,000, which climbed to 675,000 in March, 2008.  The number went to 900,000 in Obama’s first March (2009) and remained right around that figure each March through 2012.  Then we had Sandy Hook and a noisy argument about expanding background checks – the 2013 number was 1.4 million, but in 2014 it slipped down 17% to 1.1 million and remained at that same level the following year.

Here’s the bottom line.  Despite all the hue and cry from Gun Nation about how ‘everyone’ is getting into guns, the NICS numbers have been basically unchanged since the Democrats stopped trying to regulate guns.  And nobody is going to tell me that the 40% increase in NICS directly after Sandy Hook reflected a sudden upswell of interest by new buyers who wanted to purchase guns. So the gun market will continue to drift downward until the Clintons reclaim their love nest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Unless the unthinkable happens in November and we elect someone who just ‘loves’ the 2nd Amendment.  In which case you can start off with however much money you want and you’ll still wind up with bupkis when all is said and done.

Who Wins When Harvard University Goes Up Against Ruger? Neither One.

You know the gun business is a serious business when someone writes about it in the Harvard Business Review.  And thanks to my friend Shaun Dakin, I just finished reading an article about the gun business published in the latest issue of HBR whose author, Robert Dolan, is a member of the Harvard Business School faculty.

Actually, the article is basically an update of a business school case study that Dolan published in 2013 which, although Dolan claims makes him someone who has studied the gun industry “in depth from a management perspective,” is actually an analysis of one company, Ruger, whose CEO, Michael Fifer, happens to hold a Harvard MBA degree.

Dolan’s article argues that gun companies should redefine their business practices to go beyond concerns for the bottom line and move from ‘management’ to ‘leadership’ by taking a more active role in making sure that company products are only used in safe and lawful ways.  Rather than just complying with gun laws, Ruger and other companies should take some of their profits and bring ’smart guns’ to market, expand programs that curtail straw sales and more closely monitor gun dealers who let their guns get into the ‘wrong hands.’

Even though Dolan attempts to validate his approach by invoking the legendary Peter Drucker (as if you can publish a Harvard case study without mentioning Drucker) there’s little here that can’t be found in many other calls for more gun industry responsibility, beginning with President Obama and moving on down. The Clinton Administration tried to get the gun industry to adopt all those ideas in 1998, and what they got for their efforts was a boycott of Smith & Wesson and then a law protecting the industry from class-action torts that was signed by George W. Bush in 2005.

To understand how the gun industry views Dolan’s argument for transitioning from management to leadership, you can find a response just below his comment from none other than Larry Keane, who happens to be the Senior Vice President of the NSSF. Keane begins his response by noting that “there is so much wrong in [Dolan’s] piece that it is hard to know where to begin.”  Actually, Dolan’s case study on Ruger contains more errors than his op-ed (including the extraordinary claims that the value of Ruger stock increased by more than ten times between 2008 and 2013), but Keane wants to make sure that everyone understands the basic idea that either you know the truth about the gun business or you don’t; and if you say anything negative about the gun business, you don’t.

Keane argues that policing the gun industry should be done by the police; i.e., law enforcement agencies like the ATF.  It’s a disingenuous argument at best, a wholesale fabrication at worst.  The Tiahart Amendment that severely curtails the ability of law enforcement to track illegal guns was not, as he claims, based on misrepresentation of gun-trace data by GVP advocates; it was nothing more than a successful effort to hamper government’s effort to regulate the gun industry through stricter enforcement of the distribution chain.

On the other hand, Professor Dolan is engaging in his own brand of wishful thinking by assuming that the gun industry is ready, willing or able to regulate itself.  Detroit didn’t begin installing seatbelts until the Federal Government mandated their use; the money spent by the gun industry to lobby against government regulations is a trifle compared to what the tobacco industry spends to stave off more government rules on cigarette sales.  If Dolan wants to write an interesting case study on the gun business, perhaps he should examine how and why the gun business has kept the regulators under control.

The GVP community rightfully takes umbrage at the degree to which the gun business has insulated itself from government mandates or controls, but the industry is just doing what comes naturally – no business owner wants the government to tell him what to do.