Washboard Abs & Profits to Match: Is It Time to Invest In These Apparel Stocks? – The Gap Inc. (GPS), American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (ANF)

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With public nudity banned in San Francisco, the long spell of terror we clothed masses have endured is over. Once again, we can wear clothing without fear, which means that clothing stocks are due to jump, right?

Several major apparel retailers have in fact seen their stocks rise over the past year. For some, that has meant coming out of a slump. For others, it may mean some investors have missed the boat on a quick profit. Before we jump to any conclusions, though, let’s take a closer look at these ‘casual apparel’ retailers and see what they have to offer beneath the washboard abs and cloud of cheap cologne.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF)Grab your money and watch

Full disclosure: I hate Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) . Well, the image they project. But we can’t argue with their position: with a middling market cap of $3.8 billion, and hovering 12% below its 52-week high, this might be a good time to get in on this staple of middle America malls.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) has increased sales by 17% on average over the past four quarters, and though the cost of sales has outpaced that number at a concomitant 19.5% over the same period, gross operating profits have nevertheless seen a 16% average increase over the past year, an impressive number considering the size of the company.

Part of Abercrombie’s success can be lain at the feet of a declining current ratio and a subsequently high rate of debt. Though a current ratio of 1.6 isn’t the end, the fact that it has been in decline for well over a year is cause for concern. With a PEG of 0.73, the stock remains a ‘maybe’: if it stops putting up profits as it has been, we may find the PEG evening out at a solid 1 pretty quickly.

Doing about as well as its namesake

American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO) is a close second to Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF), with a market cap of $4.0 billion. Sales have declined 12% since the start of the year, though since then they have increased by an average of 13% per quarter, with cost of sales lagging behind at an admirable 9.2% per quarter in the same period. American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO is, in other words, recovering steadily.

The company’s current ratio is at a comparatively admirable 2.6; it has seen a decline since July of last year, but that’s to be expected in light of the stock’s drop last spring. What should give you pause is their forward PEG of 1.09. While they are managing a recovery, that only means they’re scrabbling their way back towards parity with previous levels of profitability. The stock remains evenly, if not overly, valued, and a bargain hunter would probably do well to stay away from it for the moment.

For the long-term investor, however, a dividend yield of 2.2% is considerable. As ever, make your investment decisions based on your own needs.

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