Smith & Wesson stock tumbled this week after three different investment analysts downgraded the gun manufacturer in response to new FBI figures detailing the number of gun background checks conducted in March.
On the surface, the downgrades by analysts BB&T, Cowen, and C.L. King were a surprising move: As The Trace reported on Monday, last month was the busiest March on record for the FBI’s background check system, or NICS, with more than 2.5 million transactions processed. It follows nearly a year of blockbuster background check totals, including December 2015, which smashed the FBI’s all-time single-month background check record. But March’s numbers, while historically huge, fell relative to February (2.6 million), and marked the third month-over-month decline in checks since December 2015. The sustained drop in background checks has lead analysts to ask if the past year of surging gun sales is running out of momentum.
Both BB&T and Cowen said in analyst notes that this month-over-month decline informed their decision to downgrade Smith & Wesson stock. Cowen’s Cai von Rumohr said the gun manufacturer had consistently beat sales expectations over the past year, prompting the stock price to soar. The March decline, he said, “[disrupted this] beat-and-raise narrative.”
BB&T’s Brian Ruttenbur also wrote that industry growth may be slowing, but said he was even more concerned that the past year’s surge had diminished Smith & Wesson’s inventory to the point that it would have to outsource production, cutting into profit margins.
The analyst notes spooked investors. As of Wednesday afternoon, Smith & Wesson’s share price was down 13 percent from Friday. Ruger, the country’s largest gun manufacturer, was down 6 percent from Friday.
In its note, Cowen compared the recent surge in gun sales to the one sparked by the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. That boom led to increased sales of the kinds of semiautomatic rifle used in the attack, sparked by fears that the federal government would enact an assault weapons ban. After the massacre, the FBI reported that background checks had reached record levels.
The 2015 to 2016 surge, in contrast, has been fueled by handgun sales, often purchased in response to mass shootings, and seen by buyers as a means of personal protection, or a way to stop attackers. When sales are driven by such high-profile attacks, Cowen points out, they’re at risk of slumping if those events subside.
There are caveats to these predictions that the past year of record-breaking gun sales is coming to an end, of course: Cowen stressed that the decline in background checks is just one data point. And BB&T focused more on Smith & Wesson’s declining inventory and possible shrinking market share, making fewer extrapolations about the fate of the gun industry as a whole.