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Cramer: The hidden culprit that tripped up Nike

Cramer: The hidden culprit that tripped up Nike

It really didn't matter what Nike had to say on its earnings conference call on Tuesday. Jim Cramer heard nothing but downbeat chatter.

"The long knives were out for Nike today," the "Mad Money" host said.

Nike's stock fell more than 4 percent on Wednesday after the company's growth fell shy of the 8 percent that Wall Street expected, coming in at only 7 percent. And while North American future orders did grow 1 percent, it was the worst rate in more than six years.

This was tough for a growth company that saw revenues climb to $32 billion in 2016 from $16 billion in 2007.

The hidden culprit was the return of Adidas, Cramer said. This topic never came up on the conference call. Cramer heard a rosy story from Nike, as if everything went well.

Daniel Borg | Getty Images

It strangely reminded Cramer of Starbucks, which delivered U.S. comps below 5 percent in the third quarter. However, unlike Nike, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz admitted it was disappointing.

In Cramer's experience, if a CEO does not issue a mea culpa after a big miss, then investors tend to think that the company cannot turn things around.

So when Nike management cited one-time reasons for declining gross margins — instead of acknowledging newfound competition — and dismissed futures orders as an accurate measure for the future. It worried Cramer despite the strong numbers in China and Europe.

"Something is not resonating in the U.S. to explain the slowdown and the company's refusal to admit that the slowdown exists makes it a heck of a lot harder to figure out," Cramer said.

Not only has Nike entered uncharted territory, but also its analysts have always found a reason to stay long the shares. While they didn't immediately point to Adidas as the problem, they did question whether athletic apparel had started to slow.

Millennials and younger generations may not buy performance apparel in the U.S. as much as they have in the past, Cramer said. Jordans still sell, but there's still something wrong.

Cramer struggled to find any reason to recommend buying Nike's stock at 23 times earnings, when he can recommend a stock like Foot Locker at 14 times earnings.

"Until Nike admits the slowdown is for real, they can't solve it," Cramer said.

For Cramer, Foot Locker is the ultimate win right now if a slowdown really doesn't exist. Even if Nike management is not perturbed by its earnings, Cramer thinks it should be.

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