You might know Herb Greenberg, an often quoted columnist for MarketWatch and a frequent guest on CNBC, as someone who focuses on telling the bearish story on the market. Although I’m about to refute one of Herb’s recent blog posts entitled “AutoZone: Sustainable Model?” regarding auto parts retailer AutoZone (AZO), I will admit that there are not enough people out there telling people what could go wrong. Wall Street is too often about selling stocks to people, and with that comes a bias toward making the bullish case for an investment, not the bearish one. Although betting against stocks stacks the odds against you, Herb makes it his duty to tell the other side of the story.
In the case of AutoZone, here is what Herb had to say about the company on May 22nd:
“Earnings per share beat estimates, yet again, thanks to buybacks. Who cares about sales missing estimates? Who cares about sales per square foot that are either down or flat year-over-year for 12 consecutive quarters? Or inventory turns at a multi-year lows? Or sliding sales per store? Or continued weak same-store sales? All that matters, in a buyback story, is earnings per share. “The point,” says one longtime skeptic, “is whether that’s a sustainable business model. Anybody can do this for some finite period of time, but only the ‘productivity loop’ (as exemplified by Wal-Mart in its heyday and others) has proved sustainable.”
Herb does have his facts right, AutoZone has not been greatly improving their sales or inventory turns for a long time. However, when trying to judge the merit of a bearish argument, you have to ask, does any of this stuff matter? From reading Herb’s post, it is obvious that he, as well as the long-time skeptic he quotes for the piece, believe that it does matter in terms of the future for AutoZone stock.
Noticeably absent from the piece, however, are any reasons why sales, sales per square foot, inventory turns, sales per store, and same store sales do matter, or why share buybacks are bad. He simply states that a business model that focuses on buybacks, and not sales or inventory, is not sustainable. There is nothing there that explains why it isn’t sustainable. Why may that be?
If you do some digging into AutoZone’s financials over the last fifteen years, you will see that the model is sustainable. The company has been focusing on stock buybacks since 1999. This year will mark the ninth straight year that choosing buybacks over sales growth has worked for them. The argument that the model isn’t sustainable simply does not hold water because the evidence, which I will detail below, points to the contrary.
Now, why has the model worked? Why has it proved wise for AutoZone to reinvest excess cash into its own shares rather than new stores, or other projects focused on traditional retail metrics? Because buying back stock will boost AZO’s earnings more than opening a new store, or implementing new inventory management software will. And when it comes to getting your share price higher, earnings are what matters, not sales, or comp store sales, or sales per square foot, or inventory turns.
Herb writes “All that matters, in a buyback story, is earnings per share.” That is only partially correct. All that matters, in the stock market, is earnings per share. Stock prices follow earnings over the long term because owning a share of stock entitles you to a piece of the company’s earnings. Not sales, but earnings.
Let’s take a look at AutoZone in more detail. The company’s history since its IPO in 1991 tells two distinctly different stories. From 1991 through 1998, AutoZone focused on traditional retail metrics, the ones Herb and his skeptic friend believe are important when evaluating a stock’s investment merit. During that time, sales compounded at a growth rate of 22 percent per year, with same store sales averaging 8 percent growth. Stock buybacks were not used, resulting in total shares outstanding rising each and every year due to option grants.
However, in 1999 AutoZone began to focus on stock buybacks, an effort that was very much an idea from a relatively unknown hedge fund manager by the name of Eddie Lampert, who had begun to amass an investment position in AutoZone stock. Lampert understood the retail sector well, and knew that industry experts loved to focus on same store sales and other metrics like that. But he also knew that such metrics had very little correlation to stock market performance, and as an investor, that is all he really cared about.
As a result of pressure from Eddie and other investors, Autozone began to implement a consistently strong buyback program. Total shares outstanding peaked in 1998, fell year-over-year in 1999, and have fallen every year since. Not surprisingly, with a new focus on share buybacks, there was less cash flow left over to improve store performance in ways that would be reflected in same store sales, sales per share foot, and inventory turn statistics. Not surprisingly, since 1999 sales have only averaged 8 percent growth per year, with same store sales compounding at a 3 percent rate. Both of those are far below the levels achieved before the buyback era began at AutoZone.
So the punch line of course lies in what happened to AutoZone stock during these two distinctly different periods. Herb Greenberg and other long-time skeptics would have you believe, without evidence to support their claims, that sales and inventory matter to Wall Street. I am writing this to prove to you that such arguments are wrong.
AutoZone’s stock ended 1991 (the year of its IPO) at $10 per share and reached $26 by the end of 1998, for an increase of about 150 percent. The buyback program reduced share count for the first time in 1999 and today the shares fetch $127 per share, an increase of about 390 percent from 1998. How could this be the case if sales growth and other metrics of retailing health were so much stronger in the earlier period?
The answer lies in the effects of the buyback program. Share count peaked in 1998 at 154 million and now sits below 70 million. So, if you bought 10% of AutoZone at the end of 1998 and held those shares until today, you would now own 22% of the company, without buying a single additional share. And although AutoZone’s sales growth has slowed in recent years, the company is still larger now than it was then, so shareholders not only have seen their ownership stake more than double, but the entire company is worth more today than it was in 1998.
Hopefully this explains why retail metrics like sales don’t really matter when it comes to share price appreciation. Earnings are all that counts, not just in a buyback story, but in any story involving the stock market. I believe Herb when he characterizes his source as a “long-time” skeptic of AutoZone. He likely has been bearish on the company ever since they decided to put buybacks ahead of sales on their priority list eight years ago. However, the skeptics have been wrong for many years and the reason is pretty simple; the buyback model has proven to be quite sustainable.
Full Disclosure: No position in AutoZone at the time of writing
AutoZone vs S&P 500 Since Market Peak in March 2000