Numbers Behind Groupon’s Business Warrant Caution After First Day Pop

Daily deal leader Groupon (GRPN) is slated to go public today, selling 34.5 million shares at $20 each, which will raise $690 million in exchange for a 5.4% stake in the company. Combine a popular Internet start-up with a very low number of shares being offered (floating 5% of all shares is historically a very small IPO) and demand will far outstrip supply. We may not see a record setting first day pop, given the eleven-figure starting valuation, but the stage will be set for a solid jump at the open on Friday. And even without any first day gain, Groupon will be valued at about $12.75 billion.

As one of Groupon’s 16 million repeat customers, I was interested to dig into their IPO prospectus because I have already seen my use of Groupon decline meaningfully since I signed up to receive their daily deal emails last year. To me, Groupon has several headwinds facing their core business.

First, Groupon is dealing with many small business merchants who complain that they lose money when running a Groupon campaign. If businesses really see Groupons as a way to mint money immediately, they are mistaken about what role the deal campaign should play. A Groupon deal should be viewed as a marketing expense, not a profit center. A business should use Groupons to get prospective customers in the door. After that, just like any other marketing tool, it is the business’s job to treat them well and provide a good service, which should encourage repeat business. It will be those recurring customers that will grow your business long term and generate profits.

Generally speaking, profit margins for small businesses are hardly ever high enough to make a 50% discounted transaction profitable to the business. If you offer $50.00 Groupons for $25.00 each and only keep $12.50 per voucher (Groupon keeps the other half), the odds are slim you will make a profit initially. Unless it only costs you no more than $12.50 to offer $50.00 in goods or services, you are going to lose money. Let’s say you lose $20.00 per Groupon in this case. The real question should be, is a new customer coming through your doors worth $20 to you? The only way to answer that is to look at other marketing options you have. Do they cost more or less than $20.00 per new customer generated? If the answer is more, then Groupon is a worthwhile way to market to prospective new customers.

Along the same lines, I think Groupon will struggle once they have exhausted most of their small business merchants in any given city. As the example above shows, Groupons themselves are not money makers, which makes it less likely that a small business is going to want to run multiple campaigns. As a result, when you run out of businesses, your deal quality declines and fewer Groupons are going to sell. Groupon is probably facing these issues today, as the business is three years old and many businesses have already used the service. It is my belief that new businesses should probably strongly consider running a Groupon campaign, given that the biggest obstacle for new businesses is lack of awareness. But honestly, there are not likely enough new businesses cropping up to support strong long-term growth of Groupon’s core daily deals business. As a result, merchant growth could very well hit a wall sooner rather than later.

Groupon’s IPO prospectus provided a lot of data that investors may want to use to try and value the company. For instance, as of September 30th, Groupon had 143 million email subscribers. How many of those have ever bought a Groupon? I was pretty surprised by this number actually… the answer is 30 million. Only 20% of the people getting these emails have ever bought one, and that is a cumulative figure for the last three years! Investors trying to place a value on Groupon’s subscribers may want to forget the 143 million number, as only 30 million are generating revenue for the company.

The numbers get worse. Of those 30 million people who have bought at least one Groupon (Groupon calls them “customers” as opposed to the 143 million “subscribers”), only 16 million are repeat customers. So only about 10% of the people who get the emails have bought 2 or more Groupons since the company launched. This is hardly a metric that screams “loyal customers that generate strong repeat business,” which is what investors would want to see.

Why is this important? I think a good way to try and value Groupon (if you even want to bother) is to place a dollar value on each paying customer. After all, Groupon is not unlike a subscription service like Netflix or Sirius XM Radio, aside from the obvious fact that a paying customer of the latter two businesses are more valuable because they generate guaranteed revenue each and every month. In fact, both Netflix and Sirius get about $11.50 per month on average from their paying customers. Interestingly, Groupon earns about $11.90 in revenue for each Groupon it sells, but they are not even close to selling every customer at least one Groupon per month on a recurring basis. As a result, it is correct to conclude that investors should value a Groupon customer far below that of a Netflix or Sirius customer.

Which brings us to the stock market’s valuation of Groupon versus Netflix or Sirius. Each of Netflix’s 23 million subscribers are worth about $200 based on current stock prices. Sirius XM, with 21 million subscribers, is valued at about $600 per subscriber (considerably more than Netflix because Sirius XM has higher profit margins). How much is the market paying for each Groupon customer at the $20.00 per share IPO price? Well, $12.75 billion divided by 30 million comes out to $425 each.

It is not hard to understand why skeptics do not believe Groupon is worth nearly $13 billion today. To warrant a $425 per customer valuation, Groupon would have to sell far more Groupons to its customers than it does now, or make so much profit on each one that it negates the lower sales rate. The former scenario is unlikely to materialize as merchant growth slows. The latter could improve when the company stops spending so much money on marketing (currently more than half of net revenue is allocated there), but who knows when that will happen or how the daily deal industry landscape will evolve in the meantime over the next couple of years.

“Buyer beware” seems to definitely be warranted here.

***Update Fri 11/04/11 8:55am*** Groupon has increased the number of shares it will sell in today’s IPO to 40.25 million from 34.5 million. The figures in the above blog post have not been adjusted to account for this increased deal size.

Full Disclosure: No positions in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Should Investors Revisit Sears Holdings Now That Eddie Lampert Appears To Be Shifting Strategies?

Longtime readers of this blog are familiar with my history with Sears Holdings (SHLD) and its predecessor, Kmart. A brief summary goes something like this.

Hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert loaded up on the debt of Kmart for pennies on the dollar as it fell into bankruptcy (nobody else wanted to come anywhere near the stuff). When the struggling retailer emerged post-restructuring, Lampert owned a majority stake and began cutting costs and reduced the company’s focus on competing with Wal-Mart on price (a losing proposition). The changes worked. Kmart was making money again and the stock soared from $15 to $100 before anyone really knew what had happened. Lampert merged Kmart with Sears in 2005 and investors cheered the move, imagining the magic he could work with strong brands and valuable real estate. Investors assumed he would close money-losing stores, sell off real estate to other retailers, ink deals to sell proprietary products (Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools) in other chains, and use the cash flow to buyback stock and make acquisitions to diversify the company away from Kmart and Sears, which were clearly dying a slow death. Sears Holdings stock hit a high of $195 in 2007, for a gain of 1,200% in just four years.

Then something strange happened. Those grand ideas never materialized. People close to Lampert were convinced that was the route he would take, based on his experience and philosophy, but he never came out and said it himself. Investors had resorted to blind faith. While Lampert has closed some stores and sold off some real estate, the total store count has actually risen from 3,800 to over 4,000. Lampert cut costs and bought back stock (shares outstanding have fallen from 165 million to 107 million) but he has spent most of his time trying to turn around the retail operations. Couple that flawed strategy with an economy that went bust (the Sears deal closed in the heat of the housing bubble) and profits at Sears Holdings have plummeted. Despite the 35% reduction in shares outstanding, earnings per share dropped like a rock from $9 in 2006 to $1 in 2010. Like many others, upon realizing faith alone was not enough, I sold the last of my Sears stock in 2008 after it had dropped back down to the $100 area. Sure I had a huge profit from the early Kmart days, but the potential for Sears Holdings was just too great to be squandered.

So why rehash the past when readers could get all of that information just be reading all of the posts I penned back then about Sears Holdings? Because it appears Lampert might finally be getting his act together and not putting all of his eggs in the “make Kmart and Sears popular again” basket. It started last year with some subtle moves like splitting up the company into smaller divisions (including one for brands and one for real estate). Then the company reached a deal to sell Craftsman products in Ace Hardware stores (a much better idea than just putting them in Kmart stores). None of these moves were big but maybe they indicated a larger shift in strategy.

This year we have seen further movement in that direction. Sears has announced plans to spin off its Orchard Supply hardware store business into a separate public company. Craftsman tools can now be found in Costco stores and indications are that Kenmore appliances might be next. Diehard batteries are now going to be sold in 129 Meijer stores across the country. Floorspace is now available for other retailers to lease within most of the company’s existing 4,000 Kmart and Sears locations. In Greensboro, North Carolina, for instance, there is a Whole Foods Market store located inside of a Sears. For the first time since the Kmart/Sears merged closed in early 2005 we are seeing signs that Sears Holdings might finally be focused on extracting value from the company’s assets in ways other than trying to turn back the retail industry’s clock several decades. As a result, it makes sense to keep close eyes on the company’s stock once again.

Caution should be advised here, however. Annual revenue at Sears Holdings, while down from $54 billion in 2005, is still formidable at about $43 billion. Selling a few screwdrivers here and leasing some floor space there won’t have a huge impact on their financial results. However, one can certainly see the potential if these efforts prove successful and are adopted in widespread form across not only the company’s 4,000 stores, but within other retailers’ four walls as well. It is too early to predict a turnaround, but the stock price is not factoring in much of this strategy shift, if indeed it is real and sustainable. After dropping from $195 in 2007 to $100 in 2008, Sears Holdings stock has been cut in half again over the last 18 months and now fetches just $55 per share. If we see these moves start to bear fruit on the income statement, the bull market for the stock just may well resume after a five-year hiatus.

Full Disclosure: No position in Sears Holdings at the time of writing but positions may change at any time

Amazon: The One Overvalued Stock I Wouldn’t Mind Owning

“I know you are a value investor, but if you were forced to own one growth stock with a hugely un-Peridot-like valuation, what would it be?”

I recently was posed this question and I have to say, even though it does go against my overall philosophy when it comes to investing, it is an interesting inquiry to ponder. I would actually say Amazon (AMZN) is the one overvalued stock I would not mind owning. Now, long time readers of this blog will recall I have long warned against Amazon shares. The valuation has always baffled me and raised red flags, but for years such caution was wrong, as the stock has done extraordinarily well. So why today, at $213 per share, 50 times trailing EBITDA, and 86 times 2011 earnings would I pick Amazon as an overvalued stock that might make sense owning? Well, it doesn’t hurt that they have defied my expectations for years, and I don’t think I am the only one.

I never really thought Amazon was going to be anything more than a great online retailer of other people’s goods. And while their position in that space will only strengthen as more and more people become comfortable buying online and allocate a higher percentage of their purchases from storefronts to the web, offering low prices keeps their margins minuscule. In fact, Amazon’s operating margins in 2010 were 4.1% compared with 6.1% for Wal-Mart and 7.8% for Target. It turns out that Amazon’s retail model is not more profitable than bricks and mortar stores, probably because they still need to maintain huge warehouses across the country (fewer bricks, yes, but bricks nonetheless), which is costly, and they have to offer rock bottom prices and free shipping to entice people to buy more online. Amazon has certainly perfected this strategy, but high margin it isn’t.

The part of the story I missed, frankly, was how strong they could be in new markets that they essentially help build from scratch. The Kindle e-reader was Amazon’s first real big venture outside of just trying to beat bricks and mortar stores at their own game. They successfully created a new market and more importantly, one that has the potential to be higher margin than traditional book printing (digital books). Sure, today they don’t make much money on each e-book sold, or the Kindle device itself for that matter (publishers are still setting prices for the most part and keep most of the revenue) but Amazon has the potential to eliminate the middleman in the years ahead. They could become the publisher and help millions of regular authors publish electronically. This is not unlike what Netflix is trying to do by funding their own original tv series now that they have millions of subscribers.

Next up for Amazon is an entrance into the tablet market sometime in the fall. With such a huge library of streaming music, movies, and television shows, there is nothing stopping Amazon from being a heavyweight in digital music and streaming video. Frankly, Amazon can offer a lot more to consumers with a web-enabled Kindle or Amazon-branded tablet versus the Barnes and Noble Nook or yet another me-too Android tablet like the Motorola Xoom or Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Other than Apple, Amazon appears to be the only consumer electronics player that could offer its customers differentiated products. The margins on commoditized Android tablets will head towards zero as everyone cuts prices to the bone to try and grab market share. Amazon seems well positioned to offer more with their products. As a result, they could easily be a formidable competitor to Apple in the tablet and e-reader markets. I’m not saying they pass Apple, but they certainly can pass Samsung, Motorola, HP, and whomever else to be the clear number two player, and I feel good about that prediction even before they have launched many of the products they have in the pipeline.

So what about the stock? Why could it go higher even at its current valuation? Look, at its current market value of $96 billion, I can’t possibly make a valuation case for Amazon stock based on cash flow and earnings in the near-term. However, if you simply look at their addressable market opportunity over the next 5-10 years and compare their market value with other leading technology and retail companies, you begin to see how a bullish argument could be made longer term. Apple is worth $330B. Google $170B. Wal-Mart $185B. Facebook could fetch $100B after its IPO. If Amazon continues to innovate like they have what would stop them from being worth $125B, $150B, or even $200B in five years?

I know I have completely changed my negative tune on Amazon as a stock investment (and don’t get me wrong, as a value investor I am not going to go out and buy it), but since I was asked the question, if I had to own one seemingly grossly overvalued stock, that would be the one I would pick. Given what they have done in the last five years, coupled with what they are planning and compared with the values of other companies they compete with, $96B seems a lot more reasonable if you ignore the fact that such a figure is 50 times trailing cash flow, or 86 times this year’s profits.

Thoughts?

 

Full Disclosure: No position in Amazon at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

CEO Hire from Apple Gives New Life to JC Penney

I can’t recall another time when a stock has risen 17% the day the company announces the hiring of a new CEO. But that is exactly what happened Tuesday after department store chain JC Penney (JCP) landed Apple retail head Ron Johnson to lead the company. Johnson’s track record building up Apple’s retail store network over the last 11 years, plus a 15-year stint at Target prior to that, has investors clambering for JCP shares, which jumped from $30 to $35 as soon as the news was announced. So should we go out and buy some JC Penney stock too? Maybe, at the right price (not after a $5 jump).

There are a few things that one should point out when evaluating this management change. First, while the stock price increase indicates that JCP has become more valuable overnight, this will be a long term turnaround story, if it materializes at all. Johnson doesn’t even start his new job until November 1st. After that it will likely take him six to twelve months to assemble a hand-picked team, review JCP’s operations, and formulate a plan for making changes. Adding on another year for those changes to be implemented company-wide is not an unrealistic assumption. As a result, we might be waiting until 2013 before we really see if Johnson’s magic will work at this department store chain. And don’t forget, we are not selling MacBook Air’s and iPads here. Despite who is running the show, JCP is still in the business of selling Van Heusen shirts and St John’s Bay shorts to middle income folks shopping in aging shopping malls, not an easy task for anyone in today’s highly competitive retail environment.

Also of note is the pay package that Ron Johnson accepted to come over to JCP. He will receive a base salary of $1.5 million and be eligible for an annual bonus of up to $1.875 million if certain milestones are reached. But the big component of his compensation plan is in stock. Johnson gets $50 million in restricted stock because he was set to have that same amount of Apple stock awards vest in 2012, had he not left the company. And by far the most interesting aspect of his pay plan is that he has agreed to buy 7.25 million warrants with a strike price of $30 per share directly from JCP, for $50 million. The warrants cannot be exercised for six years and he paid about $7 each for them.

That means he is investing $50 million of his own money into JCP stock for the next six years at what is essentially a price of $37 per share. As a result, he loses $7 million for each dollar below $37 the stock fetches six years from now, and if the stock is below $30 at that time he loses the entire $50 million. On the flip side, if the stock goes to $50 per share in the next six years, his $50 million investment will be worth a cool $362 million.

This warrant plan tells us a few things about Johnson’s reasons for taking the CEO job at JCP. One, when he says he has wanted to lead a retailer as CEO for a while, he’s not kidding. There was plenty of money, job security, and minimal reputational risk by staying at Apple. He really isn’t doing it for the money either, because although JCP matched his previous Apple stock grants, he is putting up his own cash to try and profit from his future progress at JCP. The cash salary and bonus payment, while not immaterial to the average person, are fairly meager by today’s CEO standards. And JCP isn’t paying that much for his services given that the $50 million in restricted stock grants will be completely negated by the $50 million Johnson is paying the company for 7 million warrants.

So should investors buy the stock? As a value investor, I would never want to buy it after a $5 one-day pop, although the shares have dropped to $34. Compared with other department store chains JCP stock is neither cheap nor expensive, at their current multiple of 6.2x trailing cash flow. That valuation compares to Kohls and Macy’s at 5.5x, Target at 6.2x, and Wal-Mart at 6.9x. If someone believes JCP is not already a dead retailer, and has enough faith in a guy who helped make Target cool and led the hugely successful Apple retail strategy, then maybe buying the stock makes sense, provided you take a multi-year outlook. What price would be attractive in that scenario? Judging from Johnson’s warrant package, I would think $30 (or something close to it) would be an excellent entry point. At that price you can be invested alongside him, at around the same price, without having to fork over $50 million of your own money.

Full Disclosure: No position in JCP at the time of writing but positions may change at any time

Sears, Urban Outfitters Smart to Consider Rival Bids for J. Crew

According to reports out of Bloomberg today, J. Crew Group (JCG), the upscale clothing retailer run by former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler, could receive competing buyout offers from the likes of Sears Holdings (SHLD) or Urban Outfitters (URBN). J. Crew has already agreed to a private equity buyout for $43.50 per share in cash, but the deal included a “go-shop” provision,which allows the company to solicit higher bids until January 15th. This Bloomberg report signals that other parties are indeed interested to some degree.

I have been following the situation closely because J. Crew is a current holding in a portfolio I manage for Peridot Capital on Wealthfront. Normally with the stock of an acquisition target trading less than 1% below the agreed upon buyout price I would have long sold the stock, but the price J. Crew accepted made me hold on with hopes of another offer. JCG agreed to sell out for less than 7.5 times trailing cash flow, which may be in line with their peer group, but JCG is not just an average run-of-the-mill retailer. The company’s upscale apparel, coupled with the merchandising abilities of CEO Drexler, make the company a very hot commodity in retail. The original purchase price of $43.50 seemed low to me, given that one would expect a buyout to fetch a premium price for such a wonderful asset within the retailing arena.

As a result, the Bloomberg report that other retailers are poking around and weighing offers should not be overly surprising, but the two parties mentioned are very interesting. Sears, you may recall, was taken over by Eddie Lampert in a move widely expected to result in him diversifying away from their legacy Sears and Kmart stores. Investors (myself included) were excited about the potential for Lampert to siphon off cash flow from Sears’ retail stores and expand into other areas with better growth prospects, but became disgusted and bailed on the stock after he did very little to move away from those two chains. Other than a bid for Restoration Hardware several years ago, Sears has squandered an opportunity so far but perhaps their interest in delving into J. Crew’s books signals a much needed shift in strategy. Not only would J. Crew give Sears a new upscale brand with much more growth potential, but the company’s lower end J. Crew factory outlet line could sell quite well in Sears and Kmart stores, which would boost J. Crew’s reach almost immediately.

Interest from Urban Outfitters is also interesting because it would fit in with the company’s Anthropologie stores as an upscale brand with a middle age target consumer. Rather than building new brands from scratch, which is what Urban has chosen to do in the past, buying an established company like J. Crew (and getting Mickey Drexler) would really mesh well with the company’s image and overall direction in the industry.

While there are no assurances that a rival bid will actually emerge in the next 10 days or so, this story is certainly one to watch. Not only could a company easily justify a purchase price 10-20% above the $43.50 that J. Crew has already accepted, but in the case of the specific companies rumored to be sniffing around, the strategic fits are quite obvious, which cannot always be said in the world of M&A.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of J. Crew and Urban Outfitters with no position in Sears at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.

Biglari Exchange Offer Signals Inflated Stock Price of Warren Buffet Follower

Biglari Holdings (BH), in the company’s first major move since changing its corporate name from Steak ‘n Shake (read my last post about Biglari and Steak ‘n Shake), has chosen an uncommon method for completing its next public market transaction. Rather than use the company’s cash to acquire a minority stake in Advance Auto Parts (AAP), Biglari has offered to exchange shares of his own stock for shares in AAP at a ratio of 0.1179. Such a move is rare, but more importantly, it signals to investors that Biglari feels that his stock is at least fully valued and at most overvalued. Otherwise, he would have preferred to use cash rather than stock to invest in AAP. Smart capital allocators such as Biglari only have a reason to dilute their ownership stake if they are using prime currency. In this case, BH shares at nearly $400 each were certainly on the expensive side, at nearly two times book value.

Unfortunately, the market has reacted appropriately to this move by shedding nearly 10% from Biglari Holdings’ market value. Trading down into the mid 350’s, the exchange offer to Advance Auto Parts shareholders went from being an attractive option (originally representing a premium of about $1 per share) to being very unattractive (about a $3 per share discount). The markets in general are quite smart and they appear to have sniffed out Biglari’s intention of swapping an expensive stock for a cheaper one.

Why he did not opt to make this offer privately to one or a handful of existing AAP shareholders is baffling. By going public with the offer, he essentially ensured that his stock would get hit hard and reduce any interest in his exchange offer. Of course, the more Biglari makes headlines the more investors might start to read up on him and decide to invest in his company. That exposure could result in a fairly quick rebound in the stock price of Biglari Holdings, prompting more offers like this one.

Full Disclosure: No position in AAP or BH at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

AutoZone: Ripe for Investment at the Right Price

In today’s economic and financial market climate investors have to balance a stock market that is no longer cheap and an economy that has obvious structural damage. The consensus has concluded that below-average economic growth and employment could be with us for at least several more years. Given such circumstances we must be even more careful than usual in selecting companies to invest in.

In my mind, there are four things investors should look for when choosing new investments today. The first, valuation, is the obvious one for me as a value investor. No matter how much you like the story behind a stock, if you do not pay a fair price, the odds are stacked against you if you are trying to beat the market.

With so many economic headwinds, however, investors are likely to find their fair share of inexpensive stocks. Three other factors that I think are important, in no particular order, are:

1. A predictable and stable business outlook

There is no doubt that we are currently experiencing a fragile economic recovery. Any numbers of things could reverse the trend of the last several quarters and undo much of the progress that has been made. As a result, investors should focus on businesses where the outlook is predictable and relatively stable. This will make it fairly unimportant if GDP grows by a lot, a little, or not at all.

2. A strong market position that faces very few, if any, competitive threats in the near to intermediate term

A predictable and stable overall business outlook is great, but if a particular company is unable to successfully navigate and compete in that business, it could still falter. Not only must end demand be predictable, but the company’s own market position within that market is crucial as well.

3. Company management needs to put shareholders’ interests first

Unfortunately, this does not happen as often as it should (which is all of the time). Corporate executives routinely flush capital down the toilet at the expense of shareholders. They seem to all too often forget that they are working for the shareholders, not themselves or their cozy boards of directors. Management teams should have a clear focus on creating shareholder value and have a strong track record of putting shareholders first, ahead of themselves.

A company that I believe fits all of these criteria, and therefore would make an excellent investment in the current economic climate (at the right price, of course), is AutoZone (AZO), the large automobile parts retailer.

In this case, both the industry (automotive repair and maintenance), and the company (one of the largest and most profitable auto parts retailers in the country) epitomize stable and predictable businesses. The auto parts industry is largely non-cyclical, as cars need to be maintained no matter what the economy is doing.

Some may even argue that a weak economy bodes well for auto parts retailers because as new car sales decline, demand should rise for parts needed to keep older cars on the road longer. This is certainly a strong argument, and an incremental positive for the story, but even so AutoZone and their competitors have not seen any meaningful cyclical upswing in sales as the economy has struggled, and I would not expect one to occur going forward.

In addition, AutoZone has a very strong market position (more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. alone) and there is little in the way of new competition in the pipeline. One of the effects of the recession was a dramatic reduction in retail-related new construction and expansion, which had become a staple during the credit bubble.

The most enticing part of the AutoZone story for investors, however, is the shareholder-friendly nature of the company’s management team. Not only does management run a very tight and efficient operation (operating margins for the last fiscal year were 17% — very high for a retailer), but they allocate capital very intelligently.

Unlike some managers who crave growth, AutoZone has grown its store base meagerly in recent years, as it realizes that its industry is mature and population growth and some pricing power are the only real drivers of sales. The company is quite pleased growing sales in the low to mid single digits each year, rather than expanding too much, cannibalizing existing stores, and earning sub-par returns on its capital.

Where does this excess cash flow go? Mostly to share repurchases, which directly translates into value creation for shareholders. In fact, during the last decade AutoZone used free cash flow to buy back huge amounts of stock. Entering fiscal 2000, the company had 150 million shares outstanding. By the end of fiscal 2009 that number had been cut by two-thirds to an astonishing 51 million. Not surprisingly, AutoZone’s share price rose from $24 to $147 during that decade, for a gain of more than 500%.

Too many times managers and investors equate growth with stock price returns, but AutoZone is a perfect example of how you can create massive amounts of  shareholder value without rapid expansion. The company can generate strong double digit earnings growth, while only growing sales in the low to mid single digits, if it allocates capital in shareholder friendly ways. During fiscal 2009 AutoZone’s revenue grew by less than 7% but earnings per share rose by nearly 20%, largely due to an aggressive stock buyback program.

There is no doubt that the company is a strong investment candidate, especially in the current macroeconomic environment. As is always the case, however, investors need to make sure they pay the right price.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long AutoZone at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Five Years Later Sears Finally Licenses One of Its Brands

Long time readers of my blog know that for several years I was a long term investor in Kmart and then Sears Holdings, which was formed after Eddie Lampert orchestrated Kmart’s merger with Sears in early 2005. The bullish reasoning behind the deal, which was largely postulated in the financial media and analyst community given that Lampert keeps his plans close to the vest, was that although Kmart and Sears were eroding brands within the retail sector, they produced strong cash flows which could be harnessed to create shareholder value in ways other than building additional Kmart or Sears locations.

Given his distaste for throwing good money after bad, it was widely thought Lampert would be quick to close money-losing stores, sell the real estate or lease them out to others, push to sell the exclusive Sears brands (Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard) in other retailing channels, buy back stock, reduce debt, and use excess cash flow to diversify the company into other businesses. Such a holding company structure would be more viable longer term, modeled partly after the model Warren Buffett has perfected within Berkshire Hathaway over many decades. Given that Lampert renamed the Kmart/Sears combination Sears Holdings and repeatedly stressed in his shareholder letters the importance of avoiding unprofitable growth simply for the sake of growing, such a strategy, although not spelled out completely by management, was hardly an outlandish basis for investment.

That was five years ago. Kmart stock was trading at $101 when the Sears merger was announced. Today, despite a share count far lower, the stock fetches only about $90 per share. I have long since given up on Sears as a long term investment after several years of waiting resulted in very little effort on Lampert’s part to truly diversify Sears Holdings. The company has closed dozens of stores, but given their base of nearly 3,500, the closings have not been significant, and many money-losing stores remain open. Real estate sales have been minimal as well.

Rather than buy other businesses or attempt to sell its own brands through other retailers (putting large Craftman tool sections in Kmart stores was a half-hearted effort on this front), Lampert has been content with paying down debt and buying back enormous amounts of stock. These two value creation techniques are undoubtedly strong uses of excess capital, but their effectiveness is not maximized unless the overall business is, at the very least, stable. However, revenue has fallen every year since the formation of Sears Holdings, from $55 billion a year at the time of the deal to $43 billion annually today. As a result, while the share count has been reduced from 165 million to 125 million (admittedly an impressive 24% decline), earnings per share have fallen off dramatically as declining sales eat into profits (retailing is a very high fixed cost business).

Imagine my surprise then, when on Thursday February 11th, nearly five years after the Kmart/Sears merger closed, Sears Holdings announced that it had reached a licensing agreement to expand distribution of its Diehard brand of automobile batteries and other products into more retailing outlets. It only took five years!

I was certainly interested (at least mildly as a passive observer now) in this sudden shift in strategy, at least until I read the corporate press release announcing the deal. Why the muted excitement? Well, Sears has not signed on any retailers to sell DieHard products, rather they have signed a licensing deal with their own DieHard manufacturer, Schumacher Electric, to distribute them. No wonder I neither have ever heard of Schumacher Electric nor get excited when reading about this licensing deal with them.

While I would never expect a company in Sears’ position to publicly predict how much money a deal like this might bring into the company’s coffers in coming years, I cannot help but be surprised that this is the best they could do after five years. Maybe this deal does actually produce significant incremental cash flow going forward for the company, but I have to think that a deal to sell DieHard products in, say, Target stores nationwide would generate a lot more buzz and investor interest.

While it is good to see Sears Holdings finally making some promising moves to create long term shareholder value, that it took so long for a deal like this to get done, coupled with the fact that it is only with their manufacturer so far and not an actual retailer, is hardly reason to think the lofty goals many investors had for this company will actually come to fruition.

Full Disclosure: No position in Sears Holdings at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Amazon Now Worth As Much As Target, Costco Combined

This is just one of the market valuations that I have not understood in the past (and still do not at the present). Amazon is one of my favorite companies and I buy stuff on the site all of the time. My caution on the stock in recent years (due to a sky high valuation) has been proven wrong, as the stock keeps moving higher. Amazon continues to steal market share in the retail sector from bricks and mortar storefronts as more and more people spend more online. I would have thought most people who prefer online shopping would have already adopted it as a way of life, but evidently that trend continues unabated.

tgt-cost-amzn

I would not consider buying the stock at current levels, however, as I simply cannot figure out why Amazon should be worth as much as Target and Costco combined when the latter two firms earn 7.5 times as much money and do so at similar profit margins. It is true that Amazon is growing faster but the valuation discrepancy seems to more than account for that. Of course, if they keep growing market share, perhaps Amazon can grow at current rates for far longer than many ever would have thought. While I surely would have loved to own the stock this year, I am content simply being a satisfied repeat customer.

Do Americans Want To Buy Fuel Efficient Cars?

There appears to be debate on this question, which is puzzling to me. I think many people are mistakenly under the assumption that “small, fuel efficient” cars equate to miniature so called “smart” cars that we see every so often on the road and in Europe, as opposed to simply something other than a gas guzzling SUV or crossover vehicle. In fact, most sedans today are very fuel efficient.

Will U.S. consumers buy these cars? Well, that question has actually already been answered. As you can see from the chart below, the top 5 best selling cars in the U.S. get more than 30 miles per gallon on the highway, and #6 on the list isn’t too far behind: