I Hope Eddie Lampert Is Mulling a Deal

What could be worse than trying to turn around Kmart and Sears? The only thing I can think of is trying to do that when the low end consumer is being squeezed from all angles and the housing market is weak. Today’s earnings warnings from Home Depot (HD) and Sears (SHLD) aren’t that surprising when we look at the macro view of the economy domestically, but even still, the Sears number was pretty bad and Home Depot only escaped a wrath of selling because of their enormous buyback. Sears announced a $1 billion buyback, but that is just a drop in the bucket for them (4% of shares outstanding).

Home Depot got lucky. They timed the sale of their supply business well enough that they can just use that money to buyback shares above the market price and keep their stock up even when earnings are declining. Sears has a problem, though, in that it hasn’t diversified yet like everyone thought it would. The Kmart/Sears merger was supposed to be about real estate, excess cash flow, making more acquisitions, becoming the next Berkshire, etc. What happened?

Well, Eddie Lampert decided to try and fix the retail business as best he could. That’s a perfectly fine idea (just look at what JC Penney has been able to do over the last five years and you’ll see retail turnarounds like this do happen) but given we have the low end consumer getting squeezed and a weak housing market (which just happen to be the two core focuses for Kmart and Sears), the fact that Lampert hasn’t diversified Sears Holdings yet is a problem right now.

Long term investors (myself included) likely aren’t overly concerned because they know the retail weakness won’t last forever, and they know Lampert has other ideas for excess cash. But, given the stock price weakness lately, he really needs to do something to get the shares moving again, a la Home Depot. So what should he do?

Quite simply, a deal, any deal. I don’t mean just any deal that happens to be available (it has to make sense), but it also does not have to be an outright buyout of another company. Surely Wall Street would applaud the purchase of something at a bargain basement price, preferably outside of retail completely, but even an internal deal could boost shareholder morale.

The most logical would be a large real estate deal like many investors have been hoping for since Lampert bought Kmart out of bankruptcy and leveraged that stake to takeover Sears. Eddie hasn’t sold underperforming locations as fast as many people thought he might. It is clear he wants to try things before giving up on certain locations. However, a deal to monetize some real estate would accomplish two things that would help the stock price.

First, it would show to investors that the real estate actually does have meaningful value. It has been debated exactly how much the Sears real estate is worth. Everybody has their own forecasts, but in reality, something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay. Selling stores would give investors a way to value that real estate (which is likely understated in most valuation models focused mostly on retail profits) and also show them that Lampert is willing to cut his losses on more stores.

The second thing it would do would be to help the bottom line. Selling underperforming stores not only gives you money to diversify with, but it also boosts your earnings, which are already under pressure due to the economic environment. Surely there are stores that aren’t making any money, even after many have been closed. Closing those underperforming locations will help boost retail margins, which would also boost investors’ perception of what the company’s retail business is worth.

All in all, Sears is in the unenviable situation of trying to turn around a retailer during tough times. Since this makes it harder than usual, if they want to continue down the retail road, it is imperative for the company to make some moves to diversify away from low-end retail and housing. The only way to do that is to free up some cash, or use cash you already have on hand, and do a deal. Either sell some real estate and reallocate that money, or use the money you have now and buy something unrelated to Kmart and Sears.

If Lampert does something like that sometime this year, Sears stock can get moving again. As long as he waits it out, the odds are good that the stock is dead money for a while. I’m confident he will make the right moves, which is why I’ve owned the stock for years and will continue to hold it, but after Tuesday’s earnings warning, I think it is important for him to do something sooner rather than later. If not, he will eventually lose some of his loyal supporters.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Sears Holdings