Steve Jobs Wrong About Stock Buyback Impact

Reports out of the Apple (AAPL) shareholders meeting today are not very encouraging if you are an investor in the company. One of the first questions posed to Steve Jobs during the Q&A session, the first Jobs has attended since his medical leave of absence, concerned the odd decision made by the company to sit on a cash hoard of about $40 billion, earning little or no interest.

Apple has previously taken the position that keeping cash on-hand for acquisitions or large research and development projects made sense. I can buy that for the first $10-$15 billion, but the kind of cash balance held today is not only silly, but a disservice to investors.

So how did Jobs answer when shareholders asked about the possibility of using some cash for a dividend or stock buyback plan? Not well. Jobs said that not only does Apple need to keep that cash for growth opportunities, but even more disturbing, he stated that paying a dividend or buying back stock would not change the stock price.

Given that Peridot Capital has a position in Apple stock, this comment is not only wrong, but it indicates to me that Jobs does not really care about shareholders very much. He is right that paying a dividend would not change the stock price. A dollar of cash is worth the same on Apple’s balance sheet as it would be in the pocket of a shareholder, so any transfer of cash from the company to investors would serve merely as a partial cash out of one’s investment (and would possibly be taxable for the investor).

To assume the same for a share repurchase plan, however, is simply incorrect. Apple could retire 10% of the company’s outstanding shares and only use half of its unused cash balance! How can Jobs argue that a 10% increase in Apple’s earnings per share would not positively impact the stock price? That is exactly why companies use free cash flow to repurchase shares; each investors’ share of the ownership pie increases, which makes each share of stock more valuable.

For those of us hoping Apple would boost earnings by investing its cash hoard more wisely, it appears our voices won’t be heard anytime soon. Unfortunate, but true.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of Apple 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

Steak n Shake Company Quietly Shifting to Berkshire Hathaway Business Model

The Steak n Shake Company (SNS), an operator of 485 burger and shake focused casual dining restaurants in 21 states, has recently been quietly transformed by a new management team into a small Berkshire Hathaway type holding company. The move is very Warren Buffett-esque, with a 1-for-20 reverse stock split aimed at boosting the share price to well above normal levels (above $300 currently) and a bid to buy an insurance company among the noteworthy actions taken thus far.

What I find almost as interesting as the moves made by new CEO Sardar Biglari (a former hedge fund manager who has gained control of the firm and inserted himself into the top management slot) is the fact that this move has largely gone unnoticed by the financial media. Granted, Steak n Shake is a small cap regional restaurant chain ($450 million equity value) but the exact same strategy undertaken by Sears Holdings chairman Eddie Lampert garnered huge amounts of press.

Clearly Sears and Kmart are larger, more well known U.S. brands, but there seems to be a lot of interest from investors for any company trying to mimic the holding company business model that Buffett has perfected for decades. As a result, I would have thought Steak n Shake would have gotten some more attention.

Essentially, Biglari is using similar methods Lampert used when he took control of Kmart and later purchased Sears. Steak n Shake has dramatically cut costs, reduced capital expenditures, and will add to its store base going forward solely via franchising new locations, rather than building them with shareholder capital. The results have been impressive so far. During 2009, the first full year under new management, Steak n Shake’s free cash flow soared from negative $20 million to positive $31 million.

Biglari has made it clear that he plans to deploy the company’s capital into the best investment opportunities going forward, and that likely does not include heavy investments into the core Steak n Shake business. He has announced plans to rename the company Biglari Holdings (an odd choice if you ask me) and recently offered to acquire a property and casualty insurance company (the Warren Buffett comparison is worth noting here) but was rebuffed by Fremont Michigan InsuraCorp.

In the short term, Biglari and his fellow shareholders have reaped the benefits of his shift from a capital intensive negative free cash flow restaurant business to a more lean and efficient holding company. The stock has more than doubled from the $144 price ($7.20 pre-split) it fetched on the day Biglari took over.

The larger question remains how well this young former hedge fund manager can further deploy Steak n Shake’s operating profits in the future. At more than $300 per share, the stock trades for 1.6 times tangible book value of around $196, versus about 1.9 times for Berkshire Hathaway.

In my view, any price over 1.5 times tangible book value for an unproven concept and management team is too much to pay. However, given the results thus far it should come as no surprise that investors are willing to shell out more for the stock than they were previously, despite a lot of uncertainty over Steak n Shake’s future. Count me as one who will be interested in monitoring the situation going forward but would only take a flier on Biglari if the price to do so got cheaper.

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