As has been well documented, one of the strategies being used by Sears Holdings (SHLD) to try and stop the financial bleeding at the company is to lease out space to third party tenants. Since many of its stores are too large given the company’s ever-shrinking customer base, Sears is splitting up some of its stores (many of which are owned outright, not leased) into multiple units in order to reduce its own retail footprint and boost revenue by collecting rent from third party tenants.
For example, here is a picture of Sears’ Oakbrook Center store in the suburbs of Chicago:
At first glance it might look like any other outdoor mall, but the Pottery Barn stores are actually part of the Sears building (the Sears entrance is around the corner by the columns). Sears likely collects about $500,000 in rent from Pottery Barn annually for these subdivided spaces.
Former Kmart stores are also being leased out to retailers who can accommodate larger box sizes. Home decor chain Garden Ridge, which is in the process of rebranding their 70+ stores with the “At Home” moniker, is actually Sears’ largest third party tenant currently (excluding Lands End, which leases space inside existing Sears stores and until recently was owned by Sears), occupying five closed Kmart stores. Those deals have put Sears over the 1 million square foot mark for third party retail leases. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that leasing 1 million square feet, which took the company about 2 years of serious effort to reach (Seritage Realty Trust, Sears’ in-house leasing operation, was formed in 2012), is just a rounding error for this $30 billion per year company. In order for third party rental income to reach just 1% of Sears’ annual revenue, the company would have to rent out about 20 million square feet of space, which could easily take 5-10 years.
I estimate that between now and the end of 2016, Sears needs to come up with $2.7 billion in cash just to cover its pension obligations, interest on its outstanding debt, and capital expenditures for their current store base. Where will this money come from? That’s the problem for the stock right now, and why I see more short-term pain ahead for Sears Holdings shareholders. Even if we were to assume that Sears’ retail stores breakeven on an operating cash basis (which they are not doing right now, hence why this capital is not going to come from operating profit), the company still needs to come up with several billion dollars.
Management has announced they are exploring monetization options for both Sears Auto Centers and its ~50% stake in Sears Canada, but even if both were sold they are unlikely to fetch more than $1.2 billion in a very optimistic scenario. That leaves another $1.5 billion to find somewhere. Sears Holdings currently has about $600 million of cash in the bank, so further asset sales or more debt will be required simply to get the company funded for the next two and a half years. After all of that cash goes out the door, the asset base left for shareholders will be materially smaller than it is today.
This is why I am waiting on the sidelines, despite the clear value in Sears’ vast real estate portfolio. As long as the company continues to burn through cash operationally, more and more assets will need to be sold simply to cover capital needs. Even if they continue to lease out space to other retailers, it simply is not enough to help financially in any meaningful way. By waiting things out, but continuing to monitor the situation closely, I am hoping that over the next couple of years, more and more assets are shed out of necessity, and I might have an opportunity to buy the stock at a lower price, and with more of the assets concentrated in the owned real estate (the debt holders and the pensioners can have Sears Canada and Sears Auto Centers — they’re not good businesses). If that happens, there might be a time down the road when the price investors have to pay, relative to the assets and liabilities on the books, represent an attractive investment opportunity. Since I don’t see things getting better in the short term, I think it’s too early to invest in Sears Holdings for the real estate.
Full Disclosure: Long Sears Holdings bonds at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time