owning property vs. leasing: investment possibilities

asset heavy to asset light

A generation or two ago, the style in the US was for companies to own the premises their businesses operated in–hotels, department stores, restaurants and the like.  One major disadvantage of this approach, however, is that it takes a huge amount of capital to be able to expand.

About the time I was entering the stock market, American hoteliers had worked out that they could sell their properties to the local doctor, dentist, accountant, or oil sheikh and take back a management contract.  They found the buyers were more interested in the prestige of ownership than in profits.  They were willing to pay very high prices for the properties, while ceding virtually all the hotel cash flow back to the management company.  The “asset light” movement was born.  (Around a decade later, European hotel firms caught on and began to do the same thing.)

Hotels are admittedly an extreme example.  In my experience it rarely has made economic sense to own a hotel.  Better  an office building if you want to own real estate.  Still, asset light is the current style in many industries.

hybrids are potentially interesting

Many hybrids–a mix of leased and owned properties–remain, however.  They can sometimes present interesting investment opportunities.

An example:

At one time a friend pointed out the W Company (not the real name) in Hong Kong.  It was (and still is) a publicly traded, family run department store in Hong Kong, located in the heart of the high-end Central district.  The financials showed that the company was consistently, and highly, profitable.

But when I went to visit the department store itself, it looked more like K-Mart than Neiman Marcus.  The merchandise was undistinguished, the premises dowdy, customers few and far between (observing this last on a company visit is seldom a reliable indicator, though).  The store was surrounded by more modern, glitzy alternatives.  And Hong Kong is all about glitz.

How could this straw-into-gold story be true?  Looking a little closer, I noticed that the department store showed no rental expense on its income statement.  That’s because the company itself owned the building it operated out of.

I checked rents on nearby retail premises.  It turned out that W would probably be paying HK$100 million to a third party to rent the space it was in.  But the department store was only making HK$30 million in annual operating profit. (I don’t remember the exact numbers so I made these ones up.  But they’re roughly correct.)

The economic reality …

…was that W had two separate businesses:

–property ownership, which should have been generating HK$100 million in income, and

–department store retailing, which should have been adding to that.

The company was actually losing HK$70 million from retailing and subsidizing the department store by forgoing the rent it could have earned.

That was, in theory at least, the investment opportunity.  Either the family elders would wake up one day and realize they could triple their profits by closing down the department store and renting out the premises, or a predator would come along and bid for the firm.  The big question in the second case was whether the family would sell.

not alone

In the case of W when I was looking at it, my impression was that the family had never analyzed its business and was perfectly happy with the status quo.  When potential bidders came calling, the elders just said no.

My first instinct is to say that this behavior is crazy.  On the other hand, except for the location and the family owners blocking a change of control, this is the J C Penney story in a nutshell.

equity, debt and leases: an important balance sheet change in prospect

financial strength

There’s a line of thought in academic finance that argues it doesn’t matter for a publicly traded company’s stock price how much of the capital in the business comes from equity (the owners’ cash) or debt (borrowed funds).

In the real world, that idea couldn’t be much more wrong.  Banks won’t lend to a firm that has too little cash put up by the owners.  They may even make a new equity offering a prerequisite for further loans.

Also, one of the main reasons I’m so fanatical about making a projected cash flow statement is to make sure that a company I’m interested in will have the money to service its debt, pay the dividend and still run the business.  My own rule of thumb, based on experience with a wide variety of companies, is that if a firm has so much debt that if it were to devote all its cash flow to paying back loans but couldn’t do so within three years, it’s potentially in real trouble.

debt vs. leases

Oddly, traditional financial accounting doesn’t consider leases as debt.  Even though leases may be ironclad promises to rent property or equipment for decades at a fixed price, they don’t appear on the balance sheet of the lessee as liabilities.  Lease information is disclosed, but there isn’t as much data as for bank loans or bond offerings.  What there is contained in the footnotes to the financial statements, not on the balance sheet itself.  Or course, every sensible investor should read the footnotes carefully as a matter of course.  But the reality is that even some professional securities analysts don’t.  And only the most expensive data services for screening stocks–out of the financial reach of individuals like you and me–will allow you to include leases when calculating debt/ equity ratios.

capital vs. operating leases

One exception:  at some point before my time on Wall Street began, someone got the bright idea of dressing loans up to look like leases, so they wouldn’t appear on the balance sheet.  The lessee would then appear (to anyone who didn’t read the footnotes) to be in better financial health than it actually was.

To remedy this abuse, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the financial accounting industry watchdog, developed four tests to detect loans in lease clothing.   If the lease:

1.  calls for the leased asset to be turned over to the lessee at the end of the lease term, or

2.  allows the lessee to buy the asset at a bargain price at lease end, or

3.  lasts more than 75% of the useful life of the asset, or

4.  has payments with a total present value of over 90% of the purchase price of the asset,

then the lease is classified as a capital lease and has to appear as a liability on the balance sheet.

Leases that don’t meet any of the four criteria are called operating leases and can remain in the footnote shadows of the financials.

…until now

I haven’t made much of an attempt to find cases where the current way of accounting for leases creates a problem in company analysis.  But…

–most strip mall big box stores are stuck with long-term lease commitments for much more store space than they need.  If they can’t sublease store locations they’d like to close, however, or sublet portions of the locations they want to keep, they’re stuck paying for space they can’t use.  Borders is a case where this was an unusually difficult issue.

–on the other hand, one of the attractions of JCP (though not the most important) to its current hedge fund holders is its bargain-priced leases on retail locations.

new FASB rules…

…now in the process of being formulated would require that all leases that extend for more than a year must be shown on the balance sheet.

why this is important

Two reasons:

1.  The risks to bricks-and-mortar retailers contained in their long-term leases will become much more apparent once the new rules are in place.  Same thing for restaurant chains.  Airlines, too.  Small, fast-growing firms will likely be the worst impacted.

2.  This is a geeky, under-the-radar topic.  It probably won’t get much publicity until late this year.  Lots of time to check the lease footnotes for stock we own to make sure there are no nasty surprises lurking there.

the FT’s “listen to gold” op-ed

The other day the Financial Times carried an op-ed column titled “We should listen to what gold is really telling us.”  It was written by regular contributor Mohamed El-Erian, the  marketing voice of bond fund giant, Pimco.

I usually skip over what Mr. El-Erian writes.  His prose style is weak and the solution to every economic or financial worry he discusses is to buy more bonds.  In this case, I made an exception.  I was curious to see whether Pimco would be in the old-school camp that says gold is money or whether, like me, Pimco would maintain that it’s an industrial metal that new mine development has put into chronic oversupply (just like in the 1980s).

The article isn’t really about gold, though.  It’s about the fact that when more money than is needed is sloshing around in the world economy–and central banks around the globe continue to print new money at a rapid rate–some (all?) of the excess finds its way into speculative investing.  Sometimes, according to Pimco, even though the overall speculative tide has not yet crested, some prices become so divorced from reality that localized bubbles still burst.  Three examples:  gold, AAPL and FB.

At this point in the article, I thought what would come next would be an assertion that these three are harbingers of the behavior of all sorts of financial investments once monetary stimulus starts to be withdrawn.  If so, I thought to myself, Pimco will have a hard time ducking the issue of the popping of the biggest bubble of them all, the bond market.

That’s not the tack Mr. El-Erian takes, though.

He asks what happens if all the global monetary stimulus fails to reignite economic growth.  Put in a different way, what happens if world economies begin to roll over and enter recession?  The money taps are already wide open, so there’s nothing central banks can do to cushion the fall.  Fiscal policy is the only tool available.  But that takes time to work–and requires well-functioning legislatures to understand what’s going on and act both appropriately and quickly.  Fat chance.

This is a really scary scenario.  There’s absolutely no current evidence I can see that it’s likely.  El-Erian just poses the question and doesn’t say what he thinks.

Still, from a financial planning perspective, it’s something we all have to consider and be on the alert for the signs of.  Of course, conveniently for Pimco, this is the only situation I can think of where it makes sense to be holding government bonds.

pricing out a low-end shirt: investment implications

A while ago, I wrote about pricing out a polo shirt that retailed for $150 then ($175 now).

Today’s post goes to the other end of the fashion spectrum:  pricing out a “fast fashion” shirt that might sell at H&M or Zara for, say, $15.  The source of my information about Bangladesh is an op ed column, “The Economics of a $6.75 Shirt,” by Rubana Huq, who owns a garment business there.

Just for reference, the factory gate cost of the KP MacLane  luxury polo is:

–materials           $10.35

–manufacturing          $11.05

= $21.40.

These figures are unusually high for a shirt, mostly because of the small initial lots involved.  The unit price could easily be below $15 now, depending on how successful KP MacLane has been in its sales efforts.

in comparison, costs in Bangladesh…

…for an order of 400,000 fast fashion shirts:

materials      $5.75

–cotton cloth           $4.75

–labels, other          $1.00

manufacturing     $.875

–wages          $.38

–finishing          $.15

–utilities, factory rent          $.11

–overhead          $.11

–debt service (for manufacturing equipment)          $.125

= $6.625

The selling price at the factory door is $6.75.  Therefore, the per garment profit is $.125.  The total order earns the manufacturer, before paying himself (or, in this case, herself), $50,000.  In the example Ms. Huq gives in her op ed column, this order represents about five months business for the factory.

what I find interesting

Although the KP MacLane polo and the fast fashion t-shirt sell for wildly different prices at retail, the material costs aren’t that different.

The markup over production cost is 718% for KPM, 140% for the tee.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, a Hermès polo sells for $455, or about 2.6x the price of the KPM one.  Hermès’ production costs are probably lower than KPM’s, so the markup is likely higher than 1800%.   In both cases the buyer is clearly paying primarily for the branding, not the garment.

The operating model for classic luxury goods is far different from that of fast fashion.  The former sells far fewer items-most of which have very long shelf lives–at huge markups.  The latter sells huge numbers of items with short shelf lives at low markups.

The two styles demand different skills.  Fast fashion, in particular, has little room for error in design or sourcing/pricing from manufacturers.

the Bangladesh situation

First of all, we have to remember that the data Ms. Huq present come from a manufacturer in Bangladesh, hardly a disinterested party.  Certainly she will want to put her best foot forward.  Still, I’ve found the situation she describes to be typical of the garment industry over the decades, whether located in New York City, Japan, Thailand, China or Bangladesh.

Bangladesh employs 4 million garment workers, the vast majority of them women, who are the chief breadwinners in households totaling 20 million.  They earn US$70 – $80 a month, which is far more than an unskilled laborer could expect in any alternative employment in Bangladesh.  Although their families are barely surviving, the greatest fear of these workers is doubtless that the garment industry will shift away from Bangladesh to other low labor-cost countries, like Vietnam, leaving them unemployed.

The garment manufacturer in Bangladesh may make $100,000 a year if everything runs smoothly.  But that could be considerably less if he’s inefficient or if he encounters production delays that, say, require him to pay for shipment by air.  So one can certainly understand–not condone, just understandthe temptation an unscrupulous owner may feel to lower rent by turning a blind eye to safety violations.   It’s not clear how much leeway fast fashion has to alter its operating model by raising prices, either (look what happened to JCP).

In theory at least,  consumer pressure on international retailers for a keener eye to worker safety when sourcing garments may solve that issue–although the same problems seem to recur decade after decade and in country after country.

The more difficult issue to reconcile are the ideas that income of $70 a month is a good situation to be in, which in Bangladesh it is, and that well-intentioned efforts to improve it may make the workers’ lot considerably worse.

the Bloomberg snooping scandal

About a week ago the New York Post, of all places, broke a story that reporters for Bloomberg News could (and did) access information about customers’ use of their Bloomberg data terminals–and were using the insights they gleaned to try to generate stories.   In the instance the NYP cited, a Bloomberg reporter was asking Goldman about whether a certain executive was still on the payroll.  It sounds to me that in the course of an unproductive conversation the reporter said he knew something was amiss because the person in question hadn’t been using his Bloomberg terminal for an unusually long time.

Once the story broke, J P Morgan revealed that it had been pressured for information on the fate of the disgraced “London whale” trader by Bloomberg reporters who said the same thing–that they could see changes in his usage of Bloomberg data.

Bloomberg says reporters’ access to customer data has since been turned off.

good news/bad news

The good news, for Bloomberg users, is that the reporters in question made no effort to disguise the fact that they had been analyzing their target’s Bloomberg usage.  This has brought to light fine print in Bloomberg contracts that apparently allow such behavior.  The contracts will doubtless be changed.

Also, the ineptitude of the Bloomberg reporters suggests to me that the practice of mining customer information was not kept quiet for long.  They went directly to the companies; their main tactic seems to have been to beat them over the head with the privileged information they had–ensuring instant publicity.   So the problem has likely been nipped in the bud.

relevance?

Whether and when the London whale lost his job isn’t really a market-moving story.  It would be inconceivable that a trader could rack up monumental losses, hide them while trying to recoup through further trades, and still keep his position once discovered.  And the workout of the mess he made would follow easily predictable steps.  So this was not investment news.

No, this was a general news story.

That’s the interesting part of the tale.  If we figure there are 300,000 Bloomberg terminals in use, at, say, an annual fee of $25,000 each, that would mean they generate $7.5 billion in yearly revenue for Bloomberg LP.

Why in the world would you put that revenue stream at risk by undermining customer confidence in your discretion?   …especially by going after stories that have no direct relevance in helping investment industry customers do their jobs?

My guess is that someone high up in Bloomberg LP has decided that it’s a good idea to try to develop a new source of profits by building a general news capability using the investment researchers already in the company as a base.   I’d also guess that this is a relatively recent development, one that coincides with the fading of Bloomberg Radio as a source of investment information.

Peter Lynch of Fidelity called it “diworsification” (a term I hate), when a company strayed from what it was successful at to enter an allied field.  Often, the diversification make the company worse, not better.  We may be seeing an instance of it here, particularly if worries about being spied on cause customers to start looking for alternatives to important Bloomberg services.