the JCP board and its CEO search
Bill Ackman is the activist investor who initially targeted (no pun intended) JCP as a serial laggard that could be made to perform better. Recently, he has argued with the rest of that company’s board–at first in private–about the pace of JCP’s search for a new CEO. Ackman believes the search could/should be done in two months. The rest of the board seems to be thinking in terms of nine.
Last week he made public a letter he wrote to the board, which he concluded with, “We can’t afford to wait.”
This week, after being criticized by many, he resigned from the JCP board.
Certainly. the spat between the board and its largest shareholder won’t speed the flow of CEO candidates knocking on JCP’s door. On the other hand, it won’t deter very many, either, in my view. What it does do is raise the price the new CEO can command.
The media have portrayed Mr. Ackman as a shallow, petulant Ivy-Leaguer having a mini-tantrum because he isn’t getting his way. Entertaining and gossipy as that may sound, the media assessment is probably not right. In fact, Mr. Ackman may prefer that people view the affair this way, because is suggests that everything else, save Mr. Ackman’s personality, is all right.
what’s really going on
Two possibilities, one based on back-of-the envelope calculations, the other pure conjecture. Both are based on the idea that the fact of the board disagreement has information in it–and that it’s not gossip column fare.
1. a castle in the air
Let’s say the properties JCP controls are worth $5 billion. That’s halfway between brokerage house estimates (which may ultimately come from Mr. Ackman) and the recently announced, but incomplete, Cushman and Wakefield assessment of $4.06 billion.
If we think the rental yield on these assets should be 7%, then the annual rental income from them should be $350 million. That’s the amount a third-party would pay to do business on those properties.
How much does JCP pay? I don’t know. Certainly it’s substantially less than $350 million. Let’s say JCP actually pays $50 million. This means that in a sense JCP real estate subsidizes the department store operations by the difference between what it could get by renting the properties to someone else vs. operating JCP stores on them. According to what I’ve written so far, that subsidy is $300 million. After income tax, that amounts to about $200 million.
Why is this important?
In 2010, the last year before Mr. Ackman brought in Ron Johnson to run the company, JCP made $378 million in net income. If my numbers are anywhere near correct, over half JCP’s profits came from owning real estate. In 2011, selling stuff lost money.
Strip away real estate gains over a long period and JCP’s retailing profits look very highly cyclical. That makes sense, because JCP’s traditional market has been less affluent consumers, whose incomes are the most cyclical. The company may suffer a lot during recession but makes up for that by making a relative killing as recovery gets into year three or four.
In other words, JCP should be cleaning up now. Instead, it’s piling up enormous losses. This spells potential trouble as/when the economic cycle turns down, and–if past form runs true–profits evaporate.
Maybe this is the source of Mr. Ackman’s sense of urgency.
2. pure speculation
Maybe Mr. Ackman’s chief worry isn’t his projected timeline for JCP’s profits but the structure of the fund he put together to invest in the company. He’s told reporters that his cost basis in JCP stock is $25. But he may have financial leverage or options or other derivative instruments that make the risk/reward clock tick faster for his fund than for JCP itself.
Whatever the cause of Mr. Ackman’s behavior over the past few weeks, it’s almost certainly not simply pique.
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