Business Insider is projecting a “tsunami” of retail store closings in 2018 — 12,000 (up from 9,000 in 2017.) Also, the expect several more retailers will file bankruptcy, including Sears.
Duh. Nothing surprising about those projections. In mid-2016, Wharton Radio interviewed me about Sears, and I made sure everyone clearly understood I expect it to fail. Soon. In December, 2016 I overviewed Sears’ demise, predicted its inevitable failure, and warned everyone that all traditional retail was going to get a lot smaller. I again recommended dis-investing your portfolio of retail. By March, 2017 the handwriting was so clear I made sure investors knew that there were NO traditional retailers worthy of owning, including Walmart. By October, 2017 I wrote about the Waltons cashing out their Walmart ownership, indicating nobody should be in the stock – or any other retailer.
The trend is unmistakable, and undeniable. The question is – what are you going to do about it? In July, 2015 Amazon became more valuable than Walmart, even though much smaller. I explained why that made sense – because the former is growing and the latter is shrinking. Companies that leverage trends are always worth more. And that fact impacts YOU! As I wrote in February, 2017 the “Amazon Effect” will change not only your investments, but how you shop, the value of retail real estate (and thus all commercial real estate,) employment opportunities for low-skilled workers, property and sales tax revenues for all cities impacting school and infrastructure funding, and all supply chain logistics. These trends are far-reaching, and no business will be untouched.
Don’t just say “oh my, retailers are crumbling” and go to the next web page. You need to make sure your strategy is leveraging the “Amazon Effect” in ways that will help you grow revenues and profits. Because your competition is making plans to use these trends to hurt your business if you don’t make the first move. Need help?
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Traditional retailers just keep providing more bad news. Payless Shoes said it plans to file bankruptcy next week, closing 500 of its 4,000 stores. Most likely it will follow the path of Radio Shack, which hasn’t made a profit since 2011. Radio Shack filed bankruptcy and shut a gob of stores as part of its “turnaround plan.” Then in February Radio Shack filed its second bankruptcy — most likely killing the chain entirely this time.
Sears Holdings finally admitted it probably can’t survive as a going concern this week. Sears has lost over $10 billion since 2010 — when it last showed a profit — and owes over $4 billion to its creditors. Retail stocks cratered Monday as the list of retailers closing stores accelerated: Sears, KMart, Macy’s, Radio Shack, JCPenney, American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, CVS, GNC, Office Depot, HHGregg, The Children’s Place and Crocs are just some of the household names that are slowly (or not so slowly) dying.
None of this should be surprising. By the time CEO Ed Lampert merged KMart with Sears the trend to e-commerce was already pronounced. Anyone could build an excel spreadsheet that would demonstrate as online retail grew, brick-and-mortar retail would decline. In the low margin world of retail, profits would evaporate. It would be a blood bath. Any retailer with any weakness simply would not survive this market shift — and that clearly included outdated store concepts like Sears, KMart and Radio Shack which long ago were outflanked by on-line shopping and trendier storefronts.
Yet, not everyone is ready to give up on some retailers. Walmart, for example, still trades at $70 per share, which is higher than it traded in 2015 and about where it traded back in 2012. Some investors still think that there are brick-and-mortar outfits that are either immune to the trends, or will survive the shake-out and have higher profits in the future.
And that is why we have to be very careful about business myths. There are a lot of people that believe as markets shrink the ultimate consolidation will leave one, or a few, competitors who will be very profitable. Capacity will go away, and profits will return. In the end, they believe if you are the last buggy whip maker you will be profitable — so investors just need to pick who will be the survivor and wait it out. And, if you believe this, then you have justified owning Walmart.
Only, markets don’t work that way. As industries consolidate they end up with competitors who either lose money or just barely eke out a small profit. Think about the auto industry, airlines or land-line telecom companies.
Two factors exist which effectively forces all the profits out of these businesses and therefore make it impossible for investors to make money long-term.
First, competitive capacity always remains just a bit too much for the market need. Management, and often investors, simply don’t want to give up in the face of industry consolidation. They keep hoping to reach a rainbow that will save them. So capacity lingers and lingers — always pushing prices down even as costs increase. Even after someone fails, and that capacity theoretically goes away, someone jumps in with great hopes for the future and boosts capacity again. Therefore, excess capacity overhangs the marketplace forcing prices down to break-even, or below, and never really goes away.
Given the amount of retail real estate out there and the bargains being offered to anyone who wants to open, or expand, stores this problem will persist for decades in retail.
Second, demand in most markets keeps declining. Hopefuls project that demand will “stabilize,” thus balancing the capacity and allowing for price increases. Because demand changes aren’t linear, there are often plateaus that make it appear as if demand won’t go down more. But then something changes — an innovation, regulatory change, taste change — and demand takes another hit. And all the hope goes away as profits drop, again.
It is not a successful strategy to try being the “last man standing” in any declining market. No competitor is immune to these forces when markets shift. No matter how big, when trends shift and new forms of competition start growing every old-line company will be negatively affected. Whether fast, or slow, the value of these companies will continue declining until they eventually become worthless.
Nor is it successful long-term to try and segment the business into small groupings which management thinks can be protected. When Xerox brought to market photocopying, small offset press manufacturers (ABDick and Multigraphics ) said not to worry. Xeroxing might be OK in some office installations, but there were customer segments that would forever use lithography. Even as demand shrunk, well into the 1990s, they said that big corporations, industrial users, government entities, schools and other segments would forever need the benefits of lithography, so investors were safe. Today the small offset press market is a tiny fraction of its size in the 1960s. ABDick and Multigraphics both went through rounds of bankruptcies before disappearing. Xerography, its child desktop publishing, and its grandchild electronic screens, killed offset for almost all applications.
So don’t be lured into false hopes by retailers who claim their segment is “protected.” Short-term things might not look bad. But the market has already shifted to e-commerce and this is just round one of change. More and more innovations are coming that will make the need for traditional stores increasingly unnecessary.
Many readers have expressed their disappointment in my chronic warnings about Walmart. But those warnings are no different than my warnings about Sears Holdings. It’s just that the timing may be different. Both companies have been over-investing in assets (brick-and-mortar stores) that are declining in value as they have attempted to defend and extend their old business model. Both radically under-invested in new markets which were cannibalizing their old business. And, in the end, both will end up with the same results.
And this is true for all retailers that depend on traditional brick-and-mortar sales for their revenues and profits — it’s only a matter of when things will go badly, not if. So traditional retail is nowhere that any investor wants to be.
(Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Amazon.com has become an important part of the American economy, and the lives of people globally. But, far too few people still understand the repercussions of Amazon’s success on retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, real estate – and ultimately everyone’s lives. The implications are enormous. Smart leaders, and investors, will plan for these implications and take advantage of the market shift.
Invest in ecommerce, divest traditional retailers.
The first implication is just thinking about investing in Amazon and/or its competitors in retail. In May, 2016 I compared the market value of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, with Amazon. At the time Wal-Mart was worth $216 billion, and Amazon was worth $332 billion. The difference could be explained by realizing that Wal-Mart was the leader at brick-and-mortar sales, which were shrinking, while Amazon was the leader in e-commerce, which is growing. Since then Wal-Mart’s value has increased to $222 billion – up $6 billion, 2.8%. Meanwhile Amazon’s value has increased to $403 billion- up $71 billion, 21.4%. Over three years (starting 3/3/14) Wal-Mart’s per share value has declined from $74 to $71 (down 4%,) while Amazon’s has risen from $370 to $845 (up 128%.)
To put it mildly, investing in Amazon, which is the leader in e-commerce, has created a great return. Contrastingly that value increase has been fueled by declines in traditional retailers. The Amazon Effect has caused shares in companies like Sears Holdings, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Macy’s and many other stalwarts of the bygone era to be crushed. Over the last year investors in XRT (the retail industry spider) have increased 1.6%, while the S&P 500 spider has jumped 22%. The number of retailers with debt rated at Moody’s most distressed level has tripled since 2009 – and Moody’s predicts this list will worsen over the next five years.
There is vastly too much retail space, and nobody knows what to do with it.
And this has an impact on real estate. As online sales come to over 11% of all holiday sales in 2016, and Amazon accounts for 40% of all those sales, it is clear people just don’t go to stores any more anywhere near the way they once did. Historically prime retail real estate was considered valuable – and in 2007 many people thought Sears real estate was worth more than Sears as a retailer. But no longer. According to Morningstar, Sears store closings alone could cause 200 malls to close.
It is apparent the Amazon Effect has left America with far more storefronts than needed. Stand-alone stores are being shuttered, with no alternative use for most buildings. Malls and shopping centers go begging as traffic drops, tenants leave, lease rates collapse and the facilities end up wholly or nearly empty. This means you don’t want to invest in retail real estate REITs. But it also means that neighborhoods, and sometimes entire towns, will be impacted as these empty buildings reduce interest in housing and push down residential prices.
Tax receipts will fall, and nobody knows how to replace them.
For a long time governments gave handouts to retailers in the form of tax breaks to build stores or locate their headquarters. But as stores close the property tax receipts decline, putting a greater burden on homeowners to pay for schools and infrastructure. Same with sales taxes which disappear from the local government coffers. And tax breaks once given to hold onto jobs – like the ones the village of Hoffman Estates and state of Illinois, gave Sears in 2011 to not move its headquarters, look far less justified. In short, the Amazon Effect has an enormous impact on the local tax base – and those missing dollars will inevitably have to come from residents – or a significant curtailing of services.
The impact on job eliminations will be staggering.
The Amazon Effect also has an impact on jobs. Amazon’s growth keeps escalating, from 19% in 2014 to 20% in 2015 to 28% in 2016, which takes the jobs away from traditional retailers. Macy’s plans to shed 10,000 workers as it shrinks and streamlines. JCPenney will eliminate 6,000 employees via early retirement completely separate from its store closings, and HHGregg is shedding 1,500 jobs as stores close. And thousands more are being lost across traditional retail in stores, supply chain positions and headquarters facilities.
Traditional retail employs about 16.5 million Americans – nearly 10% of the entire workforce. 6.2 million are in the prime product lines targeted by e-commerce (GAFO – General, Apparel, Furniture and Other.) The Amazon Effect will continue to eliminate these positions. Over the next five years it is not unlikely that the decline of brick-and-mortar will cause 16% of GAFO jobs to disappear, which is almost 1 million jobs. Simultaneously this could easily cause 10% of the non-GAFO jobs (10.3 million) to disappear – which is another 1 million. This likely scenario would cause the loss of 2 million jobs in just five years, which is the entirety of all lost manufacturing jobs to China. The Trump administration has more employment concerns to face than just the return of manufacturing.
The Amazon Effect is changing grocery shopping, without even being a major competitor in that sector. Because Wal-Mart has lost so much general merchandise sales to e-commerce, the company has amped up grocery sales – which are now 56% of total revenue. To continue growing groceries Wal-Mart is undertaking a massive price war pitting itself against the long-running low cost grocer Aldi. This is creating even more intense profit pressure on Wal-Mart, which last year saw gross margins drop by eight points, as net income fell 18%. Such intense price competition is creating the need for even more cost cutting among all grocers – which means investors beware – and we can expect even more job cutting as the spiral downward continues.
Consumer Goods manufacturers, and their suppliers, will be stressed.
Of course this pushes the Amazon Effect onto consumer goods companies that supply grocery retailers. Wal-Mart has held meetings with P&G, Unilever, Conagra, Coca-Cola and other big name companies demanding across-the-board 15% price reductions at wholesale. And Wal-Mart expects these suppliers to help Wal-Mart beat its head-to-head competitors on price 8o% of the time. This will cause consumer goods manufacturers to cut their own costs, including jobs, as well as pressure their raw material suppliers to further reduce their costs – leading to an ongoing spiral of cost cutting, job eliminations and additional pressures for change.
The internet gave us e-commerce, and that birthed Amazon.com. Few predicted the enormous implications this would have on retail, and society. Every single American is affected by the Amazon Effect, which is now inescapable. The only remaining question is whether your business, your government leaders and you are planning for this and preparing for the inevitable changes which will continue coming?
Traders work on the floor of the NYSE the morning after Donald Trump
won a major upset in the presidential election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Since election day there has been an enormous shift in the U.S. stock market. The Dow (Dow Jones Industrial Average – DJIA) has hit new highs. But simultaneously the NASDAQ 100 is falling. In short, most tech stocks have been creamed, while out-of-favor laggards have been bid up.
I 100% favor long-term investing. Anyone who tries to be a trader, or otherwise time the markets, is most likely going to get burned. If you want to share in the growth of America’s economy the best way is to buy stocks in good, growing companies and hold them a long time. As Warren Buffett said after the election, the American economy will be bigger, and stocks will be worth more, in 10, 20, 30 years regardless who is president.
Traders make decisions on the smallest bit of information. Often information that is nothing more than an unproven thought. Looking into the future they try to have a crystal ball, but they rarely use trend information and often use guesses.
So, after the election, the trader theory goes that tech companies will be burned
. Trump apparently doesn’t use a computer, so he doesn’t use the Internet
. And he doesn’t actually tweet, or use social media, he just blurts things out and someone else enters the blurts. So his lack of interest in technology is bad for tech companies. Further, his trade policies will create havoc with tech company supply chains that rely on manufacturing across Asia, and much on China, dramatically raising costs. Additionally these policies will cause foreign markets to purchase less tech products, damaging tech sales.
As a result, rapidly, big, successful tech stocks have been massacred:
Apple from $118 to $107, a drop of 9%
Facebook from $133 to $116, a drop of 13%
Netflix from $128 to $115, a drop of 10%
Google from $815 to $755, a drop of 7%
Amazon from $840 to $730, a drop of 13%
Yet, nothing has happened. These companies are still doing exactly the same thing they did a month ago. Apple is still the no. 1 maker and seller of mobile devices. Facebook still dominates social media, has a huge lead in social media advertising, and continues to launch additional functionality to make its site sticky for users. Netflix is still the leader in streaming and developing new original content outside of networks. Google is still the king of search and no. 1 in search advertising. And Amazon still leads all competitors in online commerce, and will have another great holiday season the next six weeks.
None of these businesses have been destroyed by the election. And the trends that drove their long-term growth remain in place. People will continue to use mobile devices for more applications, turn to social media for communicating with friends and finding information, download movies and other shows via the web, search for answers to most of their questions via search engines and buy more and more stuff online. These trends will not change, as there is pretty much no way Donald Trump or Congress can stop them.
Meanwhile, valuations of long-time laggard companies are suddenly hitting new highs. Somehow the trend to globalization will be ended, budget problems will be immediately resolved leading to greater spending capability by Congress and concerns about long-term debt build-up will disappear encouraging massive new investments in traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges. New trends will suddenly emerge that will return the basics of the U.S. economy, the sector balances, to something akin to 1984.
Thus, traders have bid up prices of old-line manufacturers. Despite exiting financial services as well as its oil and gas business, making GE much smaller than it was a decade ago, GE has jumped from $28.25 to $30.50, a gain of 8%. Caterpillar Tractor has had five straight years of revenue declines, yet it also rose from $28.25 to $30.50 for a similar 8% gain.
Remarkably GE’s P/E (price/earnings multiple) is now 24! Cat’s is an even more remarkable 53! Companies that rely on manufacturing are being priced like tech stocks – or even greater! Apple’s P/E has fallento 13, Google’s is 27 (about the same as GE) and Facebook’s P/E of 46 is lower than Caterpillar’s.
Really? In one day major, global trends have reversed course, steering the economy back to the days when Jack Welch ran GE, and Caterpillar was selling gear to a booming U.S. forestry business as well as massive volumes to China and India for building their fledgling infrastructures? People will stop buying smartphones and give up their reliance on the internet for a vast array of daily tasks? And droves of young workers trained for tech jobs are going to staff up a massive rebuilding of U.S. manufacturing plants? Displaced workers, trained on equipment now wildly antiquated and uneconomic, will be retrained overnight to operate plants with far fewer employees and lots more high-tech equipment? And boomers will quit retiring and undertake retraining – not for tech jobs but for manufacturing or equipment operator jobs?
Don’t diminish the power of a president. And don’t diminish how structural changes in tax codes, military spending and international relations can alter course. But, simultaneously, don’t diminish the power of trends.
Trends propel forward, and take people to greater productivity and a higher quality of life. All those people who voted for Donald Trump are not tech avoiders. They are mobile, socially active people who are as linked to the trends as everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton. They don’t want to return to a pre-information economy lacking in technology that has made their lives better. They still want technology in their lives, and they want that technology to become better, faster and cheaper.
And no manufacturer is going to go back to labor-intensive manufacturing. Whether they make things in the U.S. or offshore, state-of-the-art equipment means manufacturing simply uses fewer people. And the growth of e-commerce will not stop, thus continuing the trend of declining demand for retail workers. These trends may alter slightly due to tax and trade policies, but they won’t reverse.
Smart investors don’t lose sight of long-term trends. They invest in companies where the opportunity exists to grow revenues and profits because demand for those company’s products and innovations are growing. With shares of the technology leaders beaten down, one should really consider if this is a time to sell, or buy. And with shares of companies that have terrible growth records, and stagnated earnings, bid up to extraordinarily high P/E multiples one should consider if this is the time to buy or sell.
In early August Tesla announced it would be buying SolarCity. The New York Times discussed how this combination would help CEO Elon Musk move toward his aspirations for greater clean energy use. But the Los Angeles Times took the companies to task for merging in the face of tremendous capital needs at both, while Tesla was far short of hitting its goals for auto and battery production.
Since then the press has been almost wholly negative on the merger. Marketwatch’s Barry Randall wrote that the deal makes no sense. He argues the companies are in two very different businesses that are not synergistic – and he analogizes this deal to GM buying Chevron. He also makes the case that SolarCity will likely go bankrupt, so there is no good reason for Tesla shareholders to “bail out” the company. And he argues that the capital requirements of the combined entities are unlikely to be fundable, even for its visionary CEO.
Fortune quotes legendary short seller Jim Chanos as saying the deal is “crazy.” He argues that SolarCity has an uneconomic business model based on his analysis of historical financial statements. And now Fortune is reporting that shareholder lawsuits to block the deal could delay, or kill, the merger.
But short-sellers are clearly not long-term investors. And there is a lot more ability for this deal to succeed and produce tremendous investor returns than anyone could ever glean from studying historical financial statements of both companies.
GM buying Chevron is entirely the wrong analogy to compare with Tesla buying SolarCity. Instead, compare this deal to what happened in the creation of television after General Sarnoff, who ran RCA, bought what he renamed NBC.
The world already had radio (just as we already have combustion powered cars.) The conundrum was that nobody needed a TV, especially when there were no TV programs. But nobody would create TV programs if there were no consumers with TVs. General Sarnoff realized that both had to happen simultaneously – the creation of both demand, and supply. It would only be by the creation, and promotion, of both that television could be a success. And it was General Sarnoff who used this experience to launch the first color televisions at the same time as NBC launched the first color programming – which fairly quickly pushed the industry into color.
Skeptics think Mr. Musk and his companies are in over their heads, because there are manufacturing issues for the batteries and the cars, and the solar panel business has yet to be profitable. Yet, the older among us can recall all the troubles with launching TV.
Early sets were not only expensive, they were often problematic, with frequent component failures causing owners to take the TV to a repairman. Often reception was poor, as people relied on poor antennas and weak network signals. It was common to turn on a set and have “snow” as we called it – images that were far from clear. And there was often that still image on the screen with the words “Technical Difficulties,” meaning that viewers just waited to see when programming would return. And programming was far from 24×7 – and quality could be sketchy. But all these problems have been overcome by innovation across the industry.
Yes, the evolution of electric cars will involve a lot of ongoing innovation. So judging its likely success on the basis of recent history would be foolhardy. Today Tesla sells 100% of its cars, with no discounts. The market has said it really, really wants its vehicles. And everybody who is offered electric panels with (a) the opportunity to sell excess power back to the grid and (b) financing, takes the offer. People enjoy the low cost, sustainable electricity, and want it to grow. But lacking a good storage device, or the inability to sell excess power, their personal economics are more difficult.
Electricity production, electricity storage (batteries) and electricity consumption are tightly linked technologies. Nobody will build charging stations if there are no electric cars. Nobody will build electric cars if there are not good batteries. Nobody will make better batteries if there are no electric cars. Nobody will install solar panels if they can’t use all the electricity, or store what they don’t immediately need (or sell it.)
This is not a world of an established marketplace, where GM and Chevron can stand alone. To grow the business requires a vision, business strategy and technical capability to put it all together. To make this work someone has to make progress in all the core technologies simultaneously – which will continue to improve the storage capability, quality and safety of the electric consuming automobiles, and the electric generating solar panels, as well as the storage capabilities associated with those panels and the creation of a new grid for distribution.
This is why Mr. Musk says that combining Tesla and SolarCity is obvious. Yes, he will have to raise huge sums of money. So did such early pioneers as Vanderbilt (railways,) Rockefeller (oil,) Ford (autos,) and Watson (computers.) More recently, Steve Jobs of Apple became heroic for figuring out how to simultaneously create an iPhone, get a network to support the phone (his much maligned exclusive deal with AT&T,) getting developers to write enough apps for the phone to make it valuable, and creating the retail store to distribute those apps (iTunes.) Without all those pieces, the ubiquitous iPhone would have been as successful as the Microsoft Zune.
It is fair for investors to worry if Tesla can raise enough money to pull this off. But, we don’t know how creative Mr. Musk may become in organizing the resources and identifying investors. So far, Tesla has beaten all the skeptics who predicted failure based on price of the cars (Tesla has sold 100% of its production,) lack of range (now up to nearly 300 miles,) lack of charging network (Tesla built one itself) and charging time (now only 20 minutes.) It would be shortsighted to think that the creativity which has made Tesla a success so far will suddenly disappear. And thus remarkably thoughtless to base an analysis on the industry as it exists today, rather than how it might well look in 3, 5 and 10 years.
The combination of Tesla and SolarCity allows Tesla to have all the components to pursue greater future success. Investors with sufficient risk appetite are justified in supporting this merger because they will be positioned to receive the future rewards of this pioneering change in the auto and electric utility industries.