(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 Any retailer with any weakness simply would not survive this market shift — and that clearly included outdated store concepts like Sears, KMart and Radio Shack which long ago were outflanked by on-line shopping and trendier storefronts.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.
Leading tech tracking companies IDC and Gartner both announced Q1, 2016 PC sales results, and they were horrible. Sales were down 9.5%-11.5% depending on which tracker you asked. And that’s after a horrible Q4, 2015 when sales were off more than 10%. PC sales have now declined for 6 straight quarters, and sales are roughly where they were in 2007, 9 years ago.
Oh yeah, that was when the iPhone launched – June, 2007. And just a couple of years before the iPad launched. Correlation, or causation?
Amazingly, when Q4 ended the forecasters were still optimistic of a stabilization and turnaround in PC sales. Typical analyst verbage was like this from IDC, “Commercial adoption of Windows 10 is expected to accelerate, and consumer buying should also stabilize by the second half of the year. Most PC users have delayed an upgrade, but can only maintain this for so long before facing security and performance issues.” And just to prove that hope springs eternal from the analyst breast, here is IDC’s forecast for 2016 after the horrible Q1, “In the short term, the PC market must still grapple with limited consumer interest and competition from other infrastructure upgrades in the commercial market. Nevertheless….things should start picking up in terms of Windows 10 pilots turning into actual PC purchases.”
Fascinating. Once again, the upturn is just around the corner. People have always looked forward to upgrading their PCs, there has always been a “PC upgrade cycle” and one will again emerge. Someday. At least, the analysts hope so. Maybe?
Microsoft investors must hope so. The company is selling at a price/earnings multiple of 40 on hopes that Windows 10 sales will soon boom, and re-energize PC growth. Surely. Hopefully. Maybe?
The world has shifted, and far too many people don’t like to recognize the shift. When Windows 8 launched it was clear that interest in PC software was diminishing. What was once a major front page event, a Windows upgrade, was unimportant. By the time Windows 10 came along there was so little interest that its launch barely made any news at all. This market, these products, are really no longer relevant to the growth of personal technology.
Back when I predicted that Windows 8 would be a flop I was inundated with hate mail. It was clear that Ballmer was a terrible CEO, and would soon be replaced by the board. Same when I predicted that Surface tablets would not sell well, and that all Windows devices would not achieve significant share. People called me “an Apple Fanboy” or a “Microsoft hater.” Actually, neither was true. It was just clear that a major market shift was happening in computing. The world was rapidly going mobile, and cloud-based, and the PC just wasn’t going to be relevant. As the PC lost relevancy, so too would Microsoft because it completely missed the market, and its entries were far too tied to old ways of thinking about personal and corporate computing – not to mention the big lead competitors had in devices, apps and cloud services.
I’ve never said that modern PCs are bad products. I have a son half way through a PhD in Neurobiological Engineering. He builds all kinds of brain models and 3 dimensional brain images and cell structure plots — and he does all kinds of very exotic math. His world is built on incredibly powerful, fast PCs. He loves Windows 10, and he loves PCs — and he really “doesn’t get” tablets. And I truly understand why. His work requires local computational power and storage, and he loves Windows 10 over all other platforms.
But he is not a trend. His deep understanding of the benefits of Windows 10, and some of the PC manufacturers as well as those who sell upgrade componentry, is very much a niche. While he depends heavily on Microsoft and Wintel manufacturers to do his work, he is a niche user. (BTW he uses a Nexus phone and absolutely loves it, as well. And he can wax eloquently about the advantages he achieves by using an Android device.)
Today, I doubt I will receive hardly any comments to this column. Because to most people, the PC is nearly irrelevant. People don’t actually care about PC sales results, or forecasts. Not nearly as much as, say, care about whether or not the iPhone 6se advances the mobile phone market in a meaningful way.
Most people do their work, almost if not all their work, on a mobile device. They depend on cloud and SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers and get a lot done on apps. What they can’t do on a phone, they do on a tablet, by and large. They may, or may not, use a PC of some kind (Mac included in that reference) but it is not terribly important to them. PCs are now truly generic, like a refrigerator, and if they need one they don’t much care who made it or anything else – they just want it to do whatever task they have yet to migrate to their mobile world.
The amazing thing is not that PC sales have fallen for 6 quarters. That was easy to predict back in 2013. The amazing thing is that some people still don’t want to accept that this trend will never reverse. And many people, even though they haven’t carried around a laptop for months (years?) and don’t use a Windows mobile device, still think Microsoft is a market leader, and has a great future. PCs, and for the most part Microsoft, are simply no more relevant than Sears, Blackberry, or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet it is somewhat startling that some people have failed to think about the impact this has on their company, companies that make PC software and hardware – and the impact this will have on their lives – and likely their portfolios.
Starboard Value last week sent a letter to Yahoo’s Board of Directors announcing its intention to ask shareholders to replace the entire Board. That is why Starboard is called an “activist” fund. It is not shy about seeking action at the Board level to change the direction of a company – by changing the CEO, seeking downsizings and reogranizations, changing dividend policy, seeking share buybacks, recommending asset sales, or changing other resource allocations. They are different than other large investors, such as pension funds or mutual funds, who purchase lots of a company’s equity but don’t seek to overtly change the direction, and management, of a company.
Activists have been around a long time. And for years, they were despised. Carl Icahn made himself famous by buying company shares, then pressuring management into decisions which damaged the company long-term while he made money fast. For example, he bought TWA shares then pushed the company to add huge additional debt and repurchase equity (including buying his position via something called “green mail”) in order to short-term push up the earnings per share. This made Icahn billions, but ended up killing the company.
Similarly, Mr. Icahn bought a big position in Motorola right after it successfully launched the RAZR phone. He pushed the board to shut down expensive R&D and product development to improve short-term earnings. Then borrow a lot of money to repurchase shares, improving earnings per share but making the company over-leveraged. He then sold out and split with his cash. But Motorola never launched another successful phone, the technology changed, and Motorola had to sell its cell phone business (that pioneered the industry) in order to pay off debt and avoid bankruptcy. Motorola is now a fragment of its former self, and no longer relevant in the tech marketplace.
So now you understand why many people hate activists. They are famous for
- cutting long-term investments on new products leaving future sales pipelines weakened,
- selling assets to increase cash while driving down margins as vendors take more,
- selling whole businesses to raise cash but leave the company smaller and less competitive,
- cutting headcount to improve short-term earnings but leaving management and employees decimated and overworked,
- increasing debt massively to repurchase shares, but leaving the company financially vulnerable to the slightest problem,
- doing pretty much anything to make the short-term look better with no concern for long-term viability.
Yet, they keep buying shares, and they have defenders among shareholders. Many big investors say that activists are the only way shareholders can do anything about lousy management teams that fail to deliver, and Boards of Directors that let management be lazy and ineffective.
Which takes us to Yahoo. Yahoo was an internet advertising pioneer. Yet, for several years Yahoo has been eclipsed by competitors from Google to Facebook and even Microsoft that have grown their user base and revenues as Yahoo has shrunk. In the 4 years since becoming CEO Marissa Mayer has watched Yahoo’s revenues stagnate or decline in all core sectors, while its costs have increased – thus deteriorating margins. And to prop up the stock price she sold Alibaba shares, the only asset at Yahoo increasing in value, and used the proceeds to purchase Yahoo shares. There are very, very few defenders of Ms. Mayer in the investment community, or in the company, and increasingly even the Board of Directors is at odds with her leadership.
The biggest event in digital marketing is the Digital Content NewFronts in New York City this time every year. Big digital platforms spend heavily to promote themselves and their content to big advertisers. But in the last year Yahoo closed several verticals, and discontinued original programming efforts taking a $42M charge. It also shut is online video hub, Screen. Smaller, and less competitive than ever, Yahoo this year has cut its spending and customer acquisition efforts at NewFronts, a decision sure to make it even harder to reverse its declining fortunes. Not pleasant news to investors.
And Yahoo keeps going down in value. Looking at the market the value of Yahoo and Alibaba, and the Alibaba shares held in Yahoo, the theoretical value of Yahoo’s core business is now zero. But that is an oversimplification. Potential buyers have valued the business at $6B, while management has said it is worth $10B. Only in 2008 Ballmer-led Microsoft made an offer to buy it for $45B! That’s value destruction to the amount of $35B-$39B!
Yet management and the Board remains removed from the impact of that value destruction. And the risk remains that Yahoo leadership will continue selling off Alibaba value to keep the other businesses alive, thus bleeding additional investor value out of the company. There are reports that CEO Mayer never took seriously the threat of an activist involving himself in changing the company, and removing her as CEO. Ensconced in the CEO’s office there was apparently little concern about shareholder value while she remained fixated on Quixotic efforts to compete with much better positioned, growing and more profitable competitors Google and Facebook. Losing customers, losing sales, and losing margin as her efforts proved reasonable fruitless amidst product line shutdowns, bad acquisitions, layoffs and questionable micro-management decisions like eliminating work from home policies.
There appear to be real buyers interested in Yahoo. There are those who think they can create value out of what is left. And they will give the Yahoo shareholders something for the opportunity to take over those business lines. Some want it as part of a bigger business, such as Verizon, and others see independent routes. Even Microsoft is reportedly interested in funding a purchase of Yahoo’s core. But there is no sign that management, or the Board, are moving quickly to redirect the company.
And that is why Starboard Value wants to change the Board of Directors. If they won’t make changes, then Starboard will make changes. And investors, long weary of existing leadership and its inability to take positive action, see Starboard’s activism as the best way to unlock what value remains in Yahoo for them. After years of mismanagement and underperformance what else should investors do?
Activists are easy to pick at, but they play a vital role in forcing management teams and Boards of Directors to face up to market challenges and internal weaknesses. In cases like Yahoo the activist investor is the last remaining player to try and save the company from weak leadership.
USAToday alerted investors that when Sears Holdings reports results 2/25/16 they will be horrible. Revenues down another 8.7% vs. last year. Same store sales down 7.1%. To deal with ongoing losses the company plans to close another 50 stores, and sell another $300million of assets. For most investors, employees and suppliers this report could easily be confused with many others the last few years, as the story is always the same. Back in January, 2014 CNBC headlined “Tracking the Slow Death of an Icon” as it listed all the things that went wrong for Sears in 2013 – and they have not changed two years later. The brand is now so tarnished that Sears Holdings is writing down the value of the Sears name by another $200million – reducing intangible value from the $4B at origination in 2004 to under $2B.
This has been quite the fall for Sears. When Chairman Ed Lampert fashioned the deal that had formerly bankrupt Kmart buying Sears in November, 2004 the company was valued at $11billion and 3,500 stores. Today the company is valued at $1.6billion (a decline of over 85%) and according to Reuters has just under 1,700 stores (a decline of 51%.) According to Bloomberg almost no analysts cover SHLD these days, but one who does (Greg Melich at Evercore ISI) says the company is no longer a viable business, and expects bankruptcy. Long-term Sears investors have suffered a horrible loss.
When I started business school in 1980 finance Professor Bill Fruhan introduced me to a concept that had never before occurred to me. Value Destruction. Through case analysis the good professor taught us that leadership could make decisions that increased company valuation. Or, they could make decisions that destroyed shareholder value. As obvious as this seems, at the time I could not imagine CEOs and their teams destroying shareholder value. It seemed anathema to the entire concept of business education. Yet, he quickly made it clear how easily misguided leaders could create really bad outcomes that seriously damaged investors.
As a case study in bad leadership, Sears under Chairman Lampert offers great lessons in Value Destruction that would serve Professor Fruhan’s teachings well:
1 – Micro-management in lieu of strategy. Mr. Lampert has been merciless in his tenacity to manage every detail at Sears. Daily morning phone calls with staff, and ridiculously tight controls that eliminate decision making by anyone other than the top officers. Additionally, every decision by the officers was questioned again and again. Explanations took precedent over action as micro-management ate up management’s time, rather than trying to run a successful company. While store employees and low- to mid-level managers could see competition – both traditional and on-line – eating away at Sears customers and core sales, they were helpless to do anything about it. Instead they were forced to follow orders given by people completely out of touch with retail trends and customer needs. Whatever chance Sears and Kmart had to grow the chain against intense competition it was lost by the Chairman’s need to micro-manage.
2 – Manage-by-the-numbers rather than trends. Mr. Lampert was a finance expert and former analyst turned hedge fund manager and investor. He truly believed that if he had enough numbers, and he studied them long enough, company success would ensue. Unfortunately, trends often are not reflected in “the numbers” until it is far, far too late to react. The trend to stores that were cleaner, and more hip with classier goods goes back before Lampert’s era, but he completely missed the trend that drove up sales at Target, H&M and even Kohl’s because he could not see that trend reflected in category sales or cost ratios. Merchandising – from buying to store layout and shelf positioning – are skills that go beyond numerical analysis but are critical to retail success. Additionally, the trend to on-line shopping goes back 20 years, but the direct impact on store sales was not obvious until customers had long ago converted. By focusing on numbers, rather than trends, Sears was constantly reacting rather than being proactive, and thus constantly retreating, cutting stores and cutting product lines.
3 – Seeking confirmation rather than disagreement. Mr. Lampert had no time for staff who did not see things his way. Mr. Lampert wanted his management team to agree with him – to confirm his Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies — to believe his BIAS. By seeking managers who would confirm his views, and execute, rather than disagree Mr. Lampert had no one offering alternative data, interpretations, strategies or tactics. And, as Mr. Lampert’s plans kept faltering it led to a revolving door of managers. Leaders came and went in a year or two, blamed for failures that originated at the Chairman’s doorstep. By forcing agreement, rather than disagreement and dialogue, Sears lacked options or alternatives, and the company had no chance of turning around.
4 – Holding assets too long. In 2004 Sears had a LOT of assets. Many that could likely be redeployed at a gain for shareholders. Sears had many owned and leased store locations that were highly valuable with real estate prices climbing from then through 2008. But Mr. Lampert did not spin out that real estate in a REIT, capturing the value for SHLD shareholders while the timing was good. Instead he held those assets as real estate in general plummeted, and as retail real estate fell even further as more revenue shifted to e-commerce. By the time he was ready to sell his REIT much of the value was depleted.
Additionally, Sears had great brands in 2004. DieHard batteries, Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and Lands End apparel were just 4 household brands that still had high customer appeal and tremendous value. Mr. Lampert could have sold those brands to another retailer (such as selling DieHard to WalMart, for example) as their house brands, capturing that value. Or he could have mass marketd the brand beyond the Sears store to increase sales and value. Or he could have taken one or more brands on-line as a product leader and “category killer” for ecommerce customers. But he did not act on those options, and as Sears and Kmart stores faded, so did these brands – which largely no longer have any value. Had he sold when value was high there were profits to be made for investors.
5 – Hubris – unfailingly believing in oneself regardless the outcomes. In May, 2012 I wrote that Mr. Lampert was the 2nd worst CEO in America and should fire himself. This was not a comment made in jest. His initial plans had all panned out very badly, and he had no strategy for a turnaround. All results, from all programs implemented during his reign as Chairman had ended badly. Yet, despite these terrible numbers Mr. Lampert refused to recognize he was the wrong person in the wrong job. While it wasn’t clear if anyone could turn around the problems at Sears at such a late date, it was clear Mr. Lampert was not the person to do it. If Mr. Lampert had been as self-analytical as he was critical of others he would have long before replaced himself as the leader at Sears. But hubris would not allow him to do this, he remained blind to his own failings and the terrible outcome of a failed company was pretty much sealed.
From $11B valuation and a $92/share stock price at time of merging KMart and Sears, to a $1.6B valuation and a $15/share stock price. A loss of $9.4B (that’s BILLION DOLLARS). That is amazing value destruction. In a world where employees are fired every day for making mistakes that cost $1,000, $100 or even $10 it is a staggering loss created by Mr. Lampert. At the very least we should learn from his mistakes in order to educate better, value creating leaders.
2015 was not short on bad decisions, nor bad outcomes. But there are 5 major leadership themes from 2015 that can help companies be better in 2016:
1 – Cost cutting, restructurings and stock buybacks do not increase company value – Dow/DuPont
There was no shortage of financial engineering experiments in 2015 intended to increase short-term shareholder returns at the expense of long-term value creation. Companies continued borrowing money to buy back their own stock – spending more on repurchases than they made in profits.
Unfortunately, too many companies continue to increase earnings per share (EPS) via financial machinations rather than creating and introducing new products, or creating new markets.
In a grand show of value reducing financial re-engineering, 2015 is ending with the massive merger between Dow and DuPont. There is no intent of introducing new products or entering new markets via this merger. Rather, to the contrary, the plan is to merge these beasts, lay off tens of thousands of employees, cut the R&D staff, cut new product introductions and “rationalize” the company into 3 new businesses intended to be relaunched as new companies, with fewer products, less business development and less competition.
Massive cost cutting will weaken both companies, put thousands out of work and leave the marketplace with fewer new products. All just to create 3 new, different profit and loss statements in the hopes of improving the EPS and price to earnings (P/E) multiple. This story has become all too familiar the last few years, and the only winners are the bankers, who will make massive fees, and hedge fund managers that rapidly dump the stock in the terrible companies they leave behind.
2 – Doing more of the same is not innovative and does not create value – McDonald’s
McDonald’s has been losing market share to fast casual restaurants for over a decade. Yet, leadership insists on constantly maintaining its undying focus on the fast food success formula upon which the company was launched some 60 years ago.
As the number of customers continued declining, McDonalds kept closing more stores. Yet, sales per store remained weak even as the denominator grew smaller. Unwilling to actually update McDonald’s to make it fit modern trends, in 2015 leadership decided the path to growth was serving breakfast all-day. Really. It is still hard to believe. No new products, just the same McMuffins and sausage biscuits, but now offered for more hours.
Because of McDonald’s size and legacy the media covered this story heavily in 2015. Yet, as 2016 starts we all can look back and see that this was no story at all. Doing more of the same is not in any way innovative or revolutionary. Defending and extending an outdated success formula does not fix a company strategy that is out of date and rapidly losing relevancy.
3 – Hiring the wrong CEO is a BIG problem – Yahoo
We would like to think that Boards are really good at hiring CEOs. Unfortunately, we are regularly reminded they are not. The Board at Yahoo has spent a decade making bad CEO selections, and now the company’s core business is valueless.
In 2015 we saw that the decision by Yahoo’s board to hire a CEO based on political correctness (gender advantages), and limited experience with a well known company (a short Google career) rather than leadership capability could be deadly. Although Marissa Mayer was hired in 2012 amid much fanfare, we learned in 2015 that Yahoo is worth only the value of its Alibaba shareholdings, and no more. Yahoo as it was founded is now worth – nothing.
After 3 years of Mayer leadership it became clear that “there was no there, there” at Yahoo (to quote Gertrude Stein.) The value of the company’s “core” search and content accumulation businesses dropped to zero. Although 3 years have passed, practically no progress has been made toward developing a new business able to compete in the market shifted to social media and instant communications. Investors now realize Ms. Mayer has failed to grow future revenue and profits for the historical internet leader. Following a decade of incompetent CEOs, Yahoo has been left almost wholly irrelevant.
What was once Yahoo will soon be Alibaba USA, as the company gets rid of its old businesses – in some fashion, although who would want them is unclear – in order to allow shareholders to preserve their value in Alibaba stock purchased by Jerry Yang in 2005.
Yahoo has become irrelevant, replaced by its minority stake in Alibaba, largely due to a Board unable to identify and hire a competent CEO – ending with the wholly unqualified selection of Ms. Mayer, who will achieve at least a footnote in history for the outsized compensation package she received and the huge severance that will come her way, wildly out of proportion to her poor performance, when leaving Yahoo.
4 – Even 1 dumb leadership decision can devastate a company — Turing Pharmaceuticals and CEO Shkreli
In 2015 former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli raised a lot of money, and obtained control of an anit-parasitic pharmaceutical product. Recognizing that his customers either paid up or died, and being young, naïve, enormously greedy and without much oversight he decided to raise product pricing 70-fold. This would leave his customers either dead, bankrupt or bankrupting the insurance companies paying for his product – but he infamously said he did not care.
Thumbing your nose at customers, and regulators, is never a good idea. And even if they could not roll back the price quickly, they could target the CEO and his company for further investigation. It didn’t take long until Mr. Shrkeli was indicted for stock manipulation, leaving Turing Pharmaceuticals in disrepair as it rapidly cut staff and tried to determine what it will do next. Now KaloBios Pharma, controlled by Turing, is forced to file bankruptcy.
Never forget that Al Capone did not go to prison for stealing, bribing police, bootlegging, number running, murder or other gangster behavior. He went to prison for tax evasion. The simple lesson is, when you think you are smarter than everyone else, can do whatever you want and thumb your nose at those with government powers you’ll soon find yourself under the microscope of investigation, and most likely in really big trouble. And in the desire to take down the unwise CEO corporations become mere fodder.
The pharma industry is a regular target of consumers and politicians. Now not only are the investors in Turing damaged by this foolishly incompetent CEO, but the entire industry will once again be under close scrutiny for its pricing practices. Arrogantly making brash decisions, based on ill-formed thinking and juvenile egotism, without careful, thoughtful consideration can create enormous damage.
5 – Putting short-term results above good business practice will hurt you very badly long-term – Volkswagen and Takata
VW cheated on its emissions tests. Takata sold deadly, exploding airbags. Both companies are large organizations with layers of management. How could judgemenetal errors so big, so costly and so deadly happen?
These outcomes did not happen because of just “one bad apple.” Cultural acceptance of lying takes years of leadership focused on short-term results, even when it means operating unethically or illegally, to be inculcated. It took years for layers of management to learn how to turn away from problems, falsify test results, fake outcomes, lie to customers and even lie to regulators. It took years to create a culture of tolerated deception and willful misrepresentation.
Unfortunately, the auto industry is a tough place to make money. There is a lot of regulation, and a lot of competition. When it becomes too hard to make money honestly, cheating can become far too easily accepted. Rather than trying to revolutionize the auto making process, or the product itself, it can be a lot easier to push managers all the way down to the front-line of procurement, manufacturing or sales to simply cheat.
“Make your numbers” becomes a mantra. If you want to keep your job, or even more importantly if you want to move up, do whatever it takes to tell those above you what they want to hear. And those above don’t ask too many questions, don’t try to figure out how results happen – just keep applying pressure to those below to do what’s necessary to make the numbers.
As VW and Takata showed us, eventually the company will be caught. And the consequences are severe. Now those companies, their customers, their employees and their shareholders are suffering. And industry regulations will tighten further to make it harder to cheat. Everyone loses when short-term results are the top goal, rather than building a sustainable long-term business.
Let’s hope for better leadership in 2016.
DuPont is one of America’s oldest corporations. Founded by Eleuthere Irenee duPont as a gunpowder manufacturer for the Revolutionary War, the company has long been one of America’s leading business institutions. From humble beginnings, DuPont became well known as a leader in Research & Development, a consistent leader in patent applications, and the inventor of products that proliferate in our lives from nylon to Teflon pans plastic bottles to Kevlar vests.
But in a series of fast actions during 2015, DuPont as it has been known is going away. And it is too bad the leadership wasn’t in place to save it. Now there will be a short-term bump to investors, but long-term cost cutting will decimate a once great innovation leader. When the bankers take over, it’s never pretty for employees, suppliers, customers or the local community.
It has been a long time since DuPont was the kind of business leader that gathered attention like, say, Apple or Google. From dynamic roots, the company had become quite stodgy and unexciting. Many felt leadership was over-spending on overhead costs like R&D,product development and headquarters personnel.
Thus Trian Fund, led by activist investor Nelson Peltz, set its sites on DuPont, buying 2.7% of the shares and launching a proxy campaign to place its slate of directors on the Board. The objective? Slash R&D and other costs, sell some divisions, raise cash in a hurry and dress up the P&L for a higher short-term valuation.
These sort of attacks almost always work. But DuPont’s CEO, Ellen Kullman, dug in her heels and fought back. She aligned her Board, spent $15M making her case to shareholders, and in a surprising victory beat back Mr. Peltz keeping the board and management intact. In a great rarity, this May DuPont’s management convinced enough shareholders to back their efforts for improving the P&L via their own restructuring and cost improvements, planned divestitures and organic growth that existing leadership remained intact.
But this victory was quite short-lived. By October, Ms. Kullman was forced out as CEO. A few days later the CFO reported quarterly profits that were only half the previous year. Sales had continued a history of declining in almost all divisions and across almost all geographic segments – with total revenue down to $5B from $7.5B a year ago. As it had done in July and previous quarters end-of-year projections were again lowered.
Net/net – CEO Kullman and management may have won the Trian battle, but they clearly lost the business war. Unable to actually profitably grow the company, the Board lost patience. They were willing to support management, but when that team could not produce the innovations to keep growing they were willing to accelerate cost cutting ($1B in 2015 alone) in order to prop up short-term stock valuation.
Now the newly placed transaction-oriented CEO of Dupont has cooked up a deal the bankers simply love. Merge DuPont with Saran Wrap and Ziploc inventor Dow Chemical, which itself has been the target of Third Point’s activist leader Dan Loeb (which Dow settled by giving Third Point 2 board seats rather than risk a proxy battle.) Then whack even more costs – some $3B – and lay off some 20,000 of the combined companies’ 110,000 employees. Then split the remaining operations into 3 new companies and spin those out publicly.
Sounds so good on paper. So simple. And think of the size of the investment banking and legal fees!!!! That will create some great partner bonuses in 2016!
Theoretically, this will create 3 companies that are more profitable, even though sales are not improving at all. Improved P&L’s will be projected into the future, and higher P/E (price to earnings) multiples on the stock should yield investors a very nice short-term gain. A one-time investor “Christmas present.”
But what will investors actually own? The lower cost companies will now be largely without R&D, new product development, internal patent departments, university research grant management programs, and many of the finance, marketing and sales personnel. Exactly how will future growth be assured? What will happen to these once-great sources of invention and innovation?
Nothing about this mega-transaction actually makes business better for anyone:
- The companies are no closer aligned with market trends than before. In fact, lacking people in innovation positions (product development, R&D and marketing) they are very likely to become even further removed from the leading trends that could create breakthrough products.
- Competition will be reduced short-term, so there will be less price pressure. But longer-term innovation will shift to smaller companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, or even companies currently not on the industry radar – as well as universities. These big companies will be removed from the leading edge of competition, the innovation edge, and will much more likely miss the next wave of products in all markets as new competitors emerge.
- There will be no resources to develop or manage new innovations that emerge internally, or externally. The much smaller staffs will have no bandwidth to explore new technologies, new products, new go-to-market channels or new ways of doing business. There will be no resources for white space teams to explore market shifts, consider major threats to their “core,” or develop potentially disruptive businesses that will generate future growth.
A very smart CFO once told me “when the finance guys are figuring out how to make money, rather than the business guys, you need to be very worried.” Clever transactions, like the one proposed between DuPont and Dow, do not replace great leadership. These are one-time events, and almost always leave the remaining assets weaker and less competitive than before.
Leadership requires understanding markets, managing innovation, creating new solutions, disrupting old businesses by launching new ones, and generating recurring profitable sales growth. Unfortunately, DuPont suffered from a lack of great leadership for several years, which left it vulnerable. Now the bankers are in charge, busy managing spreadsheets rather than products, customers and sales.
Don’t be confused. In no way does this merger and reorganization improve the competitiveness of these businesses. And for that reason, it will not offer a long-term value enhancement for shareholders. But even more obvious is the outcome negative outcome we can expect for employees, suppliers, customers and the communities in which these companies have operated. Bad leadership let the hyenas in, and they will pick the best meat off the bone for themselves first – leaving seriously damaged carcasses for everyone else.
Marissa Mayer’s reign as head of Yahoo looks to be ending like her predecessors. With a serious flop. Only this may well be the last flop – and the end of the internet pioneer.
It didn’t have to happen this way, but an inability to manage Status Quo Risk doomed Ms. Mayer’s leadership – as it has too many others. And once again bad leadership will see a lot of people – investors, employees and even customers – pay the price.
Yahoo was in big trouble when Ms. Mayer arrived. Growth had stalled, and its market was being chopped up by Google and Facebook. It’s very relevancy was questionable as people no longer needed news consolidation sites – which had ended AOL, for example – and search had long gone to Google. The intense internet users were already clearly mobile social media fans, and Yahoo simply did not compete in that space.
In other words, Yahoo desperately needed a change of direction and an entirely new strategy the day Ms. Mayer showed up. Only, unfortunately, she didn’t provide either. Instead Ms. Meyer offered, at best, a series of fairly meaningless tactical actions. Changing Yahoo’s home page layout, cancelling the company’s work-from-home policy and hiring Katie Couric, amidst a string of small and meaningless acquisitions, were the business equivalent of fiddling while Rome burned. Tinkering with the tactics of an outdated success formula simply ignored the fact that Yahoo was already well on the road to irrelevancy and needed to change, dramatically, quickly.
The saving grace for Yahoo was when Alibaba went public. Suddenly a long-ago decision to invest in the Chinese company created a vast valuation increase for Yahoo. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to shift the business fast and hard into something new, different and much more relevant than the worn out Yahoo strategy. But, unfortunately, Ms. Mayer used this as a curtain to hide the crumbling former internet leader. She did nothing to make Yahoo relevant, as fights erupted over how to carve up the Alibaba windfall.
When it became public that Ms. Mayer had hired famed strategy firm McKinsey & Co. to decide what businesses to close in its next “restructuring” it lit up the internet with cries to possibly just get rid of the whole thing! After 3 years, and more than one layoff, it now appears that Ms. Mayer has no better idea for creating value out of Yahoo than doing another big layoff to, once again, improve “focus on core offerings.” Additional layoffs, after 3 years of declining sales, is not the way to grow and increase shareholder value.
Analysts are pointing out that Yahoo’s core business today is valueless. The company is valued at less than its remaining Alibaba stake. And this is not outrageous, since in the ad world Yahoo has become close to irrelevant. Nobody would build an on-line ad campaign ignoring Google or Facebook, and several other internet leaders. But ignoring Yahoo as a media option is increasingly common.
Investors are rightly worried that the IRS will take much of the remaining Alibaba value as taxes in any spinoff, leaving them with far less money. Giving up on the CEO, and its increasingly irrelevant “core business” they are asking if it wouldn’t be smarter to sell what we think of as Yahoo to Softbank so the Japanese company can obtain the rest of Yahoo Japan it does not already own. Ostensibly then Yahoo as it is known in the USA could simply start to disappear – like AOL and all the other on-line news consolidators.
It really did not have to happen this way. Yahoo’s troubles were clearly visible, and addressable. But CEO Mayer simply chose to keep doing more of the same, making small improvements to Yahoo’s site and search tool. By keeping Yahoo aligned with its historical Status Quo risk of irrelevance, obsolescence and failure grew quarter-by-quarter.
Now Status Quo Risk (the risk created by not adapting to shifting market needs) has most likely doomed Yahoo. Investors are no longer interested in waiting for a turn-around. They want their Alibaba valuation, and they could care less about Yahoo’s CEO, employees or customers. Many have given up on Ms. Mayer, and simply want an exit strategy so they can move on.
Ms. Mayer’s leadership has shown us some important leadership lessons:
- Hiring an executive from Google (or another tech company) does not magically mean success will emerge. Like Ron Johnson from Apple to JCP, Ms. Mayer showed that even tech execs often lack an ability to understand market trends and the skills to adapt an organization.
- It is incredibly easy for a new leader to buy into an historical success formula and keep tweaking it, rather than doing the hard work of creating a new strategy and adapting. The lure of focusing on tactics and hoping the strategy will take care of itself is remarkably easy fall into. But investors need to realize that tactics do not fix an outdated success formula.
- Youth is not the answer. Ms. Mayer was young, and identified with the youthfulness of Google and internet users. But, in the end, she woefully lacked the strategy and leadership skills necessary to turn around the deeply troubled Yahoo. Young, new and fresh is no substitute for critical thinking and knowing how to lead.
- Boards give CEOs too much time to fail. It was clear within months Ms. Mayer had no strategy for making Yahoo relevant. Yet, the Board did not recognize its mistake and replace the CEOs. There still are not sufficient safeguards to make sure Boards act when CEOs fail to lead effectively.
- CEOs too often have too much hubris. Ms. Mayer went from college to a rapid career acceleration in largely staff positions to CEO of Yahoo and a Board member of Wal-Mart. It is easy to develop hubris, and an over-abundance of self-confidence. Then it is easy to require your staff agree with you, and pledge so support you (as Ms. Mayer recently did.) All of this indicates a leader running on hubris rather than critical thinking, open discourse and effective decision-making. Hubris is not just a weakness of white male leaders.
Could there have been a different outcome. Of course. But for Yahoo’s employees, suppliers, customers and investors the company hired a string of CEOs that simply were not up to the job of redirecting the company into competitiveness. Each one fell victim to trying to maintain the Status Quo. And, unfortunately, Ms. Mayer will be seen as the most recent – and possibly last – CEO to lead Yahoo into failure. Ms. Mayer simply was not up to the job – and now a lot of people will pay the price.
Microsoft recently announced it was offering Windows 10 on xBox, thus unifying all its hardware products on a single operating system – PCs, mobile devices, gaming devices and 3D devices. This means that application developers can create solutions that can run on all devices, with extensions that can take advantage of inherent special capabilities of each device. Given the enormous base of PCs and xBox machines, plus sales of mobile devices, this is a great move that expands the Windows 10 platform.
Only it is probably too late to make much difference. PC sales continue falling – quickly. Q3 PC sales were down over 10% versus a year ago. Q2 saw an 11% decline vs year ago. The PC market has been steadily shrinking since 2012. In Q2 there were 68M PCs sold, and 66M iPhones. Hope springs eternal for a PC turnaround – but that would seem increasingly unrealistic.
The big market shift to mobile devices started back in 2007 when the iPhone began challenging Blackberry. By 2010 when the iPad launched, the shift was in full swing. And that’s when Microsoft’s current problems really began. Previous CEO Steve Ballmer went “all-in” on trying to defend and extend the PC platform with Windows 8 which began development in 2010. But by October, 2012 it was clear the design had so many trade-offs that it was destined to be an Edsel-like flop – a compromised product unable to please anyone.
By January, 2013 sales results were showing the abysmal failure of Windows 8 to slow the wholesale shift into mobile devices. Ballmer had played “bet the company” on Windows 8 and the returns were not good. It was the failure of Windows 8, and the ill-fated Surface tablet which became a notorious billion dollar write-off, that set the stage for the rapid demise of PCs.
And that demise is clear in the ecosystem. Microsoft has long depended on OEM manufacturers selling PCs as the driver of most sales. But now Lenovo, formerly the #1 PC manufacturer, is losing money – lots of money – putting its future in jeopardy. And Dell, one of the other top 3 manufacturers, recently pivoted from being a PC manufacturer into becoming a supplier of cloud storage by spending $67B to buy EMC. The other big PC manufacturer, HP, spun off its PC business so it could focus on non-PC growth markets.
And, worse, the entire OEM market is collapsing. For the largest 4 PC manufacturers sales last quarter were down 4.5%, while sales for the remaining smaller manufacturers dropped over 20%! With fewer and fewer sales, consolidation is wiping out many companies, and leaving those remaining in margin killing to-the-death competition.
Which means for Microsoft to grow it desperately needs Windows 10 to succeed on devices other than PCs. But here Microsoft struggles, because it long eschewed its “channel suppliers,” who create vertical market applications, as it relied on OEM box sales for revenue growth. Microsoft did little to spur app development, and rather wanted its developers to focus on installing standard PC units with minor tweaks to fit vertical needs.
Today Apple and Google have both built very large, profitable developer networks. Thus iOS offers 1.5M apps, and Google offers 1.6M. But Microsoft only has 500K apps largely because it entered the world of mobile too late, and without a commitment to success as it tried to defend and extend the PC. Worse, Microsoft has quietly delayed Project Astoria which was to offer tools for easily porting Android apps into the Windows 10 market.
Microsoft realized it needed more developers all the way back in 2013 when it began offering bonuses of $100,000 and more to developers who would write for Windows. But that had little success as developers were more keen to achieve long-term sales by building apps for all those iOS and Android devices now outselling PCs. Today the situation is only exacerbated.
By summer of 2014 it was clear that leadership in the developer world was clearly not Microsoft. Apple and IBM joined forces to build mobile enterprise apps on iOS, and eventually IBM shifted all its internal PCs from Windows to Macintosh. Lacking a strong installed base of Windows mobile devices, Microsoft was without the cavalry to mount a strong fight for building a developer community.
In January, 2015 Microsoft started its release of Windows 10 – the product to unify all devices in one O/S. But, largely, nobody cared. Windows 10 is lots better than Win8, it has a great virtual assistant called Cortana, and it now links all those Microsoft devices. But it is so incredibly late to market that there is little interest.
Although people keep talking about the huge installed base of PCs as some sort of valuable asset for Microsoft, it is clear that those are unlikely to be replaced by more PCs. And in other devices, Microsoft’s decisions made years ago to put all its investment into Windows 8 are now showing up in complete apathy for Windows 10 – and the new hybrid devices being launched.
AM Multigraphics and ABDick once had printing presses in every company in America, and much of the world. But when Xerox taught people how to “one click” print on a copier, the market for presses began to die. Many people thought the installed base would keep these press companies profitable forever. And it took 30 years for those machines to eventually disappear. But by 2000 both companies went bankrupt and the market disappeared.
Those who focus on Windows 10 and “universal windows apps” are correct in their assessment of product features, functions and benefits. But, it probably doesn’t matter. When Microsoft’s leadership missed the mobile market a decade ago it set the stage for a long-term demise. Now that Apple dominates the platform space with its phones and tablets, followed by a group of manufacturers selling Android devices, developers see that future sales rely on having apps for those products. And Windows 10 is not much more relevant than Blackberry.
I was born the 1950s. In my youth of the ’60s there was no doubt that the #1 sport in America was baseball. Almost every boy owned a bat, ball and glove and played baseball. When we went out for recess there was always a softball game somewhere on the playground.
Fathers told stories about how on the battlefields of WWII they would shout questions about baseball players and World Series statistics to each other to determine if the “other guy out there” was an American, or a German trying to sucker the Americans into the open. Baseball was so relevant every American was expected to know the details of players, games and series.
In that era, lots of baseball was played in the daytime, since the game and its parks preceded the era of great field lighting. Men regularly took off work to attend ball games, and it was considered fairly normal. People listened to baseball games on the radio at work.
And when the World Series came along, which was played around Labor Day, it was so beloved that people took TVs to work, hooked up makeshift antenna and watched the games. Even schools would set up a TV on the gymnasium stage and let the students watch the game — and some enterprising teachers would set up televisions in their classrooms and eschew teaching in favor of watching the series. It was even bigger than today’s Super Bowl, as pretty nearly everyone watched or listened to the World Series.
No longer. World Series viewership has been on a decline for at least 40 years. According to Wikipedia, World Series viewership was about 35million in the 1986-1991 timeframe. By 1998-2005 viewership was down to averaging 20million – a 40% decline. By 2008-2014 viewership had declined to 12million -another 40% decline – or a loss of 2/3 the viewership in 25 years.
By comparison, regular season games in the NFL 2014 season averaged about 18million viewers, and 114million people watched the February, 2015 Superbowl – almost 10 times World Series viewership. Even the women’s FIFA World Cup soccer match last July drew 25million American viewers – twice the World Series.
Are you aware the World Series is happening now? I will forgive you if you didn’t know. Marketwatch.com headlined “This Is the Most Exciting World Series No One is Watching.” From what was the #1 sporting event in America, and possibly the world, 50 years ago the World Series has become nearly irrelevant for most people.
Why? Trends have made the World Series, and really baseball, obsolete.
Big Trend #1 – We’re out of time. The pace of life is far, far different today than it was in 1965. Laconic weekday afternoons lounging in a ballpark to watch a game are a thing of the past. The fact that baseball has no time limit is probably its most negative feature. Games are a minimum of 9 innings, but in case of a tie they can last many, many more. Further, if it rains the game is delayed, which can extend the time an hour or more. Thirdly, you have no idea how long an inning may take. 15 minutes, or an hour, all depending on a raft of variables that are impossible to predict.
Game 1 of this current series is a great example of the problem this creates. The game lasted 14 innings. There was a rain delay in the middle of the game. Overall, it was a 5 hour 9 minute event. While this set a new record for a World Series game length, it clearly demonstrates the problem of a sporting event which has no clock.
The most popular games are highly clock bound. Football and basketball not only have limits on the game length, there is a clock limiting the time between plays (or shots.) Soccer is timebound, and there are no time outs. In these games that have greatly grown popularity people know how long a game will take, and that is important.
Big Trend #2 – Action. When was the last time you played a board game, like Monopoly or Life? Do you even own one any longer? Today games are action intensive. In the 1960s a pinball machine was the closest thing anyone had to an “action game.” Look at any game today, via console, computer or mobile device, and there is action. Even Tetris had action to it, and that is nothing compared to the modern video game. People now like action.
Then there is baseball. A “perfect game” – the ultimate for this sport – happens when 21 people bat, and every one walks back to the dugout without reaching base. Quite literally, nothing happens. A pitcher and catcher play catch, while the batters watch. The next most vaunted game is a “no-hitter,” in which people reach base via a walk or an error – but it again reflects a lack of action in that no batter achieved a hit. The third most celebrated game is a “shutout,” meaning one team literally ended the game with a score of Zero. Goose egg.
Baseball is a game of very little action. A really good game often ends with each team having less than 10 hits. It is rare for there to be more than 2 home runs in a game, and often there are games with no home runs at all. Heck, even in golf at least the athletes are hitting the ball 60+ times apiece!
We live in a world today where people run for fun. Or ride bicycles. Where people join gyms to work out on treadmills, rowers, stationary bikes and weight machines. Nobody did this kind of thing in the 1960s. People today are active, and being active is a sign of health, vitality and well-being. Sedentary behaviors are frowned upon. There is no sport with less action than baseball (except maybe darts.)
Big Trend #3 – Globalization. Despite Mr. Donald Trump’s xenophobic appeal, globalization is an unstoppable trend. Our businesses and our lives are increasingly global, as it is doubtful any American goes a day without touching a product or service delivered from an offshore source. And unlikely most Americans live any given day without talking to someone born in a foreign country, or entertaining them with news, information, sports or programming from outside the USA.
There is no sport which makes this clearer than soccer. Due to its global appeal, 715million people watched the final game of the 2006 World Cup (55 times the World Series.) 909million people watched the final 2010 World Cup game (71.5 times the current World Series.) [note: FIFA has not published numbers for the 2014 final game in Brazil, but it is surely going to exceed 1B viewers.]
American impact? There were almost as many Americans (11million) that watched the first round match between the USA and Ghana in the 2014 World Cup as are now watching a World Series Game. And the 2014 World Cup final game had 17.3M U.S. viewers – 34% more than are watching the World Series this year.
Basketball has some international appeal, as there are leagues across Europe and some in South America. And my son was shocked at how much people watched and played basketball on his trip to China. And we see globalization reflected in the players names now in the NBA.
We also see globalization reflected in the NHL, which has many players from outside the USA. And viewership is growing for NHL Stanley Cup games, although it is still only about half the World Series. But given the trajectories of viewership, and the fact that hockey is both a timed sport as well as action-filled, Stanley Cup watchers could exceed World Series watchers in just a few years.
Simply put, baseball has never extended strongly beyond the USA and Japan. Lacking competitive teams and viewers outside the USA, as well as limited non-USA player recruitment, this “most American of sports” is off one of the country’s (and planet’s) major trends.
In short, the world moved and baseball did not change with the times. People don’t live today like they did in the 1930s-1960s. Trends are vastly different. New sports that were better linked to major trends, and which adapted to trends (by adding things like shot clocks and play clocks, for example) have gained viewers, while baseball has declined.
Baseball didn’t do anything wrong. It just didn’t adapt. And competitors have moved in. Just like happens in business — which, of course, is the reason we have professional sports – you either adapt or you become obsolete.
The World Series was once the most relevant sporting event on the globe. No longer. And lacking some major changes in the game, its ability to ever grow again is seriously questionable.
This week McDonald’s and Microsoft both reported earnings that were higher than analysts expected. After these surprise announcements, the equities of both companies had big jumps. But, unfortunately, both companies are in a Growth Stall and unlikely to sustain higher valuations.
McDonald’s profits rose 23%. But revenues were down 5.3%. Leadership touted a higher same store sales number, but that is completely misleading.
McDonald’s leadership has undertaken a back to basics program. This has been used to eliminate menu items and close “underperforming stores.” With fewer stores, loyal customers were forced to eat in nearby stores – something not hard to do given the proliferation of McDonald’s sites. But some customers will go to competitors. By cutting stores and products from the menu McDonald’s may lower cost, but it also lowers the available revenue capacity. This means that stores open a year or longer could increase revenue, even though total revenues are going down.
Profits can go up for a raft of reasons having nothing to do with long-term growth and sustainability. Changing accounting for depreciation, inventory, real estate holdings, revenue recognition, new product launches, product cancellations, marketing investments — the list is endless. Further, charges in a previous quarter (or previous year) could have brought forward costs into an earlier report, making the comparative quarter look worse while making the current quarter look better.
Confusing? That’s why accounting changes are often called “financial machinations.” Lots of moving numbers around, but not necessarily indicating the direction of the business.
McDonald’s asked its “core” customers what they wanted, and based on their responses began offering all-day breakfast. Interpretation – because they can’t attract new customers, McDonald’s wants to obtain more revenue from existing customers by selling them more of an existing product; specifically breakfast items later in the day.
Sounds smart, but in reality McDonald’s is admitting it is not finding new ways to grow its customer base, or sales. The old products weren’t bringing in new customers, and new products weren’t either. As customer counts are declining, leadership is trying to pull more money out of its declining “core.” This can work short-term, but not long-term. Long-term growth requires expanding the sales base with new products and new customers.
Perhaps there is future value in spinning off McDonald’s real estate holdings in a REIT. At best this would be a one-time value improvement for investors, at the cost of another long-term revenue stream. (Sort of like Chicago selling all its future parking meter revenues for a one-time payment to bail out its bankrupt school system.) But if we look at the Sears Holdings REIT spin-off, which ostensibly was going to create enormous value for investors, we can see there were serious limits on the effectiveness of that tactic as well.
MIcrosoft also beat analysts quarterly earnings estimate. But it’s profits were up a mere 2%. And revenues declined 12% versus a year ago – proving its Growth Stall continues as well. Although leadership trumpeted an increase in cloud-based revenue, that was only an 8% improvement and obviously not enough to offset significant weakness in other markets:
It is a struggle to see the good news here. Office 365 revenues were up, but they are cannibalizing traditional Office revenues – and not fast enough to replace customers being lost to competitive products like Google OfficeSuite, etc.
Azure sales were up, but not fast enough to replace declining Windows sales. Further, Azure competes with Amazon AWS, which had remarkable results in the latest quarter. After adding 530 new features, AWS sales increased 15% vs. the previous quarter, and 78% versus the previous year. Margins also increased from 21.4% to 25% over the last year. Azure is in a growth market, but it faces very stiff competition from market leader Amazon.
We build our companies, jobs and lives around successful products and services. We want these providers to succeed because it makes our lives much easier. We don’t like to hear about large market leaders losing their strength, because it signals potentially difficult change. We want these companies to improve, and we will clutch at any sign of improvement.
As investors we behave similarly. We were told large companies have vast customer bases, strong asset bases, well known brands, high switching costs, deep pockets – all things Michael Porter told us in the 1980s created “moats” protecting the business, keeping it protected from market shifts that could hurt sales and profits. As investors we want to believe that even though the giant company may slip, it won’t fall. Time and size is on its side we choose to believe, so we should simply “hang on” and “ride it out.” In the future, the company will do better and value will rise.
As a result we see that Growth Stall companies show a common valuation pattern. After achieving high valuation, their equity value stagnates. Then, hopes for a turn-around and recovery to new growth is stimulated by a few pieces of good news and the value jumps again. Only after a few years the short-term tactics are used up and the underlying business weakness is fully exposed. Then value crumbles, frequently faster than remaining investors anticipated.
McDonald’s valuation rose from $62/share in 2008 to reach record $100/share highs in 2011. But valuation then stagnated. It is only this last jump that has caused it to reach new highs. But realize, this is on a smaller number of stores, fewer products and declining revenues. These are not factors justifying sustainable value improvement.
Microsoft traded around $25/share from March, 2003 through November, 2011 – 8.5 years. When the CEO was changed value jumped to $48/share by October, 2014. After dipping, now, a year later Microsoft stock is again reaching that previous valuation ($50/share). Microsoft is now valued where it was in December, 2002 (which is half its all-time high.)
The jump in value of McDonald’s and Microsoft happened on short-term news regarding beating analysts earnings expectations for one quarter. The underlying businesses, however, are still suffering declining revenue. They remain in Growth Stalls, and the odds are overwhelming that their values will decline, rather than continue increasing.