Wednesday, September 5, 2007

What is Value Investing? – Part II

I think that it is safe to say that when William Ackman, the renowned Hedge Fund Manager that runs Pershing Square Capital, says that Target is “undervalued,” and when Warren Buffett, the equally renowned value investor says that Burlington Northern is “undervalued,” they mean two very different things. And yet both are very successful at what they do and very rich. So who is right?

Ackman is not your typical stereotyped “value investor,” and Target is not your typical stereotyped value stock. Target’s enterprise value is 9.5 times its trailing 12 month EBITDA. Its forward price to earnings is 15.5 times, while it trades at 3.5 times tangible book value. It is not cash rich, holding $550 million in cash, or about $ 0.55 per share according to Yahoo Finance. The performance has been great as well. Target is up 12.3% year to date and has beaten the S & P 500 by 700 basis points.

So what’s going on here? Why is the stock “undervalued?” according to Ackman. Well, in a sense there is the effect of what is known as “cult investing.” When a well-known and successful investor announces that he is buying a stock, the herd moves onto it en masse pushing up the price. Ackman enjoyed that effect as rumors hit the market a week before his filing was done on 7/16/2007.

Buffet and other traditional value investors look for a “great business selling at a great price” in his words. He doesn’t seek to change anything at the company he buys. In fact he wants nothing to change, that’s the entire point. Management usually stays in place.

Ackman wants the company to change, to restructure in some way. Not because it will help the company long term, but because the market will pay more for your company if it looks the way I tell you it should look. For Target, that means sell or spin off your credit card division and try to unlock the value of your real estate somehow. For other companies that are being targeted it might mean something else - sell the entire company, split in two, issue debt and use the money to buy back stock. He doesn’t really care if 2 or 3 years down the road Target is a weaker or stronger company because he probably won’t be a shareholder by then.

I hesitate to say that Ackman is price indifferent to what he pays, because everyone cares about what they pay for something but in a sense he is price indifferent. He creates value at the companies he owns not by making its business stronger or better, but by shuffling parts of the puzzle around. Call it financial engineering if you like. If earnings grow faster than they did before he got there, its not because he helped them become better at retailing, its probably because its share count will decline due to some huge buyback that the company announces. When Ackman sits down with Target management is he going to say that they should work on their merchandising or that they should cut back on the number of SKU’s at their stores?

The Ackman strategy then is this simply put –

1. Find a large cap stock where the market is valuing the stock exactly at what it should be valued at based on the company’s profile.

2. Quietly accumulate a large stake in the company over a period of several months.

3. Leak word on the street that you are building a stake in the company and receive the cult effect.

4. Make your public filing of ownership and send letter to management.

5. Meet with and pressure management to do what you tell them to do to get the stock price up.

6. Wait for management to cave in and see the stock rise even more.

7. Sell quietly in a few months after the general public piles into the stock.

8. Give part of profit to charity but only in years when Hedge Fund manager wealth is getting really bad press.

Now I am not criticizing Ackman for what he does. Everyone has to create value for their investors and if it can be done this way then so be it. I was only trying to demonstrate how two investors who are very different can utter the same word and do it with a straight face.

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