Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I went to the Sears Holdings annual shareholders meeting on May 4th, and thought i'd share some of what i heard.
First, i will say that i was extremely impressed with Eddie Lampert and left the meeting 100% reinforced that he is one of the smartest people out there.
The meeting was about 3 hours, the first 20 minutes or so, Bruce Johnson gave a presentation on the operating businesses, talked about things like expense control and inventory reductions, and he also highlighted things i had not noticed before, such as the improving performance of comp sales relative to competitors, quarter by quarter. The number of competitors who had comp sales worse than Sears Holdings accelerated dramatically towards the end of last year and Eddie Lampert brought up the point of saying, Which is worse, negative 4% comps four quarters in a row, or flat comps for three quarters and then a single quarter of negative 25% comps, as in the case of Abercrombie.
K-Mart had 1.4 million new layaway customers last year. Bruce Johnson talked about the subsequent purchases that layaway brings as customers visit the stores every two weeks to make payments.
Bruce Johnson talked about market share, saying that Sears Holdings has 34.6% market share in appliances, which leads all competitors, up from 30% in Q3 2007. Said they are reversing years of declines in market share in the appliance category. Eddie Lampert said that while you could sell a heck of alot of $3,000 washer/dryers at $1,500... all you'd essentially be doing is "renting market share" and that they wanted to "own market share".
Market share in other categories mentioned:
14.2% home repair
21.0% power lawn and garden
The majority of the meeting though Eddie Lampert took questions from the audience. Some interesting points and comments he made were:
Lampert wants to encourage more experimentation, even though it could mean more failures.
He noted that Sears is determined not to make any "serious mistakes" that can put you out of business, he noted ethical mistakes and serious amounts of leverage as two "serious mistakes"
Monday, May 04, 2009
|The Berkshire Hathaway annual movie has begun. It started with a cartoon of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger and other executives acknowledging a difficult year in 2008 and pledging to work hard in 2009. Not even Berkshire escaped the global recession unscathed.|
|The Qwest Center Omaha is packed to the rafters. The arena seats more than 18,000 people. About 35,000 shareholders are in Omaha this year, many of them spilling out into the exhibition hall at the adjoining convention center. The annual meeting is piped into the hall and other rooms so people can watch and hear it.|
Late night television and other comedians were highlighted in one snippet of the annual movie, joking about the recession and government efforts to revive the economy. One was David Letterman proclaiming it was a good time to buy stocks, playing off Buffett's advice at one point in the crisis. Letterman suggested that instead of that latte you are accustomed to buying, folks should pick up a few shares of GM.
|Another segment has Buffett in Berkshire-owned Nebraska Furniture Mart taking a nap on a mattress, checking "product quality." A manager steps up and tells him the days of sleeping until the phone rings are over, given the stock plunge for Berkshire in 2008. Buffett agrees and tries to sell a mattress to a customer, saying the board of directors suggested he find something else to do. Buffett told the customer it had something to do with a downgrade in Berkshire's credit rating. He gets her to buy a mattress called the "Nervous Nellie," a big seller since the Dow Jones industrials dropped. The mattress features pockets into which can be placed cash and other valuables. The woman goes off to buy the mattress and Buffett takes out all the cash displayed in the mattress, along with a Nebraska Cornhuskers football, magazines and other items. He calls Charlie Munger to set up delivery.|
|Viewers of the annual movie learned the history of Geico auto insurance company's advertising icon Gecko. The lizard was not like other gecko's, the story goes, and hung out with a family cutting out coupons to help save people money. Then the Gecko left a note with the family, saying he wanted to strike out on his own, to bigger and better things. His lonely life changed when he received calls from people confusing him with Geico. He visited Geico's offices and the chief of marketing realized the Gecko wanted to help save people money, just like Geico tries to do with auto insurance. Geico sounds like Gecko, and the advertising legend was born.|
Like last year, a comedy sketch is featured this year, with an investment banker interviewed about the complex financial instruments that backed bad home mortgages. Asked what caused the setup to unravel, the investment banker said people started to ask what the mortgages were actually worth. "Oh for the good old days," the banker sighs.
|The annual movie is over.|
Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have taken their seats. Buffett says questions and answers will be different this year, with journalists alternating questions e-mailed by shareholders with those posed by shareholders in the audience.
|Buffett notes that U.S. Treasury bonds recently have had negative yields. He said people might not see that phenomenon again in their lifetimes.|
Journalist Carol Loomis says more than 5,000 questions were relayed to three journalists involved.
Journalist Carol Loomis said more than 5,000 questions were submitted via e-mail. The first question relates to derivatives and whether those financial deals are good for Berkshire. Buffett says over time, Berkshire expects to make money on the current deals. Buffett says the only money that crossed hands in the stock market deals so far has been $4.9 billion given to Berkshire in premiums. Buffett says the company can use that money for the next 15 to 20 years. And the stock markets on which the deals are made are expected to be higher than when the deals were struck.
|Buffett and Munger said the government's response to the financial crisis has not been perfect but it has been reacting the best it can. Munger said given the emegency the government should be judged with some leniency.|
Journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times says about 300 shareholders had a similar question: Why does Berkshire keep a high investment in Moody's at a time that credit agencies are being criticized for conflict of interest and using flawed history based models? And why not use Berkshire's clout to change the behavior of the credit agencies. Buffett says the big mistake ratings agencies, Congress, bankers and buyers of homes made was thinking housing prices would continue to rise _ and then they collapsed. Buffett says ratings agencies continue to be a good business because there are not many of them and they deal with a large part of the capital markets. Buffett said Berkshire also does not buy stocks in companies to change their behavior. Buffett says in fact he has tried to influence behavior in the past, and never has been very successful.
Buffett is asked how the four investment managers chosen as possible successors to him did in 2008, a very difficult year. Buffett says there are three candidates as CEO, all are internal candidates. There are four possible investment successors, and one or more could be chosen. They are from inside and outside Berkshire. The four investment managers did no better than match the S&P 500. In 2008 they did not cover themselves with glory, Buffett says, but neither did he, so he is tolerant. Munger says any investment manager he knows who is regarded as intelligent and the rest, they all got creamed last year. Buffett says the investment managers over 10 years have done better. Buffett says he has not changed the list of four possible investment managers, either. Buffett says the CEO job is different, that person needs to step right in if something happens to Buffett. But Buffett says one or more investment managers do not have to actions right away. Buffett says an announcement should not be expected right away on investment managers if something happens to him. But within a month or so, an announcement might be made.
|Becky Quick of CNBC says a question about three candidates for CEO successor: What are benefits of bringing in CEO early to give that person a chance to get used to the job? Buffett says he has heard that question before. Buffett says if there was a good way to inject someone into a role that would that person a better CEO for Berkshire, they would do that. But he says the three CEOs are running major businesses right now, and to sit in the office while Buffett is reading or on the telephone -- there is really nothing to do. He says "it would be a waste of talent." Buffett says the three candidates are 100 percent ready for the job right now. He says the biggest job they will have is developing relationships with potential buyers of businesss, with the world at large, with the shareholders. He says that will take time, though not a great deal of time. He says they know how to run businesses, and they probably would do some things better than he would. Munger says a lot of models that have worked well in the world, like Johnson and Johnson, work something like Berkshire and these talents pop up in the subsidiaries.|
|A shareholder asks Buffett to explain his investment strategies, like value investing, and how teach young people. Buffett says he brings in college students to talk with them each year. Buffett says he tells them it is important to know how to value a business and to know how to judge the markets. He says there would be nothing about modern portfolio theory or anything like that. He says it is important to know your circle of competence, start small and learn as you go along. Buffett says some accounting principles also are important. And then learn about market fluctuations and learn that the market is there to serve you. And that is not an issue of a high IQ, but rather an emotional stability and inner peace about the decisions you have made. Munger says there is the basic problem of always having half the future investors in the world in the bottom 50 percent. Munger says largely people should reduce the nonsense. Buffett and Munger agree that emotional makeup is more important than a high IQ. Buffett says he is asked by college students, "what are we being taught that is wrong?" Munger asks how Buffett can handle that question in just one session.|
|Buffett is asked how he would replace someone like Ajit Jain in the insurance division. Buffett says you don't, that Jain is unique. But authority does not go to the position -- it goes to the person.|
|A shareholder asks how Buffett views the markets' valuation of Berkshire shares. The market has it down 30 percent, while earnings were not down that far. Buffett says the shareholder put his finger on something there. Buffett says the investments are what they are in the stock market, so he does not have a problem with that side of the equation. Buffett says the earning power of businesses were down last year and will not do as well this year. But they are by and large good businesses. He says a few of them have problems, others will do very well. Buffett says Berkshire was cheaper in the stock market last year than its intrinsic value would indicate, but most companies were in the same boat. Buffett says over time, both stock price and intrinsic value will increase. And he hopes the operating companies over time will do better. Munger says last year was a bad year for a float business, making the owner of the float (insurance premiums held by Berkshire that can be invested) appear to be worth less than the owner will be worth over time. Munger says Berkshire's casualty insurance business is probably the best in the world. He says other companies in Berkshire's holdings also rank high in the world. Munger says if you think it is easy to get in the position that Berkshire occupies, you are living in a different world than the one that I occupy. Buffett says Berkshire's insurance business is remarkable, with remarkable managers. Buffett says with the economic meltdown, like the China Syndrome or something, it hurt jewerly and NetJets and other businesses, American Express, etc. But the meltdown also caused the phones to ring more at Geico. Buffett says all of a sudden saving money became very important. Buffett says that builds a lot of value over time. Buffett says Geico is now the third largest auto insurer in the country this year and the fundamentals are in place to take Geico much higher. |