Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Fight! Fight! Lampert Vs. Ackman for Sears?

Is Sears the place for a hedge fund battle?
There's speculation that shareholder activist Bill Ackman, who runs his own hedge fund, could be squaring off against fellow-hedger Edward Lampert, who in his spare time oversees Sears Holdings Corp., parent company of two under-achieving corporate children--Kmart and Sears.
They would battle for control of Sears Holdings.
On this fight card, Wall Street is likely to favor Lampert, who knows how to take dog retail stocks (like Sears and AutoNation before it) and turn them into gold. But I'd go with Ackman to win the contest.
Here's why:
It's true that billionaire Lampert is tough and has the capital reserves to beat back an attack. But Ackman is also rich and more of a street fighter, who knows how to win these types of battles.
Indeed, Ackman has already pinned Lampert once in the fight over control of Sears Canada. Working with other shareholders, Ackman defeated a Lambert-led attempt to acquire outstanding shares in Sears Canada for $899 million. Ackman argued the company is worth double that price.
In addition, Ackman doesn't know how to quit.
With an assist from billionaire Nelson Peltz, he forced the Wendy's fast-food chain to restructure and spin off the Canada-based Tim Horton chain (which makes great donuts, by the way). Without Tim Horton, Wendy's was free to focus on turning around its hamburger business and its share price. Ackman sold his Wendy's stake last November, making a killing. (Today, Wendy's closed at $40.13 per share, up nearly 20 percent for the year.)
He also been shaking things up at McDonald's Corp., pressing management to restructure or spin-off assets.
Obviously, Lambert has had his victories, too.
He managed to salvage Kmart from bankruptcy (when many experts thought the chain would be liquidated)and then went on to merge with Sears Roebuck & Co., which has been on a downward sales slide since Sansabelt slacks and Johnny Carson suits went out of style.
Lambert talks a great game about building a retail empire, yet both of these chains are still disasters.
Nonetheless, Wall Steet follows his every move like a puppy because he has somehow managed to boost shares of Sears Holdings. Today it closed at $177 per share (up about 10 percent for the year).
Wall Street--which is always looking for gurus--thinks Lampert is the next Warren Buffett (which would make Sears Holdings the next Berkshire Hathaway, I suppose). Maybe the Street has it right, but Sears and Kmart are still losing customers to other better-focused and creative retail chains.
I have never really understood why the Sears Holding shares are trading at such high levels. Maybe Lampert knows something we don't. Or Wall Street just likes to think he does and is betting on the come.
All of that will be put to the test if Ackman and Lampert throw down and tussle over Sears.
I concede it's a longshot. Ackman is reportedly thinking of a couple of other well-known targets, including that King of Beers--St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch.
Still, how about it -- a hedge fund fight between these two heavyweights?
I'd buy a ticket.

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