Shares of Sears Holdings ( SHLD) have shed 10% since Kmart merged with Sears about a year ago to form the third-largest discount retail chain in the U.S. With investors expecting the company's first full-year profit report any day now, some are wondering if another serving of market-share losses will weigh the stock down even further. Ed Lampert, the hedge fund guru of ESL Investments who orchestrated the merger, has been flying below Wall Street's radar. As chairman of Sears Holdings, he doesn't provide the customary monthly sales results reported by most retailers. He doesn't do quarterly conference calls with analysts. He doesn't even provide detailed information about when to expect the company's earnings releases, but he has enjoyed the quiet support of a group of savvy hedge funds and institutional investors who pushed the stock as high as $163.50 last summer. With the stock down over 28% since then at $117, how much longer can that support last from an investor group that's notorious for its short-term view? "I think he's got pressure on him from major shareholders to do something," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of a retail consultancy and investment-banking firm called Davidowitz & Associates. "Eventually, the company could lose so much market share and become so irrelevant to the marketplace that the stock could drop to $60, and I think Lampert knows that. A lot of the hedge funds that own the shares want the company to be liquidated, since they got into it for the value in the real estate in the first place." Lampert brushed off such criticism back in December when Sears Holdings reported third-quarter earnings of $58 million, or 35 cents a share, including charges totaling 7 cents a share from restructuring and divestitures. Sales were $12.2 billion. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had projected earnings of 28 cents a share on sales of $12.95 billion.
Those results continued a pattern that has become typical of Lampert in all his retail forays. He has focused on cash flow and profitability, often at the expense of sales growth. With 3,900 full-line and specialty retail stores in the U.S., Sears Holdings' store count remains "around" where it was at the time of the merger, according to company spokesman Chris Brathwaite. Its competitors, such as Wal-Mart ( WMT), Target ( TGT) and J.C. Penney ( JCP), have been adding stores. Furthermore, Sears Holdings has consistently posted negative same-store sales, leading analysts to conclude that it's been losing market share all along. Morningstar analyst Kim Picciola says she expects to hear more of the same about the fourth quarter. "I'm expecting weak same-store sales, improvements in operating margins and a continued pullback in capital expenditures," Picciola says. "He may touch on the new strategy of dropping the Sears Essentials concept and focusing on Sears Grand. They're probably going to expand on how that's going to work going forward." Analysts, on average, are expecting the company to report fourth-quarter earnings of $3.62 a share on sales of $16 billion, according to First Call. In his last letter to shareholders, Lampert's substitute for a quarterly conference call, he lashed out at his critics, who, he said, "cloak themselves in anonymity or do not disclose the true motives that are driving their comments." He urged shareholders to approach information in the media about Sears Holdings with skepticism. "Most observers and financial pundits missed the turnaround at IBM ( IBM), missed the turnaround at American Express ( AXP), missed the turnaround at J.C. Penney, missed the emergence of Google ( GOOG), and missed the resurrection of Kmart -- until it was abundantly clear that those companies had succeeded," Lampert said in the December letter. Davidowitz says Kmart, because of its sales deterioration, wouldn't have flourished had it not been merged with Sears. He expects Lampert to look for more acquisitions at Sears, even as he speeds along plans to sell off real estate to boost the company's stock price.
On the acquisition front, independent directors at Sears Canada recently rejected Lampert's bid to buy the remaining 46% of the company, claiming shareholders were being low-balled. Meanwhile, Sears Holdings has lost head merchants for its electronics, hardware and clothing departments over the last six months, prompting Lampert himself to assume an operational role. "With this company in so much turmoil at the moment, I don't think investors should expect many major announcements in the near future," Picciola says. "If Lampert plans to build Sears back up as a retailer or if he's just going to milk cash out of the company, both strategies will take time to execute."