Time for some truth about Sears Holdings (SHLD). I am sick and tired of reading the misstatements and endless criticism of what Eddie Lampert -- who is my friend -- has done with Sears and Kmart.First, Lampert's firing of Aylwin Lewis was necessary, as someone has to take the heat for some of the decline (more on why "some" in a moment). For some reason, Eddie Lampert is credited -- denigrated -- for everything from merchandising to the look and feel of the stores. That was Lewis' job; he didn't do it. Good that he is gone. Let's call Lampert's alleged micromanagement of Sears lie No. 1. Next, Lampert's prices have NOT been jacked up since he got in to the job. He has cut prices, not as low as Wal-Mart's ( WMT), but certainly lower than the CVS ( CVS) and Rite Aid ( RAD) and Target ( TGT) level. Let's call that lie No. 2. Third, while Lampert did pay too much at one point for stock, he also bought stock at great levels before. The articles make it sound like Lampert is the only one who has bought back stock "badly." The list of companies that bought back much higher is jammed with hundreds of names, but only Lampert gets hit by it. Macy's ( M) has done a reckless buyback, levering up its balance sheet to do so, at much higher levels. However, I never read a bad work about Terry Lundgren and his cash management as CEO. I think his stores look terrible, but nobody writes that, either. Or how about Home Depot ( HD)? Disastrous buyback at much higher levels with some real increases in debt to fund it. Lampert hasn't added one bit of debt to the balance sheet to buy, has tons of cash and has a $4 billion line of credit.
Plus, his buyback has actually reduced the float significantly; no buybacks countering management options -- or Lampert's stock -- but a real buyback that I love to see. If Lampert gets it right, or if the economy improves, this stock will pop harder than any other retailer because of this float shrinkage. Even though it is the nation's third-largest retailer, it is basically now not a large-cap company. Let's call that the third lie about this company and Lampert's work. Oh, and I am not even including the buyback of the paper that wrote the most recent hit job, The New York Times, where most of the stock was bought back in the $30s and now it is $14. The company bought so much stock back that the buyback amount exceeds the worth of the company. Nor am I including the amazingly poor buybacks of so many financials, many of which are now issuing more stock much lower than where they bought it back. Don't read much about that, either. Lie No. 4: If Eddie had put a huge amount of money in his stores, it would have mattered a great deal to the business. I don't know, a lot of the other stores I follow have put in a huge amount of money and it hasn't helped much at all. There is no sign that it would have mattered. More important, Lampert has simply demanded a return on his investment. The other guys haven't had much if at all for the money they have thrown at their stores. Why is that not considered reckless? Lampert's returned capital to his shareholders instead and over a three-year period, that's been very right. Why not look at that time period? Finally, there are now charges that Lampert's partners in ESL Investments are now unhappy, hinting that they might leave. First, I know all of the large partners, and I don't know a soul who is unhappy with Lampert's performance, which is well above the S&P 500 -- 1000 basis points to be exact -- during this current lockup.
Second, Lampert's investment in Kmart, which is what started the investment, is up 10 times since he started. Ten times! Who can be unhappy with that? Lie No. 5. Has Sears done a great job in this period? Absolutely not. Have any of the major hard-line or soft-line retailers done a great job in this period? Definitely not. Is Lampert the only one singled out for ridicule and pillorying? I think yes. It's also personal. Lampert's regarded as an iceman and a secretive character. First, the man was kidnapped; the kidnappers are in prison, for life. That would certainly change me (and it has in reality, ever since it happened, affected the way I do business.) Second, he responds to everyone on the Sears Holdings Web site. Why waste his time endlessly defending when he needs to help set the tone and recruit for the business, which isn't easy given the endless carping. Finally, for what it is worth, those who know and have known Eddie for more than 25 years, as I have, can't even recognize these characterizations. He's smart, funny, open and terrific. I know that's neither here nor there, but there isn't an element of this man's life that isn't open to scrutiny, and it just seems plain wrong. This is not about buying Sears. Last week, the stock spiked nine points in a day and my discipline for ActionAlertsPlus is to sell some up nine, which is what I did, locking in a great gain. But this stuff is just too wrong, too dissembling, to ignore any more. Lampert just doesn't deserve this press. He doesn't deserve it after a lifetime of outperforming and doing better than just about any money manager on earth. I rest my case.