Checking out US Retailers

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann
Wednesday December 23, 2015

A number of months ago, for the second year in a row, in fact, Benj was lucky enough to be invited to the Bloomberg Economic Series in Toronto. The event features speakers from the world of politics such as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and federal New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair, but also experts in the areas of stock and energy markets, along with others from fields afar such as sports.

This year, Benj was fortunate to be seated beside the fascinating Richard Peddie, who was the president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment for 14 years until he retired at the end of 2011. When the Contra Guy mentioned that the Leafs had done horribly during his tenure and summarized it with a sarcastic, “Ah, the glory years,” Mr. Peddie replied, “We had a lot of fun.”

Fair enough, albeit not for the fans. ESPN concluded that the Leafs were the worst team in the NHL in terms of “bang for the buck.” Certainly ticket and concession prices are absurd, especially relative to the team’s sucky record. There is simply no value here, but it does show that one can sell shoddy goods at major league prices.

Want cheap? Even with the Canadian dollar at a moribund level, shopping in the United States at discounters such as Big Lots, Dollar General and Wal-Mart can score some deals. All of these enterprises are huge, with the first having over 1,450 stores in 48 states; the second almost 13,000 stores in 43 states; and the third over 11,500 stores in 28 countries. Revenues for the first two work out to better than $5 billion (US) and $20 billion respectively, though tiny indeed compared to Wal-Mart’s $484 billion and generous dividend.

Big Lots and Dollar General both have excellent balance sheets, earn money year after year and have reasonable insider ownership. Wal-Mart does as well, with the exception being that the insiders own better than 50 percent of the stock. That means that decision-making power remains tightly held and a takeover from an outsider is unlikely. Takeover artists would need a heap of change to acquire Big Lots and Dollar General, but they are small fry compared to Wal-Mart.

Though the US economy is in far better shape than a few years ago, it is certainly not firing on all cylinders. The global economy continues to face huge headwinds and many pundits feel that harsher economic times are around the corner. That could bode well for these chains, as even though consumers might curtail spending, a lot who normally shop at more expensive places will gravitate towards discounters.

Are any of these stocks in the bargain bin? It is hard to find one as they all trade way above book value. In addition, relative to their historical stock prices, all three are valued towards the high end, although Wal-Mart has lost about one-third of its value this year, tumbling from over $90 to about $60. So while all of these enterprises offer shoppers deals, the stock prices do not. Even a guy named Buffett from Omaha has been selling some of his shares in Wal-Mart.

At the beginning of the hockey season, Benj was invited to a breakfast by the Maple Leafs as a “Thank You” to loyal fans. The cost: higher than $100. The thought from this angle was if that is how an organization says “Thank you,” it is easy to take a pass. Instead, he will take the money saved and, when he’s in the United States next year, shop at Big Lots or Dollar General. The return on investment will be far more rewarding.