Sears Holdings – Chairman’s Letter
Sears Holdings owners really only have two chances per year to find out what is on the mind of the company’s Chairman, Eddie Lampert. One is the annual meeting in May and the second is the annual shareholder letter which was released this morning concurrent with the release of Q4 and full-year 2008 results. Here is the link to the letter:
Here are a couple notable pieces from the letter including a couple book recommendations:
The two most important books that any student of current events should be reading in this environment are both by Friedrich Hayek, the esteemed Austrian economist. Based on events he witnessed beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom as a warning to England and the United States against the damaging impact of socialist policies and The Fatal Conceit as a warning against heavy intervention in markets and society at large. Despite the almost universal belief today that more, but better, regulation is needed and that the role of the state needs to be not just temporarily larger, but permanently larger, Hayek’s writings and logic should give everybody pause as to the consequences of these actions.
As a country, we need to rebuild confidence and trust and to understand what happened. Whether by business or by government, the misdiagnosis of situations leads to poor prescriptions for rehabilitation and recovery. When the misdiagnosis is done at the federal government level and involves large parts of a national economy, the consequences can be swift and significant. The unintended consequences are often swifter and even more significant. As the leaders in our nation continue to evaluate and evolve the policies and rules of the game, we would all be wise to heed the cautions raised by Friedrich Hayek. I appreciate that the free market can be a difficult master and that there is an important role for government and regulators, but I hope that as we move forward the rules of the game and the methodology for changing those rules will be more consistent and fair than they have been over the past year. Those who desire to protect civil liberties in times of war appreciate the importance of laws protecting individuals and institutions. In times of economic and financial distress we need to be similarly vigilant in protecting economic and contract rights so that we can continue to have a system that functions properly. Attempts to threaten or eliminate those rights will chase away the capital and investment that our country needs to restore prosperity and to thrive in the future.
I agree with Lampert’s view that what market participants ultimately need in order to begin restoring confidence is an understanding of the rules of the game and some certainty that those rules won’t change in an instant, which has been the case lately.
As discussed at the 2008 Annual Shareholder Meeting, there has been significant expansion over the past five years in big box retail square footage and significant capital expenditures by our competitors, primarily for opening new stores, but also to refresh and expand their existing store base and infrastructure. At Sears Holdings, our investment principle is guided by the belief that capital invested in any area of our business deserves a reasonable return on that investment. If that return is not forthcoming, significant investments in the business will destroy value rather than create value for shareholders.
Over the past several months, many of our competitors have announced dramatic reductions in their capital expenditure budgets for 2009 and beyond. Perhaps they too are recognizing that unbridled expansion and investment rarely yield the types of returns forecasted by analysts and industry experts. The dramatic increases in capital investment in the retail industry that took place in recent years are being reversed, and investment levels are being reevaluated. I think that ultimately this is a healthy dynamic for the entire industry. Retail is not immune from the economics of overexpansion experienced in other industries. At Sears Holdings, we will continue to evaluate opportunities based upon our expectations for returns and continue to experiment with a variety of options where the returns could justify higher levels of investment.