For a very long time, Tesco, the UK supermarekt chain could do no wrong. They grew nicely year after year and margins, returns on capital etc. were in a league on its own compared to other supermarket chains.
In the 20 years leading up to 2007 for instance, the Tesco share price increased 15 fold, resulting in an annual gain of ~ 16,3% vs. ~7,0% for the FTSE 100.
In the last few years however, Tesco’s star faded. Profit warning was followed by profit warning. In 2013, after exiting the US business and the China venture, many thought that the worst was behind them. But now in 2014, the problems seem to have just begun with further sales declines in the UK markets and lately with an accounting scandal forcing the Chairman stepping down
Over the last few years I looked from time to time into Tesco. I usually don’t like retailers that much, but with Tesco the simple reason was always “Buffett is owning it”. I have to admit that for me the fact that Buffett is owning something creates an urgent need to look at those companies.
Warren Buffett admitted defeat and sold out a few weeks ago, after buying a large stake as late as in 2012, calling the whole episode as a “great mistake”.
Nevertheless, such a rapidly falling stock price of a “blue chip” company still lures many value investors. Among others, Vitaly Katsenelson came out with a “pro Tesco” article just a few days ago.
I would summarize his arguments as follows:
It is a good time to buy Tesco NOW because:
– the news is all negative
– there is an natural upper limit of discounter market share in the UK close to the level where it is today in the UK (~7%)
– Tesco is still twice as large as the nearest competitor and 10 times bigger as Aldi and Lidl
– US grocers have countered Walmart in the US succesfully, so will Tesco in the UK
– Tesco sits on a lot of prime real estate
– Tesco has a 50% market share in online groceries in UK
– the discovered accounting issue is not so bad, as part of if happened in past years
– there is a lot of hidden value in Tesco’s real estate
– Tesco has subsidiaries (loyalty cards, Asia) which are valuable, it could be a sum of parts play
– the 7,5 bn GBP debt load is not an issue because the company is “asset rich”
– at an assumed “fair”operating margin of 5%, Tesco would be a “steal” at 6x P/E
Overall, the pitch is well written and seems to be quite convincing.
However at a second look, the Tesco story seems less convincing. Regarding Katsenelson himself, I wonder why he didn’t explictly mention his article from 1 year ago, where he recommended to buy Tesco right back then, at a price of around 3,60 GBP with virtually the same arguments. Since then, the stock lost a -54% if you followed his advice.
But let’s look at some of his arguments:
There is an natural upper limit of discounter market share
Katsenelson claims that the current discounter market share of around 7% is a “natural limit”. He doesn’t link to any proof and only mentions the limited success some US chains to support this. However if you look at the “Motherland” of hard discounting, Germany, you can see that this argument is pure nonsense. Although German shoppers might be a little special, a market share of 44% for diacounters in 2014 clearly shows that there is a lot of room for discounters in the UK, even if the never get to German levels.
Tesco is still twice as large as the nearest competitor and 10 times bigger as Aldi and Lidl
Well, that’s true for the UK but not for the Europe. Lidl had total sales of 75 bn EUR in Europe, only slightly less than Tesco’s total sales. Aldi doesn’t issue consolidated sales figures but is only slightly smaller than Lidl. What Kastenelson however completely misses is the following: Aldi and Lidl offer only a very limited choice, usually several hundred products compared to 10.000 or more in a large supermarket. So you don’t have the choice of 10 different sorts of orange juice, there is only one and the same goes for other categories-
The result of this limited choice is a a massive scale effect. Even with less total sales, sales per single product at Aldi & Lidl might be already higher in the UK than at Tesco. And sales per single products are essential because this gives negotiation power with the suplier.
There is a lot of value in Tesco’s real estate
This is the same argument one hears all the time for struggling retail companies. They just need to sell their precious reals estate and everything will be OK. The problem with this kind of approach is that real estate for a retailer is not some kind of “extra asset” which comes on top, but real estate is an essential production factor. Selling real estate for a retailer normally means a “sale-and-lease” back and is nothing more than taking on more debt.
I have written about one case, Praktiker in Germany, where the sale-and-.lease-back finally killed the company, the same happened with Karstadt/Arcandor. Tesco by the way, seems to have been quite active in more or less intransparent sale-and-lease back transactions in the past, as this FT Alphaville article outlines. There is also a pretty good post at Motley Fool with regard to the assumed “real estate treasure” and the following quote nails it down:
The supermarkets’ race-for-space is over. Forget the news that Tesco is planning to build houses on some of its now unneeded landbank — that’s it’s a sideshow in the grand scheme of things.
The real story to focus on is those aircraft-hangar-like Extra stores that Tesco is currently padding out with Giraffe restaurants, gyms, children’s play areas and suchlike. This seems little more than a holding strategy, while the company decides what to do with the stores in the new consumer-is-the-destination world, where ‘destination stores’ already seem so last decade.
Analysts at Cazenove have painted a grim — but I think realistic — picture of the way Tesco’s UK property valuation is heading:
“The gap between the performance of large out-of-town stores and convenience stores continues to widen … This has direct and strong implications for the property valuation of the Extra stores (45% of the UK space). The company says that its UK real estate is worth £20bn based on the extrapolation of past sale and lease-back transactions to the entire estate. We believe it is likely worth less than half that value — the book value of UK land and buildings is £9.3bn and the alternative use value towards which several out of town stores are converging is a fraction of the book value”.
Whatever the final outcome will be, but buying a highly indebted retailer because of the assumed value of the real estate has never really worked. If Tesco doesn’t earn enough on the real estate they occupy, who else will do this ? From my experience, when a retailer’s main attraction is the value of its real estate, then you should better run.
US grocers have countered Walmart in the US succesfully, so will Tesco in the UK
Again, Katsenelson looks at the US and compares Aldi & Lidl to Walmart in the US. I think this is a big mistake. If we look again to Germany, one can see that traditional grocers and supermarkets NEVER recovered fully from the attack of the discounters. Just a few weeks ago, one of the German supermarket pioneers, Tengelmann, sold its remaining “classical” super markets to rival Edeka. Operating margins for normal supermarkets, even for the really big ones are more in the 2-3% area maybe half of that what UK supermarkets like Tesco still achieve. Aldi and Lidl are privately owned long term players who clearly are prepared to sacrifice profit for a long time in order to gain market share.
It could easily be that we see a mighty rebound in Tesco, maybe even after I post this and I will look like an idiot. However in the medium and long term, I think many of the popular arguments for Tesco as a value investment (real estate etc.) are pretty useless and some of the arguments (i.e. “natural maximum market share” of discounters) are just plain wrong.
If you define a value investment as an investment where the probability of a loss is very small, than clearly Tesco with its highly leveraged balance sheet is not a value investment. On balance debt, off balance debt, a big pension deficit adds to Tesco’s pretty weak balance sheet. Just recently, Tesco was downgraded to BBB- from S&P. Below this level, refinancing will be difficult and much more expensive and subjct to capital market problems.
As an investor you will only make money with Tesco in the long run if they manage a real turn-around. How likely is that ? I have no idea and so I will better stay away from Tesco. In my opinion this is much more a turn-around gamble than a potential value investment.