Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Starbucks, Yahoo & David Einhorn

Various business media carried stories yesterday concerning Starbucks and Yahoo. Since both were one-time selections in my equity portfolios, I was curious as to the dynamics accounting for positive, or negative, aspects of each company's current buzz.

For Starbucks, a Wall Street Journal story described the coffee roaster chain's steady stock price rise since the depths of the 2008-09 market lows, but cautioned that rising coffee bean prices could affect future profit growth.

Upon reviewing the company's five-year equity prices, relative to the S&P500, I saw that it has, indeed, reached new highs for the period.

I know I've written posts in recent years concerning the company's various strategies involving food, pruning store locations, and selling instant coffee.

But, for me, any solid, genuine rebirth of the company should be driven by revenue and profit growth. What I found when I checked my own numbers was somewhat surprising.

Annual revenue growth rates for Starbucks before the recession were in the 17-21% range. Rather robust, no pun intended. Since bottoming with the recession, the last two years' growth rates have been anemic by comparison- less than half a percent, and 8%. Profit growth rates are, of course, distorted by the recession and the chain's store closings. But pre-recession profit growth was in the 15-22% range, while subsequent growth has been negative, then uninterpretably high, thanks to such low profits in mid-2009. But from last year's first quarter to this year's, profits grew 38%. Hardly faltering.

Still, that said, two years is hardly sufficient time to declare Starbucks a consistently superior performer. Believe or not, my proprietary research has found that such performance is not rare by any means.

The question one has to ask, of course, is to what extent this is repeatable for another few years. Perhaps Starbucks' focus on overseas growth will allow it to regain an ability to earn consistently superior total returns, thanks to detatching its growth from the US economy and consumer, and going overseas for more revenue growth. With a softening US economy apparently ahead, Starbucks' domestic business could be headed for another flattening like that of the recent recession.

Then we turn to Yahoo, the other recent subject of much media attention. This time, it's not Carol Bartz in the spotlight, but hedge fund raider David Einhorn.

Einhorn has amassed a position in the company's equity and favorably commented on its China properties and recent 'shareholder-friendly' changes.

I'm sure remarks like that from Einhorn send chills through Bartz. Increased equity accumulation, requests for board seats, and a spinoff of Yahoo's Chinese interests can't be far behind, can they?

I suppose since Yahoo's equity price has been flat for so long, Einhorn is getting a bargain. Assuming, that is, his math on breakup values is correct, and he is able to effect that.

What I wonder, however, is how long his investors tend to wait for payoffs in these types of moves? Perhaps the patient, trusting nature of his investors gives Einhorn time to wait for Yahoo/Bartz to eventually come around to accept his type of bear hug.

But fellow hedge fund/company acquirer Eddie Lampert's Sears reported falling sales just the other day. His foray into retail hasn't had such a happy ending yet.

Of course, Einhorn probably doesn't want to run any part of Yahoo, so much as put pieces into play and hopefully make much, much more on the skyrocketing value of the Chinese properties than he will lose on the rest of Yahoo. In that regard, it's likely a safer play.

Assuming he can get the firm split up reasonably soon.

Then, again, I've argued that Bartz should just sell or liquidate the firm. This may be one of the last opportunities for a Yahoo CEO to create some value for shareholders from a position of any strength whatsoever. Maybe Einhorn's interest should be greeted with an accommodating attitude. It may be quite some time before another suitor with such manners comes calling.

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