Valuing Target

target-logo-copy1Friday we compared some big box retailers and argued that Target must serve up its wares with some secret sauce, for it has relatively strong margins. However interesting, if we are to assess Target as a business owner, our analysis should quickly move to its assets and earnings power.

First, the assets. At the close of their fiscal year—January 31, 2009, Target had 44.1 billion in total assets versus 10.5 billion in current liabilities and 19.9 billion in non-current liabilities; shareholder equity then stood at 13.7 billion. Yet, some have argued that Target’s balance sheet currently understates the value of two important assets—their remaining stake in their credit card business, and their real estate property. For example, William Ackman, founder and fund manager at Pershing Square Capital Management, has recently been agitating Target’s management to spin off some of its real estate into a REIT-like structure, with the assumption that the two parts valued separately would demand a higher price than the current aggregate. So what are these two important assets worth?

In 2008, Target sold half of its credit card business to JP Morgan for $3.6 billion; today the remaining half may not fetch the same price, but it is unlikely that it would be worth less than $2 billion. Pershing, in its public presentation on Target, values the remaining credit card receivables at $4.4 billion. A strict average would put a price of about $3.3 billion on the credit card business.

As for the real estate, estimates range widely. In Pershing’s public presentation of its REIT plan on Oct. 29, 2008, they highlight that the gross book value of Target’s owned real estate is $25.2 billion, and its replacement value near $39.1 billion. Were the REIT spun off, Pershing estimates that it would carry an equity value of $29 billion within twelve months (see the Nov 19, 2008 follow-up presentation). Again, a strict average of these three estimates would price the real estate at $31.1 billion.

Of course, there still remains the question of Target’s value as an operating retailer. Any valuation estimate would require some sales and earnings assumptions, but if we take their trailing 5 year average EBIT at $4.5 billion and give it a 6x multiple, we could conservatively value Target’s operating business at $27 billion. In sum, these three parts should carry a fair value of $61.4 billion to a private owner. As of Friday’s close (3/27/09), the market valued the entire company at $25.7 billion.

So, what’s the market missing? If Target is currently valued at less than 50% of its intrinsic value, shouldn’t bargain hunters be snapping up shares?

In my lights, the answer is cash flow. Looking at Morningstar’s numbers, one can see that Target’s free cash flow is quite low, given the wealth of assets that they must use to generate that cash. In fact, it has only broken a billion in FCF once, in 2006. For Target, almost all of its cash flow has been poured back into its business, with capital expenditures consuming at least 75% of its cash flow on an annual basis, for at least the last decade. And the crucial question for the shareholder must be, how long will this endure?

At some point, Target’s FCF does not find its most profitable home in future expansion. Hopefully that point is in the future, but it may be already past. Once Target has built enough stores, future stores will cannibalize the elders. And at that point, capital expenditures will need to come down, and the excess cash flow redirected into more productive endeavors. This is the crucial capital allocation test for retailers; can they transition their strategy prudently? Given Target’s current share price, a good number seem to doubt that they can.

Disclosure: No position

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2 responses to “Valuing Target

  1. surprised no one commented on this. Good stuff. I figure some of the valuation has to be just the effect from an overall bear market. Good thesis to buy here.. I did this piece at a glance and bet on WMT.

    http://www.stockpursuit.com/2008/11/walmart-vs-target.html

  2. As an asset play, TGT looks like a strong case at these levels. In terms of earnings power, TGT spends so much of its cash flow remodeling old stores and building new stores that I worry that management has a myopic focus on store growth. TGT looks to have a wider margin of safety than WMT, but not yet enough for me to start a position.

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