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Lampert’s Woes Show No Sign of Ending

Lampert’s stake in Sears keeps falling in value while he sells off his better holdings to meet redemptions. Time for a Hail Mary, Eddie.

Eddie Lampert’s troubles with Sears Holdings were underscored this week when he reported just $5.7 billion in U.S. assets as of year-end, down $3.4 billion, or 37 percent, from $9.1 billion on September 30 and barely half the $10.1 billion reported on June 30.

Some of this decline reflects the 57 percent drop in the value of his Sears shares, which accounted for 25 percent of the equity assets at year-end and one-third at the end of June.

Over the past year, however, Lampert has also been aggressively paring his positions in two very successful long-time investments — AutoZone and AutoNation, whose shares rose 19 percent and 31 percent, respectively, in 2011 alone.

Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL Partners, has been selling the stock, in part, to meet redemptions from unhappy investors and for the termination and winding up of Acres, one of Lampert’s partnerships. Some of the shares were used in lieu of cash to distribute to investors.

In addition, ESL sold some of the shares to Lampert’s personal account.

According to reports, ESL was down 12 percent in 2011 after climbing about 18 percent in 2010 and 55 percent in 2009. But it lost sizable sums the two previous years.

Altogether in 2011 ESL reduced its stake in AutoZone from just over 11 million shares worth $3.5 billion to just under 3 million shares worth $965 million and its AutoNation stake from more than 62 million shares worth $1.75 billion to 54 million shares worth nearly $2 billion.

A knowledgeable source says this is only half the picture, however. Rather, half the positions in ESL are parked in cash or are invested in bonds; the 13f filing captures neither asset class.

If this is true, this means ESL still has more than $11 billion under management. But this is down from more than $17 billion in 2007.

So what does Lampert, who a number of years ago BusinessWeek heralded as the next Warren Buffett, currently own in addition to Sears, AutoZone and AutoNation?

One of his larger positions is $578 million in Gap, another retail laggard, along with small positions in another retailer, Big Lots, Seagate Technology, and several financials — Capital One Financial, CIT Group, Genworth Financial and iStar Financial.

So basically Lampert sacrificed his best stocks to pay off fleeing investors. Now he is banking on some sort of miracle at Sears, which he recently announced he is heavily downsizing.

Even if financial stocks continue to rally, they only account for about $870 million in assets; so they won’t have a huge impact on performance.

And his substantial assets in cash and bonds aren’t exactly paying much these days.

Is Lampert planning to use this money to make a major new purchase? We may not know for at least three more months when the next 13F is filed (unless he receives permission to delay the filing).

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