By Eileen Appelbaum
In today’s column, Robert Samuelson attributes Sears bankruptcy and possible liquidation — the final chapter in a saga that has already cost 200,000 workers their jobs — to the department store chain’s inability to adapt to competition with big box stores and the Internet. Apparently, he has never heard of Eddie Lampert and his ESL hedge fund, which took over Sears and Kmart in 2006 and ran the company, now known as Sears Holdings as an ATM for himself and his investors. Lampert may not have known anything about retailing, but as Sears’ CEO he had no qualms about monetizing its assets for his own and his wealthy investors’ benefit — including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who was an investor in his hedge fund and served on the Sears board for 12 years as the retailer spiraled downward.
In its most egregious act of financial engineering, Lampert’s hedge fund set up a real estate company, Seritage Growth Properties, with Lampert as Chairman of Seritage’s board. In 2015, Lampert as CEO of Sears sold 266 Sears and Kmart stores located on prime real estate to Seritage, where he was Chairman of the Board. Seritage shuttered stores and developed the real estate into high-priced new developments — offices for the burgeoning high tech sector in Santa Monica, a luxury shopping center in Aventura, Florida. Sears creditors are in court over this self-dealing by Lampert, claiming he cheated them out of $2.6 billion.
If Samuelson took the time to read his own newspaper, he could have learned about the business model of investment funds — private equity and hedge funds — that take over Main Street companies from Peter Whoriskey’s investigative reporting on the bankruptcy of Marsh, a major mid-West grocery chain. Amazon, Walmart and the Internet certainly pose a challenge, but the inability of companies to respond can be laid squarely at the feet of investment funds that load the companies they own with unsustainable levels of debt and that take resources out of the company by selling off its real estate.
As I show in a comparison of the largest supermarket chain in America, the very successful publicly traded Kroger’s, and the second largest, floundering private equity-owned Albertsons, large, iconic retail companies can respond to competitive challenges when they control their own resources, own their own real estate, and keep their debt levels manageable.
Samuelson attributes the demise of Sears to changes in capitalism and competition without, apparently, having ever heard of hedge funds and private equity funds that take over the management of companies and run them in the interests of investors in their funds, with little regard for the companies’ ability to compete or its workers.
Perhaps The Washington Post should set as a minimum requirement for its columnists that they actually read the newspaper.