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Vitaliy Katsenelson
Vitaliy Katsenelson
Articles (126)  | Author's Website |

What I Learned from the J.C. Penney Fiasco

November 18, 2013 | About:

In December 2012, I sang praises to J.C. Penney Co.’s stock. This summer my firm sold it at a loss. In this article I would like to put salt in the open wound and talk about what I learned from the J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) fiasco.

I don’t think buying the department store chain’s shares was a mistake. Investing is a probabilistic adventure: You assess upside and downside probabilities of a potential investment, and if at the end the balance is significantly favorable, you pull the trigger.

Uncertainty is the nature of investing. Let me illustrate. Suppose you were offered a coin-flip game: Heads you win $10, and tails you lose $1. It makes complete sense to play this game; the expected return (probability times outcome) is overwhelmingly in your favor. So if you flip the coin and get tails, was playing the game a mistake? No, of course not.

In the case of J.C. Penney, the story was fairly straightforward. The company had been neglected and undermanaged. Old management was fired, and brilliant new management was brought in. New management developed a plan for completely redesigning the stores, giving them a real face-lift, upgrading merchandise and turning J.C. Penney into one of the best-looking stores in the mall.

The new CEO, Ron Johnson, had been instrumental in creating Apple’s stores and was a very well-respected retailer. At the time Johnson was executing on his plan — remodeling stores as J.C. Penney continued to bleed money — this is what I wrote: “The best thing about Penney is that the bar for success is set very low. Since he took over, Johnson has taken out $900 million in costs. Sales per square foot should rise with every redesigned store. If Penney achieves the pre-Johnson level of $150 per square foot and gets to keep $700 million of cost cuts, its earnings power will be $3 to $4 per share. If sales per square foot come back to the 2007 peak of $170, earnings will jump to $6 a share.”

We thought there was a very high likelihood — 70 percent or so — that Johnson would be successful; if so, the upside would be threefold or more. If he failed — a 30 percent chance — the downside was probably 40 percent or so. The risk-reward scenario was very attractive.

Johnson failed. Well, we are not 100 percent sure he failed — he was fired before he had a chance to prove himself. But there is another sublesson we learned: Don’t underestimate U.S. consumers’ desire to be deceived by coupons and sales. Part of Johnson’s strategy was to have honest, everyday-low prices. That did not fly with American consumers. They wanted prices to be raised and then discounted. After the CEO was fired, stories started to leak out that he was a visionary but not a good manager. He canceled multibillion-dollar brands without consulting with the board. Also — this is clear now — Johnson should have tested his pricing strategies first, maybe in a few stores in one market, rather than rolling out a new, completely different pricing strategy all at once.

When Johnson was fired, we sold the stock. Our bet was on Johnson. Myron (Mike) Ullman, who replaced Johnson, was the old CEO who had slowly but surely guided J.C. Penney into irrelevance for years. With Johnson’s departure our wisdom on the upside and downside was gone. In fact, the downside started to look deeper.

Johnson came from Apple, a company that does not believe in making incremental decisions. If you make leaps, as Apple does, you had better be right or you might be dead — at least, you had better be able to afford to be wrong. This leads to my real reason for reopening the J.C. Penney wound. I want to visit a topic rarely discussed by investors: position sizing. How do you determine the correct percentage of a portfolio to allocate to a single idea? We believe position sizing should be driven not by reward but by risk. J.C. Penney had a terrific upside, but it still had a 40 percent downside, with a meaningful 30 percent probability. However, when we sold the stock at a loss, the impact on the total portfolio was less than 1 percent.

In the past our position sizing was driven by intuition. J.C. Penney made us rethink that. We turned position sizing into a fairly rational and well-defined process. Each company in our portfolio gets a rating for the quality of its business: the size of its moat, the strength of its balance sheet, how it fits in its industry. We assess its management in two dimensions: how good it is at running the business (building moats around it) and at allocating capital. Last, there is an X factor, where we judge business cyclicality, complexity and transparency (banks, for instance, would never get a high score there). Then we balance the totality of these factors against the cheapness of the stock: Should we take a starter position or a full position?

We arrive at a fairly disciplined decision about how much we should allocate to the stock. This way our portfolio will always tilt toward higher quality and risk is minimized, not just through valuation (providing a margin of safety) but through quality as well. There is a place for J.C. Penney–like positions in the portfolio — but not too many.

As Warren Buffett put it: “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget Rule No. 1.”

About the author:

Vitaliy Katsenelson

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA, is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, December 2010). To receive Vitaliy’s future articles by email or read his articles click here.
Investment Management Associates Inc. is a value investing firm based in Denver, Colorado. Its main focus is on growing and preserving wealth for private investors and institutions while adhering to a disciplined value investment process, as detailed in Vitaliy’s book Active Value Investing (Wiley, 2007).

Visit Vitaliy Katsenelson's Website

Rating: 2.9/5 (18 votes)


Jonmonsea premium member - 3 years ago
Why did you choose to buy the stock and not LEAPS? I bought a very small amount of LEAPS and make a few bucks, but could have lost it all, of course. Do you have an opinion on the bonds, which recently were priced to yield ~14% to maturity in 2017 recently? I am tempted but am not sure what kind of asset protection lies behind them.

Thanks for your article,

Oldretailer - 3 years ago    Report SPAM
The analyst does not mention that JCP's board was comprised (mainly) of fairly insular Texans and only a single ex-retailer . . . plus the famous Wm. Ackman. Not good parentage. They allowed themselves to be led into a series precipitous decisions which were not even beta tested.

Ron Johnson came through TGT, where he brought in Michael Graves designs and generally upgraded the "decorative home" offerings. He was a concept guy but not much of an operator, as witnessed by the bollixed-up systems he brought to JCP. Somebody didn't do their homework.

And that includes the analyst, in my opinion . . . .
Vgm - 3 years ago    Report SPAM
When Buffett was asked his opinion of JCP during the Johnson fiasco, he said he was not optimistic - in part because in retail 'you cannot dictate to customers what they want'.
Sapporosteve premium member - 3 years ago
What I learned from the J.C. Penney Fiasco

"I dont think buying the department stores shares was a mistake"

Didn't learn that much really did you........

Traderatwork - 3 years ago    Report SPAM
As Buffett said,

"I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over."

Bricks and mortals retails, Cars, Airlines are 7 footers.

Shb600 premium member - 3 years ago
Traderatwork Berkshire owns $1.4 billion of GM stock. May not be Buffett, but even if he did not he handpicked the 2 managers who work for Berkshire. Airlines are up huge this year.

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