Family takeover sells other Wal-Mart owners short

June 7, 2011

By Lisa Lee
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

NEW YORK — Sam Walton will soon be back. The Wal-Mart founder’s descendants are poised to see their stake in the $190 billion U.S. retailer creep above 50 percent, with little fanfare. That’s thanks to the company’s latest $15 billion share buyback program. The watershed brings governance risks, and investors deserve better.

Wal-Mart’s founding family has always had a big say in the boardroom of the world’s largest retailer. After Sam Walton passed away in 1992, family members retained a stake of around 38 percent from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Starting in 2003, however, a series of big share buybacks — which they largely avoided — began to push the family stake higher, to 43 percent in 2008 and now to 49 percent, according to the latest filings.

Now the Waltons only need sit still to maneuver something like a premium-free takeover. The company’s latest buyback plan, announced last week, makes this a near certainty. If the buyback takes place at around the current share price and the family neither sells nor buys, its ownership will climb to 53 percent. Even if Wal-Mart shares suddenly burst out of their years-long trading range and soared 50 percent, completing the repurchase would still tip majority control into the family’s hands.

A shift from just under 50 percent ownership to just over may seem of little practical consequence. But the impact goes beyond the cosmetic. Once the 50 percent rubicon is crossed, for example, New York Stock Exchange rules would no longer require Wal-Mart to ensure a majority of its board directors are independent. The company says it will do that anyway. But that doesn’t really mean anything more than “trust us.” Investors might want a bit more certainty.

Better yet, maybe there’s an alternative to a buyback. The new plan follows another $15 billion program announced a year ago, of which all but $2 billion was spent, and other big outlays before that. But investors haven’t got too excited: Wal-Mart’s stock has lagged Costco’s, say, as well as the broader S&P index over one and two-year timeframes. The company’s first-quarter dividend amounted to $1.3 billion. If it really has $15 billion to spare, jacking up its payout — and keeping the family’s holding under 50 percent — would do the job.

Comments

As a shareholder, I welcome this initiative. I can see my holding increase 8% with no taxes paid, if the stock market continues to value WMT lower, than I will simply increase my position. If this 15% was paid out in dividends, it’s taxable income, plus the outstanding share count remains the same so my BV of ownership doesn’t increase. Walmart is already expanding rapidly in the global markets and has seemingly hit its peak in the US, so there’s no other alternative to spending their retained earnings. It would seem that it would be in the Walton’s best interest to keep their company strong, so I have no problem with their 51%+ ownership.

Posted by C12Mintz | Report as abusive
 

Wal-Mart is a poor place to shop or work.
Their meat department offers poor quality and over priced products.
The checkout stations are never adequately staffed and they lie to customers and do not practice what they preach about price matching.

Costco by comparison has better selection of frozen foods, better meat quality, and their rotisserie chicken is bigger, heavier, and two dollars less expensive.

Investment in ABB Corp, Honneywell Corp, and Acuity Brands seems more attractive.

Dan

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/