What's Behind Ackman's Agitations at J.C. Penney?

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Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

U.S. stocks broke their three-day losing streak today, with the S&P 500 up 0.4%, while the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.3%.

Executive office cleanup on aisle 3, please!
Brash hedge fund manager Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management turned up the heat on the J.C. Penney board today by releasing one of his missives, in which he urges directors to accelerate their search for a new CEO. Pershing Square is the ailing retailer's largest shareholder. Ackman is pushing the firm to replace Myron Ullman by mid-September, arguing that the number of potential candidates for such a role is limited.


Ullman was brought in on an interim basis four months ago after the board let go of the previous CEO, Ron Johnson. Ullman had served as the company's chairman for seven years until Johnson was hired by... Bill Ackman. Johnson's attempt to turn the retailer into a collection of boutiques ultimately proved disastrous, as revenues for the year ended in February fell by a quarter to their lowest level in nearly a quarter of a century.

J.C. Penney's situation is serious, but Ackman's highly visible tactics may have more to do with the fact that he himself is under significant pressure right now. J.C. Penney's stock has lost nearly 30% year to date, trailing the S&P 500 by nearly 50 percentage points. A high-profile short position in Herbalife shares that has gone against him is not helping matters. As of July 30, Ackman and his investors were facing losses in excess of $300 million on this short.

Reuters is reporting today that Soros Fund Management is withdrawing all of the money it had invested with Pershing Square due to poor performance (the sum is reportedly less than $250 million; Pershing Square had $11.16 billion in assets under management at the end of last month).

What should investors make of J.C. Penney at this stage? My advice: Unless you're a professional investor, you're better off moving on to the next idea. There are easier ways to make money in the stock market than speculating on mediocre businesses and turnarounds. If you really enjoy researching stocks and understand that this is a speculative situation, then J.C. Penney may be worth a glance, but at 1.05 times book value, the stock hasn't been marked down to the "deep value" bin yet.

The fundamental cause of J.C. Penney's decline? The retail space is in the midst of the biggest paradigm shift since mail order took off at the turn of the last century. Only those most forward-looking and capable companies will survive, and they'll handsomely reward those investors who understand the landscape. You can read about the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail in The Motley Fool's special report. Uncovering these top picks is free today; just click here to read more.

The article What's Behind Ackman's Agitations at J.C. Penney? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned, and neither does The Motley Fool. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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