Monday Stock Watch: The Real Stakes for Target and Pfizer

Following a week in which they gained roughly 1%, U.S. stocks are lower on Monday morning, with the benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average down 0.3% and 0.47%, respectively, at 10:15 a.m. EDT. In company-specific news this morning. Pfizer reported disappointing first-quarter results on the heels of last week's rejected $106 billion takeover offer for AstraZeneca ; meanwhile, Target  announced that CEO Gregg Steinhafel is stepping down.

Don't read too much into the headlines. Yes, "Target's CEO, Chairman out in wake of breach," as the Associated Press noted this morning. However, I believe that overstates the link between the data breach that spanned tens of millions of millions of Target customers and the exit of Steinhafel, the national retailer's chairman, president and CEO. Target Chief Financial Officer John Mulligan steps into the roles of president and CEO, while board member Roxanne Austin has been appointed nonexecutive chair of the board.

Target's leadership had struggled with a number of issues prior to the data breach, including a mediocre website, a costly expansion into Canada, and slowing sales in the U.S. -- this article from The Wall Street Journal does a good job of highlighting those challenges [registration may be required]. While the data breach was certainly unhelpful in terms of the resulting cost in dollars, brand equity, and management focus, Steinhafel carried himself well in managing the crisis with energy and integrity. Besides, Target's then-CIO Beth Jacob had already fallen on her sword in March.

From the day Steinhafel took the top spot on May 1, 2008, through Friday, Target shares have generated a total return of 31.5% -- less than the 56.8% return for rival Wal-Mart. More broadly, Target's total return lags even the 35.8% price return of the S&P 500 over the same period. Nevertheless, while the new leadership has its work cut out for it, at 12.6 times forward earnings the shares now look like a decent bet to track or beat the index over the next three to five years.

As Pfizer embarks on a public takeover campaign to snap up AstraZeneca, its first-quarter results, or, more precisely, their reception by the market, will not help project the image of a company negotiating from a position of strength (the shares were down 2.4% on Monday morning). Pfizer delivered adjusted earnings per share of $0.57 versus a consensus estimate of $0.55. However, investors appear to be focusing on the miss with regard to revenue, which fell 9% year on year to $11.35 billion, 6% short of the consensus estimate.

Along with the earnings announcement, Pfizer said it hoped its latest offer for AstraZeneca would motivate the British drugmaker to "engage with Pfizer and enter into discussions relating to a possible combination of the two companies." That sentence alone suggests it's willing to raise its offer, which now values AstraZeneca at GBP50 per share.

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