Back in December, we at the Fool published an article claiming embattled off-price retail chain Syms
But in his article, Dave Marino-Nachison argued that Syms ("An educated consumer is our best customer") was fighting through the competition and could be a good turnaround, deep-value investment. The justification? Syms trades at a substantial discount to its book value.
In the Foolish vein of civil and open debate, I have to say that I'm a bit more skeptical. Having scoured Syms' financials, I fear the retailer may well be a deep-value trap. Why?
Let's start by looking at the stock's performance since the company went public 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, Syms shareholders have been treated to, in total, a 50% decline! Sharp, ephemeral highs have led to persistently deadening lows. It's been a crapshoot to bet on this family-run company.
The best value investments are solid companies that have hit upon trouble -- temporarily. Syms, on the other hand, is not a once-great franchise that has momentarily fallen on hard times. This is a business that has struggled to reward its owners every day of its public-market existence. It isn't just recently that Syms has been considered a value play. It's been considered a value play for the past several decades.
On the bright side, Syms has enormous hidden asset value in its real estate holdings, which are marked back to decades-old prices. A further boon is that the company is significantly held by insiders. These are comforting factors, and they get small-cap investors excited. Management with a stake! Secret assets! It sounds like a candidate for Motley Fool Hidden Gems.
But take a step back and consider what could go wrong.
What about the possibility management will deliver mediocre operating results, only to buy back a majority stake and privatize this company at deep-value prices? That's a deep-value trap, where undervalued assets are scooped up by management at a deep discount, with shareholders getting little for their patience.
This is what happened in the acquisition of Imperial Parking
I could be wrong. I could be very wrong. But I do wonder if this great value play might reward the Syms family down the line with discounted real estate. With a stock graph that's been Etch-a-Sketching the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains for the last twenty years, Syms is not on my short list of turnaround buys.
Liz Pratt does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.