Here is an amazing story.
First, Sears Canada closed on January 14, 2018 after sixty-five years of operations in Canada. 14,140 employees lost their jobs at Sears over the past year, and hundreds of retail locations were shut down. This of course represents a dramatic hollowing out of the Canadian retail landscape, following on similar closings of Target and Zellers in recent years.
What is happening to retail in Canada? Is it a coincidence that the newly anointed “richest man in the world” is Jeff Bezos, the found of Amazon.com and Amazon.ca (the Canadian branch of Amazon). People still need to buy stuff for everyday living, but it appears that the rapid move to online shopping is taking down the retail giants one by one.
Note that these developments are ironic. Sears Canada was formed when Simpsons Sears bought out the storied Eaton’s retail chain in 1999. Eaton’s of course started in the late 19th century as a revolutionary catalog mail-order business in Canada, which is also how Sears started in the USA. Both brands eventually moved into retail and came to dominate their respective countries. It was only after a long successful run that Eaton’s surrendered to Sears in the Canadian market.
Then along comes Jeff Bezos and online shopping. What is online shopping if not a new version of a mail-order catalog? So, where Eaton’s and Sears put general stores out of business 100 years ago with their eye-catching catalogs featuring extensive selections and low prices and home delivery, now the modern mail-order catalog is doing the exact same thing to Eaton’s and Sears!
In the midst of this carnage, questions remain regarding the obligations of the Sears Canada pension plan. News reports on CBC.ca and other outlets have reported that the pension plan is underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars and that retirees may be shortchanged nearly 20% on their monthly pension payments for the rest of their lives. People are in an uproar, because Sears Canada allocated over half-a-billion dollars in dividend payments to shareholders in the past five years.
Looks like a corporate rip-off by greedy shareholders!
Actually, the truth beyond the headlines isn’t nearly so exciting.
First, Sears Canada is still in the process of selling off assets in bankruptcy, so the pension shortfall will probably get a chunk of those funds to top up to solvency.
Second, it appears that the pension shortfall is NOT the $266 million reported by the CBC and others. That total amount covers some group life and health funding obligations, but the Defined Benefit pension obligation is more in the $110 million range. Still a lot, but representing just 10% of the pension plan’s total obligations. So, even if the asset sales did not make the pension plan whole, members would still only lose perhaps 10% of their pension payments, rather than the 19% number trumpeted in the press.
Next, it appears that the Sears Canada board of directors did NOT rip off the pension plan by paying dividends to shareholders. Yes, the pension plan was in deficit at the time (as were many DB pension plans after the 2007-8 financial crisis), but it was paying down its obligations according to a schedule agreed to by the pension regulator (The Financial Services Commission of Ontario). Sears Canada was a viable, profitable business (“going concern”) when it paid out the dividends in question. The problem with Sears Canada was that their business strategy over the past 2-3 years did not work out and they started burning through significant cash, which is what forced the bankruptcy. There was no way they could foresee this result five years ago when they paid some dividends out of a healthy, profitable business with very little debt. Yes, bad things sometimes happen to businesses, and sometimes pension plan retirees get stuck holding the bag. But in this case, the story behind the headlines is not nearly as nefarious as the headline writers would have you believe.
Here is a link to the original CBC story.
Here is a link to a blog post on Sunday by Eddie Lampert, the Sears shareholder who gets skewered in the CBC article.