From all the publicity about the loss of manufacturing jobs, layoffs, dire government budget deficits, and the need for tax incentives and other forms of corporate welfare, you might think former executives are out on the street selling apples.
Relax, they're still buying bigger Bentleys. By one unofficial but revealing index, the Memphis economy is as healthy as it's ever been.
Memphis has two locally based Fortune 500 companies Ñ FedEx and AutoZone. Within the last week, the stock of both companies hit an all-time high. That's all-time high, not a 52-week high, signified by a little "u" in the stock market tables. FedEx sold for $76.38, while AutoZone topped out at $103.53. This at a time when the Dow Jones Industrial Average is still 2,000 points away from its all-time high.
If you play the market but don't own either of these stocks, you might want to skip the next paragraph.
A little over a year ago you could have bought FedEx for $43. And in the spring of 2001 you could have bought all the AutoZone you wanted for $24.
These corporate giants aren't the only Memphis companies enjoying a stock market boom. First Tennessee is selling for around $47, only $1 off its all-time high. Mid-America Apartment Communities is going for $32, within a buck of its all-time high. Same for Fred's Discount Stores at $38. Other companies of local interest hitting all-time highs last week include Wright Medical and E.W. Scripps.
All in all, a pretty diverse slice of the economy Ñ shipping, auto parts, banking and finance, real estate, budget retail, surgical supplies, and media.
The point is that executives aren't the only ones doing well. Tens of thousands of Memphis-area employees of these companies own stock in them through their retirement plans or in ordinary brokerage accounts. Thousands more Memphians invest in them just because they are local sentimental favorites. This rising tide has not lifted all boats but it has lifted a lot of them.
Of course executives and big institutional investors have profited the most. They take the biggest risks and make the toughest decisions.
According to proxy statements, FedEx CEO Fred Smith owns 19.5 million shares worth $1.48 billion. AutoZone founder J.R. Hyde III owns 797,000 shares worth $78 million. Fred's CEO Michael Hayes owns 1.9 million shares worth $72 million (and pays himself a mere $200,000 a year, far and away the lowest salary of local CEOs).
For anyone interested in stocks or ownership of Memphis companies, it's well worth taking a closer look at proxy statements, an annual disclosure listing such things as executive salaries, stock ownership, and stock performance versus industry peers. Thanks to pressure from shareholder advocates and the Securities and Exchange Commission to make corporate disclosure more useful and understandable, this is far easier to do than it was five or ten years ago.
On the Internet, use Edgar Online or the stocks service on your browser. The proxy is sometimes listed as DEF 14A under "SEC Documents". Don't make the mistake of looking only at the annual report. It includes balance sheets, but the text is apt to include a lot of corporate puffery and optimistic "forward-looking statements."
You can learn, for example, how family trusts and investment firms with board representation to match own huge chunks of companies like AutoZone, Scripps, and Wright Medical. Edward Lampert, head of an investment firm for wealthy investors, owns 25 million shares of AutoZone worth roughly $2.5 billion. The five-year chart shows that AutoZone's stock languished between $20 and $30 for years until Lampert and new CEO Steve Odland began asserting themselves in 2001.
E. W. Scripps , owner of The Commercial Appeal, is headquartered in Cincinnati and has lucrative cable television stations in markets across the country. A Scripps family trust owns 29 million shares, or 87 percent of the stock. But little guys get a shot, too. When I worked there several years ago, employees were offered stock at $15. No, I didn't.
Wright Medical, headquartered in Arlington, makes surgical devices including artificial joints. CEO F. Barry Bays owns 845,000 shares worth $25 million, but the biggest owner is Elizabeth Weatherman. Turns out she is a director and head of medical technology investments for the New York firm Warburg Pincus. They own 14.3 million shares worth $425 million. Quit your griping. You could have jumped in yourself in February for $14.
Certainly, not everyone shares the wealth. There are thousands of night workers laboring on the sorting line at FedEx for $11 an hour who don't own stock. Hundreds more took the buyout offer and face an uncertain future. The AutoZone clerk who hooks up your new battery isn't getting rich. Fred's has serious union labor issues. And all stock market investors are in trouble if the market tanks the way it did from 2001-2003 Ñ or worse.
But stock market wealth in Memphis is good news for everything from philanthropy to luxury homes to bass boats, and it should not be overlooked.