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MISSION:INTANGIBLE, the blog of the Intangible Asset Finance Society, offers critical comments on intangible asset, corporate reputation, and finance; supplemented by quantitative reputation metrics. Intangible assets include business processes, patents, trademarks; reputations for ethics and integrity; quality, safety, sustainability, security, and resilience; and comprise 70% of the average company's value. MISSION:INTANGIBLE is a registered trademark of the Intangible Asset Finance Society.

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Costco: Food for thought

Nir Kossovsky - Tuesday, January 05, 2010
While the CEO contributes materially to a company's reputation, the products and services also speak for themselves. This is true even when the CEO is a founder and a lightning rod for controversy. Consider John Mackey, CEO, Whole Foods Markets (NASDAQ:WFMI).

In late summer, we shared that he had courted controversy with the left-leaning segment of his customer base through a strongly worded op ed in the Wall Street Journal. We speculated about the reputation effects. On October 3, he reappeared in the Wall Street Journal in an interview that markedly softened the tone of the August writings. Last, at the end of last month, he finally agreed to relinquish the role of Chairman under pressure from a pension fund-based investment group.

Let's look at the numbers courtesy of Steel City Re , Big Charts.com and the FT's Newssift.com. Over the past twelve months, Whole Foods has had a volatile ride on the Corporate Reputation (IA) Index. It entered the year below the 40 percentile, and exited at about the same level having touched the 90th percentile in late October and diving below the 20th percentile in February. Meanwhile, its equity has returned to stakeholders about 140% for the year while the mean of the 24-member peer group matched the S&P500 returns of around 20%. Note the August 2009 dip on both the reputation index and the market cap.

Compare and contrast this extraordinary return for a company with a controversial CEO and a volatile corporate reputation with the returns of one of the highest reputation-ranked Food and Staples Retailing firms this past year, Costco Wholesale Corp (NASDAQ:COST). Its CEO, James D. Sinegal, is a quiet man, relatively speaking. The Steel City Re Corporate Reputation (IA) Index shows values in the 90th percentile or greater, excluding an early September 2009 dip. Yet the 12-month returns, while positive, are underperforming the S&P 500 by 13%.

With respect to sentiment, over the past 12 months, Newssift reports that of the 238 articles on Whole Foods and its high profile CEO, 32% were positive and 21% were negative for a ratio of 1.5. Of the 99 articles on Costco and its lower profile CEO, 35% were positive and 16% were negative for a ratio of 2. Yet Whole Foods outperformed Costco by a factor of 20. What gives?

There is a simple explanation -- reputation resilience. The financial benefits of Costco's high reputational standing are best seen over a two year window in the stock price chart below. While the markets suffered greatly in 2008 through March 2009, Whole Foods suffered massively with a 75% loss in market cap at its low point. Costco, however, outperformed the market over this two year window with a 24 month loss of about 7% compared to the S&Ps loss of about 22% and Whole Foods' loss of around 25%.

The dark lining to the silver cloud of reputation resilience is that there is less ground lost, and therefore less ground that can be made up. The polish on the silver cloud, however, is in cost of credit. Firms with superior reputations exhibit resilience and lower volatility. Firms with superior reputations have lower betas, lower costs of credit, and credit protection (credit default swaps). Whole Foods' beta is 1.19; Costco's is 0.79.

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