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J.C. Penney's 'survival is a big question'

Brian Sozzi
Editor-at-Large

J.C. Penney hasn’t yet fully transformed into a Sears-like zombie retailer, but the metamorphosis is definitely speeding up at the hands of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Shares of the struggling department store crashed 28% to 23 cents a share on Wednesday amid a Reuters report that executives are exploring a potential bankruptcy filing. A source familiar with the situation tells Yahoo Finance a bankruptcy filing is among a number of options J.C. Penney (JCP) — which has shuttered all 850 stores and furloughed thousands of workers to conserve cash — is weighing to reduce costs and a burdensome debt position.

A decision on the course of action hasn’t been made, and nothing is imminent, the source said.

“The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for department store retailers across the industry and has resulted in extensive store closings. JCPenney has been engaged in discussions with its lenders since mid-2019 to evaluate options to strengthen its balance sheet and maximize its financial flexibility, a process that has become even more important as our stores have also closed due to the pandemic,” a J.C. Penney spokesperson told Yahoo Finance via email.

They added, “Since that time, the Company successfully met or exceeded guidance on all five financial objectives for 2019 and saw comparable store sales improvement in six of eight merchandise divisions in the second half of 2019 over the first half. We remain focused on our Plan for Renewal, and look forward to when we reopen our doors.”

The speculation on J.C. Penney’s near-term fate shouldn’t be shocking to anyone.

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2019, file photo two women walk into the JCPenney store in Peabody, Mass. J.C. Penney Co. reports earnings Thursday, Feb. 27. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

J.C. Penney’s same-store sales have declined for two consecutive years. The company has lost nearly $600 million on a net income basis in the past two years. Cash and equivalents have gone from $1.5 billion for the 2013 calendar yearend to $386 million for 2019. Meanwhile, long-term debt has swelled to $4.6 billion — that has brought the company’s annual interest expenses to an insane $300 million or so.

For a retailer that is unable to grow its sales and operate profitably, that debt position is like a noose around its neck that tightens with each ugly quarter. It’s only growing tighter right now with 850 stores closed because of the coronavirus. J.C. Penney has a $105 million tranche of debt maturing in June, according to Bloomberg data.

Retail experts tell Yahoo Finance a J.C. Penney bankruptcy would mean the retailer emerges post coronavirus a much smaller chain with fewer employees and perhaps a more manageable debt position. But it by no means guarantee longer term survival.

“Survival is a big question,” Cowen retail analyst Oliver Chen said on Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade of J.C. Penney’s predicament. “The scenario analysis is that if the company like J.C. Penney does go bankrupt, does it give them more breathing room.”

But breathing will still be hard to do for J.C. Penney, no matter what.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-anchor of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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