JC Penney

Sensing that J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s turnaround effort is gaining traction, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services lifted the midtier department store retailer’s outlook to “positive” from “stable.”

Sensing that J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s turnaround effort is gaining traction, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services Thursday lifted the midtier department store retailer’s outlook to “positive” from “stable.”

This story first appeared in the April 23, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While S&P said that Plano, Tex.-based Penney’s ability to improve its metrics could lead to a capital structure that is “sustainable” and effect a “modest upgrade,” it reaffirmed all of its credit ratings, including the corporate credit rating of “CCC-plus,” which connotes that its debt is “currently vulnerable and dependent on favorable business, financial and economic conditions” to meet its financial commitments.

The “CCC” family of ratings is four below investment grade.

“We think there is a one-third chance that adjusted EBITDA will approach around $1 billion [in 2015], which is one indication that the company’s capital structure would be sustainable,” wrote S&P credit analyst Robert Schultz.

He noted that comparable-store sales and EBITDA both moved into positive territory last year, with comps up 4.4 percent in both the fourth quarter and the full year and EBITDA reaching $323 million last year versus a $819 million EBITDA loss in 2013.

Schultz said the argument for a rating upgrade would be supported if cash flow, exclusive of capital expenditures, were to reach $250 million or higher and EBITDA were to approach or surpass $1 billion versus S&P’s current forecast of about $800 million in the current year. He’s also looking for reductions in legacy selling, general and administrative costs as well as success in online initiatives and improvements in the home furnishings segment.

There are conditions under which S&P could be led to lower Penney’s credit ratings, including “merchandise missteps or an unexpected erosion of consumer spending leading to a return to significant cash use.

“In such a scenario, the company is unable to stabilize operations, return to cash burn in the range of around $750 million,” the analyst wrote. “Additional financing options would narrow and vendors would tighten terms, leading to a substantial decline in cash on hand.”

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