How Bad Will J.C. Penney's Earnings Be?

Source: Sam Howzit on Flickr

Troubled retailer J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) is set to report its fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 26, and all signs are pointing to a miserable holiday quarter. In January, the company released a vague press release stating that it was "pleased" with its holiday performance, and then in February the company finally released some actual data. While same-store sales rose year over year, the 2% increase during the quarter was almost meaningless relative to the massive decline during the fourth quarter of 2012.

Although the return to same-store sales growth may seem encouraging, J.C. Penney is in very serious trouble. It joins companies like Sears Holdings (NASDAQ: SHLD  ) and RadioShack (NYSE: RSHCQ  ) on the list of retailers quickly becoming irrelevant to consumers.

What analysts are expecting
Analyst estimates for J.C. Penney aren't very meaningful here, and the spreads on both the revenue and the earnings estimates are extremely wide. Given the data that we already have, revenue will likely be within a few percentage points compared to the same quarter last year, with the average analyst estimate of $3.86 billion slightly below the $3.88 billion from the fourth quarter of 2012.

Earnings-per-share estimates are all over the map, ranging from $-1.10 to $-0.50; although anywhere in this range would be better than the $1.95 per-share loss during the fourth quarter of 2012. Given the highly promotional nature of the 2013 holiday season, J.C. Penney likely had to resort to heavy discounts in order to grow same-store sales, and this could lead earnings to fall well short of analyst estimates.

What really matters
While same-store sales growth is certainly a step in the right direction, J.C. Penney needed to grow sales at a far higher rate than 2% in order to have any chance of making a comeback. Holiday sales were barely better than the dismal results from 2012, and J.C. Penney's progress on that front has been token at best.

Beyond same-store sales results, which we already know, investors should take a close look at J.C. Penney's financial health. An update on J.C. Penney's balance sheet will paint a much clearer picture of how much time the company has left to turn things around. The company touted that its available liquidity was greater than $2 billion at the end of the fourth quarter. But with about $5.5 billion in debt, interest payments along with operating losses will eat into that total rather quickly. J.C. Penney's trailing-12 month operating cash flow, through the third quarter, is roughly $-1.5 billion, and with same-store sales only increasing slightly during the holiday quarter, the rate of cash burn has shown no signs of slowing.

J.C. Penney will need to raise more cash, maybe even this year. And with debt levels already elevated, the company's financial position is getting more precarious every day.

Expect store closings
Some of J.C. Penney's debt is tied to its real estate, so the company's options in terms of shutting down stores are somewhat limited. But it's clear that, given the company's failure to meaningfully boost sales, store closings are likely inevitable. Other troubled retailers have already been forced to pursue this option, and J.C. Penney looks like it will have no other choice.

Sears had a particularly rough holiday season, with domestic same-store sales down 9.2% in its namesake stores. The company is bleeding money, much like J.C. Penney, and asset sales are the only thing keeping the company afloat. Sears is planning to close down its flagship store in Chicago later this year, for example, and the company recently announced that it would spin off its Lands' End clothing business. Dismantling the company in an effort to save it is a desperate move, but it's the only option left for the struggling retailer, and J.C. Penney is in a similar position.

Source: Nicholas Eckhart on Flickr

Another retailer forced to recently shutter stores is RadioShack. The struggling small-format consumer-electronics retailer recently announced that it would close 500 of a total of 4,500 stores over the next few months while simultaneously overhauling the remaining stores in an effort to win back consumers. RadioShack's Superbowl ad, where 80's icons cleared out a RadioShack store, proved to be a big hit. But much like Sears and J.C. Penney, it's unclear whether RadioShack can ever regain relevance in the eyes of consumers.

J.C. Penney has shut down some stores, with 33 store closures announced last month, but this is not nearly enough. J.C. Penney will need to significantly downsize in order to have any chance at surviving.

The bottom line
J.C. Penney is unlikely to survive without a significant downsizing, and the earnings results should make that abundantly clear. Even if the company does follow in the footsteps of other troubled retailers, it may prove to be too little too late, with liquidity rapidly drying up. The 2013 holiday season was make or break for J.C. Penney, and with same-store sales rising only minimally, I expect continued losses on the horizon.

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2014, at 9:34 PM, Roddy6667 wrote:

    Until they raise their gross margin, increased sales won't help. If you are losing money, you can't make it up with volume.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 10:26 AM, Stevec7 wrote:

    Roddy, you sound like you went to the obama school of economics!

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 10:29 AM, Roddy6667 wrote:

    The facts support my statement. Their old, inefficient organization has too much overhead to compete with the others. Their supply chain is the worst part. I just retired from there. It can't be turned around.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2014, at 12:41 PM, Roddy6667 wrote:

    According to today:

    "The gross profit margin for PENNEY (J C) CO is currently lower than what is desirable, coming in at 29.47%. It has decreased from the same quarter the previous year. Along with this, the net profit margin of -17.59% is significantly below that of the industry average."

    This can only lead to bankruptcy. Don't forget that Ullman was kicked out because JCP was bleeding millions and he didn't know how to stop it. He still doesn't.

  • Report this Comment On February 26, 2014, at 2:07 AM, EnzyteBob wrote:

    @Roddy - I know nothing about the internal workings of JCPenney so I will take your word that they have supply chain problems. From the customer's standpoint, however, I always thought they had serious problems with store appearance. It's not that their stores are awful, it's just that there is nothing appealing about them. When you walk into an older Penney's the one thing you notice is bad paint (the ugliest color of off-white) and bad lighting. Even the off-white ceramic tile is just plain ugly. I mean, it's so ugly someone had to work hard to find tile that looks that bad.

    Then what happens when you go to one of the off-mall stores? Same thing. I have never been so disappointed by a new format than when I walked into an off-mall Penney store.

    The one thing Johnson did right was that he did improve the appearance of the stores somewhat. Too bad he didn't have enough time to complete the transformation.

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