Penney’s Woes Could Squeeze U.S. Malls

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Early estimates for the holiday shopping season vary widely, from a forecast of 2.4% growth from ShopperTrak to a 3.9% growth forecast from the National Retail Federation. Customer traffic at the nation’s shopping malls has also been sliding, and a new note from Fitch Ratings indicates that the impact of the financial challenges facing J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) could last beyond holiday season traffic and sales.

Fitch said on Thursday that any store closures that Penney’s might undertake in an effort to staunch continuing losses will make it difficult for some mall owners to replace the big retailer. The ratings agency also notes that potential closures would have an impact on commercial mortgage-backed securities “because [the CMBS] represent relatively small amounts of those transactions.”

Penney’s currently owns 306 stores, operates 123 ground lease stores and leases 675 stores. It’s real estate portfolio has been appraised at more than $4 billion. As Fitch notes, the impact of Penney store closures on mall owners will vary depending on the location of the mall and the presence of other anchor tenants.

In a separate note, Fitch notes that spreads on Penney’s five-year credit default swaps (CDS) are widening, underscoring “continued investor concern as the retailer struggles to find its footing.” The company’s CDS spiked more than 300 basis points last week as Penney’s continues to burn cash.

Fitch estimates that next year’s sales will need to grow by 14% to 16% in order to generate enough cash to pay interest on the company’s loans and to fund ongoing capital spending. Fitch declares that such a scenario is “highly ambitious, given the significant execution risk.”

Penney’s shares are getting slammed again today, down nearly 4% in the mid-afternoon trading at $6.77 in a 52-week range of $6.24 to $25.78.

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