Is There More Upside for JC Penney?

Paul Ausick

When J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) reported second-quarter results Friday morning, the smaller-than-expected loss boosted the opening price by more than 7.5% from Thursday’s close. By the closing bell, shares had settled up about 5.5%. Why weren’t investors a bit more enthusiastic?

J.C. Penney stock has a 52-week trading range of $5.90 to $11.30. The high was posted September 12 and the low was posted just three months later on December 9. Since that low point, the stock has gained about 37%, while the S&P 500 is up about 1.5%.

That share price gain is pretty impressive for a company that has not posted a profit since the fourth quarter of fiscal 2011, four and a half years ago. After announcing quarterly results in February of 2012, the stock hit a five-year high of more than $42 a share. J.C. Penney paid its last dividend of $0.20 a share in April of that year as well.

Same-store sales growth in the second quarter came in at 4.1%, slightly above the 3.9% estimate from Retail Metrics. On top of a 6% same-store growth rate in the second quarter of 2014, that is a substantial increase.

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But investors were not terribly impressed, and likely there are two main reasons for the lack of response. First, J.C. Penney has been down so long that anything looks like up. Besides, an unremitting string of losses going back nearly five years is hardly a reason to print up T-shirts. Analysts are forecasting a profitable fourth quarter this year, however, after another loss of $0.55 a share in the third quarter. J.C. Penney has lost a total of more than $3.3 billion over the last 14 quarters, according to Retail Metrics.

Second, for this turnaround to succeed and sustain, J.C. Penney has got to execute. New CEO Marvin Ellison said as much in the company’s conference call, but if its sales are in a hole, the company is also way behind peers in applying new technology to help it solve its problems. It couldn’t do that while it was bleeding cash, and it may still have difficulty doing it if it cannot post a profit. Playing in the retail sector without good data and analytics is the same as tying one hand behind J.C. Penney’s back.

The stock closed at $8.52 on Friday, in that 52-week range of $5.90 to $11.30. If shares gain another dollar by early October, that will be the stock’s new 52-week high. And if the share price continues to inch up, investors might get more interested again.

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