J.C. Penney (JCP) longs don't really like me. I remain mostly bearish, completely undecided at best, after the recently disclosed news of investor George Soros and his fund taking a stake in the company, and Goldman Sachs approving $1.75 billion in financing for the company.
I starting calling for a short position in the company a few months ago, when it was trading near $20. After getting a glimpse at what J.C. Penney's "plan" appears to be going forward, I'm maintaining my bearish outlook on the company's future.
On April 25, we were privy to a 13-D filing on JCP that indicated Soros Fund Management had taken a 7.91% stake in JCP. That equates to about seventeen and a half million shares, making George Soros' fund the 4th-largest shareholder in the company.
It was also announced last week that Goldman Sachs approved a five-year, $1.75 billion loan to give JCP some breathing room while it tries to return back to success. The loan was issued against J.C. Penney's almost $10 billion in assets; assets I said in a previous article that it desperately needed to partially liquidate. Instead, the company went the other route and tacked on more debt.
Analyst Liz Dunn of Macquarie Capital, on CNBC.com, said:
"This gives them plenty of breathing room to go ahead and execute their plans, try to get this business back into positive territory from an earnings perspective," said Liz Dunn, an analyst at Macquarie Capital.
"They basically need to build back their sales base by an incremental $2.6 billion to get back into positive earnings territory," she said. "It's a long way to go."
Subsequent to these two news items, the stock jumped, from the mid-$15 levels up to the mid-$17 levels. Shareholders rejoiced and concluded their investment was once again safe in J.C. Penney. I shrugged off the news. No re-branding? No major liquidations? The old CEO back at the helm? What, exactly, about this makes it anything more than just returning to exactly where the company was before Ron Johnson, with an additional $1.75 billion in debt.
Thursday, it was reported that J.C. Penney had launched a viral social media (and regular media) event that apologized to the customers it lost under the reorganization from Ron Johnson. CNBC reported the story and said:
Recognizing it made mistakes in its attempt to reinvent itself last year, J.C. Penney launched a social media and television campaign Wednesday asking shoppers to come back.
Sales plunged 25 percent last year after former CEO Ron Johnson largely eliminated coupons and sales in favor of regular, low prices. The disastrous move alienated Penney shoppers, who had grown used to discounts and deals.
Penney posted a video on Facebook featuring images of classic J.C. Penney stores from the 1960s and family scenes with a female voice-over saying, "What matters with mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing-to listen to you."
The narrator ends with: "Come back to J.C. Penney. We heard you. Now we'd love to see you."
I'm slightly less amused than most of the "old" customers they had, some of whom are posting messages on J.C. Penney's Facebook, assuring it they would come back to buy and shop.
I've seen companies take on massive debts just like this and go under. Also, I've seen fund managers ruined on trades like the one Soros has disclosed. I still believe J.C. Penney needs to make a massive change and that bringing on this debt and going back to the "broken" way things were in the first place is the wrong decision.
In my article, "The 8-Point Path to J.C. Penney's Obsolescence", I take several stabs at the magnitude of ideas I think it needs to save the brand:
Penney needs to rethink the entire sector of retail, not how to get their stores up and running again. The stores are the problem. It may sound extreme, but I'd even consider liquidating the stores and looking at totally different formats for sales; like being a strictly online company. While that may not be the solution, those are the magnitude of ideas that I think this company needs in order to re-find long term success and shareholder value.
I noted in my conclusion:
The company is stuck on a mezozoic era branding problem, and has failed to make massive, paradigm shifting changes to their business. They are not focusing enough on online sales and younger generations, all the while seriously burning through cash.
When I read the details about the apology campaign, I was dumbfounded. To me, it read like exactly what it is: J.C. Penney is begging its old customers to come back.
With the old customers, old CEO, and same-old branding, J.C. Penney has successfully chased its own tail for the last year, costing shareholders tons of value and crippling its own company.
I swear I would give J.C. Penney a chance of being bullish if there was something; anything in the slightest that I liked about this situation, but I don't. J.C. Penney is going to put itself on the path it was at before, to a slow and tired road to bankruptcy. The only trade I dare place here is selling short, or buying up some speculative out of the money calls.
If you're currently invested in JCP, it might be time to step back (again?) and take a cold, hard look at the direction this company is headed: 180 degrees backwards.
As always, best of luck to all investors.