How retailers stack up

Holiday sales are a big deal, of course, but perhaps more important are balance sheets - specifically, is there enough money to pay off vendors? There is no one-size-fits-all measurement, but Barron's took a look at the ratios of debt to Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) for a bunch of publicly traded U.S. retailers. Here's the breakout of their financial strengths:

Abercrombie & Fitch
American Eagle Outfitters
Bed Bath & Beyond
Costco Wholesale
Family Dollar Stores
Wal-Mart Stores

Best Buy
J.C. Penney

Jones Apparel Group
Limited Brands
Sears Holding

Bon-Ton Stores
Charming Shoppes
Claire's Stores
Liz Claiborne
Neiman Marcus
Toys R Us

Not all the retailers listed in poor condition are doomed, of course. But their numbers do not look good, especially considering the prospect of another year of weak consumer spending. The question is how many of them can survive long enough for shoppers to start spending again.

In the boom years, leverage wasn't a problem for many retailers, who borrowed liberally to make acquisitions, build new stores or buy back stock at prices that now seem ludicrously high. Today, however, bond markets are closed to all but the best credits. Wal-Mart Stores, and possibly Target , are the only retailers that still could sell debt at reasonable yields, wagers Carol Levenson, director of research at Gimme Credit. But some analysts are wary of Target, citing the company's exposure to potential credit-card losses.


Macy's balance sheet has worried some investors for a while. The department-store chain took on significant debt in recent years to purchase the May Department Stores and fund share buybacks. It has $950 million of debt coming due in 2009 that it has said it can fund from cash flow. Skeptics likely were relieved to learn Wednesday that Macy's has renegotiated with its banks, which agreed to loosen terms on a currently unused $2 billion bank loan in exchange for higher fees and other concessions. Shares rallied 18%, to 10, on the news, but remain well below their 2007 high of 45. Macy's has another $226 million of debt maturing in 2010, $650 million coming due in 2011, and $1.3 billion payable in 2012, along with its bank revolving line of credit.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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