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Credit Analysis
Sears Strikes Out What Is In Store For Other Retailers In The US

Nov. 13 2018 — Recently, Sears Holdings Corp. (“Sears”) became yet another retailer in the U.S. that defaulted, and the firm filed for Chapter 11 on October 15, 2018. Similar to other retailers, this former giant could not keep pace with its more agile competitors in a fast-changing landscape. As reported by S&P Global Ratings,1 Sears’s default brings the annual corporate default tally in the U.S. to 37 as of October of this year, making the retail sector the largest contributor with eight defaults to date.

Sears transformed how America shopped and was once the largest retailer and largest employer in the country. However, it gradually fell out of consumers’ favour, and online stores and big box rivals took the helm. Sears' last profitable year was in 2010, and rapidly declining sales and weak cash flow offered the company limited room to improve its operations. Sears dipped into its assets to fund ongoing operations, closing more than 3,000 out of its 4,000 stores between 2011 and 2018. However, continuously negative earnings and a high interest burden prevented Sears from going on without a reorganization. The company’s credit rating by S&P Global Ratings captured this gradual decline in credit quality, deteriorating from ‘A-’ in 2000 to ‘CCC-’ prior to default.2

Only a limited number of companies have assigned credit ratings by a Credit Rating Agency (CRA), leaving out a significant part of the corporate universe. S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Credit Analytics suite includes a range of statistical tools that facilitate an efficient and cost-effective evaluation of a company’s credit quality by generating credit scores3 for both rated and unrated corporates globally. PD Model Fundamentals (PDFN) is a quantitative model that utilizes both financial data from corporates and the most relevant macroeconomic data available to generate probability of default (PD) values over a one- to more than 30-year horizon for corporations of any size. The numerical PD values can be mapped to S&P Global Market Intelligence credit scores (e.g. ‘bbb’), which are based on historical observed default rates extracted from the S&P Global Ratings’ database (available on CreditPro®).

In the analysis that follows, we review the credit risk landscape of retailers in the U.S., and explore which risk factors are the main drivers of PD. We then take a look down the road and assess how possible future macroeconomic scenarios may impact the credit risk of retailers in the U.S.

U.S. Retail Landscape

By leveraging PDFN, we can broaden the view beyond the realm of the CRA-rated universe. Figure 1 shows the distribution of implied credit scores obtained using PDFN for U.S. public retail companies. From 2013 to 2018, the distribution of the credit scores has been gradually shifting toward lower credit scores. In this period, the average credit score shifted from ‘bb+’ to ‘bb’, whilst the percentage of companies in the speculative credit score category (credit score ‘bb+’ and below) increased from 60% to 74%. These trends are symptoms of a change in the risk profile of the U.S. retail industry, which resulted in the bankruptcy of several other big retailers (e.g., Toys “R” US, Inc., RadioShack Corp., and The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc.).

In the second quarter of 2018, 45% of companies in our sample had been assigned a credit rating by S&P Global Ratings. Importantly, whilst a majority (76%) of companies in the investment grade universe do have a CRA rating, the speculative grade is largely unaddressed, with only 35% of companies in our sample having been assigned a credit rating by S&P Global Ratings. The use of statistical models, such as PDFN, assists investors in expanding the analysis and providing a comprehensive overview of credit risk across a wider universe.

Figure 1: Distribution of PDFN credit scores for public companies in the retail sector in the U.S.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence (as of October 22, 2018). For illustrative purposes only.
Notes: Public companies in the retail sector in the U.S. (GICS® 2550 and 3010). Distribution of companies based on PDFN credit scores calculated using the latest financial data for each respective period.

Drivers of Default

We further explore which risk factors are the main contributors of the PD for the retail sector. Credit Analytics’ models are equipped with tools, such as contribution analysis, which helps users identify drivers of risk in absolute or relative terms. These tools assess the “weight” or importance of the contribution of each risk factor to the credit risk estimate.

We divide the companies in deciles based on their PD and construct financial ratios for a median company in each decile. Next, we calculate PDs for each median company and evaluate associated absolute contributions of each risk factor.

Figure 2 shows the absolute contribution of each risk factor for a median retail company, a median retail company in the top decile, and a median retail company in the bottom decile. Note that absolute contributions for each company add to 100% to facilitate comparability, however, their nominal values are scaled by PD values and are, thus, markedly different.

Figure 2: Overview of absolute contribution of credit risk drivers for public companies in the retail sector in the U.S.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence (as of October 22, 2018). For illustrative purposes only.
Notes: Public companies in the retail sector in the U.S. (GICS® 2550 and 3010).

Efficiency and profitability represent important drivers of PD, directly reflecting an operating environment of low margins in the retail sector. Together with company size, these three risk factors represent roughly 50% of the PD value. In addition, low margins also limit available funds to respond to unexpected expenses and investment opportunities, resulting in restricted financial flexibility. However, the current macroeconomic environment for retail companies in the U.S. is favourable, and represents a small part of the PD value. On average, these companies have sustainable capital structures and sufficient liquidity, resulting in the limited contribution of these factors to PD.

For retail companies with high credit risk (bottom decile denoted in red in Figure 2), the company size, whilst still important, is no longer the only dominant factor. Factors like profitability, sales growth, and debt service capacity grow in importance and represent key factors when determining the credit quality of riskier retail companies.

View Down the Road

Next, we review how future economic scenarios may impact the credit risk of the public companies within the U.S. retail sector from a systematic point of view. The Credit Analytics Macro-Scenario model enables risk managers and analysts to gauge how a firm’s credit risk may change across both user-defined and pre-defined forward-looking scenarios, based on a set of macroeconomic factors. The model is trained on S&P Global Ratings’ credit ratings and leverages the historical statistical relationship observed between changes in credit ratings and corresponding macroeconomic conditions to explore what future scenarios may look like.

In Figure 3, we analyse the impact of different macroeconomic scenarios on companies with various credit scores. We depict relative changes in PD to directly demonstrate, in numerical terms, the impact on the expected loss calculation and, in turn, credit risk exposure. As a baseline prediction, we apply macroeconomic forecasts for the U.S. in 2019, developed by economists at S&P Global Ratings. We observe an increase in one-year PDs across all credit scores, suggesting a possibility of further deterioration of creditworthiness in the U.S. retail sector. Additionally, we evaluate the influence of two downturn scenarios: a mild recession scenario and a global recession scenario, which are based on economic trends during the early 2000s recession and the great recession of 2008, respectively. The downturn scenarios show proportionally larger increases in PDs, in accordance with the severity of each recession scenario.

Figure 2: Relative change of PD in the retail sector in the U.S. under various macroeconomic scenarios

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence (as of October 22, 2018). For illustrative purposes only.
Notes: Macro-Scenario model captures the average tendency of all companies with the same creditworthiness profiles to transition to a different creditworthiness level (or remain at the same level) under a given macroeconomic condition, and does not take into account company-specific characteristics.

S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Credit Analytics suite helps users unlock relevant credit risk information to perform an overview of a company’s creditworthiness and undertake an insightful deep-dive analysis. All model inputs can be easily adjusted to perform sensitivity analysis for selected financial ratios, or to conduct a stress-test exercise using a fully-adjusted set of financials. The Macro-Scenario model integrates with standalone credit risk models and provides a forward-looking tool to help support expected credit loss calculations required by the new accounting standards: International Financial Reporting Standards 9 (IFRS 9) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s (FASB) Current Expected Credit Loss (CECL).

S&P Global Market Intelligence leverages leading experience in developing credit risk models to achieve a high level of accuracy and robust out-of-sample model performance. The integration of Credit Analytics’ models into the S&P Capital IQ platform enables users to access a global pre-scored database with more than 45,000 public companies and almost 700,000 private companies, obtain PD values for single or multiple companies, and perform a scenario analysis.

1 S&P Global Ratings: “Default, Transition, and Recovery: The Global Corporate Default Tally Jumps To 68 After Two U.S. Retailers And One Russian Bank Default This Week”, October 18, 2018.
2 S&P Global Ratings: “Credit FAQ: Credit Implications Of Sears Holdings Corp.'s Bankruptcy Filing For Retailers, REITs, CMBS, And Our Recovery Analysis”, October 17, 2018.
3 S&P Global Ratings does not contribute to or participate in the creation of credit scores generated by S&P Global Market Intelligence. Lowercase nomenclature is used to differentiate S&P Global Market Intelligence credit model scores from the credit ratings issued by S&P Global Ratings.
4 Numbers as of September 15, 2018.

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