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Department stores lead consumer industries in probability of default rates

Department stores lead a group of consumer companies that have seen their odds of default spike over the past month, the latest indication that coronavirus-related challenges are mounting for an already struggling group of retailers.

S&P Global Market Intelligence's median one-year market signal probability of default rose to above 40% for some sectors in early April, up from below 10% at the end of February, according to an analysis of U.S. publicly traded consumer companies. The figure represents the odds that a company will default on its debt within the next year based on fluctuations in the company's share price and other country and industry-related risks. Retailers dependent on foot traffic at malls as well as hotels and casinos that rely on leisure travelers were among the groups that saw their odds of default tick up the most.

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Experts point out that even companies that were facing financial trouble before the virus hit are likely to survive the coronavirus-spurred economic downturn in the U.S. This is because many creditors remain stable and can afford to overlook short-term violations of loan covenants. But that could change if businesses shut down due to the virus remain closed well into summer.

Department stores, including Macy's Inc. and J. C. Penney Co. Inc., offer one example. At 42.1%, the category had the highest median one-year probability of default of any consumer industry as of April 7, according to Market Intelligence's analysis.

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While the retailers have shuttered their stores and laid off or furloughed workers, setting up sales to nosedive in coming quarters, their creditors likely realize that putting pressure on the companies "would send them into a death spiral, which they would never come out of," said David Swartz, an analyst with Morningstar. Many are thus likely amenable to working with retailers in the short term, he said, adding that he expects stores to begin reopening in May or June.

But consumers slow to return to shopping or store closures that last beyond late spring could put department stores at greater risk of not making payments on their debt or interest, Swartz said. "If it becomes a risk that they can't make those payments, that's when you're going to see some bad things happen," he said in an interview.

Not all department stores were on equal financial footing going into the pandemic, said Steve Dennis, president and founder at Sageberry Consulting and a former executive at Neiman Marcus and Sears Holdings Corp. Some, such as J.C. Penney, have been the subject of bankruptcy speculation for years.

Others, such as Macy's, have performed relatively better, putting them in a position to gain market share if their weaker peers cannot weather the coronavirus downturn and liquidate. The opportunity to pick up that share "would be the thing that I would most want to understand" as a lender to Macy's, he said.

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A number of travel- and leisure-focused sectors followed department stores on Market Intelligence's list of the consumer industries with the highest median one-year probability of default as of April 7, including hotels, resorts and cruise lines as well as casinos and gaming.

Industries with the lowest rate of default included those focused on consumer staples, including food retailers and household products.

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Among the individual companies with the highest one-year probability of default were Town Sports International Holdings Inc. at 79%, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at 57% and Dave & Buster's Entertainment Inc. at 56%. The companies least likely to default included Tiffany & Co. at 0.004%, The Clorox Co. at 0.17% and Amazon.com Inc. at 0.56%.

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Consumer businesses also have contributed to an explosion of companies that have issuer ratings of B- or lower and either negative outlooks or ratings on CreditWatch with negative implications, S&P Global Ratings said April 8. Across sectors, that number swelled to 440 in March, an all-time high and above the 282 that Ratings counted in December 2019.