Time Running Out For Sears To Figure Way Out Of Death Spiral

Image courtesy of Scott Miller

For quite some time, Sears has managed to stay afloat by selling off real estate and brands, closing stores, and borrowing huge piles of cash from its CEO, which is not exactly a plan for long-term sustainability. If that all weren’t grim enough, now comes news that raises even more doubt about the future of this once-great retailer.

The Wall Street Journal reports that investors are increasingly worried that Sears will default on its debt. The cost of insuring Sears debt has soared in recent years: In 2013, the annual cost for insuring $10 million in Sears debt was below $1 million; it now stands at a record-high $4.63 million.

The apparent concern is that Sears is in too deep of a hole with no real plan to get out.

READ MORE: 7 Things We Learned About Sears Holdings’ Apparent Death Spiral

Yes, Sears has earned billions in the last few years by selling off brands like Lands End and Craftsman, and its remaining house brands — like Kenmore and DieHard — are rumored to be available for purchase. Even if these are sold off, Sears might not get the $2.5 billion or so they are currently valued at.

Beyond the brands, Sears does have more real estate it can sell, between the stores and warehouses it owns, and long-term leases that are below current market value.

There are two problems with this “everything must go” approach: First, Sears has a finite number of assets it can unload before it’s just an answering machine in a rented storage closet. Second, it doesn’t do anything to sell product to customers. Without some way of making Sears into a store where people want to shop, what’s the point?

The Journal notes that, between the recent asset sales and the lines of credit provided by CEO Eddie Lampert, Sears will likely have the $2 billion or so it needs to make it through this year. Doubts remain whether it will be able to find that money a year from now.

“Let’s say they get through this year, how much can they raise next year?” says Monica Aggarwal, managing director at Fitch Ratings, which recently downgraded its rating on Sears’ debt. “There is no turnaround in the underlying business.”