Is This Troubled Retail Stock A Buy?

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After a near 60% decline since the start of 2012, some analysts are beginning to support J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP) due to its valuation. However, is the stock’s price fooling you, or is there real value in J.C. Penney?

Finding Value, Not Performance

One of the biggest problems that investors make is mistaking value with price. An investor might think that a stock is presenting value if it has declined 25% in eight months time (like J.C. Penney). It is easy to fall in this trap when analysts begin to suggest a bullish outlook. However, true value is only defied by a company’s valuation relative to its fundamentals, and then its comparison to competitors.

In the case of J.C. Penney, there are logical reasons to explain the company’s fall from grace. Not only did sales fall 25% in its last fiscal year, but its Q1 2013 produced an additional 16% top-line loss in comparison to the company’s horrendous fiscal 2012. Therefore, it is hard to find reasons to be optimistic.

Is It Cheap?

Some people invest in J.C. Penney, saying “it’s cheap.” Well, let’s take a look at another retail stock, Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), which has traded higher by 160% in 2013 to determine if J.C. Penney is cheap.

<table> <thead> <tr><th> </th><th> <p><strong>J.C. Penney</strong></p> </th><th> <p><strong>Best Buy</strong></p> </th></tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td> <p>Price/Sales</p> </td> <td> <p>0.26</p> </td> <td> <p>0.21</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Forward P/E Ratio</p> </td> <td> <p>N/A</p> </td> <td> <p>12.9</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Operating Margin</p> </td> <td> <p>(13%)</p> </td> <td> <p>2.15%</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Total Debt</p> </td> <td> <p>$3.83 billion</p> </td> <td> <p>$1.69 billion</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

Best Buy has traded with gains this year, yet despite J.C. Penney’s loss, Best Buy is still the cheaper stock at 0.21 times sales. Moreover, Best Buy is expected to become profitable next year, while J.C. Penney is still far from reaching any level of profitability.

Best Buy has a very strong financial position, with $14.3 billion in assets and just $1.69 billion in debt. J.C. Penney’s financial position is always being monitored, as the company approaches a debt-to-assets ratio near 40%. Then, of the $10 billion in total assets on J.C. Penney’s balance sheet, over 20% is in inventory, showing how J.C. Penney has been unable to move product.

With all things considered, I find it hard stretched to call J.C. Penney a value stock, and believe that any investor identifying value, is simply using price performance as their gauge. This is a company with weakness at every level of its business.

More Problems Ahead?

Some might believe that comparing a clothing and technology retailer is unfair. However, the two companies are closer in comparison than most realize: Both operate with a large sum of physical assets, large store space, and have been negatively affected by the presence of e-commerce.

Best Buy has weathered this storm by matching prices, aggressive marketing, and has significant upside due to the balance that online sales tax creates. In the case of J.C. Penney, Ron Johnson was supposed to be the answer, but was not.

After J.C. Penney’s failed Ron Johnson trial as CEO, the company brought back Myron Ullman, but in the process, they have lost 10 senior staff. J.C. Penney has no chief marketing or chief technology officer, nor do they have a head of Home, which is one of their main segments.

J.C. Penney is a company without leadership, and with rumors surrounding its commercial lender CIT Group suspending its finance deliveries. Of course, J.C. Penney denies that CIT has suspended its financing activities, but a report from the reputable NY Post made headwinds on Wednesday with an article suggesting a CIT/J.C. Penney separation. Nonetheless, where there’s smoke there is fire, and I wouldn’t touch this stock.

Final Thoughts

With each passing month, J.C. Penney begins to look like the next Circuit City rather than the next Macys. The company has burned through cash, is losing customer loyalty, has no leadership, and there are countless rumors that its relationship with CIT is in jeopardy.

Yet, company bulls hang on the fact that J.C. Penny’s online business is improving rapidly, and that it could supercharge the company’s growth. Unfortunately, J.C. Penney was late to this party as well, and online only accounts for 8% of total sales. Therefore, I see very little light at the end of this tunnel, and since the company’s more expensive that an improving Best Buy, I think more downside could come.

Brian Nichols is long BBY. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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