Could J.C. Penney Stock Pop on Earnings?


Beleaguered retailer J.C. Penney is all set to announce first-quarter earnings Thursday, and expectations couldn't get much lower.

On average, analysts are hoping for a loss per share of $0.86, or significantly worse than the $0.25 per share deficit the company posted during the same quarter last year. Meanwhile, the market also expects revenue to fall by nearly 14% year over year to $2.72 billion.

Then again, keep in mind that J.C. Penney did touch base last week to warn investors that revenue will likely fall 16.4% year over year on a 16.6% decline in comparable sales, and the market rewarded its honesty by pushing the stock up 12% since then.

However, with the stock up more than 28% over the past month, could J.C. Penney possibly have more gains in store?

jc penney stock
jc penney stock

Source: J.C. Penney.

It could've been worse
To be sure, it seems hard to imagine J.C. Penney could disappoint investors more than it did last quarter, when the stock fell 15% after comparable-store sales plummeted by nearly a third. Of course, as I noted at the time, it didn't help when former CEO Ron Johnson remained unwilling to provide guidance to give us an idea of when sales might actually stabilize. Instead, he reiterated that the company was still less than two years into the planned four-year turnaround.

What's more, competitors like Macy's and Nordstrom seemed to be firing on all cylinders last quarter by increasing same-store sales, boosting dividends, and instituting huge share repurchase programs.

Still, Johnson also pointed out that construction on J.C. Penney's new store-within-a-store concept had begun in earnest in March, so I was curious to see whether the new concepts could boost the company's sales per square foot as he'd promised. In addition, he was happy with their efforts in reducing the nearly $600 million in inventory with which he was saddled when he took the job in late 2011, and was looking forward to starting 2013 fresh.

At the same time, however, he noted that inventory reduction had negatively affected the company's gross margin at the end of last year, thus amplifying its already-terrible results. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, if gross margin shows notable improvements now that Johnson so kindly bit the bullet.

Back to the drawing board
Alas, it all turned out to be too much for J.C. Penney's board, which ousted Johnson last month in favor of bringing in former CEO Mike Ullman. Unfortunately for investors, Ullman's seven-year stint as CEO from 2004 until 2011 saw the stock decline 15%, and he immediately reverted to the company's old discount-coupon ways upon taking his renewed post in an effort to lure back old value-seeking customers.

To his credit, J.C. Penney did also secure a five-year, $1.75 billion credit facility just last week, so it looks like he's managed to buy himself some time to right the ship.

Barring any huge surprises, though, and given J.C. Penney's recent upward run, don't hold your breath for the stock to skyrocket after Thursday's announcement. If it does, though, shareholders should remember that they can ironically thank Ron Johnson for at least some of their gains.

In the end, until J.C. Penney shows some real progress (and a real plan) toward securing a sustainable turnaround, I wouldn't go anywhere near the stock.

More expert advice from The Motley Fool
J.C. Penney's stock cratered under Ron Johnson's leadership, but could new CEO Mike Ullman present the opportunity investors have been waiting for? If you're wondering whether J.C. Penney is a buy today, you're invited to claim a copy of The Motley Fool's must-read report on the company. Learn everything you need to know about JCP's turnaround -- or lack thereof. Simply click here now for instant access.

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