Sears Suppliers Wary as Shares Plummet

Sears Holding Corps’ “going concern” filing has vendors and their insurers running for cover as the venerable American department store appears heading for bankruptcy or some other final disposition.

In a filing this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Sears Holding Corp. told investors and observers that, “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” The company is parent to Sears stores and sister retailer Kmart.

The filing sent Sears shares down as much as 16% to $7.60 in New York trading, the company’s biggest intraday drop since October 2014. Prior to the drop, shares had gained some 60% since Feb. 9, according to Bloomberg.

As a result, Sears’ suppliers are changing business terms with the troubled retailer, in some cases cutting back inventory or insisting on faster payment terms, in order to mitigate the downside associated with doing business with Sears.

One such supplier, a textile maker in Bangladesh, has sharply cut back on the amount of goods it manufactures for Sears. “We have to protect ourselves from the risk of nonpayment,” the textile maker’s managing director told Reuters. “So far there was only speculation that they would declare bankruptcy in 2017. But now they are acknowledging it, which definitely complicates our relationship with them and our decision to accept future orders from Sears.”

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Noel Hebert noted, “They’ve got all kinds of issues.” Sears has enough cash to get through 2017, he said, but its declining payables-to-inventory ratio shows that vendors have been increasingly reluctant to keep the retailer stocked.

Although Sears posted a smaller loss than expected in the fourth quarter, the company has lost some $10 billion over the past few years, according to Bloomberg.

“Whatever vendors continue to support them are now going to put them on even more of a short string. That means they’ll ship them smaller quantities and demand payment either in advance or immediately upon delivery,” Mark Cohen, the former chief executive of Sears Canada and director of retail studies at Columbia Business School in New York City, said in the Reuters piece. “Sears stores are pathetically badly inventoried today and they will become worse.”

Insurers that supply coverage against the nonpayment of goods are also looking to limit their exposure to what appears to be a worsening situation by backing away from business with Sears as it sinks.

“We tried to hang in as long as we could,” said Doug Collins, regional director for risk services at Atradius Trade Credit Insurance, who added that his firm has stopped providing insurance to Sears’ vendors. “Vendors may try to get a few more cycles in before the worst happens, and then it just depends if they’re lucky or not,” he said.

The situation is complicated by the personal involvement of billionaire owner Edward Lampert, who has poured hundreds of millions into Sears from his other business interests, using some of Sears’ assets as guarantees against the loans. This has resulted in a complex, even byzantine ownership structure which may complicate or preclude assets sales which could generate cash, according to some observers.

Sears’ cash position has crashed to just $286 million at the end of 2016 from a high of $1.7 billion in 2009, according to the, which added that the company hasn’t generated cash flow from its operations since 2006. “With negative news like this, it’s never good for confidence on the company,” Moody’s vice president, Christina Boni said. Earlier this year, Moody’s downgraded Sears’ credit rating to Caa2 from Caa1 to reflect the accelerating negative sales performance of its business and risk of possible default.

Switzerland, Norway Rank Highest in Supply Chain Resilience

Plummeting oil prices, natural catastrophes and political disruption in a borderless business environment are some of the threats to the resilience of countries that can impact supply chains, according to the 2016 FM Global Resilience Index, which aggregates data to help companies identify their key supply chain risks. The Index ranked the resilience of 130 countries to supply chain disruption based on drivers in three categories: economic, risk quality and supply chain factors.

This year’s top-rated country, Switzerland, traded places with Norway—a reflection of Norway’s drop in oil revenue at a time of falling crude oil prices. Rounding out the top 10 in the Index, in descending order, are Ireland, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the central United States, Canada, Australia and Denmark.

The lowest-ranked country in 2016 is Venezuela (ranked 130) for the second year in a row. It is followed in ascending order by the Dominican Republic, Kyrgyz Republic, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Ukraine, Egypt, Algeria, Jamaica and Honduras.

For the second consecutive year, Ukraine (ranked 125, down from 107) was among the countries with the biggest drop, reflecting the high degree of tension the remains within the country as well as with Russia (ranked 75).

FM Global also noted:

Venezuela’s position at the bottom reflects its exposure to the natural hazards of wind and earthquake, perceptions of its lack of control of corruption and poor infrastructure and its ill-perceived local supplier quality.

France (ranked 19) and the United Kingdom (ranked 20) retained their positions from last year, while Germany (ranked 4) rose by two places.

The United States is segmented into three regions to reflect disparate natural hazards exposure:

Region 1, encompassing much of the East Coast, is ranked 11 in the Index.

Region 2, primarily the Western United States, is ranked 21.

Region 3, which includes most of the central portion of the country, is ranked 7 in the Index.
FM Global-infographic

Japan Earthquake Causes Parts Shortage, Closing 4 GM Plants

The earthquake in Japan earlier this month has impacted the supply chain of General Motors, causing four plants in North America to close temporarily because of a shortage of parts from Japan, the company reported.

GM said in a statement that its manufacturing operations are expected to be down for two weeks beginning April 25 in Spring Hill, Tennessee; Lordstown, Ohio; Fairfax, Kansas andGM logo the Oshawa Flex Assembly in Canada.

The temporary adjustment is not expected to have “any material impact on GM’s full-year production plans in North America,” GM said. In addition, the company “does not expect a material impact to its second quarter or full-year financial results for GM North America.”

Japan’s Kyushu Island was rocked by a 7.0 temblor on April 16, killing 58 people and injuring about 900, according to AIR Worldwide. The quake was the strongest to strike Japan since 2011, when a massive 9.0-magnitude offshore earthquake unleashed a tsunami that killed 18,000 people in the country’s northeast and triggered meltdowns at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the New York Times reported.

AIR said the earthquake is expected to result in insured losses between $1.7 billion and $2.9 billion. Those losses only reflect insured physical damage to onshore property (residential, commercial/industrial, mutual), both structures and their contents, from ground shaking, fire-following and liquefaction, AIR said.

The Japan Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) estimates that more than 3,900 residences and 120 non-residential buildings were damaged or destroyed, a number of mudslides resulted, and 14 fires were attributed to the temblors.

On the same day, April 16, a 7.8 earthquake struck the central coast of Ecuador, killing 570 people and injuring more than 4,700. AIR estimates losses from that quake between $325 million and $850 million. More than 1,100 buildings are reported to have been destroyed and more than 800 damaged.

Even though they happened just hours apart, the two quakes are not related. The Times reported:

Are the two somehow related?

No. The two quakes occurred about 9,000 miles apart. That’s far too distant for there to be any connection between them.

Large earthquakes can, and usually do, lead to more quakes — but only in the same region, along or near the same fault. These are called aftershocks. Sometimes a large quake can be linked to a smaller quake that occurred earlier, called a foreshock. In the case of the Japanese quake, seismologists believe that several magnitude-6 quakes in the same region on the previous day were foreshocks to the Saturday event.

Mexico’s Pemex Illustrates Trade Credit Risks in Latin America

With all the focus on the Middle East and Europe, it is easy to lose track of Latin America as a region with major risk issues. Companies investing and selling to Latin America have become accustomed to viewing its largest economies—Mexico and Brazil—as relatively low-risk countries with promising growth prospects. That perception has recently changed, however, largely because of a common ingredient: large state-owned oil companies on which the government depends.

With a $1.26 trillion economy and population of 122 million, Mexico is a key market for the United States and Canada, particularly since the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some $535 billion in trade occurred between the U.S. and Mexico in 2014. From 2000 through 2012, U.S. foreign direct investment into Mexico totaled $291.7 billion.

With a monopoly (until recently) on oil production and fuel distribution, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) is a colossus—the largest company in the country, representing about one-third of all government tax revenues and approximately 5% of Mexican exports. From its origin in 1938, Pemex has also been a political entity, as it was nationalized at a time when foreign companies dominated the oil sector. Since then, it has become enmeshed in Mexican politics and patronage, suffering from frequent allegations of corruption.

However, in the early 2000s, Mexico’s political leadership recognized a problem: oil production was falling and Pemex lacked the resources to invest in new fields to reverse the trend. Clearly, foreign investment was going to be needed to keep Mexico competitive in world oil markets. So, in August 2014, Mexico passed the laws necessary to open up the oil, gas, and power sectors to private companies, including foreign ones. Unfortunately, with oil prices taking a serious downturn, the timing of the opening was awful. Pemex was losing its monopoly at the same time its revenue was dropping and home currency was depreciating against the US dollar, after it had accumulated enormous foreign currency debt. Not surprisingly, in November 2015, Moody’s downgraded Pemex’s credit rating from A3 to Baa1, with a negative outlook. Without the sovereign support, the rating was put at a lowly Ba3. And Pemex’s problems have directly drained the central government: this month, the Mexican government announced over $4 billion in aid for the company.

Pemex has serious cash-flow problems and is not able to pay its suppliers on time. In late 2015, citing low oil prices, it announced that it would unilaterally extend payment terms on all contracts to 180 days from the previous 60-90. For suppliers dependent on short payment terms who were already under cash-flow stress from general industry conditions, these payment delays could cause serious financial problems, including bankruptcies. Accordingly, the trade credit insurance industry—which covers buyers’ failure to pay contractual trade obligations on the due date—is already seeing claims related to Pemex and its suppliers.

Except for people who remember the early 1980s, when Mexico defaulted following the high oil prices and debt run-up of the 1970s, Pemex’s problems were unthinkable just a few years ago. This is an example of the difficulty of predicting how commodity markets, politics and financial management can mix for any given country. However, while Pemex’s problems are serious for its suppliers and represent a drag on the economy, Mexico is still forecasted to grow 2.6% in 2016 and no wide political crisis is currently underway. Many other countries dependent on oil are not so lucky. Next month we will look at one with much more serious problems and risks to investors and suppliers: Brazil.