Moody's slashes department store outlook, sees operating income down 20% this year

Key Points
  • Goldman Sachs downgrades shares of Macy's to sell from neutral.
  • Moody's slashes its operating income growth forecast for the entire department store sector.
People carry shopping bags from Macy's Herald Square during early opening for Black Friday sales in New York City, November 28, 2019.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Department stores are in for more trouble as 2019 comes to an end and we head into a new decade, according to two analysts' notes Monday.

Goldman Sachs lowered its rating on Macy's shares on Monday to sell from neutral, still seeing "significant downside" in the company's stock price. That's despite Macy's shares having already tumbled about 48% this year to a market value of $4.8 billion.

"Macy's sales and operating margins have come under pressure in recent years, and we forecast this to continue," analyst Alexandra Walvis said in a note to clients. "Comps are under pressure ... and e-commerce growth drivers like mobile and vendor direct have only helped to mask significant under performance in stores."

Moody's, meantime, cut its operating income growth forecast for the entire department store sector. The credit rating agency is now calling for department store retailers' profits to be down 20% in 2019, compared with prior expectations for a 15% drop.

"Off-price retailers and discounters once again posted robust sales as customers continued to flock to value," Moody's senior credit officer Christina Boni said. She said off-price chains such as TJ Maxx and Ross Stores are turning inventory roughly two times as fast as department store chains including Dillard's, J.C. Penney, Kohl's, Macy's and Nordstrom.

"The competitive landscape remains extremely promotional, with no let up as we wade further into the all-important holiday season," Boni added in a note to clients. "Fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas relative to last year could exacerbate the promotional environment."

Representatives from Macy's, Nordstrom and Penney declined to comment. Officials from Dillard's and Kohl's weren't immediately available to respond to CNBC's requests for comment.

Kohl's and Macy's both called out heightened promotional activity when they reported earnings last month, saying at the time they expected that cadence to continue. And when retailers slash prices to stay competitive, that eats into profit margins. And it inhibits a company's ability to invest in other initiatives.

Penney is in the midst of a major turnaround with its relatively new CEO, Jill Soltau, while Nordstrom is trying to get closer to customers with faster delivery and supply chain investments.

But these efforts cost money. And department stores are increasingly pitted against Amazon, Walmart and Target, which — thanks to more consecutive sales growth — have more to spend on ramping up same-day delivery and launching in-house apparel brands, which are stealing share from the likes of Macy's and Kohl's.

In 2020, Moody's says, it expects department stores to remain "among the worst performers of retail."

Macy's shares were last up about 2.7% on Monday afternoon. Gordon Haskett analyst Chuck Grom told CNBC that it's clear "structural concerns persist" for this group of retailers. But there are some investors still more bullish on near-term sentiment, he said, adding that his firm's department store checks showed the fourth quarter has been off to a "decent start."

Nordstrom was up nearly 4%, and Kohl's was up 3.1%. Penney was up 1.8%. Nordstrom, with a market cap of $6.1 billion, has fallen 16% this year; while Kohl's, valued at $7.7 billion, is down 27%; and Penney, valued at $366.2 million, has climbed 11% year to date to get its stock back above $1.

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