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J.C. Penney job No. 1: Calming vendors

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm •  Published: April 15, 2013

"It's nothing concrete, but we will see where those discussions take us," he added.

But there are plenty of signs of nervousness among the financial lenders, commonly called "factors," that make cash advances to suppliers based on the goods they sell to the merchant.

Michael Cipriani of Rosenthal & Rosenthal, a financial lender to clothing suppliers, said it will now slap a surcharge on its clients who sell to Penney after hearing that Penney would tap its credit line earlier than he expected. The company is following other financial lenders in recent weeks.

Bob Carbonell, executive vice president and chief credit officer at Bernard Sands, a credit agency for a variety of industries including clothing, said the company continues to recommend suppliers keep shipping to Penney.

Still, Carbonell is watching the situation closely. He noted that another horrendous quarterly financial report could have a "psychological impact" on the credit community. Penney is expected to release first-quarter results next month.

"Right now, the ball is in Mike Ullman's court," Carbonell said.

During a conference call last week, Levi Strauss & Co., a supplier to Penney, was asked by an analyst whether it dealing with Penney any differently. Levi's Chief Financial Officer Harmit Singh said he was keeping a "close eye," but he noted the retailer "has been paying the bills on time."

"J.C. Penney is a valued customer," Harmit added.

Penney's moves to increase its cash reserves comes in the middle of the company's overhaul of its home area. The new home section, which includes shops devoted to merchandise from names like Jonathan Adler and Michael Graves, is scheduled to roll out to 500 of its 1,100 stores by next month. The strategy was part of Johnson's vision to transform the stores into a mini-mall of specialty shops.

Penney's Chief Financial Officer Ken Hannah said in a statement that the drawing of the funds "provides more than its current funding needs to ensure our continued liquidity," but it is also looking to explore other ways to raise more money.

In early February, Penney amended its bank credit facility to increase its borrowing capacity to $1.85 billion, from $1.75 billion, but some analysts had expected that it wouldn't tap into the credit line until the middle of the year

Last November, Penney said it would end the latest fiscal year with $1 billion in cash. Penney wound up ending the year with $930 million in cash, which was better than analysts had feared but below the company's target. However, the figures looked better than they really were because Penney staggered some payments to vendors into the first quarter.

Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citi Investment Research, estimates that Penney may ultimately need to raise $1 billion in total cash in permanent financing this year to "buy time to stabilize the business." Penney needs a minimum cash balance on hand of $500 million to $750 million to run its business, she believes.

Fitch Ratings said in a release Monday the additional permanent funding would be needed to cover a projected free cash flow shortfall of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion this year. Fitch says that Penney will need to tap into various sources of funding including equity infusion.

Shares of Penney fell 23 cents to $14.39. The stock has lost more than 65 percent of its value since February 2012, when investors were bullish about Johnson's plan.