AP News

J.C. Penney stock up on Sterne position, Soros buy


J.C. Penney shares rose Thursday after Sterne Agee analysts took a bullish position on the struggling retailer and said that a recent drop in its stock price has made for a good opportunity to buy, and billionaire George Soros disclosed a growing stake in the company.

THE SPARK: Sterne Agee analysts Charles Grom and Renato Basanta said that the they believe that J.C. Penney's risk versus its reward as an investment, has improved now that some of its boardroom drama is settled and the back-to-school season looks positive. They believe investors will look past the noise of the most recent quarter and focus on the company's turnaround plan and potential for improvement.

The analysts reiterated a "Buy" rating on J.C. Penney's shares.

Separately, Soros disclosed late Wednesday that he bought up an additional chunk of the retailer's shares. As of June 30, Soros holds nearly 20.5 million shares, or more than 9 percent of the company. That makes him the second largest shareholder, after William Ackman's Pershing Square Capital Management

THE BIG PICTURE: J.C. Penney has been in near-constant state of flux for nearly two years.

The company was already struggling with soft sales when it brought in former Apple Inc. and Target Corp. executive Ron Johnson as CEO in 2011 to try and shake up the dowdy image of the retailer. But Johnson's dramatic reinvention plan drove shoppers away, and he was ousted after 17 months.

J.C. Penney brought its former CEO Mike Ullman back, and is now trying to lure shoppers to return.

The retailer also just wrapped a dramatic boardroom dispute with Ackman.

The activist investor went public last week with statements saying he'd lost confidence in Penney's board and that Chairman Thomas Engibous should be replaced. Ackman and the retailer's board were also bickering over how quickly the company should replace Ullman. Ackman's resignation from board as part of a deal to resolve the battle was announced early Tuesday.

The departure is expected to free J.C. Penney to return its focus to fixing its ailing business as the crucial back-to-school selling season heats up, although some investors are concerned Ackman might sell off some or all of his nearly 18-percent stake.

THE ANALYSIS: The Sterne Agee analysts said that the second quarter was J.C. Penney's transitional quarter, and they believe fears about it having inadequate cash levels are overblown. They expect that the retailer's sales will improve in the second half of the year on its improved pricing, merchandise and store revamps.

The analysts said that the company's 16 percent share price slide since the end of July makes a good buying opportunity.

"While not for the faint of heart, with the bear case well-advertised, we take the other side," Grom and Basanta wrote.

SHARE ACTION: Shares of J.C. Penney Co. Inc. added 73 cents, or 5.5 percent, to close Thursday at $13.84. The stock price remains down about 30 percent since the start of the year.


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