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The Retail Apocalypse

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The long-term retail bubble in the U.S. is about to burst and this is going to be devastating for an economy where service jobs have largely replaced industrial jobs for the working class.

The reason isn’t as simple as Amazon.com Inc. taking market share or twenty-somethings spending more on experiences than things. The root cause is that many of these long-standing chains are overloaded with debt—often from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder—even for healthy chains.

The debt coming due, along with America’s over-stored suburbs and the continued gains of online shopping, has all the makings of a disaster. The spillover will likely flow far and wide across the U.S. economy. There will be displaced low-income workers, shrinking local tax bases and investor losses on stocks, bonds and real estate. If today is considered a retail apocalypse, then what’s coming next could truly be scary.

Until this year, struggling retailers have largely been able to avoid bankruptcy by refinancing to buy more time. But the market has shifted, with the negative view on retail pushing investors to reconsider lending to them. Toys “R” Us Inc. served as an early sign of what might lie ahead. It surprised investors in September by filing for bankruptcy—the third-largest retail bankruptcy in U.S. history—after struggling to refinance just $400 million of its $5 billion in debt. And its results were mostly stable, with profitability increasing amid a small drop in sales.

The path to the middle class in retail is often to become a supervisor. There are 1.2 million of them, and their average annual salary is more than twice that of a cashier at $44,000. In that category, many of the same states have the most on the line, with Alabama, West Virginia, South Carolina and Montana containing the highest ratio of these workers.

One response to the loss of store-based retail jobs is to note that the industry is adding positions at distribution centers to bolster its online operations. While that is true, many displaced retail workers don’t live near a shipping facility. The hiring also skews more toward men, as they make up two-thirds of the workforce, and retail store employees are 60 percent women.

The coming wave of risky retail debt maturities doesn’t take into account that companies currently considered stable by ratings agencies also have loads of borrowings. Just among the eight publicly-traded department stores, there is about $24 billion in debt, and only two of those—Sears Holdings Corp. and Bon-Ton Stores Inc.—are rated distressed by Moody’s.

This could be really, really bad. The rise of online shopping makes many stores increasingly irrelevant. U.S. commercial real estate is absurdly overdeveloped, with the same shops repeating over and over again every couple of miles. This is not a sustainable model, the bottom is about to fall out, and since the U.S. has no discernible job policy program from either party, it is likely to be disastrous, with serious political and social implications.

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