Tens of thousands of stores have closed. Nearly a million retail workers have been furloughed.
Yet one of the most difficult questions facing economic policymakers is whether to bail out the nation’s struggling retailers, a group that was declining before the novel coronavirus pandemic and is now one of the hardest hit by it.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus law authorized by Congress last month contains hundreds of billions for businesses to save jobs and restart the economy. The Federal Reserve has made available billions of dollars of loans for struggling companies, too.
But without further action by officials, little of that money will flow to retail companies such as Macy’s, Gap and J.C. Penney. The reason: After years of losing ground to online competition and diminished mall traffic, some retailers might not be able to repay the government.
Their fragility, in other words, is what could disqualify them from the rescue.
As officials at the Treasury Department and the Fed craft rescue programs, they must strike a balance between the desire to limit the pandemic’s economic calamity against the need to safeguard taxpayer money.
Lobbyists for retailers, which employ more than 4 million workers, are emphasizing the massive job losses that could occur in the absence of federal help, as well as the harm it could do to their suppliers and landlords.
Federal officials “should be thinking through the employment problem that could occur if these companies don’t get help,” David French, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, said in an interview. “We’re working with officials at Treasury and the Federal Reserve to ensure the broadest array of retail needs are taken into account.”
But others argue that the government rescue isn’t meant to correct for long-running changes in the economy — only act as a buffer against a historic crisis.
Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston since 2007, said the Fed programs are focused on companies with a “solid business model.”
“These programs don’t help every organization,” Rosengren said. “Those firms chose to have a more leveraged balance sheet. We’re not going to provide as much help [to them].”
Officials from the Fed and the Treasury Department declined to comment for this story.
Last month, the Fed set up two programs in response to the coronavirus crisis that will support lending billions to big companies. One, known as the Commercial Paper Funding Facility, offers short-term loans. Another, known as the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, offers longer-term lending.
But only firms deemed the most stable — that is, those that have at least an “investment grade” bond rating — are allowed to participate. The list of major retailers whose bond ratings have fallen short of that standard includes some of the biggest names: Macy’s; Gap; J.C. Penney; Dillard’s; Belk; Neiman Marcus; J Crew; L Brands, which includes Victoria’s Secret and Pink; and Ascena Retail, which includes Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant.
Lobbyists for retailers are now asking the Fed and the Treasury Department, which will offer $454 billion in aid to businesses under the Cares Act stimulus law, for support to ailing retailers. The Treasury Department is writing the rules that will determine the eligibility of companies for that program.
The argument from retailers is based in large part on how many people they employ. In their estimation, more than a million jobs are at risk. In addition, they say, a web of suppliers, landlords and other investors depend upon the stores.
Critical to the flow of aid to several retailers is whether the ailing companies will meet the eligibility criteria set by risk-averse government officials.
The eligibility criteria for relief programs may be “too narrow for some of America’s best recognized companies,” National Retail Federation President Matthew Shay said in a March 27 letter to Fed and Treasury officials. “[We] ask that your respective agencies exercise discretion to make these programs more widely available.”
The requests for assistance from big retailers present one of the starkest and most difficult questions facing the government: Should assistance be offered to companies that may soon fail?
The question echoes one that was presented by troubled automakers during the Great Recession. Though the car manufacturers were struggling even before that recession, the government bailed them out anyway, at least in part because of how many jobs were at stake.
But officials do consider whether the money will be repaid. After the bailouts during the global financial crisis in 2008, government officials boasted that the emergency investments of taxpayer money had been returned. Years after the Treasury extended $426 billion to financial institutions under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, officials argued that they had recovered all of the money, and even made a small profit.
Nellie Liang, a former Fed official who helped implement stabilization policies during that global financial crisis, said that for stores that wouldn’t survive after the shutdowns, “you may not be helping them by offering more loans.”
Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Liang said that for policymakers at the Treasury who will be offering loans and other investments to companies, “the key question is: What is their tolerance for risk? What are the losses they are willing to accept on the capital available in the CARES Act for business?”
While the Fed is legally compelled to offer money to those who can repay, some experts said the Treasury may have more latitude to make riskier bets.
Such bets are worth it, according to industry advocates, because the failure of major chains, aside from leaving employees jobless, could set off ripple effects on store suppliers, landlords and investors. The slow, steady decline among U.S. retailers in recent years, they warn, could become a vertiginous plunge with lots of collateral damage.
Even some critics of the 2008 bailouts favor helping the retailers.
“We should be willing to do something we wouldn’t ordinarily do to keep people on the payroll,” said Josh Bivens, research director for the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group.
Bivens added that while he found some of the 2008 bailout objectionable because aid was flowing to the banks that had been “complicit” in causing the crisis, “that is not the case here. None of these companies caused the pandemic.”
Indeed, even as the U.S. economy has been showing signs of strength in recent years, many retailers have been enduring conditions reminiscent of a recession, analysts said, and now comes weeks of closures.
In the past few weeks, S&P Global Ratings, one of the agencies that rates companies’ economic health, has issued negative reports for about 50 out of 125 retail firms it reviews.
“The retail sector has been operating in a distressed environment for years,” said Sarah Wyeth, sector lead for retail and restaurants at S&P Global Ratings. “The full impact of this crisis hasn’t been fully realized — and it’s going to get worse.”