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Accounting for Uncollectible Accounts

For the exclusive use of X. LIU CASE: A-165 DATE: 09/00 (REVD. 05/07)

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SEARS: ACCOUNTING FOR UNCOLLECTIBLE ACCOUNTS

Sarah Simons picked up the 1999 Annual Report for Sears, Roebuck and Co. , which had Just been delivered to her office. As an analyst for a major brokerage, she was responsible for providing investment advice regarding companies in the retail industry, including Sears. She looked over the income statement, noting that net income grew by 39 percent over the previous year, despite a slight decrease in revenues (see Exhibit 1).

Before long, however, she turned her attention to the Company’s credit card receivables and allowance for uncollectible accounts (see Exhibit 2). In recent years, Sears had suffered heavy write-offs from uncollectible credit card accounts, as well as an expensive scandal caused by illegal collections procedures. These problems had depressed Sears’ stock price substantially from its peak in mid-1998. Had Sears overcome their credit card problems? BACKGROUND Sears, Roebuck and Co. as founded in 1886 as a retail mail-order business and grew rapidly by providing a wide range of products to people in rural areas who did not have access to large, well-stocked stores. The Company began to diversify into financial services in 1931, when it established Allstate Insurance Company. This diversification continued in the 1980s, as it acquired Dean Witter Reynolds and Coldwell Banker, and launched the Discover card. By 1990, however, Sears was struggling and the investment community was critical of its business strategy, which was derisively characterized as “socks and stocks. Shareholder discontent drove the Company to a massive restructuring to refocus on its retailing roots. According to former CEO Edward Brennan, 1992 was a “disastrous year” in which the Company lost 3. 9 billion, of which $3. 1 billion was a charge related to the restructuring. By 1995, Sears had divested its financial services businesses and largely restructured its merchandising operations. The transformation of Sears was largely credited to Arthur Martinez, the former chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue, who Joined the Company in 1992 as head of the merchandising group.

His actions were swift and decisive. He immediately closed the unprofitable Sears Catalog, shut 113 Research Associate David Hoyt prepared this case under the supervision of Professor Karen K. Nelson as the basis for class iscussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation. Copyright 2000 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, email the Case Writing Office at: [email protected] tanford. edu or write: Case Writing Office, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5015. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any torm or by any means – lectronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise – without the permission of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This document is authorized for use only by XUEYONG LIU in Financial Accounting taught by Yonca Ertimur from August 2013 to October 2013.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. A-165 unprofitable stores, cut 50,000 Jobs, and launched a five year, $4 billion capital investment program to renovate and update the stores. In 1993, he initiated an intensive marketing campaign, “Come See the Softer Side of Sears,” which was a hugely successful move to call attention to changes in the apparel division and ttract women to the stores. Sears made a remarkable turnaround. From its massive 1992 loss, it recovered to post net income of $1. 8 billion in 1995.

Martinez was named Sears’ CEO in 1995 and was also recognized as Financial World’s CEO of the year. The stock price responded accordingly, increasing more than seven-fold from 1991 to mid-1997. 1 By the late 1990s, however, problems had surfaced and the financial press had become critical. They questioned whether some components of the Martinez turnaround had backfired, most notably his strategy related to the Sears’ proprietary credit card, the sears card.

THE SEARS CARD AND CREDIT CARD RECEIVABLES

Prior to 1993, the only charge card that Sears accepted was the Sears Card.

In order to attract new customers and prop up sagging store sales, Sears began accepting other major charge cards in 1993. While this helped improve sales, Sears lost the opportunity to collect interest on purchases made with other cards. To avoid a drop in profits from its own credit operations, Sears aggressively marketed the Sears Card, mailing out pre-approved card offers, hawking the card at tables positioned at store entrances and paying incentives to sales clerks for opening new accounts. Between 1993 and 1996, Sears issued 24 million new credit card accounts.

In his Letter to Shareholders in the 1996 Annual Report, Martinez commented on the importance of the credit card program, stating that the “Sears Card is one of the most important ways we form an alliance with our 50 million customer households. The availability of credit is critical to the ability of moderate-income families to finance the purchases they require. Despite rising delinquencies in the industry, we have a very strong and profitable credit portfolio. ” However, the new Sears Card users were not necessarily he best credit risks.

Sears’ marketing of their credit card tended to attract customers that had trouble paying their bills. Those that could get cheaper credit elsewhere used bank cards with low “teaser” rates and incentives. These factors, combined with an increase in delinquencies and average balances, were cause for concern (see Exhibit 3). By late 1997, the average Sears Card balance was more than three times that carried by J. C. Penny Co. cardholders and delinquencies exceeded the industry average by two percentage points.

Sears’ drive to issue more cards, and the lax credit policies that were needed to ncrease cardholders at such a rapid rate, eventually caught up with them. Uncollectible receivables and charge-offs started rising in 1995. The Company responded by increasing the interest rate toa hefty 21 percent while at the same time lowering the minimum required monthly payment. This let cardholders continue to ring up purchases on their Sears Cards and also increased interest revenue on outstanding credit balances. To offset the impact of delinquencies, Sears raised late fees and other charges.

However the quality of their credit card receivables was still questionable, as by 1997 Sears was a creditor in about one-third f U. S. personal bankruptcies. This case was prepared using public documents, including Sears Annual Reports and a variety of news accounts, including: Debra Sparks, “Arthur Martinez: Financial World’s CEO of the Year,” Financial World, March 25, 1996; John McCormick, “The Sorry Side of Sears,” Newsweek, February 22, 1999; Joseph Cahill, “The Softer Side: Sears’s Credit Business May Have Helped Hide Larger Retailing Woes,” Wall Street Journal, July 6, 1999.

Neither Sears nor any current or former employee participated document is authorized for use only by XUEYONG LIU in Financial Accounting taught y Yonca Ertimur from This in preparing this case. The problems went further, however. In January 1997, it was discovered that Sears had illegally coerced payments from cardholders who had sought bankruptcy protection. This resulted in a criminal conviction as well as restitution payments to 187,000 customers. In the end, the scandal cost Sears $475 million in fines, refunds, interest, and legal fees, which the Company charged against income in 1997.

ACCOUNTING FOR UNCOLLECTIBLE ACCOUNTS

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require that accounts receivable be ecognized in the balance sheet at net realizable value??”that is, at the amount the company can reasonably expect to collect from its credit customers. Moreover, Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 (SEAS 5) requires that an estimated loss from a contingency, such as uncollectible receivables, be accrued by a charge to income if two conditions are met: (1) it is probable that a loss has been incurred; and (2) the amount of the loss can be reasonably estimated.

According to their Annual Reports, Sears reported credit card receivables net of an allowance for uncollectible accounts. The allowance was based on “impaired accounts, historical charge-off patterns, and management Judgments. ” Until late 1998, “uncollectible accounts were generally charged off automatically when the customer’s past due balance was eight times the scheduled minimum monthly payment, except that accounts could be charged off sooner in the event of customer bankruptcy. In 1998, Sears began phasing in a new system in which accounts were charged off “automatically when the customer fails to make a required payment in each of the eight billing cycles following a missed payment. ” In the fourth quarter of 1998, 12 ercent of accounts were converted to this system, with the balance being converted in the first and second quarters of 1999. This new system was intended to help Sears better manage its collection efforts by identifying delinquent accounts earlier and enabling better control of uncollectible expenses.

It also had the affect of charging off balances earlier than under the previous system.

ARE THE PROBLEMS IN THE PAST?

As she read the Letter to Shareholders in the 1999 Annual Report, Sarah noticed Martinez’s comments regarding credit: “In our credit business, we worked tirelessly to trengthen our portfolio quality, reduce our losses, and improve our collection processes. ” Sarah knew that the credit business was important to the overall performance of Sears (see Exhibit 4) and that the Company’s stock price had been affected by credit-related issues (see Exhibit 5).

Had Sears truly put its problems behind it? Was the allowance for uncollectible accounts adequate? What should she say to the investment community?

EXHIBITS

Consolidated Financial Statements Analysis of Allowance for Uncollectible Accounts Key Credit Portfolio Information Summary Segment Data Stock Performance This document is authorized for use only by XUEYONG LIU in Financial Accounting taught by Yonca Ertimur from August 2013 to October 2013.

Exhibit 1 Income Statement (in millions) 1995 1996 1998 1999 Revenues Merchandise sales and services Credit revenues Total revenues Expenses Cost of sales, buying and occupancy Selling and administrative Provision for uncollectible accounts Other Total costs and expenses Operating income Other income, net Income tax provision Net Income $31 ,133 $33,752 $36,649 $36,957 $36,728 3,702 4,313 4,925 4,618 4,343 34835 38,064 41 ,574 41 ,575 41 ,071 23,160 7,428 589 1,953 33,130 1,705 703 1,801 24889 8,059 971 2,062 35,981 2083 834 $1,271 26,985 8,394 1,532 2,669 39,580 1 ,994 106 912 $1,188 27,444 27,212 8,384 8,418 1 ,287 871 2605 2,157 39,720 38,658 1 ,855 2413 (41) (56) 766 $1,048 $1,453 1997 Balance Sheet (in millions) Assets Cash and cash equivalents $ 606 $ 660 Credit card receivables Allowance for uncollectible accounts (819) (801) Net credit card receivables 20,106 19??03 Other current assets 5,729 8,484 Property and equipment, net Other assets Total Assets $ 358 20,956 (1,113) 19,843 10,042 495 $ 729 18,946 18,793 (974) (760) 17,972 18,033 10804 9,905 5,077 5878 6,414 6,380 6,450 1,612 1 ,842 043 2,024 1,837 $33,130 $36,167 $38,700 $37,675 $36,954 Liabilities Current liabilities Long-term liabilities Total liabilities Shareholders’ equity $14,607 $14,950 $15,790 $14,222 $13,701 14,138 16,272 17,048 17,387 16,414 28,745 31 ,222 32,838 31 ,609 30,1 1 5 4,385 4,945 5,862 6,066 6839 Total Liabilities and Equity Source: Sears, Roebuck and Co. ‘s Annual Reports. Exhibit 2 Allowance, beginning of year Net credit losses Allowance, end of year $ 808 578 $ 819 989 $ 801 1 ,220 $1,113 1 ,426 $ 974 $974 1,085 $ 760 Source: Sears, Roebuck & Co. ‘s Annual Reports. Exhibit 3 56. 6% 4. % 5. 8% 55. 1% 2. 3% 51 1. 1% 47. % 1. 8% Sears Card sales as a % ot sales Comparable store sales growth (%) Merrill Lynch Broadline Retailers Index of comparable store sales growth (%) 2. 0% 3. 8% 5. 2% Average account balance ($) $ 914 $977 $1,058 $1,076 $1,121 Delinquency rates (%) 4. 16% 5. 40% 7. 00% 6. 82% 7. 58% Net credit charge-offs to average credit card receivables 2. 77% 5. 02% 6. 23% 7. 54% 6. 03% Sources: Sears, Roebuck and Co. ‘s Annual Reports; Merrill Lynch Broadline Retailers Index for 1999 from Merrill Lynch Industry Report “Retailing-Broadlines,” January 6, 2000. Exhibit 4 Operating Income Retail Services Credit International

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