Facing cash crunch, Borders may be sold

/ Source: The Associated Press

Borders could become the latest victim of the credit squeeze, announcing Thursday that it may put itself up for sale. Rival Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, saw fourth-quarter profits drop 9 percent as the industry struggles with intense competition from discounters.

Shares in Borders tumbled more than 39 percent as the nation's second-largest bookseller said it was considering options including the sale of the company or certain divisions, and that it had lined up $42.5 million in financing to help it keep running through the year.

"It's a crunch of three C's_ credit, capital and consumer spending," said Dan Ansell, a partner at Greenberg Traurig LLP and chairman of its real estate operations division.

Despite its earnings slide, Barnes & Noble boosted its dividends and surprised Wall Street with predictions of a profitable first quarter. Analysts said the nation's largest book seller would be the most likely suitor for Borders.

Both big bookstore chains have deepened discounts for their members, as shoppers are even more focused on low prices for discretionary items as they pay higher gas and food costs.

But analyst Michael Norris at market research firm Simba Information said customers are increasingly turning to wholesale clubs and other discounters like Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for books and other merchandise.

"This is going to be a really tough year" for booksellers, Norris said.

Borders is a year into a restructuring that includes revamping its U.S. superstores as part of an effort to lure more shoppers. But the evaporating credit market led to the financing announced Thursday from hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management LP, its largest shareholder.

"In the economic environment, we believe we're on the right track and our plan is the right one to get us there," CEO George Jones told analysts. "Now we have the flexibility necessary to get us where we need to be." Without the funding, he said, "liquidity issues" may have been only months away.

Ansell noted that some retailers "are not able to borrow money as easily as in the past to meet their capital requirements." The tightening of credit among consumers causes them to spend less _ thereby straining the cash flow for retailers and increasing their dependence upon credit to meet their operating costs.

Borders suspended its quarterly dividend, which it will plow into operations, and says its plans for earnings per share growth may take longer than expected.

"Borders, which has finally found a CEO that can improve the merchandising, is finding that its poor cash flow and balance sheet is forcing it to make some very unattractive decisions," Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter wrote to investors. The loan from Pershing Square, he noted, comes at a high 12.5 percent interest rate.

Industry analysts gave a possible sale mixed prospects. Barnes & Noble as a buyer worried Norris, who believes that the health of the book industry depends on the survival of many different players.

Barnes & Noble told analysts it had not been approached by Borders, but would take a "good look" at the company if it were.

The pressure on booksellers has been felt globally. Just Tuesday, Bertelsmann AG reported a sharp drop in 2007 profit and said it was considering options for its struggling Direct Group, which operates book, music and DVD clubs.

Last month, Borders opened the first of its new concept stores near its Ann Arbor headquarters. The store is designed to be a place where downloading e-books and burning CDs go hand in hand with browsing the shelves and paging through a best-seller in a comfy chair, and changes seen there may be seen throughout the chain.

In fourth-quarter results that were delayed for one day, Borders reported net income of $64.7 million, or $1.10 a share, compared with a loss of $73.6 million, or $1.22, in the same period last year. Revenue fell 2 percent to $1.35 billion for the quarter ended Feb. 2. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial expected profits of $1.42 per share on sales of $1.37 billion.

Borders has until Jan. 15 to require Pershing Square to pay $125 million for its international business. But the company said it must pursue the sale of those operations elsewhere before any deal with Pershing.

Barnes & Noble said it earned $115.04 million, or $1.79 per share, in the quarter, down from $126.73 million, or $1.83 per share a year earlier. Analysts expected $1.71 per share.

The company said it would raise its quarterly cash dividend to 25 cents per share from 15 cents, and now expects earnings of 5 to 10 cents per share in the current quarter. Analysts had expected a loss of 2 cents per share.

Borders Group Inc. shares dropped $2.03 to $5.07, while Barnes & Noble Inc. shares jumped 8.1 percent, or $2.27, to $30.27.