Sears inks deal to push back debt payment, ease pension obligations

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Sears unveiled Tuesday steps the retailer is taking to improve its financial position, as rumors continue to swirl that its bankruptcy is looming, and CEO Eddie Lampert has stepped up efforts to defend its business.

The embattled department store chain announced Tuesday it has agreed to extend a portion of a $500 million secured loan facility and annuitize $515 million of its pension obligations.

The company is targeting a reduction in Sears’ outstanding debt and pension obligations of $1.5 billion for fiscal 2017, by improving profitability, asset sales and working capital management, the company said in a statement.

These actions will result in a reduction in Sears’ debt and pension obligations, as well as its future risk from these liabilities, Sears said.

Shares of Sears stock were trading up around 5 percent Tuesday morning, following the news.

On April 21, Sears said it was in talks with its lenders to evaluate refinancing options for its secured loan facility maturing in July, and that it would provide an update about the result of those talks in May.

A company spokesman told CNBC that Tuesday’s press release “provides that update.”

In Tuesday’s release, Sears said its borrowers agreed to extend the maturity of its $500 million 2016 secured loan facility from July 2017 to January 2018. Additionally, Sears now has the option to extend the maturity of the loan for an additional six months, to July 2018.

The department store chain has also entered a separate agreement with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, under which that company will pay future pension benefits to about 51,000 retirees.

“This action is expected to have an immaterial impact on the funded status of our total pension obligations, but will serve to reduce the size of the company’s combined pension plan, future cost volatility and plan administrative expenses,” Sears said in a statement.

Lately, Sears has been closing stores, selling off assets like its Craftsman brand and borrowing money from CEO Lampert to survive. The cash from Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL Investments, and his heavy ownership of the chain’s unsecured debt had convinced some investors that it would avoid filing Chapter 11.

However, a change in regulatory requirements forced Sears to disclose in March that bankruptcy was still a very real risk, reigniting these concerns.

“Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” Sears said in an annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sears followed up that filing with a detailed statement that said the company still planned to move forward with its plans to revive its business and meet its financial obligations.

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