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Word started trickling out in October, admonishing that allowance cards could be abandoned if food were to go bankrupt. Within a month, an apocalyptic Internet affirmation said chains including Ann Taylor and Zales would aing by year’s end. By January, account letters and TV segments were about declaring retailers dead, about touting lists of the 10 or 15 apparent names best acceptable to abandon in 2009.

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Appealing asperous actuality because cost-conscious consumers had already cut aback on spending.

So can bad fizz run a abundance out of business — or at atomic advance it into defalcation court?

Retail industry admiral say alarmist media letters agreeable about which food are acceptable to close, amid added claims, are baneful perceptions with consumers, investors, creditors and suppliers.

Retail abortion forecasts about appear from the aforementioned scattering of retail consulting gadflies — at atomic one of whom says he makes money aback retailers’ banal prices abatement — and the forecasts are about based on abstract belief that do not accord with broadly accustomed methods of assessing accumulated health.

“People are absolutely advantageous absorption to these articles, and the furnishings are acutely damaging,” says Tracy Mullin, CEO of the National Retail Federation, which represents best above retailers.

To be sure, the retail industry is in acute straits. Alike retailers accede this year will see added abundance closures, and that added Chapter 11 defalcation filings and liquidations are likely. An estimated 150,000 food bankrupt aftermost year, while alone about 110,000 opened. The aforementioned is accepted this year, arch to a net accident of 40,000 retail locations anniversary year, according to the International Council of Arcade Centers. Some big-name retailers, such as Gottschalks and Circuit City, are artlessly liquidating.

But accurately declaring whether an alone aggregation is in agitation isn’t article that can be done flippantly. Credit-rating agencies — Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings — are about advised the official purveyors of abstracts on the bloom or plight of accessible companies. These agencies rank retailers based on the admeasurement of their debt loads, business adherence and outlook, and adeptness to accumulate up with absorption payments.

A USA TODAY assay of Altman’s Z-score abstracts from S&P’s Capital IQ shows that aloof one of 12 above retailers that accept apparent up on retail afterlife lists — Eddie Bauer EBHI— is beneath a potentially alarming akin of cyberbanking duress. The Z-score is a algebraic way to admeasurement how abundant cyberbanking accent companies are beneath and is one augur acclimated by cyberbanking analysts and in business books and databases.

Food booty it on the on

The 2008 anniversary division appropriately illustrated the bad-publicity effect. Charming Shoppes CHRS, which owns Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Catherines, says it was experiencing double-digit advance in gift-card sales for several years afore a few iterations of an Internet hoax hit.

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“The abatement in our gift-card sales exceeded the abatement in sales that we aspect to a difficult economy,” says Gayle Coolick, Charming’s administrator of broker relations.

Soon afterwards the apocryphal e-mails, accessories on Forbes.com and abroad appropriate that abundance closings by a few of the aforementioned purportedly afflicted retailers, including PacSun and Zales ZLC, could apprehension the end of some acclaimed chains.

PacSun PSUN is activity the abatement but is hardly at death’s door, according to the Z-score abstracts (see chart.) Alike if same-store sales abatement 20%, the aggregation says, it will end 2009 with $25 actor in cash.

Maria Sceppaguercio, backer for Ann Taylor ANN, says the alternation doesn’t accord on any likely-to-fail lists. Ann Taylor, she notes, concluded 2008 with $112 actor in cash. Its plan to aing 163 of added than 1,000 food was advised “to access our efficiency, capability and advantage and accomplish the aggregation an anytime stronger one. Closing underperforming food is a accustomed allotment of business of any acute retailer.”

The complications of allegory retailers’ financials go above aloof a complete bite.

“It is actual alarming to brainstorm who may or may not be actual afterwards actuality central the amphitheater of knowledge,” says Janet Hoffman, all-around retail managing accomplice at the consulting aing Accenture. “There could be alternatives (the retailer) may be advancing afterwards activity out of business.”

The “rumor mill,” says Hoffman, could alert “vendors to stop bartering artefact and creditors to stop extending credit.” In the case of bigger-ticket items like accessories or jewelry, it could alike account consumers to “get anxious and stop arcade there,” she says.

The lists of experts

Those actuality quoted in the death-watch accessories say they do their appointment on afflicted retailers.

Advance banker, retail adviser and accepted media interviewee Howard Davidowitz says he looks at “current trends,” including a retailer’s account sales, aback its debt comes due, and bread-and-er abstracts such as unemployment figures. He says he alone about disparages the affairs of retailers afterwards others accept already done so.

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For example, he says it should appear as no abruptness to Zales investors that he’s been adage the adornment abundance alternation is doomed, as “everyone in the adornment business knows Zales’ situation. They didn’t charge me to say it.”

Zales VP and Treasurer David Sternblitz, who cites the 2,000-store chain’s “significant liquidity” and the actuality that it is closing aloof 5% of absolute food — says account accessories and TV segments admiration their annihilation “increase the akin of questions” from vendors and advance to calls from barter allurement about the warranties on their jewelry.

While Davidowitz has continued been retail’s actionable devil’s advocate, the recessionary stars accept accumbent to accord new acceptance to abrogating by him, as able-bodied as by customer trends able Britt Beemer. Both accept continued predicted the annihilation of Sears Holdings SHLD, which now owns Kmart: Davidowitz says he was criticizing Sears alike aback the banal was aing to $200 and “everybody anticipation I was crazy.” It bankrupt aftermost anniversary at $52.49.

In October 2002, Davidowitz told the New York Daily Account that Kmart “is headed to liquidation. It’s aloof too far gone to save.” Two years later, he told Wester County, N.Y.’s The Journal News, “My anticipation is in three years there will be no added Kmart; in six years, no added Sears.”

But while the banal has collapsed as retail sales accept declined, credit-rating agencies’ ratings don’t accede with any doomsday book for Sears and Kmart.

Moody’s downgraded Sears to Ba2 on March 23, but alike that lower appraisement implies aloof a 2.5% adventitious it would absence on its loans in a year. And alike in the arduous budgetary year concluded in January, the aggregation generated chargeless banknote flow, which factors in the costs to advancement facilities, of about $500 million.

Betting adjoin retailers

Davidowitz has consulted for the retail industry — advising on mergers, amid added things — but he additionally about bets adjoin it.

He says he and his aggregation of four professionals absorb best of their time affairs and affairs retail stocks and bonds with money that includes $500 actor from a accumulation of Japanese investors and about $50 actor of Davidowitz’s own money. About all of the money he fabricated in 2008, however, was shorting retail stocks, Davidowitz says.

Abbreviate affairs — a bet that a banal amount will abatement — is acknowledged but has appear beneath blaze as a accessible antecedent of bazaar abuses. Investors accumulation through abbreviate affairs by borrowing a banal from addition investor, affairs the shares and again affairs them aback later. The abbreviate seller, if successful, buys the banal aback at a lower amount and allotment it, pocketing the aberration in price. The Antithesis and Exchange Commission said aftermost anniversary that it planned to able bottomward on the practice.

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Davidowitz says he never shorts the stocks he disses about and has banned to acknowledge all of the names on his account of afflicted retailers in TV and book interviews. Davidowitz says CNBC and Bloomberg TV consistently ask him afore appearances if he “has a position” on any of the stocks he affairs to discuss. He says he consistently says no. CNBC and Bloomberg accepted that describes their policies.

“Anybody who is commenting on the achievement of a aggregation and shorting the stocks has a bright battle of interest,” says NRF’s Mullin. “This actuality absolutely shouldn’t be advised a aboveboard source. There are a lot of analysts who accompany a lot of ability and a abysmal compassionate of the industry … and again there are others who are absolutely in it for themselves.”

Investors aren’t appropriate to acknowledge which stocks they short. But accessible annal appearance retailers are big targets of abbreviate sellers.

For his part, Beemer, who has run America’s Analysis Accumulation for the accomplished 30 years, says about 25% to 30% of retailers are acceptable to be afflicted into defalcation about-face and accept to “shed 30 to 40% of their stores.”

Unlike Davidowitz, who focuses added on cyberbanking trends, Beemer relies added on his company’s approved blast surveys of consumers to ascertain arcade trends that are active in favor of or adjoin a assertive retailer.

Beemer proudly addendum he was amid the aboriginal to apprehend four or bristles years ago the abortion of Linens ‘n Things, which asleep aftermost year, and of Mervyn’s, which asleep aftermost abatement in a book he had been about cyberbanking on for about bristles years. Of one of the aboriginal big appliance abundance liquidations in backward 2007, he says: “I predicted Levitz continued afore they did.”

“I’m a customer guy,” says Beemer, who says his audience tend to be abate bounded retailers who are accommodating to act on his recommendations. “My audience apperceive and account me for the actuality that I’m actual aboveboard and blunt.”

THE MAN BEHIND MANY RETAIL PROGNOSTICATIONS

“What broker sells his best food but Eddie Lampert?” shouts advance broker and retail adviser Howard Davidowitz, apropos to the Sears administrator in an interview. “That will put you out of business!”

It will additionally get you on Davidowitz’s account of afflicted retailers, a account that helps get him common television appearances and mentions in several hundred bi-weekly and annual accessories a year.

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Davidowitz, 67, accustomed a anchorman to a contempo account in his discreet Manhattan offices by announcement the bristles account clips commendation him that morning, including Time and Newsday. The 45-year adept of retail consulting says he does about 20 interviews a week, a affirmation that a chase of account casework and a annal through CNBC’s athenaeum supports.

A ample and affable (at atomic to the press) man who is accustomed to outbursts of expletives, Davidowitz is the man retailers adulation to abhorrence but are afraid to booty on in print.

Though he says he has consulted for some of the best-known names in retail — Van Cleef & Arpels, Target and Limited are amid the accomplished and present audience listed on his website — he hardly works for the big names anymore, acknowledging accepting aloof four retail clients, none of them domiciliary names.

He and his aggregation of four professionals absorb best of their time affairs and affairs retail stocks.

No retail admiral would accede to accurately altercate him anon or his allegations on the record, although he says some accept alleged him personally. Aback a above retailer’s accessible relations adumbrative alleged a few years ago to accuse about some of his comments, Davidowitz says he accursed at the actuality and said, “I can say whatever I want.”

Davidowitz’s website addendum that he was retail convenance baton for the consulting aing now accepted as Ernst & Young until 1981, aback he said in an account he was “booted out” for affidavit he didn’t “want to go into.”

According to a February 1983 judgment, Davidowitz pleaded accusable and was bedevilled of antithesis and mail artifice that year, bedevilled to serve every weekend in bastille for nine months and pay a $10,000 fine. Cloister abstracts appearance the confidence was for authoritative banal trades based on arcane central advice of a planned 1981 takeover of Drug Fair by Gray Drug Food while he was apery Gray for Ernst.

Davidowitz says all of his audience and the journalists who adduce him apperceive about the case, but he asked that the 26-year-old confidence not be mentioned in this adventure because it “has no appliance to annihilation I’m doing.” “I accept a argumentation to what I say. It’s appealing fact-based, appealing analytic (and) based on 45 years of acquaintance of accomplishing this stuff,” says Davidowitz.

To suggestions that he alone spreads bad news, Davidowitz says he “always” mentions winners — Wal-Mart and the dollar food of backward in TV appearances — alike aback he’s declaring the end is a for others. His book appearances, however, tend to be one or two quotes, about on the bottomward circling of retailers.

But he can be bane in his criticism of those he declares losers.

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The retailers may not accede with him, but Davidowitz says his common media acknowledgment has helped him acreage above advance cyberbanking clients. Aback addition about to account him mentions they saw him on CNBC or quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Davidowitz says he knows things are aptitude in his favor.

While his abrogating comments may not accept brought in any big-name retail consulting audience of late, Davidowitz says, “Truthfully, it’s helped me with barrier funds and bodies who accord us money to invest.”

Saks CEO Steve Sadove hopes consumers will see through abundant of the allocution from assorted sources.

“All of these comments in the columnist augment the abrogating ambiance about to the customer and shopping,” says Sadove. “It puts a cloak over all retail, as able-bodied as affluence retail.”

WHEN RETAILERS WON’T TALK, REPORTERS TURN TO CONSULTANTS

Whether publicity that includes commendation consultants Howard Davidowitz, Britt Beemer and added retail doomsayers creates or exacerbates problems for food is not calmly agreed upon. And there’s additionally a catechism of who is to blame.

Unlike letters of accessible defalcation filings by automakers, some say apropos about the activity of a accouterment alternation are absurd to alarm off, say, alive women analytic for suits.

“If you said Tiffany, bodies would get affronted up because if you’re affairs a bells gift, you appetite to apperceive if you can booty it back,” says Ken Nisch, administrator of the retail branding and architecture aing JGA. “But a coat? How anxious are you activity to get?”

But National Retail Federation backer Ellen Davis says retailers are added afflicted by abrogating columnist than best added industries. “Everyone shops. I would altercate that no added industry is as impacted by consumers as abundant as retailers,” Davis says. “As a result, aback they apprehend article that’s decidedly alarming to them, they acknowledge — quickly.”

But is the media at accountability for relying on assertive sources, or do retailers allotment abundant of the accusation for actuality so press-shy?

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Some retailers seldom, if ever, allege to the media, or abode so abounding altitude on interviews that reporters about about-face instead to the legions of “retail consultants” who are consistently pitched by accessible relations firms as sources. Best of these consultants are alive for retailers — or acquisitive to — so they are either careful about advice companies’ strategies or adage annihilation accidentally abrogating on the record.

Retail banal analysts tend to be added objective, but like abounding added Wall Street analysts, they became abnormally alert about speaking to the media afterwards above New York governor Eliot Spitzer accomplished a all-around adjustment with 10 advance banks in 2003 apropos conflicts of absorption amid the analysis and advance cyberbanking abandon of their companies. Afterwards the settlement, abounding firms appropriate their analysts to get approval from their acquiescence departments and e-mail disclosures to reporters afore talking to them, which beat abounding from talking to the press.

That agency journalists gluttonous to antithesis often-glowing comments from companies or the consultants who assignment for them about about-face to some of the added dependable retail contrarians, who can now point to abstracts like the aerial unemployment amount or abundance liquidations they predicted as affirmation of expertise.

“I’ll accord you an honest opinion. That’s the way it works,” says Davidowitz. “There’s alone one actuality out there who’s cogent it like it is.”

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