Sears owes billions of dollars: Who will be left holding the bag?

Sears is on the hook to vendors, lenders and even customers who recently bought Kenmore fridges or Craftsman lawn mowers.

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Nathaniel Meyersohn
, CNN Business
(CNN) — Sears is on the hook to vendors, lenders and even customers who recently bought Kenmore fridges or Craftsman lawn mowers.

The company has close to $7 billion in assets, according to court filings Monday. But it has $11.3 billion in liabilities. More than 100,000 creditors are owed money by Sears.

After Sears filed for bankruptcy protection Monday, those creditors will all get in line to fight to collect pennies in return for their investment dollars.

Secured creditors will be at the top of the list. Those are the lenders who loaned money to Sears in return for real estate or inventory.

After Sears pays secured creditors, priority creditors will come next, explained Chuck Tatelbaum, a director with Florida law firm Tripp Scott.

That's anyone who recently sold Sears goods, taxes the company owes, and back wages and benefits to employees. They will only get paid if there's enough money left after Sears pays its secured creditors. Priorities usually get back cents on the dollar, Tatelbaum said.

A judge will have to sign off on any payments Sears makes during the bankruptcy process.

Unsecured vendors and service providers, shareholders, and pensioners will be left to fight over the scraps. Companies that sold to Sears may not get paid back in full -- or at all. Shareholders have mostly gotten wiped out already -- the stock is down 89% this year -- but they're generally last in line to claw back their investments.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a US government pension insurer, is the company's largest unsecured creditor. The government agency claims Sears' pension plans are underfunded by about $1.5 billion. It has been negotiating with Sears for years, and the insurer believes Sears will be able to pay benefits for most of its 90,000 pensioners. The rest will be guaranteed by the agency, so pensioners won't lose out.

Vendors have been shrinking their reliance on Sears in recent years, but Sears still owes millions to appliance, tool, and electronics companies.

Whirlpool, which had started in business more than a century ago selling its appliances at Sears, pulled its various brands out of Sears and Kmart stores last year. Sears accounted for only 3% of Whirlpool's sales worldwide in 2017.

Sears owes more than $23 million to Whirlpool and $18 million to refrigerator company Frigidaire. It also owes millions to Samsung and Black & Decker.

Whirlpool said Monday that the fallout from Sears' bankruptcy would be limited.

Who makes out okay

Sears also owes billions in debt to banks, but those loans will be among the first paid back in bankruptcy. It borrowed $5 billion from banks and other lenders, including Chairman Eddie Lampert's own hedge fund ESL, which has loaned more than $1.3 billion already.

Sears has received $300 million in financing to help it stay open and pay off its debts. It said it is negotiating an additional $300 million in financing from ESL, which is the company's largest shareholder and creditor.

Although many retail experts blame Lampert for driving Sears into the ground, his secured creditor status means he won't lose his personal fortune after Sears' bankruptcy process is complete.

The company said it will continue paying employees' wages and benefits, honor member programs, and "pay vendors and suppliers in the ordinary course for all goods and services provided on or after the filing date."

Sears said customers should expect loyalty programs, including the Shop Your Way membership program, and the Sears and private label credit card rewards program to continue for now.

It also is currently honoring warranties, protection agreements and guarantees.

But the big risk for vendors and customers is that the financing Sears has secured isn't enough to sustain the business for long. A $300 million loan backed by inventory isn't a ton, Tatelbaum noted.

"Is it enough to bring holiday goods in to be a force to be dealt with? That's the biggest risk. Very few vendors are going to sell them on credit now."

Got a Kmart gift card? You'd better spend that soon before more stores close or the clothes you want run out, Tatelbaum said.

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