Earnings analysis: Is J.C. Penney back from the (near) dead? by Jennifer Reingold @FortuneMagazine February 26, 2014, 11:16 PM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons J.C. Penney JCP , the beleaguered retailer, posted 4th quarter and full-year 2013 numbers today that were officially not terrible. For the punching bag of a stock that is JCP, that counts for great news, enough to send the stock up some 14% in after hours trading, to $6.81. Sales for fiscal 2013 were $11.9 billion, down 9% from the prior year. The company posted a net loss of .68 a share, with an operating loss of $138 million, which beat analysts’ consensus of an 82-cent loss. That would be a horrifying year for almost any retailer—unless, of course, your fiscal 2012 operating loss was $745 million. (“An 81.5% improvement!” trumpeted CFO Ken Hannah). Bulls also took note of J.C. Penney’s improved financial position, with $1.5 billion in cash and total liquidity of $2 billion—plenty, asserts Hannah (who, it should be noted, is leaving the company next month), to fund the rest of the year. “We do not believe that liquidity and cash burn has to be as top of mind as it has been,” said Hannah. CEO Mike Ullman sounded relatively chipper on the call. Ullman was previously CEO from 2004 to 2011, before he was eased out in favor of Apple AAPL retail rock star Ron Johnson—only to be brought back as Johnson’s replacement as the company lurched into crisis last April. He said that the company has completed two phases of its turnaround—the “stabilization” and the “rebuilding” phases—with just the final phase remaining: “go forward.” Ullman is essentially executing a complete U-turn from Johnson’s radical reimagining of the department store, which charmed investors but horrified JC Penney’s traditional customers, who left in droves. Ullman has certainly bought the company some breathing room. But does “go forward” mean going back? The way things were at J.C. Penney—while certainly better than the past two years—was not exactly a hot growth strategy. It was, after all, J.C. Penney’s stagnation that opened the door for investors Bill Ackman and Steve Roth to buy up a large chunk of the company’s shares in 2010 and force the change in leadership and strategy. For J.C. Penney—or any retailer—to succeed in the age of Amazon will require something more than the way things were. But that may not be the job of Ullman. There is currently a search underway for yet another chief executive—the hunt is said to be down to three candidates—and it’s likely that Ullman won’t stay on much beyond this fiscal year. Still, he shouldn’t go too far. You never know when he might be needed to “stabilize” the company once again.