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THE FILING for court protection by the American retailing operations of Campeau Corp. against their nervous creditors marks a bitter lesson from the go-go takeover binge celebrated with such wild abandon during the 1980s.

Swamped by the pressures of crushing debt are the enormous retailing chains of Federated Department Stores and Allied Stores, encompassing Bloomingdale's, Abraham & Straus and seven other big-name merchant groups.

Each of 258 stores and each of the 100,000 employees working in them has been adversely affected by the junk bond mentality of one man, Toronto entrepreneur Robert Campeau.

Financially, his was an empire that almost had to walk on water to succeed. Everything had to go just right, which it obviously didn't. The economy slowed. Millions "born to shop" were reborn more cautious. Business didn't grow as rapidly as anticipated. Then there was panic, since towering debt allowed no margin for error.

When Campeau's U.S. retailing operations filed for court protection against their creditors last week, their debts totaled $7.5 billion. Federated and Allied are expected to operate at annual losses for the next five years -- just to meet their payments on the debt. Bloomingdale's, a crown jewel with 17 stores in the empire, sits perched on the sales block.

And what of those with the get-rich-quick gleam in their eyes who bought the high-yield, high-risk bonds used to purchase Federated for $6.6 billion only two years ago? They are now hopefully wiser and certainly poorer. One bond selling for $1,000 14 months ago and for $910 only last July recently fetched $110 -- or, basically, 11 cents on the dollar.

As the '80s end and the '90s dawn, Washington ought to adjust quirks in the tax law that make it too easy for businesses to assume excessive debt in mergers and takeovers and too difficult to finance through equity -- in other words, too easy to choose bonds over common stock as the chief financing instrument.

The Campeau collapse offers a couple of other back-to-basics lessons as well. The go-go mentality of investors should be reassessed in light of the risks. The principal business of retailers should be retailing.

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