07.09.2020
The hunter gets captured by the game
Might some recent courtroom drama help spell trouble for leveraged loans?
Might some recent courtroom drama help spell trouble for leveraged loans? Recent media reports detail the instructive saga involving stricken Serta Simmons Bedding, LLC and its dueling lender groups. The mattress maker, which has fallen into distress with an existing loan trading at less than 30 cents on the dollar, spurred a legal fight pitting asset managers Eaton Vance and Invesco against distressed debt investors including Apollo Global Management and Angelo Gordon.  
 
In March Serta Simmons entered into restructuring talks with its lenders, soliciting proposals from the two rival groups. The distressed investors offered additional loan financing backed by the company’s intellectual property, which would have been shunted into a subsidiary and out of the reach of the other creditors.  “They were threatening to absolutely screw us,” Eaton Vance portfolio manager Craig Russ told The Wall Street Journal on June 26.
 
Instead, the company approved a plan from the asset managers (who held a larger chunk of the first-lien paper), which included a debt exchange and $200 million in additional debt funding. In return, the asset manager group’s loans are now senior to the formerly first-lien borrowings held by Apollo and Angelo Gordon.  Adding insult to injury for Apollo, Serta said the private equity giant had no right to hold Serta’s loans because Apollo was on a “blacklist,” which Leon Black’s firm had bypassed by using an affiliate to conduct the deal. 
 
On June 20, a New York State Supreme Court judge rejected the Apollo-led group’s challenge to the plan, setting the stage for a wider recalculation of subordination risks for debtholders who thought they sat at the top of the capital structure food-chain. 
 
Indeed, the decision may reverberate across the leveraged loan market, which grew at a 10.2% compound annual rate from 2010 to 2019, compared to 3.7% for junk bonds. “The underlying powder keg is there: All the documents are out there allowing for a ton of flexibility,” said Judah Gross, restructuring lawyer-turned-director of leveraged finance at Fitch Ratings, tells Bloomberg today. “The execution of this deal is merely the spark.”
 
***
The Serta Simmons skirmish is the latest contentious distressed debt negotiation which has followed years of erosion in legal protections (a.k.a. covenants) within loan documents.  The proportion of covenant-lite leveraged loans has risen to about 80% from 17% in 2007. 
 
Even a recent lull in investor interest and performance in the loan market did little to deter ever-more-flexible lending terms. Thus, from November 2018 to September of last year, U.S. leveraged loan funds endured 43 straight weekly outflows according to data from Refinitiv, while the S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Index came under modest price pressure in the third quarter of 2019. Yet, as analysts from Moody’s noted, that didn’t help lenders much:
 
The weakening protection is all the more striking because it continued even as volumes declined and spreads widened from the second quarter to the third quarter. Normally, covenant protections would improve in such market conditions. But the findings suggest that risks are increasing and that while investors are voicing caution, they are not effectively pushing back on permissive covenant terms.
 
With the economy still largely bug-stricken, that structural risk looks set to take center stage. Overall, a report yesterday from S&P Global’s LCD unit tabulated 27 second quarter defaults totaling $23.1 billion. That’s the highest quarterly default volume in the leveraged loan market since the first quarter of 2009 and pushed the trailing 12-month default rate to 3.7% from 2.02% in March. Analysts at Wells Fargo & Co. forecast that such defaults will climb to 12% by the end of 2020.
 
More broadly, 35% of the leveraged loan market by par value received a rating downgrade this year according to LCD, while the rolling three-month ratio of downgrades to upgrades in June stood at 18.4-to-1.  By comparison, that ratio peaked at 8.45 times in the financial crisis. 
 
Those widespread downgrades have exacerbated fundamental vulnerabilities in the already speculative-grade asset class. LCD also relays that the share of issuers in the S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Index rated single-B-minus or lower climbed to 33.8% as of June 26, the highest reading ever. Five years ago, that figure stood near 10%. 
 
For more on the implications of prolonged weakness in leveraged loans, see the May 29 edition of Grant’s
QT progress report
The pause continues, as Reserve Bank credit (i.e., the sum total of interest bearing assets on the Fed’s balance sheet) fell for a fourth consecutive week to $6.915 trillion, down $60.5 billion from a week ago and $197 billion from the June 10 highs.  That leaves the three-month annualized growth rate at 217%, down from 726% four weeks ago. 
Recap July 9

Another eye-catching rally in long-dated Treasurys was highlighted by strong demand for this afternoon’s long bond auction, which priced at 1.33% compared to a 1.357% when-issued indicated level. That pushed the 2- vs. 30-year spread to 116 basis points, down from 145 basis points on June 5.  

Stocks traded a bit lower, with the S&P 500 now sitting roughly 7% below its February high water mark, while WTI crude fell back below $40 and gold pulled back to $1,808 an ounce.  The VIX rose back above 29, up 4% on the day. 

- Philip Grant

Almost Daily Grant's will resume Monday

07.07.2020
Glut cleaner

Ten weeks after the historic trip into negative territory for WTI crude, price signals are working their magic. From The Wall Street Journal:

Weekly U.S. output recently fell to 10.5 million barrels a day, down from a near-record of 13 million barrels a day in late March, government data show. 

Sudden unintended acceleration
The good times continue to roll for the exchange traded fund industry,

The good times continue to roll for the exchange traded fund industry, with record inflows of more than $18 billion into credit-based ETFs in June according to Bloomberg. Overall, U.S. fixed income ETFs have enjoyed $96.5 billion in inflows year-to-date according to data from ETF.com, equivalent to 11% of total assets under management.  Over the same period, equity ETFs have attracted $72 billion in fresh capital, or just under 3% of that category’s AUM.  

Perhaps encouraged by the Fed’s springtime foray into the market via the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility, new converts abound. “There is increased interest from a lot of investors, particularly dedicated fixed-income investors, who wouldn’t necessarily have been thinking about fixed-income ETFs three months ago, six months ago, given that ETFs are an equity instrument that trade on equity pipes and plumbing,” Rory Tobin, global head of State Street’s SPDR ETF business, told Bloomberg in June. “But we’ve certainly started to see doors being opened, conversations being started with entities that might not have been very ETF-friendly in the past.”

Even credit bears can avail themselves of a new vehicle to express their view. London-based Tabula Investment Management on Tuesday debuted the Tabula North American CDX High Yield Credit Short UCITS ETF (ticker: TABS). The Europe-listed fund aims to provide negative exposure to around 100 sub-investment grade bonds at an equal weighting, utilizing credit derivatives to offer, in Tabula’s words, "high yield credit risk without exposure to the interest rate risk inherent in high yield bonds.” 

While the Fed’s pandemic-response measures may have amplified interest in credit-based ETF strategies, the broad asset class has long been the apple of Wall Street’s eye, reaching $6.1 trillion in total global assets at year-end according to Statista, up from $1.3 trillion in 2010.  Last December, analysts at Bank of America forecast that total ETF assets would grow to $50 trillion by 2030.  

Yet mushrooming growth into more esoteric investment strategies may amplify risks inherent within the ETF structure.  An April 2019 paper from University of Calgary Faculty of Law assistant professor Ryan Clements investigated so-called interaction risks within the burgeoning ETF category. The paper concluded that:

ETFs have significant potential to destabilize markets, despite their benefits. As the case studies show, Wall Street will occasionally create new financial products that rely on discretionary actors in intermediated structures to provide perpetual liquidity. 

These products may combine leverage, complexity, and structural opacity to further decrease financial stability, while simultaneously generating procyclical market accelerations because of the complex interactions of market participants in a crisis. 

Despite the calming voices from the ETF industry, history illustrates that ETFs are likely not immune to this phenomenon; discretionary liquidity and arbitrage reliance is not always there when you need it.

Real world experience bolsters that academic conclusion. Recall that on August 24, 2015, a surprise Chinese currency devaluation spurred a mini-financial panic that led to a widespread dislocation of numerous domestic ETFs from their net asset values. For instance, the Guggenheim S&P 500 equal weight ETF (NYSE: RSP) briefly traded as low as $50 per share on August 24, 2015, versus a net asset value of about $71 a share, before recovering. 

Similarly, the Invesco S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSE: SPLV) finished the prior session at $36.90 a share. It opened at $35.52 per share on August 24th before falling as low as $20 per share a few minutes later.  By 10:30AM Eastern, it bounced back above $36/share. 

Evidently, low volatility is a relative term.

Recap July 7

Stocks fell to the tune of a 1% decline on the S&P 500 to break a five session winning streak for the broad average, while Treasurys caught a strong bid as a record-size $46 billion three-year UST auction priced at a record low 0.19% this afternoon. 

Gold jumped to $1,808 an ounce, its first foray north of $1,800 since September 2011.  WTI crude edged lower to $40.3 a barrel, and the VIX rose 5% to 29.5. 

- Philip Grant

07.06.2020
Target practice

Shares in Amazon.com, Inc. crossed the $3,000 mark for the first time this morning, as the e-commerce giant has enjoyed a 64% surge year-to-date. 

That move has caught AMZN’s scores of Wall Street admirers off guard.  The company boasts 52 “buy” ratings, compared to just four “holds” and one “sell,” yet the average price target stands at just $2,810, or 8% below current levels.  Only 10 of the 52 self-described bulls assign target prices above today’s $3,057 closing price. 

Hand off
Enter the Oracle of Omaha.

Enter the Oracle of Omaha. Berkshire Hathaway announced yesterday that it will acquire most of Dominion Energy, Inc.’s natural gas transmission and storage assets for $9.7 billion including debt.  That’s Berkshire’s largest acquisition since its 2016 deal for Precision Castparts Corp.  

The appearance of Berkshire and its chairman Warren Buffett is welcome news for some industry watchers. “This looks like confirmation that commodities like energy are undervalued,” Bill Smead, chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management, told Bloomberg. “At the bottom, assets move from weak hands to strong hands.”

Recent price action would test even the heartiest bull’s conviction.  Natural gas prices have remained in the dumps, reaching a fresh 25-year low of $1.48 per million British thermal units last week following a larger-than expected weekly supply build.  It’s a familiar tale: Daily output has jumped by 60% over the past decade.  By contrast, demand has grown by just 30% over that period. 

But while lockdown-related economic disruptions have thrown demand for a loop, supply disruptions could linger, and potentially help spur better fundamentals and recovering prices.  In late April, CNX Resources Corp. guided 2020 production to fall 5.6% to 510 billion cubic feet equivalent and projected they will drill just 25 new wells annually from 2022 to 2026, down from 84 and 76 wells in 2018 and 2019, respectively.  The Energy Information Administration forecasts that total U.S. output will fall below 91 billion cubic feet per day in February and March 2021, compared to a peak of 103.5 bcf/d in November of 2019.   Shale oil output, which yields so-called associated natural gas, has been a major contributor to the glut.  That, too, is easing, with the EIA cutting its June production estimate to 7.725 million barrels per day, down from 9mbpd in March as the pandemic took hold. 

In addition, regulatory and environmental considerations look potentially to wreak further havoc on the supply chain. In the past two days, Dominion Energy announced that it and partner Duke Energy Corp. will scrap the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline on account of “cost uncertainty,” while a federal district judge ordered Energy Transfer LP to shut down its Dakota Access pipeline by August 5th, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes a new environmental impact statement. 

“I would expect this to be a turning point for new investment,” Katie Bays, co-founder of Washington-based Sandhill Strategy LLC, tells Bloomberg. “There is real investor fatigue around this parade of legal and regulatory headwinds to energy projects.” 

With sentiment and price action similarly grim, might Buffett’s latest move presage better days ahead? For a survey of opportunities in natural gas, see the May 1 edition of Grant’s

Recap July 6

Another strong bull move left the S&P 500 higher by 1.5% on the day to narrow year-to-date losses to less than 2%. Treasury yields ticked a bit higher, with the long-bond rising to 1.44%, while gold rallied again to $1,795 an ounce and WTI crude finished near $41 a barrel.  The VIX managed a green finish despite the rally in stocks, settling just below 28. 

- Philip Grant

07.02.2020
The power of imagination

From Reuters:

Starved of the travel experience during the coronavirus lockdown? One Taiwanese airport has the solution – a fake itinerary where you check in, go through passport control and security and even board the aircraft. You just never leave.

Around 7,000 people applied to take part, the winners chosen by random. More fake flight experiences will take place in coming weeks.

For those not lucky enough to win that lotto, might we suggest a stop at the local DMV.

We have ice cream at home
Bloomberg reported yesterday that Citigroup is reversing

Bloomberg reported yesterday that Citigroup is reversing plans to reopen its offices in 13 states on account of rising coronavirus cases across much of the U.S. 

Citigroup management signaled their flexibility last week. “None of the jobs need to be back right away,” president Jane Fraser said at a Bloomberg conference. Employees “will largely decide for themselves whether they want to stay at home, how they feel about their commute, what’s going to happen with childcare.”  

As that anecdote suggests, the emergence of work-from-home promises to usher in major changes for both the residential and commercial property markets. A May 31 report from Green Street Advisors crystalized the problem: 

Even if most workers continue to work fulltime in the office, plausible projections for increased remote work should put a sizable dent in long-term [office] demand. That is highly unwelcome for a sector that was already facing challenging fundamentals and lofty valuations.

Green Street noted an internal Facebook, Inc. employee poll showing that 40% of respondents found their work-from-home setup to be appealing, and three-quarters of that group “might [or] will move to another place.” The pandemic-spurred migration to remote work is making an impact in one of the world’s most expensive markets. Listing service Zumper reports that rental rates for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco are down 12% from a year ago, while apartment vacancies jumped to 6.2% in June from 3.9% in March, according to data from RealPage. 

Needless to say, that potential migration is no good news for already strapped municipalities like New York City. George Sweeting, deputy director of the city Independent Budget Office, told Bloomberg last week that if 5% of the 162,000 NYC taxpayers making over $250,000 a year left the city, it would equate to $360 million in lost tax revenue.  Sweeting anticipates a $1.5 billion budget deficit this year, on its way to as much as $6 billion in 2022. 

E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, notes that, based on official estimates, New York state tax receipts won’t reach 2019’s level until 2024.  NYC mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that the fiscal 2021 budget now stands at $87 billion, down from a projected $95 billion in January. De Blasio warned last week that the city is considering furloughs and layoffs of 22,000 employees to save $1 billion. 

With city coffers far from flush, the real estate industry may struggle to find much assistance.  A May 31 analysis from The Wall Street Journal found that property tax assessments will rise by $1.65 billion, or 5.7% from a year ago, as that annual appraisal was conducted in the pre-pandemic days of early January. A mayoral spokesperson told the Journal that, although the government is sympathetic to the plight of the real estate industry, “we must balance the very real needs of the city, which relies on property taxes to fund essential city services like hospitals and our first responders.” 

And so, the cash-strapped city will attempt to collect from cash-strapped landlords.  A survey by the Community Housing Improvement Program found that 39% of property owners will only be able to make partial property tax payments this year, while 6% report they won’t be able to pay anything at all.  That stress is working its way up the food chain, as delinquency rates on commercial mortgage backed securities rose to 10.32% in June according to Trepp, up 317 basis points from May and within a whisker of the 10.34% all-time high set in July 2012. 

For a way to potentially profit off this looming sea change, see the June 12 edition of Grant’s

Recap July 2

Your correspondent had to leave early, but we can report that the YRC Worldwide, Inc. term loan fell to 78 cents on the dollar yesterday from 87 on June 30, after the Treasury Department announced it will lend the company $700 million in coronavirus stimulus funds. Go figure. 

- Philip Grant

07.01.2020
And all for one
Now that's a public-private partnership.

Now that’s a public-private partnership. Yesterday, the Treasury Department announced it will lend $700 million in coronavirus stimulus funds to trucking firm YRC Worldwide Inc. and, as part of the deal, will receive a 29.6% equity stake in the company.  Treasury noted that YRC qualified for assistance under a $17 billion lending fund established in March for companies deemed essential to national security.

Oddly enough, that triple-C-rated pillar of national defense has left its financial guard down: total debt rose to $1.2 billion last year from $870 million at the end of 2018, while cash dropped to $110 million from $270 million the year prior.  Last fall, the company borrowed $600 million via a term loan from Apollo Global Management.  The loan, issued at a 750 basis point spread over Libor, changed hands yesterday at 87 cents on the dollar.  It’s a fair guess it rallied today.

All ahead sideways
A sigh of relief for North America's largest uranium miner.

A sigh of relief for North America’s largest uranium miner. Last week a Canadian appeals court ruled unanimously in favor of Cameco Corp. (CCJ on the NYSE and Toronto exchange) in a tax dispute dating back to 2003 with the sore-losing Canadian Revenue Authority.  The CRA had sought up to C$2 billion ($1.5 billion) in back taxes, a material sum relative to Cameco’s C$5.3 billion enterprise value. 

While the removal of that long-standing irritant is welcome news, Cameco management and uranium bulls continue to face a market which stubbornly remains in the doldrums.  Spot uranium (U3O8, a.k.a. triuranium octoxide) now trades at $33 a pound, down from a peak of $136 a pound in 2007 and $73 in 2011, before the Fukushima disaster cast a pall over all things nuclear. Cameco shares have remained stuck near $10 for years, compared to more than $55 a share in 2007, thus far thwarting the bull crowd (Grant’s among them).  

Might the price of so-called yellowcake be set to, at long last, reverse its post-2007 torpor into a new bullish regime?  It’s a commodity that doesn’t lend itself to whipsaw price moves.  The June 1, 2018 edition of Grant’s described uranium’s leisurely fundamental pace:

The ‘uranium cycle’ has a timeline all its own. Supply is slow to pick up on changes in demand, and demand is slow to respond to changes in supply. It can take a decade to develop a mine or build a reactor. A decade, too, is sometimes the measure of a complete uranium price cycle, from too low to too high. 

Improved supply and demand dynamics are, of course, central to such a shift. While the pandemic has crimped uranium demand, the damage looks to be modest on a relative basis, as consulting group UxC estimates a 3.3% demand drop for full-year 2020.  For context, the U.S. Energy Information Agency expects global oil demand to drop by 8.3% from a year ago, while the IMF pegs overall global growth at minus 4.9% for 2020. 

Jonathan Hinze, president of UxC, tells Barron’s today that: “Demand for nuclear power hasn’t dropped dramatically due to COVID-19 as most reactors operate as baseload power suppliers and are usually the last to be taken off the grid.” Indeed, Hinze anticipates “relatively robust” demand over the next six to 12 months. 

At the same time, factors both novel and longstanding conspire to keep a lid on supply.  According to the September 2019 Nuclear Fuel Report, global uranium exploration mine development expenditures fell to $663.7 million in 2016 from $2.12 billion in 2014, a 69% decline. Last year, nuclear reactors consumed 187 million pounds of U3O8, well above the 140 million pounds in new supply, according to UxC. Utilities and uranium enrichment companies filled that supply hole by destocking inventory.

As miners have reacted to the price lull by taking supply offline, the pandemic has provided a further shove in that direction. Thus, on March 23 Cameco announced it had shuttered its Cigar Lake facility (annual capacity of 18 million pounds) in northern Saskatchewan “for an indeterminate period of time” thanks to the bug, as the remote facility offered little in the way of medical care in the event of an outbreak. In November 2017, the company temporarily shut its MacArthur River and Key Lake Mill (which produced 28.4 million pounds in 2015) on account of low prices.  That pause, expected to last 10 months, remains in effect today. 

Those shut-ins can be expected to ripple through the market for some time. At a Bank of America conference on May 13, Cameco CFO Grant Isaac explained: 

We go through times of unplanned supply disruptions, it does highlight for our industry, and for those who rely upon the industry for nuclear fuels, that through the years, we've seen a significant degree of geographic and geologic concentration in the supply of uranium.

And so, an upset at any one location ends up having a fairly big impact on the overall industry because there are so few players and so few sources of supply.

In the meantime, Cameco’s solid balance sheet should allow it to capitalize on any turn in fortunes.  Triple-B-minus rated CCJ sported net cash (C$1.2 billion of cash, compared to C$1 billion in debt) as of March 31 and has generated positive free cash flow in each of the last five years, while its senior unsecured 5.09% notes of 2042 trade at 110 cents on the Canadian dollar, for a yield-to-worst of 4.35%. 

For a detailed bullish analysis of Cameco and a trio of other industry players, see the March 6 and April 17 editions of Grant’s

Recap July 1

A third straight rally extended the S&P’s gain for the week so far to 3.6%, and pushed the broad index to within 8% of its February high water mark.  Treasurys came under modest pressure, with the 30-year yield rising to 1.43%, while gold pulled back to $1,780 an ounce and WTI crude slipped below $40 a barrel.  The VIX tumbled below 29, extending its three-day loss to 18%.

- Philip Grant

06.30.2020
It's a kind of magic

Here’s Rich Greenfield, media analyst and partner at LightShed Partners, on Twitter: 

Just spoke to union leaders representing Walt Disney World cast members in Orlando - Confirmed that Disney is NOT testing employees before they return to work next week, including stage performers who can't wear masks – testing is employees' responsibility, not Disney’s.

The Running Man
Supermarket sweep, 2020 edition.

Supermarket sweep, 2020 edition.  From May 19 to June 16, the Federal Reserve bought $5.1 billion in corporate credit ETFs under its Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility according to Bank of America. That shopping spree was enough to push the central bank towards the top of the holders list in a number of the biggest such ETF products, including the third largest in the $54 billion iShares iBoxx USD Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (ticker: LQD), as well as the second- and fifth-largest holders in the $29 billion Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF (ticker: VCSH) and the $36 billion Vanguard Intermediate-Term Corporate Bond ETF (ticker: VCIT), respectively.

There is plenty of in-house appetite for more. Fed chair Jerome Powell declared yesterday that: “The path forward for the economy is extraordinarily uncertain and will depend in large part on our success in containing the virus. . . [recovery] will also depend on the policy actions taken at all levels of government to provide relief and to support the recovery for as long as needed.” 

Mr. Market anticipated that message, as junk bond issuance in the first half of the year came to a record $180 billion, according to Dealogic. Investment-grade corporate bond issuance for the first six months footed to a monster $840 billion, nearly double the previous half-year issuance record set in 2016.  Kevin Foley, head of global debt capital markets at J.P. Morgan, summed up the prevailing mentality to The Wall Street Journal: “It’s been ‘take the money and run.’” 

Park it
Musical chairs in food delivery.

Musical chairs in food delivery.  Various press outlets report that Uber Technologies, Inc. is cooking up a formal bid – The Wall Street Journal pegs the likely price at $2.6 billion – for the food delivery service Postmates to pair with its Uber Eats business. Time is of the essence for Uber, relays the Financial Times, “because a private equity buyer was also competing to buy Postmates.”  The latest merger efforts follow European rival Just Eat Takeaway plc.’s $7.3 billion, all-stock deal with Grubhub on June 10, which beat back Uber’s reported approach. 

That determination to size up its Uber Eats division comes as the ride-share giant looks to retrench from other non-core businesses to save money.  Bloomberg reported that CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told staff in an email last Thursday that Uber will “deprioritize” a number of finance-related projects, a decision which coincided with Uber Money head Peter Hazelhurst’s decision to step down from his role.  That follows announced layoffs last month totaling 25% of the total workforce. 

Of course, the core ride-share business is no great shakes. Since the start of the pandemic, ridership dropped some 70% from a year ago, Khosrowshahi announced earlier in June.  Then again, the status quo wasn’t exactly lucrative, as Uber posted adjusted Ebitda of negative $7.3 billion last year, compared to a $2 billion adjusted Ebitda loss in 2018. 

Meanwhile, regulators and politicians look to do a little disrupting of their own. Last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he will seek a court order immediately to enforce Assembly Bill 5, the legislation passed in 2019 to require so-called gig economy companies to classify their workers as employees instead of independent contractors (thus putting the employers on the hook for healthcare expenses along with Social Security and Medicare taxes).  By way of response, Uber spokesperson Julie Wood told the press: “Trying to force drivers to give up their independence 100 days before the election threatens to put a million more people out of work at the worst possible time.”

While politics and the pandemic play their roles, structural deficiencies may be the ultimate hindrance for the industry and their investors.  Addressing the Grant’s fall 2019 conference audience from the podium at the Plaza Hotel, noted transportation consultant-turned ride-share authority Hubert Horan didn’t mince words in providing his assessment:

Uber has no hope of sustainable profits in competitive markets. A company with $20 billion in losses in years six through ten is not rapidly growing into profitability like Facebook or Amazon. Uber’s economics are totally uncompetitive. They are actually a higher-cost, less efficient producer than your traditional yellow-cab company.

All of Uber’s popularity and growth has been the result of massive, predatory subsidies that were used to drive out the more efficient operators. The market shows no willingness to pay the true cost of Uber’s services. Reversing these losses would be one of the biggest turnarounds in corporate history, and Uber doesn’t have a profitable core to restructure around.

Recap June 30

Another green day for stocks left the S&P 500 down by less than 5% year-to-date at the mid-way point for 2020, up a cool 38% from its March 23 low.  Treasurys reversed early gains in bear steepening price action, with the 30-year yield rising above 1.41%, while gold jumped nearly 1% to $1,798 an ounce, after climbing above $1,800 intraday for the first time since 2011.  The VIX closed south of 31 for a three-week low. 

- Philip Grant

06.29.2020
U.S. Blues

A little less help for Uncle Sam. While the Fed has scaled back its Treasury purchases to $80 billion per month from a March peak of $75 billion per day, ballooning fiscal deficits ensure that plenty of new government bond supply will need to find a home.   

With projected net issuance of more than $4.7 trillion this year (nearly quadruple that of 2019), analysts at J.P. Morgan calculate that, at the current pace, Fed purchases will account for only 25% of long-term Treasury supply in the back half of the year.

In other words, plenty of “safe” assets to go around. 

Pledge pin

Caixin reports today that 83 tons of gold bars used as loan collateral by Nasdaq-listed Wuhan Kingold Jewelry, Inc. (ticker: KGJI) “turned out to be nothing but gilded copper.”  That’s bad news for upwards of a dozen Chinese financial institutions, which issued more than RMB 20 billion ($2.8 billion) in loans backed by the fool’s gold to the company over the last five years. 

Asked by Caixin if the pledged gold was fake, Kingold chairman Jia Zhihong replied: “How could it be fake if insurance companies agreed to cover it?” 

Disbelief is understandable, considering the size of the potential fraud. That 83 ton cache would be equivalent to 22% of the Middle Kingdom’s annual output and nearly 5% of its gold reserve as of last year. 

Deal doozy
What's old is new again.

What’s old is new again. Last Thursday, U.K.-based insurance retailer The Ardonagh Group Ltd. issued a £1.58 billion ($1.94 billion) unitranche loan to a consortium of private credit investors led by Ares Management. That’s the largest such loan on record.  

The deal is notable not just for its size. The financing package includes $500 million in 11.5% pay-in-kind toggle notes (which allow issuers to pay the coupon in more debt rather than in cash) due 2027, priced at 99 cents on the dollar for an 11.72% yield.  That’s above initial price talk of 10.5% to 11%. If Ardonagh opts to pay interest in scrip rather than cash, the coupon jumps to 12.75%. 

Lenders may not want to count on much near-term income from the deal. On last week’s conference call, the company indicated it will exercise the PIK option immediately. 

Use of proceeds includes the financing of a pair of acquisitions—acquisitions purchased from funds managed by Ardonagh’s own private-equity investors, HPS Investment Partners and Madison Dearborn Partners. 

Last week, Fitch downgraded Ardonagh’s long-term issuer default rating to single-B-minus from single-B, on account of gross leverage above seven times projected funds from operations over each of the next three years. 

Neither is an improved interest profile part of the corporate calculus, as R.W. Baird director Brian Dirubbio noted last week. According to Dirubbio, the new financing actually increases Ardonagh’s weighted average coupon. 

The transaction rather confers other benefits. By funding the acquisition of businesses that dwelled in the investment portfolios that the p.e. sponsors manage, the bond offering will allow the p.e. pair to “recoup some of the capital they have poured into Ardonagh since 2015 and 2016.” Dirubbio concludes that “the company cannot afford to pay additional cash interest given its current cash flow profile.”

More broadly, the return of the PIK structure signifies the bond market’s forgiving mood, as the prior cycle was unkind to those lenders. According to Moody’s Investors Service, issuers of PIK-toggle debt defaulted at a 30% clip in 2009, compared to a 17% baseline for similarly-rated credits. 

Recap June 29

Score one for the bulls, as stocks firmly erased overnight weakness to leave the S&P 500 1.5% in the green, narrowing year-to-date losses to 5.5%.  The Treasury curve steepened a bit, with the 2-year yield falling below 16 basis points for the first time since mid-May, while WTI crude rose back near $40 a barrel and gold held at $1,772 an ounce.  A late selloff pushed the VIX below 32. 

- Philip Grant

06.26.2020
Fork in the road
What a pile of junk.

What a pile of junk.  June has been a month to remember for high-yield bonds, as new supply of $50.6 billion tops the prior record of $46.4 billion set in September 2013 with days to spare.  Year-to-date issuance foots to $205 billion, up a cool 71% from the same time last year. 

That’s not to say that all junk issuers are created equal, as the Financial Times notes today that the recent supply surge has been concentrated in the upper echelons of the credit spectrum. Thus, data from Refinitiv show that 57% of the $140 billion in issuance over the past 14 weeks has been double-B-rated credits, up from 42% in the first two months of the year. At the same time, the share of debt issued by single-B-minus rated companies fell to 3% since March, compared to roughly 10% in January and February.

The enthusiasm for the upper crust of sub investment-grade bonds is also reflected in price action.  On the one hand, the double-B-rated segment of the market has lost a mere 0.61% year-to-date.  Triple-C’s, on the other hand, are down by 12.2%.

Ratings may be dictating the proceedings, but there are exceptions.  On Wednesday, American Airlines, Inc. priced a $2.5 billion first-lien 11 3/4% notes due 2025.  Issued at 99 cents on the dollar, the double-B-minus-rated securities have since fallen to 96.4 cents, for a 1,242 basis point spread over Treasurys.  For context, the triple-C-portion of the Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Index sports a 1,165 basis point option-adjusted spread. 

Down to the wire
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that higher-ups at Credit Suisse

The Wall Street Journal reports that higher-ups at Credit Suisse are examining a handful of structured investment vehicles with exposure to Wirecard A.G, which has filed for bankruptcy following revelations of an accounting scandal including fictitious cash balances. Of particular focus: The multiple investment roles that SoftBank Group Corp. played in transacting the complex securities, and associated potential conflicts of interest. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, as SoftBank managed quickly to recoup its €900 million ($1.01 billion) convertible bond investment in Wirecard last year while maintaining potential upside in the German fintech company through call options. Recall that last September, an unnamed senior executive at SoftBank told the Financial Times that the move “was inspired by Warren Buffett, who has a record of making highly structured investments in seemingly troubled companies that then benefit from his reputation” (Almost Daily Grant’s, June 19). 

Instead, the unfolding reputational fallout comes as SoftBank looks to make wholesale changes to its portfolio structure following a $13 billion operating loss over the 12 months through March 31.  Earlier this week, the firm sold $14.8 billion worth of shares in T-Mobile U.S., Inc., equivalent to roughly half its position in the carrier (SoftBank intends to sell a total of $20 billion worth of TMUS).  

Even formerly sacred cows are up for veterinary reappraisal. SoftBank famously acquired a 25% stake in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. for $20 million in 2000; today that investment is worth $150 billion. Last month SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son indicated he may sell up to $11.5 billion worth of BABA shares.  Something appears afoot on that score, as Son yesterday announced he would leave the Alibaba board of directors after a 15-year stint, a month after Alibaba CEO Jack Ma departed the SoftBank board. 

Son is not using all of the sales proceeds to improve balance sheet quality, however. Yesterday, SoftBank announced a fresh ¥500 billion ($4.7 billion) share repurchase program.  That’s equivalent to 5.7% of shares outstanding and is the third such buyback authorization in the last two months. 

Some are less than impressed with the wheeling and dealing. Earlier today, Moody’s Investors Service cut its outlook on SoftBank to negative, citing “the potential for substantial changes in its credit profile as a result of its large recapitalization plan,” along with “thin” interest coverage and SoftBank’s “aggressive financial policy and associated governance concerns.” 

By way of response, SoftBank issued a statement declaring that: “SBG has provided no information to Moody’s since withdrawing from its rating service on March 25, 2020. Therefore, it is unclear what Moody's intention is to comment on SBG, nor what information it uses to understand SBG's situation and assess our creditworthiness.”

The negative outlook is apparently mutual. 

Recap June 26

Stocks fell bigly, with the S&P 500 losing 2.4% to finish the week nearly 3% in the red, while a bull-flattening Treasury rally left the 2-, 10- and 30-year yields at 0.17%, 0.64% and 1.37%, respectively. WTI crude slipped to $38 a barrel, gold reached another post-2012 high at $1,771 an ounce and the VIX closed just above 35. 

- Philip Grant

06.25.2020
Field of screams
In for a Penney, in for a pound.
In for a Penney, in for a pound. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Simon Property Group, Inc. and Brookfield Property Partners, Inc. are “exploring” a bid for bankrupt retailer J.C. Penney Co., a move which would follow similar transactions for distressed apparel retailers Forever 21, Inc. and Aeropostale, Inc.  
 
This follows an announcement in early May that Brookfield Asset Management would spend $5 billion propping up retailers laid low by the pandemic, with the funds earmarked to acquire non-controlling stakes in enterprises with pre-lockdown revenues of $250 million and above. “They are doing this to keep the retailer alive, so that Wall Street doesn’t see the declining [rental] income,” Nick Egelanian, president of retail consulting firm SiteWorks, told the Journal. “The business model has been cracked for a long time.”
 
So-called anchor tenants (usually department stores) pay discounted rents in return for generating traffic to the rest of the mall, including to smaller, “inline” tenants, who reciprocally pay more. Department stores no longer draw traffic – some not even breath. And, if more than one anchor retailer in a mall goes dark, co-tenancy clauses are tripped, allowing inline tenants to slash their rents. This may be the driver of Brookfield’s and Simon’s interest in Penney.
 
It’s not just the retailers themselves which are taking on water. Bloomberg reported last week that The Mall of America (the third largest such facility on the continent) failed to make a $7 million interest payment on its $1.4 billion mortgage.  That’s its third straight missed monthly payment.
 
***
 
The drastic changes underway in the retail and office property landscape shine the spotlight anew on the Brookfield real estate empire.  Bermuda-based Brookfield Property Partners, L.P. (BPY on the Nasdaq) is the flagship real-estate vehicle of Canadian investment behemoth Brookfield Asset Management, Inc. focusing on office space and so-called class-A malls, while Brookfield Property REIT, Inc. (BPYU on the Nasdaq), a wholly-owned subsidiary, is a retail pure play. Despite the differing asset composition, shares in the pair are fungible, i.e., they share equal rights to dividend income, can be exchanged on a one-for-one basis upon request, and trade in virtual lockstep.
 
While BPR’s business model has long been in short-sellers’ crosshairs with a 37% short interest at present, up from 21% in the fall, the more diversified BPY sported just a 1.2% short interest at the time of a bearish Grant’s analysis on Nov. 29, 2019 and now has 8% of its shares sold short.  Since we had our say, the pair is down by 44% after accounting for dividends. 
 
That precipitous slide leaves the entities sporting some eye-catching metrics.  At $10.2 per share, BPY trades at a cool 64% discount to its stated net asset value for a 13% dividend yield. 
 
 
The Brookfield ownership structure.  Source:  Company filings 
 
If the labyrinthine corporate structure is a head-scratcher, aggressive leverage is a more transparent concern. BPY carries net debt of $53.4 billion, equivalent to 13.3 times trailing 12- month Ebitda. 
 
Untimely deal activity didn’t help on that score. In August 2018, BPY doubled down on malls, closing a deal to buy the remaining two-thirds it didn’t own of mall-based real estate investment trust GGP, Inc. for $15 billion. Vince Tibone of Green Street Advisors told Grant’s last fall that Brookfield is more exposed to department stores per mall than other A-mall REITs. 
 
An April 28 analysis from Green Street argued that the pandemic “is pulling forward several years of retail fallout.” The analysts concluded that “more than half of all mall-based department stores will close by the end of 2021.” 
 
While that dire forecast is a speculative one, bullish facts are also up for debate.  BPY calculated its retail occupancy at 95.1% as of March 31, up from 94.9% a year ago.  Yet an anonymity seeking short seller advised Grant’s in November that a real estate consultant who canvassed 21 of the 123 Property Partners malls assessed the occupancy level at 87.1% among non-anchor properties, and 82.7% occupancy including anchor tenants.  
 
Then, too, annual management fees to Brookfield Asset Management explain some of the NAV discount.  This year BPY will shell out some $96 million in fees, using the first quarter’s annualized pace.  Applying 25 times multiple to that payment (as BAM does in its own NAV calculation) yields $2.4 billion, a material chunk of the $27.1 billion in net equity attributable to shareholders. 
 
The bond market has improved its assessment of the situation as asset prices have come roaring back in recent months. Thus, Brookfield Property REIT’s first lien 5 3/4s of 2026 last traded at 86 cents on the dollar for an 8.85% yield-to-worst, up from a low of 72 cents on March 23. 
 
Mr. Credit Market may have cheered up, but the rating agencies, less so. On April 8, S&P Global, which appraises BPY and BPYU  triple-B and triple-B-minus, respectively, slapped a negative outlook on BPY, citing a likelihood “that the company's credit protection measures will deteriorate over the coming year, particularly as we don't anticipate asset sales to materialize as previously expected.”  Wiggle room is slight, as the ratings agency believes that BPY has “sufficient covenant headroom for forecast Ebitda to decline by 10% without the company breaching [debt] covenants.” 
 
The company is doing its best to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Financial Times reported Monday that Brookfield continues to aggressively collect rent payments from outlets which were forced to close due to the pandemic, while simultaneously asking its own lenders for forbearance. 

 

 

QE progress report
Reserve Bank credit fell to $7.01 trillion, down $75 billion from last week’s reading and is the lowest figure since May 20. That’s not to say that financial conditions can be described as restrictive, as the three-month annualized growth rate of interest bearing assets on the Fed’s balance sheet stands at 540%.
Recap June 25

Stocks enjoyed a late rally as the S&P 500 finished 1.1% in the green, narrowing losses for the week to 0.5%, so far.  Treasurys finished little changed, with the 10- and 30-year yields at 0.68% and 1.43%, respectively.  Gold held at $,1763 an ounce, WTI crude at $39 a barrel, and the VIX dropped to 32, down 5% on the day. 

- Philip Grant

06.23.2020
Here, there and everywhere
More anything? More everything!

More anything? More everything!  As the monetary response to pandemic-related pain has far outstripped that of previous crises, central bankers can look with satisfaction at evidence of their successes: Namely, a 40% S&P 500 rally off the March 23 low and retracement of high-yield credit spreads to 600 basis points over Treasurys from a high of 1,100 basis points on that same grim day.  Yet policymakers past and present, along with other constituencies, are expecting more to come. 

While Fed chairman Jerome Powell has repeatedly played down the prospect of negative rates in the U.S., Mr. Market isn’t so sure: This morning the January 2022 Fed Fund futures contract traded above 100, implying that overnight interest rates will be set slightly below zero on that future date (thank you, Alex Manzara). Anecdotal indicators are also apparent, as the Financial Times reported June 15 that the Bloomberg data service told users to consider switching the standard dollar-denominated interest rate options pricing model to one incorporating the possibility of a sub-zero funds rate, “as a preventative measure.” 

As for so-called yield curve control (or committing to purchase sufficient quantities of government bonds to keep rates pegged at desired levels), public statements suggest more approval from the monetary mandarins. New York Fed president John Williams appeared to jawbone for the policy last month, telling reporters on May 27 that the central bank is “thinking very hard about rolling it out.”  

For his part, the Fed chair has hedged his bets. Powell told Congress last week that the idea had come up in a recent meeting of the Board of Governors, but “it’s not something we’ve all decided to do.”  

To be sure, yield curve control, which had its 21st century debut at the Bank of Japan in fall 2016, has its limitations. In a study published Monday, the New York Fed concluded: “Has yield curve control been a success? Seemingly not on the inflation front.”  But financial markets are more pliable: “Under the new policy, the BoJ has been able to exert fairly close control over the term structure of interest rates without resorting to large-scale interventions in the Japanese government bond market.”

Stateside, the prospect of overtly capped Treasury yields is a bullish siren song. “It depends on the form and the price but broadly speaking it’s the green light to carry on with the QE trade – buy everything regardless of valuation,” James Athey, senior investment manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments, told Bloomberg. 

While “buy everything” has been a perfectly successful mantra post-March 23, “buy deep junk” has fared even better, as Marty Fridson, chief investment officer of Lehmann Livian Fridson Advisors, LLC, concluded in a June 17 analysis for S&P’s LCD division.  From the March 23 lows to June 8, a sample of 30 companies rated single-B-plus and below (i.e., the junkier end of junk) racked up average gains of 108.5%, topping the 74.6% gain in the double-B-plus to double-B-minus ratings bucket. In addition, 11 of the 30 selected stocks within the “extra junk” group doubled and four tripled over that ten week period, while six out of 30 for the higher-rated sample doubled and none tripled. 

The tidal wave of liquidity that coincided with the historic spring rally has abated, for now at least. Weekly sequential growth in Reserve Bank credit (meaning total interest-bearing assets on the Fed’s balance sheet) has remained below 1% since late May and declined outright last week for the first time since February.  By contrast, Reserve Bank credit grew by a combined 25% in the two weeks ended April 1. 

Lest anyone be concerned about a suddenly passive Fed, former New York Fed president William Dudley wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion column Monday that the balance sheet could “conceivably” top $10 trillion by the end of the year. That compares to a bit more than $7 trillion currently and just over $4 trillion when the bug bit.  Dudley expounds:

By reducing the supply of safe assets and increasing the amount of deposits that the private sector must hold, the Fed generates a demand by the private sector for more risky assets. The result is a rise in financial-asset valuations and an easing of financial conditions. The Fed’s asset purchases change the mix of assets available to be held by private investors and this influences asset valuations.   

Forget Instagram, and behold the real influencers. 

Recap June 23

Stocks finished off their best levels of the day, but early gains were enough to leave the S&P 500 less than 8% from its February high-water mark, while the Nasdaq 100 ascended to a fresh record close of its own. The Treasury curve steepened a bit thanks to modest weakness at the long end, as the 30-year bond yield rose to 1.49%.  Gold rolled higher again to $1,770 an ounce,  WTI crude pulled back to $40 a barrel and the VIX held near 31.  

- Philip Grant

06.22.2020
Roll them bones
They're on a heater.

They’re on a heater.  The Roundhill Sports Betting & iGaming ETF (ticker: BETZ) has accumulated $78 million in assets less than three weeks after launching, according to The Wall Street Journal.  Usually, a new ETF takes years to grow to that size. 

“I’d be overstating if I said we expected to be at the level of assets we are now,” Roundhill Investments CEO Will Hershey told the Journal. “We knew there would be interest, but this is beyond our expectations.”  

The bourgeoning retail cohort goes a long way toward explaining BETZ’s fast start.  According to data from Robin Track, some 22,000 accounts on the Robin Hood trading platform currently hold shares in the gambling-themed ETF, up from 3,700 on June 4.  

The price revivals of bankrupt or soon-to-be-bankrupt entities such as Hertz Global Holdings, Inc. and Chesapeake Energy Corp. (with senior unsecured notes due 2028 and 2026 trading at 32 cents and 3 cents on the dollar, respectively) underscore quarantined sports gamblers’ growing impact on recent price action. 

Those Johnny-come-latelys might be well served to keep an eye on credit.  A research report last week from Verdad Advisers found that when a company’s average bond price fell below 90 cents on the dollar over the past 23 years, shareholders absorbed annualized equity returns of minus 11%.  When bonds fell below 50 cents on the dollar, an equity investor could expect an annualized 74% loss, while sub-20 cent bond prices equated to a 94% loss.  The analysis concludes: “The evidence suggests that returns come from strong credits.” 

Or, you could just put it all on red and let it ride. 

Just add helium
Financial regime change in the offing?

Financial regime change in the offing? The recent rally in gold, up 19% in the past three months to a fresh eight-year closing high, has caught the attention of some on Wall Street. 

A survey of fund managers conducted by Reuters found that some respondents have funneled nearly 10% of portfolio assets into the Money of Kings, via index funds, gold miner shares and the physical metal itself.  In addition, strategists at Morgan Stanley in the U.S. and NatWest in the U.K. have been steering clients into inflation-linked government securities to protect against a return of the inflation bogeyman. 

“These hedges in many cases look extraordinarily cheap, so why not buy them now? We could wait, then things could start to move away from us,” Colin Harte, multi-asset portfolio manager at BNP Paribas Asset Management, told Reuters.

Yet that inflation-centric view remains far from consensus, as four decades of subdued measured inflation readings and appreciating bond prices have worked their magic on broader sentiment.  For instance, the 10-year Treasury Inflation Protection Securities (a.k.a. TIPS) breakeven rate implies a modest 1.2% in annual measured inflation over the next decade.  For comparison, CPI compounded at a 1.6% annual rate over the past 10 years. 

Might an unscripted rise in the price level force TIPS to follow gold higher? A white paper this month from the Man Institute articulates the case for an upwards shift in broad price trends. 

The authors, led by Ben Funnell and Teun Draaisma, conclude that the “current recession is deeply deflationary for the next few quarters, but our analysis points to higher and more volatile inflation in the long-run, and we think the market is not priced for it.”   

Political complications arising from the post-2008 spike in wealth inequality form a key component of Man’s argument.  A reversal of the growing gap between the haves- and have-nots “can be achieved by a combination of higher fiscal spending, higher tax take and higher public borrowing, the latter all financed by the central bank. . . Above all, governments must be prepared to embark on a policy of potentially large fiscal deficits.” 

On that score, the U.S. is off and running.  Thanks to a $399 billion shortfall in May, the federal budget deficit stands at $1.88 trillion through the first eight months of the fiscal year.  That’s up 155% from last year’s pace.  

Recap June 22

Stocks caught a solid bid, with the S&P 500 rising by 65 basis points to erase Friday’s losses and close back to within 3.5% of unchanged year-to-date. Treasurys finished slightly weaker across the curve, with the 10- and 30-year yields climbing to 0.71% and 1.47%, respectively.  WTI crude jumped to near $41 a barrel for its best finish since early March, gold finished at $1,756 an ounce, and the VIX slipped below 32. 

- Philip Grant

06.19.2020
Mutual aid society
A total of 742 banks across the Old Continent

A total of 742 banks across the Old Continent borrowed €1.31 trillion ($1.46 trillion) from the European Central Bank at interest rates as low as minus 1%, the ECB announced yesterday.  The debt sale marks the debut of the so-called dual-rate system, in which banks enjoy favorable borrowing costs compared to the administered overnight repo rate, currently set at minus 50 basis points. 

Lenders eagerly availed themselves of the ECB’s generosity. Total loan size from the refinancing facility was more than double the prior high-water mark of €530 billion, set in March 2012 as the eurozone sovereign-debt crisis raged.  

The banks will use those funds to repay maturing loans, as well as to increase their holdings of government debt. “Increased sovereign exposure by banks has typically been seen as a negative in recent years,” analysts at Jefferies wrote in a recent report. “However, the policy stance is shifting and with government debt levels set to rise, it may make sense for banks to channel excess liquidity in this direction.” 

One thing is for sure:  There will be plenty of new supply to soak up that extra cash.  In its biannual financial stability review issued May 26, the ECB estimates that government borrowings across the eurozone will jump above 100% of GDP in 2020 from last year’s 86%, as budget deficits will average a projected 8% of GDP, with output declines ranging from 5% to 12%.  At the same time, some European banks are heavily exposed to their own country’s fiscal fortunes, with Italian financial institutions holding some €425 billion in Italian debt, more than 10% of the outstanding total. 

Then, too, E.U. member states face some imminent heavy lifting in terms of rolling over existing obligations, with more than 10% of total debt of France, Spain, Belgium, Finland and Portugal each coming due in the next year, while upwards of 15% of Italy’s borrowings will need to be refinanced by mid-2021. 

If the current slump persists, the ECB warns, “overvalued asset prices, low bank profitability, high sovereign indebtedness and increased liquidity and credit risks in the non-bank sector . . . [risk creating]  negative feedback loops arising from sovereign or bank rating downgrades.” 

Halo top
The spectacular meltdown of German fintech giant Wirecard A.G.

The spectacular meltdown of German fintech giant Wirecard A.G. (WDI on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange) leaves plenty of damage in its wake.  The stock has fallen 75% in the past two trading sessions after auditor Ernst & Young declared that a stated cash balance of €1.9 billion may not exist, while CEO Markus Braun resigned with immediate effect this morning.

Others involved in the fiasco face less quantifiable harm.  Last spring, SoftBank Group Corp. announced that it would invest €900 million in Wirecard via convertible debt instruments.  Instead, the deal was financed by SoftBank employees, along with the Mubadala sovereign wealth fund, and subsequently sold to investors through structured notes arranged by Credit Suisse.  

At the time of the transaction, an unnamed senior executive at SoftBank told the Financial Times that the move “was inspired by Warren Buffett, who has a record of making highly structured investments in seemingly troubled companies that then benefit from his reputation.” Subsequent events color those remarks, as the securities changed hands this morning at less than 12 cents on the euro. 

“Everything about that deal is not what you would call textbook corporate governance,” Justin Tang, head of Asian Research at United First Partners, told Bloomberg. “This is the last thing that [SoftBank CEO Masayoshi] Son needs right now as he deals with the fallout from Vision Fund losses.” 

Others are processing the news in their own way.  As the FT’s Robert Smith observes, Akshay Naheta, the managing partner at SoftBank’s Vision Fund who spearheaded the deal, took to Twitter yesterday to publicly complain that Ernst & Young had “displayed a lack of competence and responsibility.”  The executive continued: “As an organization that is meant to protect all stakeholders – creditors and shareholders – in companies, both public and private, they have failed in their fiduciary duties.”   Subsequently, Naheta locked his account. 

Recap June 19

Stocks saw modest declines on this quadruple-witching options expiration day (covering expiration of single-stocks, single-stock futures, stock-index options and stock-futures), with the S&P 500 pulling back 50 basis points to wrap up the week 2% in the green. A third straight strong showing in Treasurys left the 10- and 30-year yields at 0.69% and 1.46%, respectively, while WTI crude rose to near $40 a barrel and gold jumped to $1,742 an ounce, within range of a fresh eight-year high.  The VIX finished at 32.5, slightly lower on the day.  

- Philip Grant

06.18.2020
Bifocals wanted

Here’s Christopher Whalen, publisher of the Institutional Risk Analyst, discussing the Fed’s historic foray into the corporate bond market this morning:

No amount of open market bond purchases can fix the credit problems of the underlying issuers. Indeed, if the Fed holds these positions for any length of time, the central bank is likely to take a financial loss and become a creditor in private bankruptcies. Bad optics.

Candle in the wind
An end to corporate purgatory in the Golden State?

An end to corporate purgatory in the Golden State? On Tuesday, a federal judge approved California utility PG&E Corp.’s $59 billion reorganization plan to exit Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, marking the end of a contentious 18-month negotiation period.  

In a separate California courtroom, PCG president and CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter on behalf of the company, stemming from the 2018 wildfires that devastated large swaths of the Golden State.  A report released Tuesday by Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey alleged that PG&E showed a “callous disregard for the safety and property of the citizens of Butte County.” In 2017, the utility found that its transmission towers were 68 years old on average (compared to a mean life expectancy of 65 years), with some having been in place for over a century.  

The settlement calls for $25.5 billion in total fire-related claims, including $13.5 billion in compensation for victims.  Of that payout, roughly half will be in the form of equity in the newly reorganized entity. Insurers and local governments will be paid in cash.  That agreement comes prior to a June 30 deadline imposed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to exit bankruptcy, in order for the company to participate in a $21 billion state fund to offset future wildfire-related liabilities. 

In his ruling memorandum, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali noted the lack of viable alternatives, as well as the fact that PG&E made a “convincing case for confirmation of the plan.” 

Fundraising efforts are well underway, as PCG executed a $3.5 billion private placement of common stock at $10.50 a share on June 8, with another $5.75 billion to come.  For context, the current market cap stands at $5.8 billion. 

On the debt side of the equation, the company this morning embarked on a sale of $2.75 billion in double-B-minus-rated 5-year term loans at a 450 basis point spread over Libor, along with $1 billion each in the identically-rated 8- and 10-year senior secured bonds at indicated yields of 5.25% and 5.5%, respectively. Brisk demand helped the company trim its projected interest costs, as the offerings attracted more than $17 billion in combined bidding interest according to Bloomberg.  That follows a six part, $8.9 billion triple-B-minus-rated first-mortgage bond offering earlier in the week.

The soon-to-reemerge PCG has its fans, as the Street currently features five “buy” ratings, six “holds” and no “sells” with an average price target of $14, or 27% above current levels.  In assigning a buy rating earlier this month, analysts at Bank of America wrote that they anticipated a “cleaner story” for the reorganized PCG.  

Clean is in the eye of the beholder.  Against a $38 billion post-bankruptcy debt load (well above the $22 billion in borrowings prior to its visit with the restructuring lawyers), the company projects so-called core earnings of $2 billion next year, on their way to $2.4 billion in 2024. 

Those appear to be sunny projections, as the company showed a $1.65 billion bottom line for 2017, the high-water mark of the past 15 years.  Since a bearish verdict in the Feb. 22, 2019 edition of Grant’s, shares have lost 42%, compared to a 7% gain (with dividends reinvested) from the Utilities Select Sector SPDR ETF over that period. 

Fundamental limitations loom large, as pre-wildfire results indicated an erosion in the business model before the Camp Fire disaster. PG&E generated $25.5 billion in operating cash flow over the five years through 2018, well short of the $31.9 billion in cumulative capital expenditures over that period, while the company paid some $4.4 billion in shareholder dividends from 2013 to 2017 using borrowed funds. 

“We have a company coming out of its second bankruptcy [and] is now undercapitalized,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo summed things up to reporters yesterday. “Forgive me if I’m not optimistic for its prospects during the next couple of wildfire seasons.” 

QE progress report
This good ship QE has gone into dry-dock, for now at least.  Reserve Bank credit (i.e., the Fed’s sum total of interest-bearing assets) fell by $28 billion to $7.09 trillion, the lowest reading since May 27 and first sequential decline since February.  That said, recent exertions continue to leave their mark, as the three-month annualized growth rate stands at a husky 684%.  
Recap June 18

A third straight sideways drift for stocks left the S&P 500 holding on to a 2.5% gain for the week so far, leaving year-to-date losses at a modest 3.5%.  Long dated Treasurys enjoyed a strong rally, with 10- and 30-year yields falling to 0.7% and 1.47%, respectively.  WTI crude rose to near $39 a barrel, gold remained stuck near $1,725 an ounce for a sixth straight session, and the VIX fell to 32.5 to retrace roughly half of last Thursday’s 45% spike during the 6% market selloff. 

- Philip Grant

06.17.2020
Capitol ideas
Yesterday's semi-annual Congressional appearance by Fed chair Jerome Powell was a memorable one.

Yesterday’s semi-annual Congressional appearance by Fed chairman Jerome Powell was a memorable one. The central banker provided no shortage of quotable comments in explaining the recent myriad of expanded monetary exertions, which have included the upsizing of Reserve Bank credit (meaning the sum total of interest bearing assets on the Fed’s balance sheet) at an annualized pace of 726% over the past three months.  Let’s review the current state of play. 

Near-zero interest rates are, of course, a fundamental component of the chairman’s economic medicine, “until we are confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieving our maximum-employment and price stability goals.”  In other words, the Fed is “not even thinking about thinking about raising rates.” 

Abundant purchases of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities are another pillar of 2008-era monetary policy dusted off for another go, as Powell promised the Fed will increase its holdings at “at least the current pace” in the coming months. 

Those purchases have helped the market digest Uncle Sam’s mammoth financing needs, which have included $2.6 trillion in fresh borrowings over the three months ended June 11.  For comparison, federal debt remained largely unchanged from mid-March to mid-June of last year. The Fed’s portfolio of Treasurys has risen by $1.62 trillion from March 11 through June 11, accounting for 63% of the net debt expansion over that period (updated figures will be published tomorrow). 

Asked about so-called yield curve control, the chairman revealed that the Fed discussed the strategy at a recent meeting of the Board of Governors:  "We briefed people up on the history of it and how it works, so people understand the technology. . . The concept of using yield curve control at the Fed is at an early stage."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monday’s announcement that the Fed is set to begin outright corporate bond purchases took center stage in yesterday’s testimony, as such a program is uncharted territory for the 107 year-old institution. 

That move to buy corporate bonds, the former Carlyle Group partner said, was made “out of an excess of caution” in order to maintain functioning markets.  “I don’t see us wanting to run through the bond market like an elephant snuffing out price signals and things like that,” Powell assured Congress. While the epic snap-back in credit spreads seemingly mitigated the need for such direct support, market credibility was front of mind for the chairman: “We feel we need to follow through and do what we said we would do.” 

The corporate credit markets have been counting on it.  According to S&P’s LCD unit, the first 12 days of June have featured fresh junk bond issuance of $24 billion, the second-heaviest monthly pace on record.  Year-to-date supply of domestic high-yield debt stands at $181 billion, or 61% ahead of this time last year, while $1.1 trillion in new investment-grade supply stands 73% above that of 2019. 

Not that balance sheets were too conservative before COVID-19 barged onto the scene. According to data from CreditSights, corporate liabilities stood near a record-high 135% of GDP as the calendar turned to 2020, up from 105% in 2007. 

Despite the extraordinarily EZ-monetary policy, Powell indicated little concern over an awakening of the sleeping inflation giant: 

There’s [been] downward pressure on inflation around the world for a couple of decades. And so, what the models would have called for with big deficits, they would have called for higher inflation, would have called for higher interest rates. We don’t see either of those things. So, I think we’re not working under the hypothesis that higher inflation is a likely outcome. 

While that view may enjoy plenty of support at the Fed and other central banks, a pair of establishment economists beg to differ. A March 27 essay from Charles Goodhart, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and a former external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, and Manoj Pradhan, founder of Talking Heads Macro and former economist at Morgan Stanley, makes the dissenting case:

Inflation will rise considerably above the level of nominal interest rates that our political masters can tolerate. The excessive debt amongst non-financial corporates and governments will get inflated away. The negative real interest rates that may well be necessary to equilibrate the system, as real growth slows in the face of a reversal of globalization and falling working populations, will happen. 

Even if central banks feel uncomfortable with such higher inflation, they will be aware that the continuing high levels of debt make our economies still very fragile. And if they try to raise interest rates in such a context, they will face political ire to a point that might threaten their “independence.” Only when indebtedness has been restored to viable levels can an assault on inflation be mounted.

Perhaps a topic to be revisited in the future. 

Recap June 17

A late downtick left the S&P 500 slightly below unchanged, the first red showing since last Thursday’s 6% swan-dive. Treasurys caught a bid across the curve, headlined by a strong 20-year note auction this afternoon.  WTI crude fell back below $38 a barrel, gold remained rangebound with a close near $1,729 an ounce and the VIX finished at 33.5.  

- Philip Grant

06.16.2020
Shelter some place
The recovery in housing is underway,

The recovery in housing is underway, if results from the largest homebuilder in the U.S. are any indication.  Yesterday afternoon, Lennar Corp. (LEN on the NYSE) reported that net orders for the quarter-ended May 31 fell 10.4%, far better than the consensus estimate of 23%.  

In addition, Lennar reissued full-year guidance anticipating 50,750 deliveries using the midpoint of the provided range (they had withdrawn that estimate in March), slightly topping analyst expectations of 50,580 deliveries. Management reported that new orders rose 7% in May from their prior year levels, while cancellations dropped to 18% from 23% in April.  Too, the increase in sales was “generally achieved while raising prices and reducing incentives throughout the month of May,” CEO Rick Beckwitt noted on the call. 

Early reports on the new quarter are positive.“Business rebounded significantly in May ... and this rebound has continued into the first two weeks of June,” executive chairman Stuart Miller reported.  Shareholders in Lennar have certainly enjoyed the reversal, as LEN has nearly doubled since a bullish update in the April 3 edition of Grant’s.  

Indeed, the conditions for a low-end housing renaissance were already in place as the bug hit, as household debt fell to 65% of GDP from 87% at the peak of the 2007 to 2009 cycle.  Broad price trends had also entered more sustainable territory, with the Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Index rising 2.5% year-over-year for the 14 months through February, half of the post-2000 rate. Demographics figure prominently, as millennials, the largest age cohort, are entering prime first-time homebuying ages. Thanks to housing’s central role in the financial crisis, the post-2009 era has been  characterized by underbuilt homes relative to population growth.

Also central to the Lennar bull case: Learning its lesson from the 2007 to 2009 housing bust, the company changed course by acquiring new lots via option instead of outright purchase, thus offloading land value risk while bolstering margins and enhancing cash flow. 

On the call yesterday, management announced that 32% of land values are now owned through option, up from 25% a year ago, while inventories correspondingly fell to 3.9 years from 4.5 years supply as of the second quarter in 2019. The balance sheet includes some $6.1 billion in net debt, or about 2.3 times adjusted Ebitda over the past 12 months. The shares trade at just under 11 times trailing earnings, compared to 14 times for the S&P Homebuilders Index.  

More broadly, the pandemic and lockdown have perhaps merely delayed a renaissance in the housing market as the unhappy memories of the bubble and crash fade. “I’m quite sure about where we end up, with relatively robust housing conditions particularly at the affordable end.” Marvin Shapiro, CEO of Avanti Properties Group and long-term housing bull, told Grant’s in the chaotic days of early spring.  “What I don’t know is how long a pause we are going to take.”

Sentiment, at least, points to a swift rebound in overall conditions. Yesterday, the National Association of Home Builders reported that its monthly confidence index jumped to 58 for May (readings of 50 and above signify growing confidence) from 37 in April, which was its lowest since June 2012. 

The sell-side is likewise increasingly confident. In raising their projections for homebuilder earnings through the rest of 2020 and 2021 last Thursday, analysts at J.P. Morgan cited a trio of factors, including motivated buyers thanks to lockdown-inspired cabin fever, low interest rates and tightening inventory, as the supply of single-family existing homes for sale fell 19% in April year-over-year, compared to an 11% drop in March. 

“In contrast with the 2008 great recession, housing has the potential to play hero, not villain, this time around,” declared Javier Vivas, director of economic research at Realtor.com, last week. 

Recap June 16

Another strong rally in stocks pushed the S&P 500 back within 8% of its mid-February highs, while the Treasury curve steepened notably to push the 2- vs. 30-year spread to 134 basis points, near a two-year high.  WTI crude rose above $38 a barrel, gold ticked higher to $1,727 an ounce, and the VIX held near 34. 

- Philip Grant

06.15.2020
Brave new world
One giant leap for central banks.

One giant leap for central banks.  This afternoon, the Fed announced it will commence individual corporate bond purchases tomorrow, under the Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities unveiled on March 23. 

In the frequently asked questions addendum to the announcement, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York noted it will “not purchase bonds of issuers that have filed for bankruptcy protection or bonds of issuers that no longer meet the facility’s minimum rating or other requirements.”

In other words, Robin Hooders, Hertz is all yours. 

 

Migratory flock
Dialing up a Hail Mary.

Dialing up a Hail Mary.  The $400 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS),  the nation’s largest, announced it will enhance leverage and boost allocations to private equity managers in an attempt to goose returns.  “Given the current low-yield environment, there are only a few asset classes with a long-term expected return clearing the 7% hurdle,” chief investment officer Ben Meng told the fund’s board of directors today. “Private assets clearly stand out. Leverage will increase the volatility of returns but Calpers can tolerate this.”

“We will have to live with the possibility of market drawdowns as the price for increasing the probability of achieving our ambitious rate of return,” Meng continued. “There is no alternative.” 

The status quo is lacking, to be sure. The fund lost 4% in the nine months through March, while an internal study conducted last year placed the odds of achieving that 7% annual return over the next decade at just 39%. Self-inflicted wounds compound that daunting challenge as CalPERS opted to unwind tail-risk hedging strategies in January, a move which cost the fund an estimated $1 billion payout when markets went into spin cycle two months later. 

***

As the pension fund bellwether looks to ratchet up its risk profile, private equity basks in the glow of both flush fundraising (a record $361 billion last year) and increasingly friendly treatment from regulators. 

On June 4, the Department of Labor issued guidelines stating that private equity is an appropriate investment for retirement plans such as 401(k)s, while the Securities and Exchange Commission last year advocated relaxing the rules limiting p.e. to so-called accredited investors (those with at least $1 million in assets or $200,000 in annual income), in order to  “expand investment opportunities while maintaining appropriate investor protections and to promote capital formation.” 

The influx of new capital shines the spotlight anew on curious performance discrepancies.  For instance, the largest U.S. p.e. operators reported an average 15.8% drawdown in their buyout portfolios in the first quarter, while single-B-rated companies in the S&P 500  (which generally represents the upper end of the credit ratings spectrum for p.e.-backed portfolio companies) fell by roughly 50%. 

Then, too, the proliferation of so-called friendly adjustments such as earnings add-backs, or credit for hypothetical future cost savings, figure prominently in the p.e. miracle. According to the Coller Capital Global Private Equity Barometer survey of 107 investors released today, 67% of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the quality of reported Ebitda metrics.  Yet 52% of limited partners who participated in the survey say they are not inclined to ask their managers to utilize independent third party valuation sources.

Thanks to the record breaking post-2009 bull market, buoyant asset prices (before the bug bit, anyway) rendered investment bargains few and far between. According to Bain & Company’s 2020 Global Private Equity Report, 55% of U.S. buyout deals featured enterprise values in excess of 11 times Ebitda.  For comparison, only about 20% of such transactions carried an EV/Ebitda ratio above 11 in 2007.   With rising price tags come more aggressive capital structures. Bain reports that nearly 75% of buyout deals last year featured net debt in excess of six times (reported) Ebitda, up from about 60% in 2007.  Adjusted for add-backs, those leverage figures are likely higher still. 

Yet those advantages have not translated into observed excess return. Data compiled by Ludovic Phalippou, professor of finance at Oxford Said Business School, show that p.e. has generated annualized returns of roughly 11% from 2006 to 2015 after accounting for fees, broadly matching that of the broad stock market.   

Investors may not be coming out ahead, but that’s not to say there are no winners from the great p.e. migration. “This wealth transfer from several hundred million pension scheme members to a few thousand people working in private equity might be one of the largest in the history of modern finance,” Phalippou tells the Financial Times.

For more on the great private equity migration, along with the bear case on a key cog in the p.e. machine, see the May 29 edition of Grant’s.  

Recap June 15

A rip-roaring rebound in stocks helped S&P 500 futures erase overnight losses of more than 3%, as the broad index finished nearly 1% higher by the end of cash trading.  Treasury yields finished little changed, but implied investment grade and high-yield credit spreads both tightened substantially (according to their respective CDX indices) following the Fed’s announcement this afternoon.  WTI crude rose back above $37 a barrel, gold ticked slightly lower to $1,724 an ounce, and the VIX fell 5% to 34. 

- Philip Grant

06.12.2020
Headline of the day

From Bloomberg:
              Mets Fans Beware, Private Equity-Owned Teams Lose on the Field

Probably a coincidence. 

Quack attack
Talk about feeding the ducks.

Talk about feeding the ducks. A memorable day on Wall Street saw a federal judge approve plans for bankrupt rental car agency Hertz Global Holdings, Inc. (HTZ on the NYSE, for now) to unload up to $1 billion in an at-the-market equity offering from an existing shelf-registered facility, to be managed by investment bank Jefferies LLC. That move will partially capitalize on the remarkable 10-fold rise in HTZ shares in the nine trading days since the company filed for Chapter 11 on May 26. 

While a subsequent pullback left shares at roughly four times that May 26 price, news of the proposal stirred up the hearty Hertz bulls once more. After jumping by as much as 70% in the pre-market, HTZ shares finished up by 37% (before tumbling 6% in after-market reaction to news of the approval), while trading volumes of 268 million shares were 15 times the one-year average turnover.  

“This is what I love about bankruptcy – never a dull moment.” Melanie Cyganowski, partner at law firm Otterbourg P.C. and a former chief judge in the Eastern District of New York, told Bloomberg. 

In its petition to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware filed yesterday, the company argued: “The recent market prices of and the trading volumes in Hertz common stock could potentially present a unique opportunity for the Debtors to raise capital on terms that are far superior to any debtor-in-possession financing.”  

No buyer will be able to say the company didn’t warn them: “The common stock could ultimately be worthless,” the prospectus is expected to say. 

Time is of the essence, as the filing makes clear: “The Debtors bring this motion on an emergency basis given the volatile state of trading in Hertz’s stock and to ensure that the Debtors are in a position to capture the potential value of Hertz’s unissued shares.” 

According to data from Robintrack.net, 166,000 accounts on the Robin Hood trading platform held Hertz shares as of this afternoon.  That’s up from less than 2,000 users three months ago and 44,000 Robinhooders on May 26, the day that Hertz filed. 

While the retail masses assemble, the more routine trappings of court-administered debt restructuring proceed apace.  The New York Stock Exchange sent a delisting notice to Hertz on Wednesday, a measure which the company has appealed. The senior unsecured, 6% notes due 2028 last changed hands at 40.5 cents on the dollar (though up from 15 cents on May 26) for a yield-to-worst of 22.65%, implying that the common stock is worthless. Yesterday, Hertz filed a motion to wiggle out of lease commitments on 144,000 vehicles, claiming that it cannot afford to pay them.  

A good omen (for the stock sellers, that is) preceded today’s legal victory. This morning the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a registration statement by The United States Oil Fund, LP (USO is the ticker) to issue one million additional shares, continuing the expansion in the float to a current 185 million shares from less than 30 million shares in early March.  Shares in USO are down 74% year-to-date, double the decline in front-month WTI crude over that period, while both the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the SEC are investigating the fund’s risk disclosures, according to Bloomberg. 

A call-to-action CNBC headline today: “No money? No expertise? Ditch your excuses and start investing anyway” 

Hertz’s creditors, among others, are counting on it. 

Recap June 12

A modest rebound for stocks, as the S&P 500 finished 1% higher, near the midpoint of its intraday range, to narrow the weekly loss to 4.8%.  Some weakness in long-dated Treasurys pushed the curve steeper, as the 10- and 30-year yields rose to 0.71% and 1.46%, respectively.  Gold and WTI crude oil both edged higher, finishing at $1,731 an ounce and $36.5 a barrel, and the VIX fell to 36, down 11% today but up 47% for the week. 

- Philip Grant

06.11.2020
Mr. Congeniality
Here’s Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump on Twitter this morning:
 
The Federal Reserve is wrong so often. I see the numbers also, and do MUCH better than they do. We will have a very good Third Quarter, a great Fourth Quarter, and one of our best ever years in 2021. We will also soon have a Vaccine & Therapeutics/Cure. That’s my opinion. WATCH!
 
Also today, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow offered his own critique on Fox News: 
 
I do think Mr. Powell could lighten up a little when he has these press offerings. You know, a smile now and then, a little bit of optimism, OK? I'll talk with him, and we'll have some media training at some point.
Double vision
A decimation wasn't enough.
A decimation wasn’t enough.  The Financial Times reported Tuesday that the Vision Fund, SoftBank Group Corp’s in-house venture capital operation, will cut some 15% of its workforce.  That’s up from reports pegging layoffs at 10% of staff as of late May, and follows the disclosure of a $17.7 billion net loss in the 12 months through March 31.  Not everyone at the Vision Fund has reason to feel glum, as CEO Rajeev Misra is set to take home a $15 million pay package this year, more than double the $7 million in compensation for 2019. 
 
As the Vision Fund flounders, SoftBank and its charismatic CEO Masayoshi Son attempt to steer a new course, announcing plans to divest some $42 billion in assets to finance stock buybacks and bolster corporate liquidity. Those planned sales potentially include a portion of its crown-jewel stake in Chinese retail giant Alibaba, Inc.  In addition, SoftBank reduced its stake in cash-generating Japanese telecom subsidiary SoftBank Corp. to 61.5% from 66.5%, according to a May 22 filing.
 
Investors have largely cheered Son’s latest maneuvers, as shares have nearly doubled from their March lows and now sit 18% higher from an initial bearish salvo in the Dec. 15, 2017 edition of Grant’s
 
Markets may make opinions, but dissenting voices remain. A report today from S&P Global Ratings cautions: “We have questions on the company's intention to adhere to financial management that prioritizes financial soundness and creditworthiness.”
 
As do we. 
Benches clear
"Brawls erupt in U.S. Debt Markets After Borrowers Get Desperate,"
“Brawls Erupt in U.S. Debt Markets After Borrowers Get Desperate,” blares a headline from Bloomberg this morning.  The upshot: a raft of disputes have broken out between distressed companies and their increasingly nervous lenders, as a wave of largely p.e.-backed borrowers “are seeking to take advantage of years of weakening creditor protections to help cut obligations and raise cash after the coronavirus outbreak brought businesses to a standstill.” 
 
In particular, issuers including Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., SM Energy Co. and Revlon, Inc. have attempted to shunt assets out of their creditors’ reach or impose principal haircuts through debt exchanges, leading to contentious or outright hostile negotiations with their scorned lenders.  “Anyone professing to be shocked by it probably hasn’t been around very long,” observed Philip Brendel, senior credit analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.  
 
Indeed, as leveraged loans proliferated during this cycle (growing at a 10.2% compound annual rate from 2010 to 2019, compared to 3.7% for junk bonds), the share of those loans designated as covenant-light (meaning few or no legal protections if the borrower runs into trouble) exceeded 80% at the end of April according to LCD. That’s up from 17% in 2007. 
 
“Rates were suppressed long after they should have been; it drove yield hunger and a non-bank explosion that created misalignments,” Daniel Zwirn, chief investment officer at Arena Investors, commented to Bloomberg. “Now they’re learning once again, there are consequences. We are at just the beginning of this thing. They’re going to fight like dogs to avoid those consequences.” 
 
The roster of potential battlefields continues to grow. Last Thursday, S&P Global reported that the downgrade-to-upgrade ratio for leveraged loans reached 43 to 1 on a trailing three-month basis, up from 3.8 times in February and 8.7 to 1 at the peak of the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis.   
 
Those downgrades have resulted in an increasingly bottom-heavy ratings profile, as roughly 11% of the domestic leveraged loan market is now rated triple-C and below, up from just 2.7% five years ago and approaching the 2009 peak of 11.5%.  There’s plenty more where that came from, as analysts at UBS believe that even in the most optimistic scenario (including a return to near-normal levels of economic activity by the end of June) those triple-C-rated ranks will swell to 33% of the market. 
 
Needless to say, the combination of rising corporate distress and proliferation of forgiving legal structures suggests that creditors may find more trouble than they bargained for during this default cycle.  A May 20 analysis from Moody’s Investors Service forecasts that recoveries on first-lien term loans will fall to 58% for p.e.-sponsored companies and 62% for non-p.e.-backed ones, far below the realized historical recovery averages of 75% and 78%, respectively.
 
For an early look at what some unhappy creditors are now contending with, see the analysis headlined “Tomorrow’s debt hearings” in the July 13, 2018 edition of Grant’s
QE progress report
A further easing off the throttle, as Reserve Bank credit (the sum total of interest-bearing assets at the Fed) rose to $7.113 trillion, up a relatively modest $12 billion from last week’s reading.  That compares to a $41 billion sequential increase last week and $138 billion uptick for the week ended May 27 but was enough to push the three-month annualized growth rate to 726%. 
Recap June 11
A painful reckoning for stock market Johnny-come-latelies, as the S&P 500 absorbed a near-6% decline led by the energy, financials and materials sectors, to leave the broad index at its lowest close since May 26.  The Treasury curve flattened aggressively, with the two-year yield rising 3 basis points to 0.2% while the 30-year long bond fell 11 basis points to 1.4%.  WTI crude was clubbed by nearly 10% to below $36 a barrel, gold edged lower to $1,729 an ounce, and the VIX rose to near 41, up a cool 48% on the day. 
 
- Philip Grant
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