The Rise of Net-Debt Short Activism (Short Low Default Rates)

Aurelius Goes After Windstream Holdings Inc. 

🤓Another nerd alert: this is about to get technical.🤓

With default rates low, asset prices high, and a system awash with heaps of green, investors are under pressure by LPs and looking for ways to generate returns. They’ll manufacture them if needs be. These forces help explain the recent Hovnanian drama, the recent McClatchey drama and, well, basically anything involving credit default swaps (“CDS”) nowadays. To point, the fine lawyers at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz (“WLRZ”) write:

The market for corporate debt does not immediately lend itself to the same kind of “activism” found in equity markets.  Bondholders, unlike shareholders, do not elect a company’s board or vote on major transactions.  Rather, their relationship with their borrower is governed primarily by contract.  Investors typically buy corporate debt in the hope that, without any action on their part, the company will meet its obligations, including payment in full at maturity.

In recent years, however, we have seen the rise of a new type of debt investor that defies this traditional model.

Right. We sure have. Boredom sure is powerful inspiration. Anyway, WLRZ dubs these investors the “net-short debt activist” investor.

The net-short debt activist investor has a particular modus operandi. First, the investor sniffs around the credit markets trolling for transactions that arguably run afoul of debt document covenants (we pity whomever has this job). Once the investor identifies a potential covenant violation, it scoops up the debt (the “long” position”) while contemporaneously putting on a short position by way of CDS (which collects upon a default). The key, however, is that the latter is a larger position than the former, making the investor “net short.” Relying on its earlier diligence, the investor then publicly declares a covenant default and, if it holds a large enough position (25%+ of the issuance), can serve a formal default notice to boot. The public nature of all of this is critical: the investor knows that the default and/or notice will move markets. And that’s the point: after all, the investor is net short.

In the case of a formal notice, all of this also puts the target in an unenviable position. It now needs to go to court to obtain a ruling that no default has occurred. Absent that, the company is in a world of hurt. WLRK writes:

Unless and until that ruling is obtained, the company faces the risk not only that the activist will be able to accelerate the debt it holds, but also that other financial debt will be subject to cross defaults and that other counterparties of the company — such as other lenders, trade creditors, or potential strategic partners — may hesitate to conduct business with the company until the cloud is lifted.  

Savage. Coercive. Vicious. Long low default rate environments!

In the case of Little Rock Arkansas-based Windstream Holdings Inc. ($WIN), a provider of voice and data network communications services, all of this is especially relevant.

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Oil & Gas (Short Underwriting & Defaults)

Sometimes distressed investing returns get upended by practical realities. The question is: were those realities accounted for in the underwriting?

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Distressed Debt Funds Fundraise (Long Market Timing)

At the Wharton Distressed Investing Conference in late February, Marathon Capital Management’s Bruce Richards said that his firm was delaying fundraising new capital. He noted that while he fully expects the cycle to turn and, consequently, that there’ll be a plentiful amount of distressed opportunities, he doesn’t want to mis-time the raise in such a way that his lock-up will expire midway through the investment horizon.

It seems others are of the view that now is the time. Per The Financial Times:

A growing number of US hedge funds specialising in distressed debt are raising money in anticipation that the next economic downturn will punish companies that have borrowed record amounts since the financial crisis.

Mudrick Capital, for instance, is reportedly raising a second fund that will have a five-year lockup and only charge fees upon capital investment. The fundraising goal is December 1. Carry the 1, add the 5, and that effectively means that he’ll have through 2024 to invest.

Marathon Capital had better hope there are still LPs out there looking to fund the asset class. More from FT:

Mudrick Capital is not the only fund preparing for an eventual downturn in a US economy where growth is accelerating this quarter. Strategic Value Partners in May raised almost $3bn to pounce on distressed bonds and loans, while Sheru Chowdhry, formerly co-portfolio manager of the Paulson Credit Opportunities fund, launched DSC Meridian Capital at the start of June.

In total, seven distressed debt funds have raised money this year, with a record average size of $2.2bn, according to data from Preqin. The largest is the GSO Capital Solutions Fund III, which closed in April after drumming up $7.4bn in the fourth-biggest distressed debt fundraising ever.

With tariffs, a trade war, rising interest rates, ramifications relating to tax deductibility in Tax Reform, secular pressures, auto loan delinquencies and more, many people seem to think a downturn is on the horizon. The question is when? Someone is bound to get the timing right.

What to Make of the Credit Cycle (Part 4)

We’ve spent a considerable amount of space discussing what to make of the credit cycle. Our intent is to give professionals a well-rounded view of what to expect now that we’re in year 8/9 of a bull market. You can read Parts one (Members’ only), two, and three (Members’ only), respectively.

Interestingly, certain investors have become impatient and apparently thrown in the towel. Is late 2019 or early 2020 too far afield to continue pretending to deploy a distressed investing strategy? Or are LPs anxious and pulling funds from underperforming or underinvested hedge funds? Is the opportunity set too small - crap retail and specialized oil and gas - for players to be active? Are asset values too high? Are high yield bonds priced too high? All valid questions (feel free to write in and let us know what we’re missing: petition@petition11.com).

In any event, The Wall Street Journal highlights:

A number of distressed-debt hedge funds are abandoning traditional loan-to-own strategies after years of low interest rates resulted in meager returns for investors. Some are even investing in equities.

PETITION Note: funny, last we checked an index fund doesn’t charge 2 and 20.

The WSJ continues,

BlueMountain Capital Management LLC and Arrowgrass Capital Partners LLP are some of the bigger funds that have shifted away from this niche-investing strategy. And lots of smaller funds have closed shop.

A number of smaller distressed-debt investors have closed down, including Panning Capital Management, Reef Road Capital and Hutchin Hill Capital.

PETITION Note: the WSJ failed to include TCW Group’s distressed asset fund. What? Too soon?

We should note, however, that there are several other platforms that are raising (or have raised) money for new distressed and/or special situations, e.g., GSO and Knighthead Capital Management.

Still is the WSJ-reported capitulation a leading indicator of increased distressed activity to come? Owl Creek Asset Management LP seems to think so. The WSJ writes,

Owl Creek founder Jeffrey Altman, however, believes that if funds are shutting down and moving away from classic loan-to-own strategies then a big wave of restructuring is around the corner. “If anything, value players leaving credit makes me feel more confident that the extended run-up credit markets have been enjoying may finally be ending,” Mr. Altman said.

One’s loss is another’s opportunity.

*****

Speaking of leading indicators(?) and opportunity, clearly there are some entrepreneurial (or masochistic?) investors who are prepping for increased distressed activity. In December, The Carlyle Group ($CG), via its Carlyle Strategic Partners IV L.P. fund, announced a strategic investment in Prime Clerk LLC, a claims and noticing administrator based in New York (more on Prime Clerk below). Terms were not disclosed — though sources tell us that the terms were rich. Paul Weiss Rifkind & Wharton LLP served as legal counsel and Centerview Partners as the investment banker on the transaction.

On April 19th, Omni Management Group announced that existing management had teamed up with Marc Beillinson and affiliates of the Beilinson Advisory Group (Mark Murphy and Rick Kapko) to purchase Omni Management Group from Rust Consulting. Terms were not disclosed here either. We can’t imagine the terms here were as robust as those above given the market share differential.

The point is: some opportunistic folk sure seem to think that there’s another cycle coming. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is, thinking that there will be money to be made in the (seemingly saturated) case administration business. Time will tell.

Caesars = "One of the Great Messes of Our Time"?

The Embattled Caesars Entertainment is FINALLY out of Bankruptcy

Last week we highlighted this tweet that poked fun at recent asset stripping (aka dropdown financing) strategies. Great timing, if we do say so ourselves, as Caesars Entertainment has finally emerged from bankruptcy. Not great timing? This (note our reply).

To commemorate Caesars' accomplishment, the Financial Times published this post-mortem (warning: firewall). It’s a solid read. 

A few bits we wanted to highlight:

THIS is understanding who is boss: “One hedge fund investor wondered, then, if the advice of bankers was intrinsically tainted. ‘Private equity firms cut a wide swath,’ the investor said. ‘You do not want to cross them and risk the golden goose.’”

THIS is how you advocate for your client: 

“…[A] lawyer at Paul Weiss who represented the parent Caesars company controlled by Apollo and TPG and who is the longtime outside counsel to Apollo, responded: “I have been a restructuring and bankruptcy lawyer for 28 years and I do not believe David Sambur was more difficult in the Caesars case than anyone else nor in any other transaction I have worked on. David was completely fair and responsible.’” Hahaha. What else is he going to say about his “longtime” client? “Yeah, sure, FT, he was the biggest a$$ imaginable.” Talk about not wanting to cross and risk the golden goose. P.S. Mr. Sambur is now on the board of the reorganized entity. Sounds like a solid source of recurring revenue for a loyal...uh, we mean, commercial, lawyer. 

THIS is key advice (in the comments) to in-house legal representing bondholders: “‘Baskets’. Devil in the detail [sic]”. See, e.g., J.Crew. Haha. YOU THINK?

P.S. There appears to be some healthy skepticism about Caesars' long term outlook. 

Where is the Restructuring Work?

Strong Voices in Finance Are Raising the Alarm

We have some very exciting things planned for the Fall that we cannot wait to share with you. Until then, we'll be channeling our inner John Oliver and spending the rest of the summer researching and recharging. Oh, and structuring our imminent ICO in a way that (i) circumvents the SEC's recent decision noting that ICOs are securities offerings and (ii) gives all current PETITION subscribers a first look at participation. Don't know what we're talking about? For a crash course, read thisthis, and this. The ICO stuff is BANANAS and, yes, we're TOTALLY KIDDING about doing one. We are not kidding, however, about our planned Summer break. We'll be back in September with the a$$-kicking curated weekly commentary you've come to know and love. In the meantime, please regularly check out our website petition11.comour LinkedIn account, and our Twitter feed (@petition) for new content throughout August. 

But before we ride off to the Lake, a few thoughts (and a longer PETITION than usual)...

There has been a marked drop-off in meaningful bankruptcy filings the last several weeks and people are gettin' antsy. Where is the next wave going to come from? A few weeks ago, Bloomberg noted that there was a dearth of restructuring deal flow and a lot of (restructuring) mouths to feed. Bloomberg also reported that, given where bond prices/yields are, bank traders are so bored that they're filling their days by Tindering and video-gaming like bosses rather than...uh...trading. (You're not going to want to thumb-wrestle millennials.) These trends haven't stopped the likes of Ankura Consulting from announcing - seemingly on a daily basis - a new Managing Director or Senior Managing Director hire (misplaced optimism? Or a leading indicator?). No surprise, then, that financial advisors and bankers are whipping themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to complement Paul Weiss as advisors to a potential ad hoc group in Guitar Center Inc. (yes, people do buy guitars online on Amazon and, yes, $1.1b of debt is a lot given declining trends in guitar playing). Even the media is getting desperate: now the Financial Times is pontificating on the "short retail" trade (firewall; good charts within) that others have been discussing for a year or soThe internet is impacting shopping malls (firewall)? YOU DON"T SAY! Commercial mortgage delinquencies are rising (firewall)? NO WAY! We've gotten to the point that in addition to having nothing to do, no one actually has anything original to say

That is, almost no one. After all, there is always Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management, who, once again, demonstrates how much fun he must be at parties. Damn this was good. Looooong, but good. And you have to read it. Boiled down to its simplest form he's asking this very poignant question: what the f&*K is going on? Why? Well, because:
(i) we now see some of the highest equity valuations in history;
(ii) the VIX index is at an all-time low;
(iii) the trajectory of can't-lose stocks is staggering, see, e.g., FAANG (though, granted, Amazon ($AMZN) and Alphabet ($GOOGL) both got taken down a notch this week);
(iv) more than $1 trillion has moved into value-agnostic investing;
(v) we're seeing the lowest yields in history on low-rated bonds/loans (and cov lite is rampant again);
(vi) we're seeing even lower yields on emerging market debt;
(vii) there's gangbusters PE fundraising (PETITION NOTE: we'd add purchase price multiple expansion and, albeit on a much smaller scale, gangbusters VC fundraising);
(viii) there is the rise of the biggest fund of all time raised for levered tech investing (Softbank); and
(ix) bringing this full circle to where we started above, there are now "billions in digital currencies whose value has multiplied dramatically" - even taking into account a small pullback.

Maybe we really should consider an ICO after all. 

And then there's also Professor Scott Galloway. He, admittedly, looks at "softer metrics" and highlights various signals that show "we're about to get rocked" in this piece, a sample of which follows (read the whole thing: it's worth it...also the links): 

We don't think he's kidding, by the way. Anyway, we here at PETITION would add a few other considerations:

  1. The Phillips Curve. Current macro trends countervail conventional thinking about the relationship between unemployment and inflation/wages (when former down, the latter should be up...it's not);
  2. The FED. Nobody, and we mean NOBODY, knows what will happen once the FED earnestly begins cleansing its balance sheet and raising rates; 
  3. (Potentially) Fraudulent Nonsense Always Happens Near the Top. SeeHampton Creek. See Theranos. See Exxon ($XOM). See Caterpillar ($CAT). See Martin Shkreli. And note worries about Non-GAAP earnings;
  4. Auto loans. Delinquencies are on the rise; and
  5. Student loans. Delinquencies are on the rise.

We're not even going to mention the dumpster fire that is Washington DC these days (random aside: is anyone actually watching House of Cards or is reality enough?). 

And, finally, not to steal anyone's thunder but one avid biglaw reader added that a telltale sign of an imminent downturn is the rise of biglaw associate salaries. Haha. At least there are wage increases SOMEWHERE.

All of the above notwithstanding, even Marks cautions against calling an imminent downturn admitting, upfront and often, how he has been premature in the past. That said, nobody saw oil going from $110 to $30 as quickly as it did either. So he's right to be highlighting these issues now. At a minimum, it ought to give investors a lot of pause. And, perversely, this all ought to give restructuring professionals a little bit of hope for what may lay ahead for '18 and '19. 

Have a fun and safe rest of Summer, everyone. Don't miss us too much.

Busted Hedge Funds and Fund BS

Busted Hedge Funds & Fund BS

Last week we noted the imminent closure of Blackstone's distressed-debt hedge fund. Here's more about it - and about illiquid funds generally. It's been a rough year+ for hedge funds.

And speaking of alpha (cough), we can't think of a better argument for 2-and-20 than getting profoundly middle-of-the-plate market advice like shorting retail! What genius!! C'mon Lasry. With hedge funds under siege, you'd think that someone with the reputation of Lasry could conjure up some originality here and actually "deliver 'alpha'" - whatever that means these days.

In the even-less-alpha category, Eric Mindich is closing his $7b hedge fund, Eton Park Capital Management LP, after a flat '17 and a 9% loss in '16 - a year when millennials putting money into an index fund through Acorns and/or Wealthfront returned 12%. According to the WSJ piece linked above, the one thing Mindich is delivering is "more of the same," considering over 1000 hedge funds closed shop last year - giving new significance to the derogatory descriptor "hedge fund hotel" (Valeant Pharmaceuticals and SunEdison, anyone?). We particularly loved the kicker in the WSJ piece which was that the closure was "party due to concerns declining assets would make it harder to retain employees," a mind-boggling assertion that, if true, merely reflects a lack of awareness that (a) again, 1000+ funds have failed in the last year (see, e.g., Perry Capital, as just one large example), (b) hedge funders everywhere are screaming bloody murder about comp (as always - such whiners), and (c) it should, at least conceptually, be pretty difficult for those employees to find an alternative with such an atrocious track record looming like an albatross. Finally, as one banker subscriber wrote in to us,  "Because they'd rather not have jobs?" Riiiiiiight. 

But have no fear. Management probably needs a few lifetimes to burn through the billions of dollars earned to date. Maybe Mindich will even join the bevy of Goldman brethren moving to Washington DC. Nothing would surprise us. This failure notwithstanding, he could always change course in a few years after a downturn and give it another go. He'll get money: hedge fund failures are like tech failures. In the absence of gross negligence or actual fraud, they're almost assured of getting a second bite at the apple from sycophantic suck-up former investors who want in on the next big shiny finance vehicle...