What to Make of the Credit Cycle. Part 8. (Long Yield, Baby. Yield)

A. M&A is En Fuego

PwC released an analysis of M&A activity. In summary:

The number of deals north of $5 billion is on pace to double last year’s total, and to date has driven overall deal value up by more than 50%, according to a PwC analysis of Thomson Reuters data. Deals are also getting bigger, with more announced deals of at least $30 billion so far in 2018 than in all of 2017.

Since the start of 2018, one-third of megadeals crossed sector lines, driven largely by an appetite for new technologies. That interest in tech hasn’t been limited to huge transactions, with examples of smaller deals coming in retail, media and printing.

Companies are looking to broaden their customer base....

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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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A Trade War With China & Is New York City F*cked? Part IV (#MAGA!)

Each passing day of Washington DC news this week added an additional 10 years of wear and tear to our already downtrodden souls. Sheesh.

To summarizePresident Trump directed the U.S. Trade Representative to identify $200 billion worth of Chinese goods for additional 10% tariffs; he also threatened an additional $200 billion. If this is all a big set up for some profound negotiation that America will “win,” well, generally speaking, you need the other side to return your calls. Apparently China isn’t doing that. Womp womp (speaking of “womp womp,” eff you Corey L.).

Still, U.S. chipmakers are cheering punitive measure against China. Why? Because they’re actively fighting a war with China over attempted intellectual property raids. See, e.g., Micron Technology Inc. ($MU).

According to Bill McBrideMerrill Lynch wrote:

The good news is that we are still many steps away from a full blown global trade war. The bad news is that the tail risks are rising and our work and the literature suggest a major global trade confrontation would likely push the US and the rest of the world to the brink of a recession. So far, the trade actions taken by the Trump White House and trading partners have been relatively modest and in turn have had a limited impact on the economy and financial markets. The next round of $100-$200bn of tariff between US and China may prove more substantial. Further escalation like auto tariffs would lead us to reassess the US economic outlook.

Yikes. Well, if auto stocks were any indication on Friday, that reassessment may be in order:..

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#BustedTech (Short Busted IPOs…cough…DOMO)

Tintri Inc., a publicly-traded ($TNTR) Delaware-incorporated and Mountain View California based provider of enterprise cloud and all-flash and hybrid storage systems appears to be on the brink of bankruptcy. There's no way any strategic buyer agrees to buy this thing without a 363 comfort order. 

In an SEC filing filed on Friday, the company noted:

"The company is currently in breach of certain covenants under its credit facilities and likely does not have sufficient liquidity to continue its operations beyond June 30, 2018."

Furthermore, 

"Based on the company’s current cash projections, and regardless of whether its lenders were to choose to accelerate the repayment of the company’s indebtedness under its credit facilities, the company likely does not have sufficient liquidity to continue its operations beyond June 30, 2018. The company continues to evaluate its strategic options, including a sale of the company. Even if the company is able to secure a strategic transaction, there is a significant possibility that the company may file for bankruptcy protection, which could result in a complete loss of shareholders’ investment."

And yesterday the company's CEO resigned from the company. All of this an ignominious end for a company that IPO'd almost exactly a year ago. Check out this chart:

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Nothing like a $7 launch, a slight post-IPO uptick, and then a crash and burn. This should be a warning sign for anyone taking a look at Domo — another company that looks like it is exploring an IPO for liquidity to stay afloat. But we digress. 

The company's capital structure consists of a $15.4mm '19 revolving credit facility with Silicon Valley Bank, a $50mm '19 facility with TriplePoint Capital LLC, and $25mm of 8% convertible notes. Revenues increased YOY from $86mm in fiscal 2016 to $125.1mm in fiscal 2017 to $125.9mm in fiscal 2018. The net loss, however, also moved up and right: from $101mm to $105.8mm to $157.7mm. The company clearly has a liquidity ("net cash") covenant issue (remember those?). Accordingly, the company fired 20% of its global workforce (~90 people) in March (a follow-on to a 10% reduction in Q3 '17). The venture capital firms that funded the company — Lightspeed Venture Partners among them — appear to be long gone. Silver Lake Group LLC and NEA Management Company LLC, unfortunately, are not; they still own a good amount of the company.

"Isn't cloud storage supposed to be all the rage," you ask? Yeah, sure, but these guys seem to generate product revenue largely from sales of all-flash and hybrid storage systems (and stand-alone software licenses). They're mainly in the "intensely competitive IT infrastructure market," sparring with the likes of Dell EMCIBM and VMware. So, yeah, good luck with that.

L Brands (Long "Misplaced Optimism in Retail")

On Valentine’s Day, in “Misplaced Optimism in Retail: L Brands - What the Holy F*#*?,” we clowned on Leslie Wexner’s aggressive approach to retail and said “tell us that you don’t want to short the sh*t out of the stock.” It was trading at $49.87/share. Now...

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Where’s the Auto Distress? (Short PETITION’s Prognistications)

Back in October, we asked “Is Another Wave of Auto-Related Bankruptcy Around the Corner?” The (free) piece is worth revisiting — particularly in light of Tesla’s recent travails. Among many other things, we wrote:

Supply Chain Distress. Last year we saw DACCO Transmission Parts Inc. file for bankruptcy. During the Summer, Takata Inc. filed for bankruptcy (on account of a massive liability, but still) and Jack Cooper Enterprises Inc., a finished-vehicle logistics/transportation provider, reached a consensual agreement with its noteholders that kept the company out of bankruptcy court. For now. Then, a little over a week ago, GST Autoleather Inc. filed for bankruptcy, citing declining auto output. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Hard to say. Literally on the same day that GST filed for bankruptcy - again, citing declining auto output - General MotorsFord and other OEMs reported the first YOY sales increase (10%), surprising to the upside. It seems, however, that the (sales) uptick may be artificial: in part, it's attributable to (a) Hurricane Harvey damage and mass vehicle replacement; and (b) heavy vehicle discounting. On a less positive note, Ford announced that it will be slashing billions in costs to shore up its financial condition; it also announced back in September that it would slash production at five of its plants. And General Motors Co. announced earlier this week that it would be idling a Detroit factory and cutting production. Production levels, generally, are projected to decline through 2021. Obviously, reduced production levels and idled plants portend poorly for a lot of players in the auto supply chain. 

But, with limited exception (like Nissan’s announcement this week that it would cut U.S. production by 20%), the auto world has been largely quiet since then. Another exception: International Automotive Components Group S.A., a Detroit-based interior parts manufacturer with 77 manufacturing plants worldwide, announced, in April, a new financing transaction through the issuance of $215 million of ‘23 second lien notes funded by Gamut Capital Management LP. Perhaps we just need to be more patient?

Rumblings abound around two more names that may be in more near-term trouble. First, American Tire Distributors’ suffered downgrades on the heels of the announcement that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. ($GT) opted to discontinue use of ATD as a distributor. Notably, GT’s stock, itself, is down 20% in the last year:

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Anyway, back to ATD. Per Crain’s Cleveland Business,

The news cratered the market value of ATD's $975 million of bonds and its $700 million term loan. S&P Global Ratings quickly cut the company's credit grade deeper into junk and Moody's followed suit, saying its capital structure was no longer sustainable.

Then, on May 9, the 800-pound gorilla entered the industry, as Amazon.com Inc. teamed up with Sears Holdings Corp. to allow customers to buy replacement tires online and have them installed at the troubled department store.

The moves signal radical changes in the replacement-tire market. Manufacturers are taking control of their own distribution, cutting out wholesalers like ATD, and along with retailers are developing their own internet capabilities to reach consumers directly, according to New York-based research firm CreditSights.

Ah, there it is: Amazon ($AMZN). Is a PETITION entry complete without the mandatory Amazon reference? Indeed, Moody’s noted,

“All else being equal, the magnitude of the associated earnings and cash flow decline will compound an already levered financial risk profile, rendering a pre-emptive debt restructuring increasingly likely, in our estimation.”

The Huntersville North Carolina company is a wholesale distributor of tires, custom wheels and other related auto equipment; it is a behemoth with $5.3 billion in revenues in 2017 and 140 distribution centers located across the U.S. and Canada. It also happens to have $1.8 billion of debt. The company is equally owned by private equity firms Ares Management LP and TPG Capital.

The debt — coupled with the loss of a major customer — is a big concern. More from Crain’s,

But ATD's capital structure is stretched tight, said Lawrence Orlowski, a director in corporate ratings at S&P. While the company has access to $465.4 million in asset-based lending facilities and $22.7 million in cash as of the end of 2017, even that liquidity may not be enough to stay solvent if ATD permanently loses Goodyear's business or if any other major tire makers pressure the company for concessions, according to Orlowski.

Something tells us (restructuring) advisors may be circling around trying to determine whether it can get together a group of the company’s term lenders.

*****

Second, Tweddle Group Inc., a The Gores Group-owned manufacturer of automotive owners’ manuals (that nobody ever reads) likewise suffered a disastrous blow when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. announced back in April that it was no longer using Tweddle’s services. Fiat reportedly accounted for 40% of Tweddle’s 2017 revenue and will be hard to replace. Consequently, Moody’s issued downgrades noting,

“The downgrades reflect a credit profile that is expected to be significantly weakened following Tweddle's loss of certain work from a key customer, and the resultant mismatch between the company's earnings and cash flow prospects and its now much more levered balance sheet.”

This reportedly put pressure on the company’s $225mm ‘22 first lien term loan and now the company reportedly has hired Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP for assistance. While it will likely take some time for the loss or revenue to trip any leverage ratios in the company’s credit agreement, this is a name to watch.

*****

Finally, Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently released its “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018” report. Therein in noted that there are a variety of factors driving EV sales forward:

  • Lithium-ion battery prices have tumbled, dropping 79% in seven years. Meanwhile, the batteries’ energy density has improved roughly 5-7% per year.

  • Chinese and European policies are pushing fleet electrification.

  • Automakers are aggressively pushing the electrification of their fleets. Choice bit: “The number of EV models available is set to jump from 155 at the end of 2017 to 289 by 2022.”

Bloomberg notes:

Our latest forecast shows sales of electric vehicles (EVs) increasing from a record 1.1 million worldwide in 2017, to 11 million in 2025 and then surging to 30 million in 2030 as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

Marinate on that for a second. That is a massive 10x increase in the next 7 years followed by an additional 3x increase in the following 5 years.

Bloomberg continues,

By 2040, 55% of all new car sales and 33% of the global fleet will be electric.

But what about President Trump (#MAGA!) and efforts to limit future alternatives subsidies?

The upfront cost of EVs will become competitive on an unsubsidized basis starting in 2024. By 2029, most segments reach parity as battery prices continue to fall.

So, sure. Distressed activity thus far in 2018 has been light in the automotive space. But dark clouds are forming. Act accordingly.

Is Delivery Killing Fast Casual Too? (Long Busted Narratives)

Zoe's Kitchen is Latest Restaurant Showing Signs of Trouble

Fast casual is supposed to be a bright spot for restaurants. But as the segment has grown in recent years, there are bound to be winners and losers. Zoe’s Kitchen Inc., a fast casual Mediterranean food chain with 250 locations in 20 states ($ZOES), is increasingly looking like the latter.

Last week the company reported sh*tty earnings. Comp restaurant sales declined by 2.3% despite rising prices pushed on to the consumer. The decline is attributable to the usual array of externalities (e.g., weather) but also location cannibalization. Apparently, the company’s growth strategy is pulling consumers from previously established locations. Moreover, the company noted “inflationary pressures in produce and freight costs, that are expected to impact cost of goods sold for the balance of the year.” Wages also increased 3.3%, an acceleration from the 2.9% realized in Q4 ‘17. Accordingly, adjusted EBITDA decreased 30.9%. The net loss for the quarter was $3.6mm or -$0.19/share. The company lowered guidance. The stock tumbled.

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Before you get too excited, note that this is a debt-light company: it currently has a ‘22 $50mm revolving credit facility with JPMorganChase Bank NA, of which $16.5mm is outstanding (with $3.7mm of cash on hand, net debt is only $12.8mm). It also, believe it or not, has covenants — leverage and interest coverage, among others — and the company is in compliance as of April 16, 2018. It also plans to continue its expansion: in the sixteen weeks ended 4/16/18, the company opened 11 company-owned restaurants with a plan to open approximately 25 (inclusive) over the course of fiscal year ‘18. That said, it does intend to rationalize existing locations (and expects some impairment charges as a result), cut G&A and take other operational performance improvement measures to combat its negative trends. There’s a potential opportunity here for low-to-middle-market FAs and real estate advisors.

For our part, we found this bit intriguing (unedited):

We are definitely seen more competitive intrusion, more square footage growth in some of those smaller kind of mid to kind of large markets where we've been there for some time now that's a little bit of what we're seeing in those markets.

We've also seen more competitive catering competition as every ones ramped up catering. And also the value and discounting as we spoke to in the call, in the prepared remarks we've seen that $10 check with that single user kind of moving around and we think that's so from the new competition square footage growth, the value and discounting and then the delivery interruption, we've seen or felt that in many of our markets.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Clearly competition, as we noted upfront, is increasing in the $10-check size cohort of fast casual. Catering is always a competitive business for restaurants like this too. But, the point that really got out attention was that about delivery. The company says pointedly, “We also believe that disruption from delivery and discounting has created headwinds.” The company further states,

Digital comps were 26% positive in Q1 as we leverage improvements from last year's investments in web and mobile platforms to build greater convenience for our guests. Early in Q2, we relaunched and upgraded our loyalty program, which is expected to help drive traffic by making it easier and clearer for our guest to earn and redeem rewards. Delivery sales grew in both our non-catering and catering businesses by 155%. And we have a clear plan to build out the channel for more profitable growth in 2018.

The impact of mobile food ordering and the need for delivery cannot be overstated. Companies need to act fast to activate delivery capabilities that makes sense to a mobile consumer who, more and more, goes to Postmates, Caviar, UberEats and other food delivery services for discovery. This is precisely why Shake Shack ($SHAK) is now on Postmates and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. ($CMG) is now available on Doordash. Others, like privately-owned Panera Bread are taking a step farther by building out its own delivery infrastructure in an attempt to own all its data and deliver without owing a cut to a middleman. Query whether this is far too much dependence on the likelihood of people to go directly to Panera’s app when they’re hungry…?

It sounds like the Zoe folks are increasing their focus on delivery. The question is whether they can execute fast enough to offset in-store dining declines. And whether they can do it on their own.

BJ's Wholesale Files for IPO

Use of Proceeds? Pay Back Dividend Recap Incurred Debt

CVC and Leonard Green & Partners have filed for a $100 million IPO of portfolio company, BJ’s Wholesale Club Holdings Inc. With Costco ($COST) killing it of late and the IPO marking champing at the bit for more new issues, this reeks of (sound capitalistic) opportunism. BJ’s has 215 locations nation-wide; it generated net income of $50 million on total sales of $12.8 billion for fiscal 2017. The company highlights that new implementations "delivered results rapidly, evidenced by positive and accelerating comparable club sales over the last two quarters and net income growth of over 109% and Adjusted EBITDA growth of 31% in aggregate over the last two fiscal years."

The BJ’s story is an interesting one for private equity. Take a look at these numbers from the company’s S-1 filing:

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Pharma (Short Generics): Aceto Corporation

Aceto Corporation ($ACET) reported earnings last week and followed them up with a 10Qthis week. The company, in coordination with a new interim CFO from AlixPartners and advisors from PJT Partners and Lowenstein Sandler LLP, is seeking strategic alternatives. Meanwhile, the company was recently non-compliant with its maximum net leverage and minimum debt service coverage ratios under its credit facility and obtained a waiver for the quarter. There is no waiver for the next quarter and so June will be interesting — particularly given downward trends across the board in consolidated net sales, gross profit, gross margins, etc. Not to mention a rise in SG&A...

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Disruption Disrupted (Short Money Burning Data Plays): Moviepass

Ok. Soooooo…this won’t shock anyone who has been paying attention. Apparently Moviepass — the company that lets subscribers see one movie a day for only $9.99 a month — is burning cash like nobody’s business. S.H.O.C.K.E.R. A first grade student can do THAT math.

Moviepass’ parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. ($HMNY) reported in an 8K filed this week that it burned $21.7 million per month from September 2017 through April 2018. The company now has $15.5 million in available cash with another $27.9 million in accounts receivable. Hang on: 15.5 + 27.9 (carry the four) = 43.4. Minus 21.7 and another 21.7 and….💥🔥💥🔥. Which prompted CNN to ask, “is the end near?” Here’s a choice quote...

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Disruption Dominos 2.0: The McClatchy Company (Long CDS Shenanigans)

In “Credit Default Swaps (Long Yield, Baby, Yield),” we discussed credit default swaps and the ongoing battle between hedge funds in the Hovnanian matter.* The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has finally weighed in. There were no minced words:

"The CDS market functions based on the premise that firms referenced in CDS contracts seek to avoid defaults, and as a result, the instruments are priced based on the financial health of the reference entity.  However, recent arrangements appear to involve intentional, or ‘manufactured,’ credit events that could call that premise into question. In a public statement dated April 11, 2018, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association’s (ISDA) board of directors criticized manufactured credit events, writing that they ‘could negatively impact the efficiency, reliability, and fairness of the overall CDS market,’ and ISDA’s board indicated that it advised its staff ‘to consult with market participants and advise the Board on whether...amendments to the ISDA Credit Derivatives Definitions should be considered’ to address manufactured credit events.     
 
"Manufactured credit events may constitute market manipulation and may severely damage the integrity of the CDS markets, including markets for CDS index products, and the financial industry’s use of CDS valuations to assess the health of CDS reference entities.  This would affect entities that the  CFTC is responsible for overseeing, including dealers, traders, trading platforms, clearing houses, and market participants who rely on CDS to hedge risk. Market participants and their advisors are advised that in instances of manufactured credit events, the Divisions will carefully consider all available actions to help ensure market integrity and combat manipulation or fraud involving CDS, in coordination with our regulatory counterparts, when appropriate.”

Better late than never we guess. You’d think they would have awakened to these issues after Codere, Radio Shack, and others. But, hey. Regulators. Enough said.

*****

Enough said, indeed. Query whether the The Commodity Futures Trading Commission will have more to say given the aforementioned “cherry on top” in the McClatchy transaction.

What is the cherry? Well this — per Bloomberg:

It seemed like a sure-fire bet: short the debt of a highly leveraged newspaper company that’s losing money. And for a while, it worked as investors piled up almost $500 million of wagers by buying credit-default swaps on the publisher, McClatchy Co.

That is until hedge fund Chatham Asset Management stacked the deck with a deal that’s threatening to make those swaps all but worthless.

The McClatchy situation is the latest trade that’s drawing jeers from critics who say the $11 trillion CDS market has devolved into a haven for manipulation.

Whoops.

At issue is the “newly established LLC” bit we noted above. As Bloomberg further explains,

Because the new debt would be shifted away from the parent and into the new unit, it’s fueling speculation that the Chatham deal will create what’s commonly known in the CDS world as an orphaned contract. In other words, anyone who bought insurance on a McClatchy default would effectively be paying insurance on an entity with no significant debt.

Which, naturally, begs the question: who is on the other side of the contract? Well, Chatham, of course. Because CDS! There’s no measure of how America has become great again like one fund ripping off other funds. Take a look at this chart:

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More from Bloomberg,

Leading up to the deal, Chatham had been selling swaps insuring against a default by McClatchy. So if the transaction were to be completed, it would be getting paid CDS premiums to guarantee against a default that could never technically happen.

“The whole market is losing credibility when you have events like this where you try to trigger the CDS or create orphaning situations,” XAIA’s Felsenheimer said.

Joshua Friedman from Canyon Partners appears to agree that these trades “go beyond the bounds” (video). And, so, people are losing their minds (query whether these same people led to the upsized WeWork debt financing). As always, Matt Levine puts this whole event in perspective,

The thing is, if you bet against McClatchy’s credit by buying CDS on it, you were betting not only that it would have problems with cash flow or whatever, but also that no white knight would come along to keep it afloat until after your CDS expired. A realistic credit analysis asks not only about the company’s own paying capacity but also about its external sources of financing. If you buy five-year CDS on a company, you are betting that it will default on its debt within five years. If the next day a deep-pocketed shareholder (Chatham owns 19.8 percent of McClatchy) refinances all of the company’s debt into a seven-year zero-coupon bond—or a seven-year PIK-toggle bond, or whatever, some form of debt that it cannot default on during the life of the CDS—then you have lost your bet. But you weren’t cheated out of your bet or anything. You just bet that the credit would implode, and then it didn’t. 

He’s right. And in the absence of regulators paying more attention to CDS work-arounds, this will be just one more needle in a stack of perceived-manipulated-needles.

*Yesterday, Hovnanian upheld its end of the bargain with GSO by skipping its interest payment.

Disruption Dominos: The McClatchy Company (Long Local, Short #MAGA)

The McClatchy Company ($MNI) may not be well known to you on its face but if you’ve ever read the Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, The Charlotte Observer, The (Raleigh) News and Observer, The (Fort-Worth) Star-Telegram, The (Durham NC) Herald-Sun or one of 24 other media companies, you’ve read one of its properties. It is a provider of digital and print news and advertising services. And it reported Q1 earnings last week.

The earnings — as you might imagine for a company with a large print-media division — were far from gangbusters and are highly cyclical in nature. Take a look at this chart:

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The company missed estimates on both EPS and revenue. Total revenues were down 10.1% YOY. Total advertising revenues were down 16.7% YOY. Direct marketing advertising revenues declined 21.9% YOY. On the flip side, the company experienced growth in its digital initiatives, including increases in digital-only subscribers and average total unique visitors to online properties. The company also partnered with Subscribe with Google to push further improvements in the digital business. But, all in, this is a company that it is facing a massive wave of disruption coming at it from all angles.

First, its capital structure. The company’s leverage ratio stands at 4.42x as of the end of Q1 on the basis of its existing cap stack. Currently, it has about $30 million of outstanding letters of credit issued against its $65 million revolving credit facility (Bank of America). As of 12/31/17, the company had $344.6 million of 9% ‘22 senior secured first lien notes outstanding on top of (a) as of 4/27/18, $82.1 million of 7.15% ‘27 debentures and (b) $274 million of 6.875% ‘29 indentures.

But, not for long. Enter Chatham Asset Management. The fund — which may or may not be fresh off of a shiny new $1b private equity vehicle for debt-related investments — is taking out a large chunk of the capital structure. The company filed an 8k on April 26th, indicating that there is a term sheet pursuant to which a newly established LLC will issue $250 million of 7.372 % ‘30 Tranche A Term Loan paper and $168.5 million 6.875% ‘31 of Tranche B Term Loan paper, the proceeds of which will be used to take out the long-dated debentures (except $8.3 million) and a portion of the senior secured notes. The structure isn’t yet determined but the interest expense is expected to increase incrementally. There is a makewhole as well, as you might expect, and we’re guessing it will have some fairly iron clad verbiage. In other words, this reeks of loan-to-own — with a cherry on top (see #2 below). Perhaps Chatham will eventually roll up the properties with American Media Inc., parent to The National Enquirer, which Chatham owns 80% of and, per The Wall Street Journal, appears to be having issues of its own.

Some notable bits in the company’s earnings call:

A. Tariffs. Tariffs on newsprint may have an effect on traditional print media companies. Note the following comments:

One more word on the print newspaper world. We are often asked on these calls about the impact of newsprint prices on our operating model. As the print side of our business has declined so has our operating sensitivity to fluctuations in newsprint supply and pricing, now less than 4% of our operating expense, down from 20% at the peak of print newspaper revenues more than a decade ago.

Nonetheless, policies such as the newsprint tariffs announced by the administration earlier this year are unhelpful we believe, both to free market and to public policy. We oppose them and we have made our position clear to the administration. We say this as an equity owner of one of the few remaining U.S. domestic newsprint producers. So one might assume we would be on the other side of this issue, but we are not. Public policy that makes these input prices more costly at a time of great stress in this industry harms our local communities and is against the public interest.

Interesting. The company is guiding towards higher print costs, including increases in pricing coming from Canadian mills. #MAGA!!

B. Cost Controls. This company has all of the makings of a company in triage. Operating expenses were down 8.4%. The company outsourced printing operations. It entered into a sale leaseback transaction, pursuant to which $13 million of proceeds is being offered to the company’s senior secured noteholders in a tender offer at par. It sold off some intellectual property (CareerBuilder LLC). All of this is meant to buy the company time to effectuate its digital transformation.

C. Ad Spend. This should come as a surprise to nobody that follows the world of restructuring but the trickle-down effect of battered grocery and retail is notable here. This is the company’s statement about the higher-than-expected ad spend decline:

I mean retail results were disappointing. Obviously, that’s something that we’ve been seeing for some time now. Total retail revenues finished a bit better actually in Q1 and Q4, but that was driven entirely by digital growth. Revenue from preprints delivered with the newspaper actually got worse. And as Elaine said, our direct marketing circulars delivered to non-subscribers also softened. So our retail customers are facing some tough citing and it continues to have an impact on our print products. And some of those advertisers obviously in direct marketing are the same as the ones that are in the print newspaper, and their troubles affect both.

In retail print revenue, our largest declines were coming from the food and drug department store category, and we’ve seen that strand for a while. Preprints took a steeper decline in Q1. And then we’ve seen in previous quarters down about 38% over last year. Again though due to continued losses from the major department stores like Macy's, Sears, Stein Mart, Penne and stores no longer in business that were rolling over from last year like hhgregg and Toys "R" Us, or at least going in bankruptcy, Toys "R" Us is still struggling.

And so in preprints or about 12% of total advertising revenues, so when that gets hit that’s of percentage, it takes the whole category down. So mostly I think a story on the retail side, Avi, and continuing pressure on the print part of that business.

The company continued,

We sometimes talk about the importance of our role in local communities and with our neighbors, and these are the places we live where our employees are residents all across the country. The impact on local retail across the country has been, as you know, very widespread. This is an earnings call about a news and information company. So it’s the wrong place to talk about those underlying trends. But I would say we’re super aware of them. We obviously bare the impact from an advertising perspective, which also having a big impact on our communities. And that’s something that we’re extremely aware of as in many cases the leading local news and information company in those communities.

We appreciated the reminder. Jokes abound about the #retailapocalypse. For many local communities, the far-reaching effects of such are no laughing matter.

⛽️Oil & Gas is...Back? Baby.⛽️(Long Comebacks)

As concerns grow about Iranian and Venezuelan production levels, oil and gas is now hovering around $67-68, and there are headlines like this: “Is Big Oil Back?” You’d think, therefore, there’d be a bit less talk about distressed oil and gas companies. After all, distressed oil and gas is so 2015.

Think again. This past week Houston-based Erin Energy Corporation ($ERN) filed for bankruptcy; it is a Sub-Saharan Africa-focused exploration and production company. Meanwhile, we’ve all heard about Rex Energy’s imminent restructuring, but now there are fissures appearing at Austin-based Jones Energy ($JONE) as well.

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What to Make of the Credit Cycle (Part 5)

Moelis & Company Pounds Chest

wolf-of-wall-street.jpg

In "What to Make of the Credit Cycle (Part 4)," we wrote:

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.

In the meantime, those who can leverage robust M&A activity will. But let’s take a step back…

Do you remember THAT scene in the “Wolf of Wall Street?” The one where Leo and Matty-C pound their chests in the most bro-ey of bro-ey banker moments…? We’re pretty sure this is what the bankers over at Moelis & Company ($MO) were doing before, after and as they were announcing earnings on Monday.

Take this quote for instance:

Analyst: “Ken, I still get plenty of investors that mispronounce the name of your firm, so I guess we’re still working on it.”

Ken Moelis: “There is no mispronunciation, there’s only a wrong phone number. If they get the phone number right….”

Kind of hard to argue with that. Who gives a crap how your name is pronounced if the phone is ringing, the rates are increasing and the dollars are coming in? Marlo Stanfield’s “My name is my name” proclamation in the final season of The Wire clearly doesn’t apply to Ken Moelis. Have to admire that.

So, right after we gave Evercore ($EVR)(which reports earnings today) and PJT Partners($PJT) props in our Q1 review of bankers (to be fair: covering company-side only), Moelisdropped these numbers:

We achieved $219 million of revenues in the first quarter, up 27% over the prior year. This represented our highest quarter of revenues on record. Our performance compares favorably to the overall M&A market in which the number of global M&A completions greater than $100 million declined 14% during the same period. Our growth was primarily attributable to very strong M&A activity in the quarter. We're participating across industries and deal sizes, and we are also earning higher average fees per transaction. In addition, restructuring activity continue to be a solid contributor.

The fee part of this is interesting. Achieving pricing power in this environment is a big accomplishment. Query whether that relates more to M&A and less so to restructuring given the relative dearth of bankruptcy deal flow. Regardless, here’s what the stock did on Tuesday, a day the S&P 500 otherwise declined 1.34% and the Dow was down 424 points:

 Source: Yahoo! Finance

Source: Yahoo! Finance

When asked about restructuring, specifically, this is what Mr. Moelis had to say:

Well, never expect things to only get better, but it's been - look, it's been a low default environment for a long time. And I think some of the peers and competitors have kind of - who were edging into restructuring might have edged out a bit; we're not. We think we have the leading restructuring group on the Street. They've been together for years and years and years, and now the way we integrate them, the amount of spread we can get using the 120 on these to really make sure that they are talking to companies that are having issues. And those issues could be opportunities, too. It's almost - it crosses over with liability management. It might stay to be a 1% or 2% default rate for a while []. You can never tell. But there's a large amount of paper out there. So even at 1% or 2%, you can stay busy if you have a market-leading restructuring group which we do. Look, it could get worse. I guess nobody could default, but I think between 1% and 0% defaults and 1% and 5% defaults, I would doubt we hit 5% before we hit 0%. So, I'm happy we held the team together, we've added to it, we've integrated it, it continues to be a solid part of our business, and I think it has a lot more upside than downside.

Ok, so this must be a misstatement. He must have meant that he doubts that we reach 0% rather than 5%. And so: A. Lot. More. Upside. In late 2019? Early 2020? Who has edged out? Will others between now and then? The analysts didn’t ask those questions.

What to Make of the Credit Cycle (Part 1)

Moody's, Fitch & Guggenheim Partners Chime In

Earlier this week, Moody’s Default and Ratings Analytics team forecasted that the US’ trailing 12-month high-yield default rate will sink to 2% — from its February 2018 3.6% level — by February 2019. That is not a good sign for restructuring professionals itching for an uptick in activity.

FitchRatings chimed in as well, noting that underwriting standards underscore that the leveraged debt market is in the later stages of the credit cycle. But, it added,

“Aggressive documentation terms now prevalent could challenge recoveries in the next downturn. However, a surge in refinancing activity since 2016 should increase time between the credit cycle's bottom and peak in default rates. Looser documentation, such as the prevalence of covenant-lite (cov-lite) loans, should also lower the risk of technical default while enabling issuers to access additional funding via secured debt and unrestricted subsidiary provisions.” (emphasis ours)

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Eddie Lampert Speaks (Short Sears, Long Principled Kidnappers)

This week William Cohan and Vanity Fair released a once-in-fifteen-years piece with the infamous Sears Holding ($SHLD) investor, Eddie Lampert. It’s a whopper and worth a read.

The mess that is Sears is quantified here:

“But today those triumphs are largely obscured by his worst mistake: the 2005 merging of Sears, the iconic retailer whose doorstop mail-order catalogue was once a fixture in nearly every American home, with the downmarket Kmart chain, which he had brought out of bankruptcy in 2003. Twelve years on, this blundering into retail has made him a poster boy for what some people think is wrong with Wall Street and, in particular, hedge funds. Under his management the number of Sears and Kmart stores nationwide has shrunk to 1,207 from 5,670 at its peak, in the 2000s, and at least 200,000 Sears and Kmart employees have been thrown out of work. The pension fund, for retired Sears employees, is underfunded by around $1.6 billion, and both Lampert and Sears are being sued for investing employees’ retirement money in Sears stock, when the top brass allegedly knew it was a terrible investment.”

To put this in perspective, people are in an uproar about the liquidation of Toys R Us which has 33,000 employees. Sears, while still in business, has had attrition of 6x that. But wait. That’s just on the human capital side. What about the actual capital side:

“In 2013, Lampert, who was chairman of the board, had himself named C.E.O. of Sears Holdings, as the combined company is known. He’s had a rough four years since then. The company has suffered some $10.4 billion in losses and a revenue decline of 47 percent, to $22 billion.”

And on the financial side:

“…Sears Holdings stock price has slumped to $2 a share, down considerably from the high of $134 per share some 11 years ago. Sears Holdings now has a market value of around $250 million, making Lampert’s nearly 60 percent stake worth $150 million.”

How. The. Eff. Is. This. Business. Still. Alive. Well, this:

“The vultures are circling, waiting for Lampert to throw in the towel so they can try to make money by buying Sears’s discounted debt. But Lampert continues to claim that’s not going to happen if he can help it.”

Gotta give the guy credit for perseverance.

For those who may be too young or too weathered to remember, KMart was actually a successful turnaround for the first few years after Lampert converted his (acquired) debt position into equity. Operating profit was $1.3 billion in 2004 and 2005. But then he decided to combine KMart and Sears. Thereafter, the big issues began.

Interestingly, the piece suggests that Lampert was “ahead of his time” by de-emphasizing investment in the in-store experience and focusing on e-commerce. But shoppers didn’t buy online. Cohan writes,

“At the time they were just not comfortable enough with the technology to do so. Whatever the reason, Sears’s Web site never remotely rivaled the sales in the stores. Or on Amazon.”

Maybe because, even today, the website is a cluttered mess that will give even those with the most robust heart arrhythmia. In that respect, the online experience mirrors the offline experience. And this runs afoul of current theories of retail. Jeremy Liew of Litespeed Venture Partners writes about new “omnichannel” retailers like Bonobos, Allbirds, Away, Modcloth and Glossier and the new “customer acquisition channel”:

“All retailers need to be wherever their customers are. And for all retailers, their best customers are in every channel. This is just as true for DNVBs. For Bonobos for example, customers who buy first in store spend 2x more and have half the return rate. But more importantly, they spend 30% more online over the next 12 months.

But these DNVBs think about physical retail in a very different way than incumbent retailers. They are not measured purely on “four wall profitability” or $/sq foot, some of the traditional metrics in retail. Many of the stores are showrooms, they don’t carry full inventory. Most support iPads or other ways to browse the online catalogue.

These brands understand the importance of experiential marketing, and they see their physical spaces as a platform to engage deeply with their customers. In short, they see physical retail as customer acquisition channels for their online business. In some cases, a contribution positive customer acquisition channel. In others, a customer acquisition channel whose costs you can compare to Facebook, Instagram, Google or other customer acquisition channels. But always the online business grows.”

For this to work, Everlane’s Michael Preysman says you “must make it look good.” If only Lampert bought in to this premise. Instead, Sears’ online experience mirrors the offline experience: horrible user experience + dilapidated stores = a wholesale contravention of, as Liew points out, everything that successful retailers are doing today. It’s the customer rejection channel. Hence the suspicions from outsiders — which Lampert vehemently denies — that he’s treating Sears like a private company, milking the company for his own benefit, and slowly liquidating it to the point of bankruptcy. Once in bankruptcy, Lampert will allegedly be able to leverage his place in the capital structure to own the company on the backend. It would be a leaner version of Sears — free of debt, onerous leases and pension obligations. Why invest in customer or employee experience now if this is a possibility later? Good question.

Busted Narratives: Fast Fashion Falters (Short H&M)

We’re old enough to remember when fast fashion was allegedly decimating retail and every apparel retailer under the sun was rejiggering its supply chain to fight fire with fire. Well, yesterday, fast fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz HB — better known in the U.S. as H&M —reported earnings and to say that they were dogsh*t would be an understatement. Here is the stock as of yesterday:

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 7.01.22 PM.png

Man that chart is ugly: that’s a 50% drop in the last year. This takes the company all the way down to 2005 levels. What is going on?

For starters, operating profit fell 62% in the three months through February from 3.2 billion SEK to 1.3 billion SEK. And more problematic: the company has $4.3 billion of unsold inventory. This is the stock-in-trade picture as of yesterday:

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 7.14.55 PM.png

Y’zikes. Analysts are freaking out.

In the words of Karl-John Persson, the company’s CEO:

“While the assortment is appreciated by our customers, we have not improved fast enough. In addition to this, we made some mistakes in the assortment mix in the second half of 2017 that affected the top line. And now, we're working hard to ensure improvements, including fashion improvements and to improve value for money further as well as, of course, and also to have the right balance and assortment mix with the right products in the right -- at the right time, in the right amount to the right channels.”

Clearly. So, after dropping this steaming pile of bad news, Persson does what all good retail CEOs do these days: drop buzzwords and hot catch phrases like they’re hot. In trying to assuage analyst concerns after this buzzsaw of an earnings report, Persson goes all in with '“new store concepts", “optimize the store portfolio,” “image recognition,” “personalized product feeds,” “automated warehouses,” “advanced analytics and artificial intelligence,” “cloud, APIs and microservices,” and “RFID and 3D.” Did you catch all of that? Don’t know about you, but we’re impressed. These guys really threw the whole kitchen sink at us with this pixie cloud of meaninglessness. Take note: if you’re a restructuring advisor or performance improvement specialist seeking a company-side retail mandate, you have our permission to cut and paste this paragraph into your deck. Perhaps you can win over an executive team too-embarrassed to ask you what the hell any of it actually means as a practical matter.

GNC Holdings Inc. Kicks the Can

The Rise of DTC Supplements Constitutes a Threat to GNC

Speaking of a concessions business, GNC Holdings Inc. ($GNC) is a big proponent (have you been to Rite-Aid lately?) and look how well…oh, wait…nevermind.

When we last wrote about GNC back in February, the company had reported surprising earnings, margins and free cash flow; it also paid down its revolving credit facility and seemed on the verge of amending and extending its term loan. It had also just received a cash infusion commitment from a Chinese investment fund in exchange for 40% of the company. Subsequently, the company was able to amend and extend the term loan to 2021. Concurrently, the company entered into a new $100 million asset-backed loan due August 2022 and engaged in certain other capital structure machinations to obtain $275 million of asset-backed “first in, last out” term loans due December 2022. Textbook. Kicking. The. Can. Which, of course, helped the company avoid Vitamin World’s bankrupt fate. 👊 Goldman Sachs!

Meanwhile, this is what the stock looks like:

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 7.39.51 PM.png

Pretty ugly. And it may get worse when you factor in what’s going on in the world of supplements, generally. What’s going on, you ask? A sh*t ton of venture capital investment, corporate cash infusion and growth.

Earlier in March, a company called Ancient Nutrition, producer of bone broth protein and collagen supplement, raised $103 million of funding from VMG Partners, Hillhouse Capital and ICONIQ Capital. Notably, the product is available throughout Chicago — just not at GNC. Rather, it is available at Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and Heinan’s. Similarly, in New York City, it is predominantly found at Whole Foods, Fairway and Natural Green Market, among other places.

Supplements are going gangbusters elsewhere too. Earlier this month, Hims, an erectile dysfunction and hair loss company aimed at millennials and dubbed “Viagra, but for hipsters” (yup, you read that right), raised $40 million of funding at a $200 million valuation (kudos to GQ for creative photography). It’s distribution channel? Direct-to-consumer. Sorry GNC. Same goes for Roman and Keeps, two Hims-like competitors.

Meanwhile, The Clorox Company got into the game last week with an $700 million acquisition (3.5x sales) of Nutranext, a Florida-based wellness company that makes supplements and has a strong direct-to-consumer business. You know where you can’t get Nutranext…?

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 8.08.42 PM.png

That’s right: GNC.

Perhaps those restructuring professionals disappointed by Goldman Sachs’ success in securing the refinancing should just put that GNC file in a box labeled “2021.”

The Fallacy of "There Must be One" Theory

Ah, R.I.P. Toys R Us.

This week has undoubtedly been painful for employees, vendors, suppliers and fans of Toys R Us. The liquidation of the big box toy retailer is a failure of epic proportions; many creditors will be fighting over the carcass for months to come — both inside and outside of the United States; many employees now have two months to find a new gig; many suppliers need to figure out if and how they’ll be able to manage now that they’re exposure to unpaid receivables has increased. Good thing the company’s CEO is a man-of-the-people who can help cushion the blow.

Hardly. Enter CEO David Brandon and his shameless, out-of-touch attempts to cast blame onto outside parties: “The constituencies who have been beating us up for months will all live to regret what’s happening here.” Wait. Huh?!

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