💈KentuckyWired is KentuckyFried💈

Project Finance Needs Finance to Work (Long Ambition; Short Government).

The funny thing about “project finance” is that, well, as the phrase might suggest, the project needs money. And sound execution. Pretty basic sh*t, really. So what happens when the project doesn’t? 🤔

In the case of KentuckyWired, it starts contingency planning.

KentuckyWired is an ambitious $327mm public-private partnership with Macquarie Capital…

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☠️R.I.P. Sears (Finally)?☠️

Sears, Malls & Shorting the "End of the #Retailapocalypse" Narrative (Short Karl).

It’s official: the media apparently cares more about Sears Holding Corp. ($SHLD) than consumers do. Sure, it’s a public company and so “investors” may also care but, no offense, if you’re still holding SHLD stock than you probably shouldn’t be investing in anything other than passive index funds. If anything at all (not investment advice).

Anyway, the internet is replete with commentary about what went wrong, what the bigbox retailer did and didn’t do right, what plans may not have ever existed, what could have happened and what’s going to happen (video). It didn’t build an online brand OR invest in stores! It was mismanaged! Choice bit:

Ted Nelson, CEO and strategy director at Mechanica, agreed that financial management played a big role. He believes the story of Sears and its downfall isn’t a brand story at all. “[It’s one of] financial engineering and hedge-fund manager hubris gone awry,” he said. “There are a lot of places that brand [and collection of owned brands] could have evolved to. But that would have required a savvy, cross-functional and empowered leadership team, which isn’t what Sears got.”

Oh my! It’s such a shame that Sears may liquidate!

Meetings with lenders only lasted one hour!

Maybe it will get itself a DIP credit facility and last through Christmas! Either way, it is likely to immediately shutter up to 150 locations! This is all such a shame! Look at what it used to be!

From Bloomberg:

“The handwriting has been on the wall for years,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing consultancy. “It’s been like watching an accident. You can’t look away, but you know it’s coming.”

Right. We’re over it. We honestly could not care less about Sears at this point. Bankruptcy professionals will make money and this thing finally…FINALLY…may get the burial it deserves. Like we previously said, “This thing is like ‘Karl’ in Die Hard.” Even Karl did, eventually, die.

That all said, we do care about how Sears’ demise affects malls.

First, a bit about malls generally…

On October 7, AxiosFelix Salmon wrote “Retailpocalypse Not,” and highlighted a Q2 2018 retail report from CBRE, concluding “The death of shopping malls is exaggerated: They are currently 94% occupied, according to CBRE.” Yet, he missed key parts of CBRE’s report:

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And mall rents are on the decline:

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Other reports substantiate these trends. Per RetailDive:

It's still not a pretty picture on the ground, however. Second quarter mall rents fell 4.6% from the first quarter and 7.1% year over year, hit by major store closures from Toys R Us, Sears and J.C. Penney, according to a trend report from commercial real estate firm JLL. Mall vacancy rates hit 4% during the period, JLL said. The retail sector suffered its worst quarter in nine years with net absorption of negative 3.8 million square feet, which pushed the regional mall vacancy rate up by 0.2% to 8.6% as the average mall rent increased 0.3%, according to another report from commercial real estate firm Reis emailed to Retail Dive.

And things have gotten worse since then. On October 3, four days before the Axios piece, The Wall Street Journal reported on Q3 numbers:

Mall vacancy rates rose to 9.1% in the third quarter, their highest level in seven years. Many of the older shopping centers that lack trendy retailers, lively restaurants, or other forms of popular entertainment continue to lose tenants, or even close down.

But many lower-end malls are still struggling to benefit from the economic revival, especially in some of the more economically depressed areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. They suffer from a glut of shopping centers but not enough consumers.

The average rent for malls fell 0.3% to $43.25 a square foot in the third quarter, down from $43.36 in the second quarter, according to data from real-estate research firm Reis Inc. The last time rents slid on a quarter-over-quarter basis was in 2011.

What sparked the vacancy jump? Bankrupted Bon-Ton Stores closing and, gulp, Sears closures too. Which, obviously, could get a hell of a lot worse. Indeed, Cowen and Company recently concluded that “we are only in the ‘early innings’ of mass store closures.” As noted in Business Insider:

"Retail square footage per capita in the United States has been widely sourced and cited as being far above most developed countries — more than double Australia and over four times that of the United Kingdom," Cowen analysts wrote in a 50-page report on the state of the retail industry. The data "suggests that the sector remains in the early innings of reduction in unproductive physical retail."

On point, one category that had largely remained (relatively) unscathed in the last 2 years of retail carnage is the home goods space. But, now, companies like Pier 1 Imports Inc. ($PIR) and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. ($BBBY) appear to be in horrific shape. Bloomberg’s Sarah Halzack writes:

Two major companies in this category, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. and Pier 1 Imports Inc., are mired in problems that look increasingly unsolvable. Bed Bath & Beyond saw its shares tumble 21 percent on Thursday after it reported declining comparable sales for the ninth time in 10 quarters. And Pier 1’s stock fell nearly 20 percent in a single day last week after it saw an even ghastlier plunge in same-store sales and discontinued its full-year guidance.

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The struggles of those two retailers ought to compound problems in the overall retail environment. Pier 1 has 1000 stores. Bed Bath & Beyond has 1024 stores.

Still, not all malls are created equal.

Barron’s writes:

Sears’ poor performance has long been an issue for owners, but landlords are split between those that are probably cheering the possibility of reclaiming its locations for more profitable tenants and those that see its potential bankruptcy as a negative tipping point.

Wells Fargo’s Jeffrey Donnelly compiled a list of REIT exposure to Sears, ranking various REITs by how much revenue exposure there is to Sears.

Seritage Growth Properties (SRG) is at the top of the list, with 167 properties, or 72% of its space and 43% percent of its revenue. Urban Edge (UE) has four properties for 3.5% of space and 4.2% of revenue. Next comes Washington Prime Group (WPG) with 42 locations, or 9.8% of space and 0.9% of revenue, followed by CBL & Associates(CBL) with 40 properties, a negligible amount of its space and 0.8% of revenue. Brixmor (BRX) has 11 locations for 1.4% of its space and 0.6% of revenue, Kimco (KIM) has 14 locations, 1.9% of its space and 0.6% of revenue. Simon Property Group (SPG) is at the bottom of the list with 59 locations, 5.3% of its space, and 0.3% of revenue.

Among the companies he covers, he says, CBL & Associates is the most at risk because the “low productivity and demographics of its mall portfolio could make re-leasing challenging and extended vacancies could trigger co-tenancy.” By contrast, Macerich (MAC) is the best positioned, Donnelly argues, due to its “negligible exposure and industry-leading productivity of [its] portfolio.”

Here (video) is Starwood Capital Group ($STWD) CEO Barry Sternlicht opining on the demise of Sears. He says about Sears filing:

“Probably a net positive. So, in our malls that we own…the income that comes near the Sears store is 3% of the mall’s income. Nobody wants to be in front of the Sears because there’s nobody in the Sears. So, we take it back and make it an apartment building or a Dave & Busters or a Kidzania or…a theater…so honestly its good for the owners to get on with this…and we’ll see what happens with Penney’s too….”

In “Sears Exit Would Leave Big Holes in Malls. Some Landlords Welcome That,” The Wall Street Journal noted:

Mall owners with trendy retailers, lively restaurants and other forms of popular entertainment have continued to prosper. Many of these landlords would welcome Sears’ departure, mall owners and analysts said. The department store’s exit would allow them to take over a big-box space and lease it to a more profitable tenant.

In malls where leases were signed decades ago, Sears rents could be as low as $4 a square foot. New tenants in the same space could bring as much as six times that amount.

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J.C. Penney ($JCP) and Best Buy ($BBBY) are other theoretical beneficiaries (though that would STILL require people to go to malls).

Who is not benefiting? Apparently those hedge funds that famously shorted malls.

Looks like Sears won’t be the last loser playing in the mall space.

💤Sears 💤

Eddie Lampert, ESL & Shenanigans

BREAKING NEWS: SHORT SEARS HOLDING CORP.

We’re old enough to remember when Sears Holding Corp. ($SHLD) was last rumored to file for bankruptcy. In 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2013. 2012. 2011. And 2010 (the last year it turned a profit). This thing is like “Karl” in Die Hard.

Or this lady:

It just won’t die.

So this week’s reports that Sears’ CEO Eddie Lampert “Urges Immediate Action to Stave Off Bankruptcy” were met with, shall we say, a collective yawn. Lampert has been performing financial sleight-of-hand for years, all the while the five-year SHLD stock chart looks like this:

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This is what the Twitterati had to say about this: [ ].

Yes, that blank space is intentional. We’ve never seen Twitter so quiet. Grandma was like, “Sears? Sears? I last shopped in Sears when I was prom shopping…in 1956.” Mom was like, “I once bought you a Barbie at Sears…in 1989.” Some millennial somewhere was probably like, “Sears? What’s a Sears, brah?”

Just kidding: nobody is talking about Sears. That would imply mindshare. 🔥

Lack of mindshare notwithstanding, the company, despite a wave of closures over the years (including 46 unprofitable stores slated for closure in November ‘18), consists of 820 stores (including KMart). As of 2017, the company had 140,000 employees. Thats Toys R Usx 4.5. The company also has approximately $5.5 billion of debt, $1.1 billion of pension and post-retirement benefits, declining revenues, negative (yet improving) same store sales percentages, negative gross margin, and increasing net losses.

Source: SHLD Q2 Earnings Release Presentation, September 13, 2018

Source: SHLD Q2 Earnings Release Presentation, September 13, 2018

It also had $941mm of cash available as of the end of Q2 2018.

On Sunday, Lampert filed a Schedule 13D with the SEC outlining his proposal to save Sears in advance of a $134 debt payment due on October 15. High level, the proposal was…

“…to the Board requesting Holdings to consider liability management transactions, real estate transactions and asset sales intended to extend near-term debt maturities, reduce long-term debt, eliminate associated cash interest obligations and obtain additional liquidity.”

The proposed liability management transactions…provide for exchange offers to eligible holders of second lien debt…and eligible holders of unsecured debt…. These potential exchange offers together could save Holdings approximately $33 million per year in cash interest and eliminate approximately $1.1 billion in debt.

More specifically, the proposal calls for, among other options, ‘19 and ‘20 second lien debtholders and ‘19 unsecured noteholders to swap into zero-coupon mandatorily convertible secured debt (no yield, baby?)(read the 13D link above for more detail). It also calls for the sale of $3.25 billion worth of real estate and assets, including Sears Home Services and Kenmore.

After all of this time, why now? Per Bloomberg:

Lampert and ESL acted after watching other retailers including Toys “R” Us Inc. and Bon-Ton Stores Inc. wind up in liquidation, according to people with knowledge of the plan. The aim is to get something done out of court to preserve value for shareholders, since they don’t usually fare well in bankruptcy proceedings, said the people, who weren’t authorized to comment publicly and asked not to be identified.

There’s something strangely poetic about Lampert and ESL using the ghosts of Toys R Us and BonTon past to coerce creditors into an exchange transaction now.

Anyway, Twitter may have been quiet, but naysayers abound.

From Bloomberg:

“It seems the next natural iteration of all the financial engineering the company has been engaging in over the last few years,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Noel Hebert said. “For non-bank creditors not named Eddie Lampert, there is a bit of prisoner’s dilemma -- maybe something more tomorrow, or the near certainty of very little today.”

“This is simply storing up trouble for the future,” according to a note from Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail. “Sears is focusing on financial maneuvers and missing the wider point that sales remain on a downward trajectory,” he wrote. “Even in a strong consumer economy, customers are still drifting away to other brands and retailers.”

From the Washington Post:

“Eddie Lampert is seeking permission from himself to keep Sears on life-support while he continues to drain every last remaining drop of blood from its corpse,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and the former chief executive of Sears Canada. “The operation is a failure, and there is no plan to turn that around."

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Given Lampert’s shuffling of Sears assets in ways some creditors suspect was more to his benefit than theirs, there is a chance they will hesitate to let him reorganize unless it is under the watchful eye of a bankruptcy judge,” said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business school professor.

Ugh. Wake us up when its finally over. Even Karl eventually died.


PETITION provides analysis and commentary about restructuring and bankruptcy. We discuss disruption, from the vantage point of the disrupted. Get our Members’-only a$$-kicking newsletter by subscribing here.

What to Make of the Credit Cycle. Part 14.1. (Long Div Recaps; Long Blackstone; Short Refinitiv)

On Sunday in “What to Make of the Credit Cycle. Part 14. (Long Blackstone; Short Refinitiv),” we provided our colorful take on the fervent (and 2x over-subscribed) demand for the $13.5 billion Thomson Reuters’ Refinitiv loan and bond issuance. Our take was framed from the perspective of the high yield trader and was meant to provide some insight into the machinations that occur behind the scenes at a high yield fund. But what does this deal mean for private equity firms and leveraged buyouts?

Spoiler alert: all good things.

Reuters wrote:

The rousing results are likely to boost secondary pricing and will intensify pressure on primary pricing and other terms and conditions, after investors won a reprieve in the summer from aggressive transactions amid a surge in supply.

The SMi100, an index that tracks the 100 most widely held loans, stands at 98.73, the highest point since February. About 42% of US loans are now trading above par, according to LPC data. Average US high-yield bonds, meanwhile, have rallied sharply over the past couple of weeks to Treasuries plus 325bp, or just 3bp off post-crisis lows, according to ICE BAML data. (emphasis added)

Private equity firms likely smell blood in the water. More from Reuters:

The successes could also herald a more aggressive underwriting era as private equity firms squeeze arranging banks harder, which could open the door to another round of opportunistic repricings, refinancings and dividend recapitalizations that allow sponsors to take advantage of weak documentation.

“The next stuff behind the scenes is going to be punchy,” the global debt head said.

Ah, dividend recapitalizations. We miss those.

Reuters continued:

While the results are undeniably good for private equity firms, they may not be good for investors who are increasingly nervous about aggressive deals as an economic downturn draws closer at the end of an unusually long economic cycle.

With Refinitiv, Akzo and Envision, technical factors – primarily huge demand and a small visible pipeline of deals – overwhelmed any specific credit concerns and fears about aggressive documentation that allow sponsors to extract dividends quickly or make transformative asset sales and acquisitions without investors’ consent.

The three jumbo loans, each of which are capital-stretching, represent half of the forward calendar, which is already looking thinner. Worries about future supply encouraged investors to join the big, liquid deals in droves, particularly as new money carve-outs have previously proved to be particularly profitable.

All of this continues to worry financial regulators who are watching the fervor play out. The Bank of International Settlements recently warned that, per Bloomberg:

…likely distress among indebted borrowers may spread into the wider economy as central banks raise interest rates. It’s not just the total debt, but the fact that investors seem less and less concerned about protecting themselves against losses, the BIS said.

Yes, indeed. The return of covenant-lite debt has been well documented.

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And the borrower-favorable market has been well documented.

“When there’s tons of liquidity, lenders don’t value covenants and they’re willing to lend at very high leverage values,” said Douglas Diamond, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “If you get a negative shock after that, you’ve now got a very vulnerable sector. The crisis won’t happen tomorrow but the vulnerability is there.”

The BIS report identified other concerns, including the prospect of fire sales by loan funds if ratings downgrades push some of their investments into junk. Diamond said there’s potential for such leveraged mutual funds to cause havoc.

“The borrowing that they do is usually from a bank,” he said in an interview. “They buy a loan from a bank, they borrow money from the bank to buy the loan from the bank -- not necessarily the same bank. So the risk would ultimately get back to bank balance sheets.”

But high yield mutual funds aren’t the only vehicles driving this meshugas. Don’t forget about CLOs, which, as we discussed in “💥The CLO Market is Going Bananas💥,” are in full-on volume mode. Relating to factors driving demand for borrower-friendly paper, Alexandra Scaggs wrote in Barron’s:

Another is the robust demand for floating-rate debt such as leveraged loans to protect against Federal Reserve rate increases. Funds investing in loans have seen $14.4 billion of inflows this year, according to EPFR, following on $16 billion of inflows in 2017 and $11 billion in 2016. It is not clear the scramble for floating-rate securities will stop any time soon, as the Fed is expected to raise rates four times in the next 12 months, according to Bloomberg data. The demand for loans has also been fueled by the rise of the market for collateralized loan obligations, securitized products that hold pools of loans as collateral and pay their investors the interest collected from those loans in order of tranche quality.

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For the uninitiated, here is an excellent recently published primer from S&P Global Ratings on how CLOs function. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and give it a perusal. It’s worth it. CLO dynamics will definitely play into the next cycle.

*****

In a separate segment on Sunday, we snarked about over-the-transom strategic-alternatives pitch deck” and banker boredom. Distressed and high yield investors are, no doubt, equally if not more bored. Aside from Q1, 2018 has been a barren wasteland for restructuring and bankruptcy professionals looking for things to do. Long bitching come bonus time.

But all of this flippant high yield activity has to come home to roost at some point. The question, as always, remains “when?”


PETITION provides analysis and commentary about restructuring and bankruptcy. We discuss disruption, from the vantage point of the disrupted. Get our Members’-only a$$-kicking newsletter by subscribing here.

Oil & Gas is Back Baby

Long the West Texas’ Permian Basin; Short Anadarko

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If you’re Steve RogersEncino Man, or were otherwise frozen somehow from 2014 through 2017 and missed the oil and gas downturn, Bethany McLean’s “Saudi America” will give you a nice high-level overview of American oil policy and fracking. It discusses Aubrey McClendon, the Obama-era change oil export policy, President Trump’s notion of energy independence, the rise of the West Texas’ Permian basin and more. She writes:

“What people still fail to understand is that the most cyclical number we have is the theoretical break-even,” one oil man says. “There will be stories about how the $40 break-even became the $70 break-even, and people will say ‘Who lied to me?’”

And so it is that the most important factor in the comeback of shale is the same thing that started the boom in the first place: The availability of capital. “It came back because Wall Street was there,” says longtime short-seller Jim Chanos. In 2017, U.S. frackers raised $60 billion in debt, up almost 30 percent since 2016, according to Dealogic.

Wall Street’s willingness to fund money-losing shale operators is, in turn, a reflection of ultra-low interest rates. That poses a twofold risk to shale companies. In his paper for Columbia’s Center of Global Energy Policy, Amir Azar noted that if interest rates rose, it would wipe out a significant portion of the improvement in break-even costs.

But low interest rates haven’t just meant lower borrowing costs for debt-laden companies. The lack of return elsewhere also let pension funds, which need to be able to pay retirees, to invest massive amounts of money with hedge funds that invest in high yield debt, like that of energy firms, and with private equity firms — which, in turn, shoveled money into shale companies, because in a world devoid of growth, shale at least was growing. Which explains why Lambert, portfolio manager of Nassau Re, says “Pension funds were enablers of the U.S. energy revolution.”

Ah, yield baby yield.

A lot of the U.S. energy revolution and recovery from ‘14-’17 is coming from the West Texas’ Permian basin. McLean writes:

In 2010, the Permian Basin was producing just shy of 1 million barrels a day. In 2017, that had more than doubled to over 2.5 million barrels a day. By August, output from the Permian alone exceeded that of 8 of the 13 members of OPEC, according to Bloomberg. The International Energy Agency predicts that output will hit more than 4 million barrels a day within a few years. Production from the Permian is the primary driver behind skyrocketing estimates of how much oil the U.S. will produce.

Apropos, Bloomberg noted this week:

To get a toehold in the prolific Permian Basin, private equity is increasingly betting on a relatively obscure, and potentially risky, part of the pipeline industry.

Operations in the Permian that gather oil and gas, and process fuel into propane and other liquids, have drawn almost $14 billion in investment since the start of 2017, with $9.2 billion of that coming from private companies, according to Matthew Phillips, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities LLC.

Specifically, Bloomberg is referring to midstream companies manufacturing gathering and processing pipeline assets that transport oil and gas across states. Producers commit to pay for space in the pipes over a period of years. Restructuring professionals are very familiar with these gathering contracts: they were the subject of many a dispute during the recent downturn.

…investors in gathering pipes and processing plants are forced to lean on long-term projections, since their projects depend on continuous output over time from the same area.

“Any time there’s massive supply growth, there is some risk-seeking behavior,” said Jeff Jorgensen, portfolio manager and director of research at Brookfield Asset Management Inc.’s Public Securities Group. There’s a tendency by some to “invest in production profiles that are, let’s just say, hilariously aggressive in their assumptions” for the future, he said.

It’s easy to see where that aggressiveness is coming from. Researcher IHS Markit predicts output in the Permian Basin will double by 2023 to reach 5.4 million barrels a day. That’s more than every OPEC country except Saudi Arabia. By 2035, it could hit 6.3 million barrels, according to Wood Mackenzie.

Bloomberg continues:

…with the surge of private equity money giving way to smaller players that may be taking on added debt to pay for pricey projects, the risk increases dramatically.

“There’s definitely some sloppiness in the gathering and processing space,” she said. “The cash flow isn’t going to be what they expected, so we could see some of the smaller players financially weaken, and that may lead to consolidation.”

With oil prices on the rise, however, the risk may seem worth taking. Memories are short. And confidence in break-even costs must be through the roof. Regardless of whether President Trump is happy with oil prices where they are.

The bottom line is that in this oil and gas recovery, there are clear winners and losers. The Permian is a big winner. This explains the recent S-1 filing of Riley Exploration — Permian LLC ($REPX)(owned by Yorktown Partners LLCBluescape Energy Partners LLC and Boomer Petroleum LLC), which has 65k+ net acres in the Permian as of June 30, 2018. Look at that name: they’re clearly sending a message that screams “pureplay Permian exploration and development company.” It’s like companies putting “.com” in their name during the dot.com bubble and “blockchain” in their name in the more recent crypto bubble. Smart move.

The Bakken in North Dakota appears to be back too. Per Bloomberg:

North Dakota’s oil production surged to a new record in July, putting the mid-western state on par with OPEC member Venezuela.

Home to the Bakken shale play, North Dakota pumped 1.27 million barrels a day in July, according to state figures released Friday. That’s roughly the same output as Venezuela during the month. The South American nation, whose oil industry has collapsed amid a prolonged financial crisis, saw production fall further in August to 1.24 million barrels a day -- about half the level seen in early 2016, according to data from OPEC secondary sources.

Where are the losers? Look at the Anadarko/Woodford area (read: West Oklahoma). In quite the juxtaposition to Riley Exploration, this week Tapstone Energy, a Blackstone-backed oil and gas exploration and production company withdrew its proposed $400mm IPO. Those closely watching Gastar Exploration Inc. ($GSTC) will find it located there too. The stock was delisted, trades over-the-counter at $0.06/share. The bankruptcy clock is ticking.

Like we said. Winners and losers.

More Shenanigans in Retail: Neiman Marcus Edition

Retail Schmetail (Long Shenanigans; Long Litigation-Based Investment)

Just when retail was starting to get boring, Neiman Marcus stepped up this week to provide some real entertainment for bond investors. Thanks Neiman Marcus!

First, lending an additional boost the now-popular narrative that the "#retailapocalypse story is over, the luxury department store retailer reported earnings on September 18 that reflected (i) a 2.3% increase in quarterly revenue YOY, (ii) a dramatically reduced Q4 net loss on a YOY basis, and (iii) an increase in adjusted EBITDA. For fiscal year 2018, it reported total revenues of $4.9 billion, a 4.9% increase YOY. Free cash flow was $122.6mm vs. negative $57.7mm last year. Online revenues were up 12.5% for the quarter and accounted for 35% of the overall business.

And that last bit is where the rubber meets the road. At the tail end of its press release, Neiman slipped in this doozy like a slickster:

Subsequent to the end of the fourth quarter, the Company effected an organizational change as a result of which the entities through which the Company operates the MyTheresa business now sit directly under Neiman Marcus Group, Inc., the Company’s ultimate parent entity. These entities were unrestricted, non-guarantor subsidiaries under the Company’s debt instruments. As a result of this change, going forward the financial results of the MyTheresa entities will no longer be included in the Company’s publicly reported financial statements. The change is not expected to meaningfully affect operations for Neiman Marcus or MyTheresa.

Indeed, the company’s term loan and bonds — part of its $4.7 billion debt stack — did trade down but it wasn’t due to misplaced optimism. Rather, it was more likely attributable to the fact that the company, in a Petsmart-PTSD-inducing maneuver, just significantly weakened the bondholder collateral package.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

Before the transfer of MyTheresa to the parent company, Neiman Marcus Group Inc., there was some anticipation that the retailer would use the MyTheresa shares to entice bondholders to swap their debt for bonds with a longer maturity.

“Some bondholders may have incorrectly assumed that the company would embark on a distressed debt exchange involving MyTheresa shares as collateral,” said Steven Ruggiero, an analyst at Pressprich & Co.

It appears so.

James Goldstein, a retail analyst at CreditSights, noted that proceeds from any sale could now go directly to the investment companies that control the Neiman parent company, with bondholders likely having no claim. The parent company is owned by Ares Management LP and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

“MyTheresa was already in an unrestricted subsidiary, but the way it’s structured now proceeds of any sale of MyTheresa goes straight to sponsors’ pockets without having to deal with the bondholders,” Mr. Goldstein said.

For now, this is a (potential) win for pensioners and a loss for hedge funds holding the debt. And one such hedge fund was, shall we say, a wee bit nonplussed. On Friday September 21, Marble Ridge Capital LP sent a letter to the company’s board of directors (and subsequently issued a very public press release about said letter) stating:

"…what these transactions appear to be is an attempt to move the MyTheresa business beyond the reach of existing creditors sitting between the sponsors' equity and the valuable MyTheresa assets. Most troubling, we understand that Ares and CPPIB usurped this massive benefit and took the MyTheresa business for no consideration."

"Marble Ridge has reason to believe that the Company was insolvent at the time of the Transactions or was rendered insolvent thereby. The Company is the issuer and/or guarantor of at least $4.7 billion of indebtedness. Based on LTM EBITDA of $478.2 million, the Company's indebtedness prior to the Transactions implies nearly a 10x leverage multiple (far in excess of any of its peers). Moreover, a dividend or other form of a spinoff by an insolvent guarantor to its equity sponsors, for no consideration, has all the hallmarks of an intentional or constructive fraudulent transfer (or illegal dividend) and raises serious questions of breaches of duties of care and loyalty, with exposure for Ares and CPPIB, as controlling shareholders, and for the Company's board. As noted above, Marble Ridge also has concerns that the Transactions do not comply with the Indentures."

The Wall Street Journal had previously reported that:

Neiman Marcus hired Lazard Ltd. and Kirkland & Ellis last year for advice on how to restructure its debt.

Looks like they deployed some of that advice.

What to Make of the Credit Cycle. Part 14. Refinitiv Edition.

Long Blackstone. Short Market Timing.

Krusty.jpeg

🎶 Sing it with us now: “Yield, baby, yield.” 🎼

Let’s pretend for a second that you’re a trader “sitting on the desk” of a fund with a high yield mandate. Limited partners have given your Portfolio Manager millions upon millions (if not billions) of dollars to get access to — and active management of — high yield debt. They expect your PM and the team to deploy that capital. That’s what you said you’d do when you were out pounding the pavement fundraising. They don’t want to pay you whatever your management fee is for you to simply be sitting in cash, waiting on the sidelines counting your “dry powder.” So when a big issuance goes out to market, you’ve got to make your move. The pressure is on.

The first order of business it to simply make sure that you even get in the room. You’d better be on your game. There’s a lot of appetite for yield these days, so you better be working those phones, dialing up that “left lead” clown you suffered beers with a few weeks back with the hope of getting an opportunity to put in an allocation. You’re dialing and dialing and hoping that he doesn’t remember that your PM passed on — much to your chagrin — the last 4 or 5 looks that clown — let’s call him Krusty — gave you. Fingers crossed.

Your PM is pacing behind you. It’s creeping you out. Angst fills the room. The desk lawyer is running around screaming bloody hell about some covenants or something. Maybe it was a lack thereof. You’re not sure. You don’t care, damn it. Those LPs want that money deployed so you’re damn well gonna deploy it. Forget about covenants. Forget about risk. That lawyer can pound sand. Literally nobody cares. Because you and your team are super savvy. Surely you’ll be able to dump these turds of loans and bonds before the market speaks and the debt trades down. Or before all liquidity dries up. Either way, you’ll get out. You’re sure of it. Market timing is your jam.

You finally get through. Krusty says “what’s your number?” You turn to your PM and without much time to really crunch numbers — after all, the yield, the potential discount, the Euro piece vs. the US piece all keep changing — he shrugs and throws out a hefty number. And then does the Sam Cassell dance. You smile. There’s momentarily silence on the other end. Finally, Krusty says he’ll call you back; he seems wildly unimpressed. Your PM shrinks.

You know this same scene is playing out on trading desks all over Wall Street time and time again when there’s a juicy new issuance.

And so does Blackstone. So does Refinitiv.

This week the high yield universe worked itself into a tizzy as Refinitiv priced and issued $13.5 billion of debt to finance Blackstone’s multi-billion dollar ~55% takeover of Thomson Reuters’ Financial & Risk division. Why is this a big deal? Well, in part, because its a big deal. And the lack of (high yield) supply has led to pent up demand. Pent up demand can lead to some interesting compromises.

On September 8, the International Financing Review wrote:

The debt package is divided into US$8bn of loans and US$5.5bn of high-yield bonds. Those debts, combined with separate payment-in-kind notes (with a 14.5% coupon), will result in annual interest payments of US$880m at current price talk. A separate US$750m revolving credit facility will also need servicing.

“The banks had no choice but to price it attractively and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes,” a loan investor in London said. (emphasis added).

Furthermore,

The deal is being marketed with leverage of 4.25 times secured and 5.25 times unsecured, based on adjusted Ebitda of US$2.5bn, which includes US$650m of cost savings from the business’s reported Ebitda of US$1.9bn.

Wait. Take a step back. Cost savings? What cost savings? Blackstone is claiming that they can take $650mm out of the business thereby driving the leverage ratio down. That’s quite a gamble for investors to take. Particularly combined with loose interpretations of EBITDA and considerable add-backs.

The International Financing Review quoted some investors:

A portfolio manager in London said that he had calculated that leverage for the deal is “nearer six and seven times”.

“It’s very late cycle. I don’t really like it when you see a deal with this order of magnitude of projected cost savings as you really don’t know if and when they will be realised,” he said.

“It will be a bit of a test for the market given the size of the deal. But Blackstone and its partners have a good reputation and deep pockets.”

Moody’s and Fitch put leverage between 6.1x and 7.6x.

Covenant Review was nonplussed about the bond protections. It wrote:

“The notes are being marketed with extremely defective sponsor-style covenants riddled with flaws and loopholes that reflect the worst excesses of covenant erosion over the last two years.”

Tell us how you really feel.

Reuters channeled the ghosts of TXU:

The return of big buyouts to the leveraged finance market has rekindled memories of the 2006 and 2007 bad old days of risky underwriting and excessive debt.

So, in the end, how DID the issuance go?

The Wall Street Journal wrote:

One of the largest-ever sales of speculative-grade debt was completed with ease on Tuesday, a sign of the favorable environment for U.S. borrowers at a time of robust economic growth and strong demand from investors.

The $13.5 billion sale—which a Blackstone Group LP-led investor group is using to acquire a 55% stake in a Thomson Reuters Corp. data business called Refinitiv—comprised $9.25 billion of loans and $4.25 billion of secured and unsecured bonds, with different pieces denominated in U.S. dollars and euros.

Including a $750 million revolving credit line, the bond-and-loan deal amounted to the ninth-largest leveraged financing on record in the U.S. and Europe, and was the fourth-largest since the financial crisis, according to LCD, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Said another way, demand was so high for the issuance that — aside from upsizing the loan component by $1.25 billion (with a corresponding bond decrease) and a reduction of future permitted debt incurrence — the company was able to offer bond investors LOWER interest rates at par, despite the fact that both Moody’s and S&P Global Ratings rated the issuance near the bottom of the ratings spectrum. Read: thanks to fervent demand, the banks were able to price a wee bit less aggressively than originally planned. That includes the loans: the company was also able to decrease the original guided discount (“OID”) for investors.

Per Bloombergorders

“…total[ed] double the $13.5 billion of bonds and loans it needed to raise. The scale of the response was spurred on by a ravenous bid from collateralized loan obligations and other investors amid fears that there may be fewer new deals going into the fourth quarter."

🎶 One more time: “Yield, baby, yield.” 🎼

So here you had a 2x over-subscription despite some troubling characteristics:

High leverage wasn’t the only way Refinitiv has tested investors. Under the proposed terms of its bonds, the company could pay dividends to its owners even if it came under severe financial distress, a provision that the research firm Covenant Review described as “wildly off market.”

Back to International Financing Review quoting a high yield investor:

“It got to the point where the only thing I liked about the (Refinitiv) deal was the yield. And I’ve learned after 25 years in this business, that’s not enough.”

Among his concerns were business challenges that the Refinitiv business has already faced from competitors like Bloomberg and FactSet. But Blackstone’s ambitious cost-savings target also made him leery.

“When you look at the investment thesis of the sponsor, it’s very much about achieving cost synergies,” said the investor.

“The synergies they forecast are based on their story that they know how to do this better as sponsors than the corporate parent.”

Reasonable minds can debate the merits and reality of sponsor-driven cost “synergies.” But let’s be honest. Nobody is investing in this capital structure because they are whole-hearted endorsers of the Blackstone-promulgated cost-reduction narrative.

“Among the rationales for investors is confidence in the economy - it’s looking good right now, it’s looking good next year, and the belief that they can sell before the quality of the debt deteriorates,” Christina Padgett, a senior vice-president at Moody’s, told IFR.

In other words, market timing is their jam.

🚴 Peloton = Gympocalypse? 🚴

The Rise of Peloton, Tonal, Mirror and Other DTC Home Fitness Products (Long Seclusion)

Source: Mirror

Source: Mirror

Back in January we wrote a longform piece about the rise of Peloton. It’s worth revisiting. Subsequently, the at-home fitness space has only gotten more interesting with (i) Peloton’s soon-to-be-released treadmill and (ii) a couple more well-funded startups going after the gym crowd with high-priced at-home apparatuses that give one further incentive to just stay home, never talk to anyone and never do anything outside. Because that's just what we need in today's hyper-polarized environment: more people just scurrying off into their own corners and refusing to deal with and compromise with anyone or anything. And that apparently includes the use of gym equipment.

The New York TimesErin Griffith recently wrote that Tonal and Mirror, two new on-the-wall connected fitness platforms, are…

"…among the first start-ups to pounce on the success of Peloton, a stationary bike start-up that investors recently valued at $4 billion. Peloton blends the hardware of a bike with the software of a video streaming subscription and the content of spin classes. Its skyrocketing growth has made investors wary of missing the next big thing in fitness." 

The next big thing in fitness appears to be a flashy screen, a solid wifi connection, expensive hardware and streaming fitness instruction brought to you by a recurring revenue subscription model. 

Web Smith frames it another way

He writes:

Silicon Valley wants to redefine the fitness membership. Through the adoption of connected devices like the Peloton bike, there’s been an inflection point as consumers seem to be trickling away from the current model. No longer do you have to drive to a place to be in a community. As Americans become more health conscious and driven to maximize performance, the DTC equipment industry is a timely bet on the next generation of  fitness data-driven IoT (internet of things).

He continues:

Whereas the Fitbit-phase of wearables emphasized individual fitness, the next generation of connected devices seem to be incorporating community in ways that could emerge as a challenge to the status quo: community-driven fitness facilities.

And:

By building systems that allow community to be gained outside of physical retail outlets, these tools are aiming to become the new medium for instruction and training.  These internet-enabled equipment manufacturers aren’t just selling plastic and metal, they’re selling virtual community.

He finished by saying:

"...it could spell trouble for your gym. Spin franchises are already beginning to adjust to the threat of Peloton and as the threat of connected cycles continues to grow as also-has brands rise up in the wake of Peloton’s premium pricing."

That sound you may have just heard was the collective moan of mall owners who are increasingly dependent upon gyms to fill space:

Okay, okay, let's dial it down. Peloton has created a luxury brand experience that, it is argued, makes economic sense relative to the long-term economics of attending Flywheel or SoulCycle classes. We're not so sure that translates to other non-niche forms of fitness. Especially at the price-points these companies are touting. 

Apropos, some of the comments to the NYT piece are amusing:

Obviously, these machines are for a niche market where money is irrelevant and style is paramount. Best of luck to them, but I'll stick to the free version...my own body. 

So far the comments are 22-0 against. I wonder if the Tonal can automatically adjust that resistance.

Or, you know, you could just go outside, feel the sun and wind on your back, do some pushups and chinups to feel your own weight against the pull of the Earth, hear nature all around you, talk to a person (gasp!)... 

But then again it's so nice to stare at a screen all day long, so what do I know.

Look for these items in the free piles left curbside after garage sales in about 6 years. 

While we're not necessarily convinced that Tonal and Mirror are the future of fitness, it seems to us that gyms ought to start thinking "omnichannel" like retailers and figure out way to drive more value to customers both in and outside of the gym, during on and off hours. How is it, for instance, that Equinox doesn't have any streaming classes that you can do at home or in your office? 

Whatever happens, expect the area to get more heated as more and more money chases this burgeoning at-home community-based exercise market. Bloomberg already notes that “the treadmill wars are here.” And, Peloton, for instance, is now suing Flywheel for patent infringement. It knows that the at-home fitness opportunity is now. If it can slow down a rival (in advance of an IPO?), all the better.

We asked in January whether Peloton could thrive in a downturn. Now the question is broader: will any of these companies with high-priced hardware be able to survive a downturn?

Millennials Benefit from Venture Capital, Feel Guilty (Long Subsidies)

Oh man. THIS. Is. Precious. Herein a Wall Street Journal writer feels guilty about the secondary effects of his penchant for cheap home food delivery, two-day shipping, unlimited movies for $9.99/month and 100-day mattress trials. He asks:

These “Where’s the catch?” deals are practically everywhere now, each causing me a similar dilemma:

*I take Uber Pools home at night, knowing even if nobody else gets in the car the ride’s still going to be cheaper. Are we stiffing drivers?

*I let MoviePass buy me tickets for next to nothing when I used to gladly pay full price. Will this contribute further to the decline in nonsuperhero Hollywood films?

*I demand two-day shipping for everything I buy on Amazon. Am I destroying the Earth, one cardboard box at a time?

*I use the Blue Apron free trial, cancel it and switch to HelloFresh , then rinse and repeat with Sun Basket and Plated. Can decent, easy food delivery survive?

We almost mistook this for an Onion article.

Here are some answers.

Yes. Probably. Yes. No. These answers are pretty self-evident.

The very same people that the writer is concerned about affecting is riding Uber in his off time, ordering the free Blue Apron trial, and taking advantage of 2-day shipping. So, nothing to worry about there.

As for it being a “deal”? We’re giving away our data every single time we eat a subsidized meal, take a subsidized ride, or recycle an extra cardboard box. Isn’t that information valuable? Isn’t there a whole world of people hacking away trying to obtain it? If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Not sure that’s such a great deal, in the end.

So, with that said, we’re now going to do this:

That’s right: $20/month.

Ah, co-working.

🚗Will California Jumpstart Electric Vehicles?🚗

Electric Vehicles (Short Musk-Related Noise; Long Technology)

This is not a fangirl ode to Elon Musk. We’ll leave that to the Twittersphere. The trials and tribulations of everyone’s favorite Marvel-character-inspiring eccentric billionaire may be distracting from developments far bigger and far badder than Tesla’s ($TSLA) balance sheet: the advancement of electric vehicles.

Last week, California’s state legislature approved a bill that requires the state — subject to Governor Jerry Brown’s signature — to get 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. Yes, 2045 — 27 years from now. Sure, it might be hard for you to be impressed or to care. If PETITION is even still around by then it will likely be written by artificial intelligence bots. So, we get it.

Still, California ALREADY gets 29% of its electricity from zero-carbon wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy — in part to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in part, no doubt, to flick off the President of the United States. Indeed, greenhouse gas emission levels have decreased such that they now rival those of the 1990s.

Yet, emission levels related to transportation in California have barely moved. Nevertheless, consistent with what we wrote previously about advancements in the auto space, Nathanial Bullard notes that that appears primed to change. In a piece entitled “Electric Vehicles’ Day Will Come, and It Might Come Suddenly,” he wrote:

In the first half of the year, vehicles with a battery were more than 10 percent of new vehicle sales in California. The model mix includes hybrids like the Toyota Prius that have no electric charging plugs, as well as plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars with no combustion engine at all.

The data reveal three trends. The first is the steady erosion of hybrid market share, which is down from seven percent of new sales in 2013 to four percent in the first half of 2018. That’s noteworthy, and so is the fact that battery electric vehicles are now more popular than plug-in hybrids.

In 2017, the plug-in electric car market is now more than six percent of new car sales in California. It’s not a big number — but it will get bigger, and it’s worth asking, “how much bigger?”

Looking at Norway, Bullard posits that it can get substantially bigger. He notes that:

It took Norway about a decade to reach six percent electric vehicle sales but then only five years to go from 6 percent to 47 percent. 

Is 6% some sort of magical inflection point for electric vehicles? Debatable. Norway is super-progressive when it comes to the environment; it also offers extensive incentives to encourage EV adoption. But with a statewide push towards zero-carbon electricity, a push towards zero-emission electric cars may not be far behind. Californian car sales are pushing towards 2 million in 2018. And selection is about to improve: everyone from Audito BMW to Porsche are coming out with all-electric models in the next several years. Tremendous growth may not be too far off. The OEMs — Tesla’s competitors — are making sure of it.

*****

Speaking of technological advancement in auto (and auto distress), we find Andreesen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans’ musings on the topic to be thoughtful and thought-provoking. We previously wrote about him WAY back in January 2017 when he wrote about mobile eating the world. The piece is worth revisiting.

Last week, he released a new piece with questions right up our alley. He asked:

…what happens when ‘software eats the world’ in general, and when tech moves into new industries. How do we think about whether something is disruptive? If it is, who exactly gets disrupted? And does that disruption…mean one company wins in the new world? Which one?

He seems to conclude the following: not Tesla.

One narrative surrounding Tesla in the post-Solar City acquisition world is that it more than just a car company: it’s a battery play. Musk’s powerwall feeds this narrative. SolarCity, to some degree, feeds this narrative. But Evans begs to differ; he thinks the battery — as well as EV components, generally — will become commodities. Commodities that spawn victims along the way. He notes:

It’s probably useful here to compare batteries in particular with the capacitive multitouch screens in a smartphone. Apple was the first to popularise these screens, and arguably still implements them best, and these screens fundamentally changed how you made a phone, but the whole industry adopted them. There are better and worse versions, but everyone can buy these screens now, and making a multitouch phone by itself is not a competitive advantage.

It’s pretty clear that electric disrupts the internal combustion engine, and everything associated with it. It’s not just that you replace the internal combustion engine with electric motors and the fuel tank with batteries - rather, you remove the whole drive train and replace it with sometime with 5 to 10 times fewer moving or breakable parts. You rip the spine out of the car. This is very disruptive to anyone in the engine business - it disrupts machine tools, and many of the suppliers of these components to the OEMs. A lot of the supplier base will change. 

This is not the same as disrupting the OEMs themselves. If the OEMs can buy the components of an electric car as easily as anyone else, then the advantage in efficient scale manufacturing goes to the people who already have a lead in efficient scale manufacturing, since they’re doing essentially the same thing. In other words, it’s the same business, with some different suppliers, and electric per se looks a lot more like sustaining innovation. (emphasis added) 

Likewise, he highlights how Tesla’s (i) software, (ii) data aggregation and (iii) efforts with autonomous driving may be leading now but they may not be as disruptive, in the truest sense of the term, to competitor OEMs as some might believe. That is, many OEMs are making progress of their own in those areas. The lead is not that wide. Tesla’s moat is not vast. Read the piece: he raises some interesting points — too many to note here.

He concludes:

…the history of the tech industry is full of companies where having a lovely product, or being the first to see or build the future, were not enough. Indeed, the car industry is the same - a great, innovative car and a great car company are not the same thing. Tesla owners love their cars. I loved my Palm V, and my Nokia Lumia, and my father loved his Saab 9000. But being first isn’t enough and having a great product isn’t enough - you have to try to think about how this fits into all the broader systems. 

Indeed. Many companies — many of which seem wildly successful today — will falter as that system develops.

What to Make of the Credit Cycle Part 12 (Long Yield, Baby, Yield).

The Rise of Litigation Finance

Investors have to generate yield somewhere. Hence, as we’ve discussed ad nauseum, the rise of alternative investment avenues such as venture capital and litigation finance. Wait. Litigation finance? Yes. Think Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan and Gawker. This is a booming space.

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💥Clash of Titans: Biglaw vs. PE Direct Lender💥

Professional Fees (Long Nasty Records)

Source

We expect to see more disputes over professional fees as (i) rates continue to rise into the stratosphere and (ii) large asset management firms try to exert their considerable pull. The good thing is that the rest of us can just sit back, pop some popcorn and put our feet up. A brawl between biglaw and a direct lender is WAY more entertaining than, say, Pacific Rim.

Late last week, Cerberus Business Finance LLC (“CBF”) gave Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP (“HH&R”) some light weekend reading when it objected to the firm’s fees in the Patriot National Inc. (“PN”) case — an objection that Cerberus said “will not come as a surprise to Hughes Hubbard.” Cerberus stated (Docket 1001):

Given the Debtors' obvious financial distress and substantial cash needs for operations, CBF very vocally expressed its concerns regarding the potential magnitude of all professional fees and the need to manage them and keep them under control. Among other things, CBF specifically questioned whether these cases were "too small" for Hughes Hubbard, and whether it would more efficient and cost effective for the Debtors to be represented by a firm with a Delaware office and significant experience representing Chapter 11 debtors. Hughes Hubbard (who had previously been counsel to the Board of Directors of Patriot National, Inc. and choreographed the termination of the Debtors' prior counsel in order to take on that role themselves) was party to those discussions with CBF, was thus acutely aware of CBF's concerns, and at the request of CBF provided- and agree to abide by - a specific line-item budget relating to the performance of legal services for the Debtors. Hughes Hubbard also agreed that prior to incurring fees beyond the agreed budget (whether for unforeseen events or otherwise), Hughes Hubbard would seek the approval of the Debtors and CBF.

Nothing like one paragraph that simultaneously says (i) the law firm Game of Thrones’d its way into the representation, (ii) wasn’t the first or preferred choice, (iii) is inadequately suited for debtor cases, (iv) flagrantly busted a “specific line-item budget,” and (v) didn’t adhere to its pre-petition agreement to keep the lines of communication open about fees.

Cerberus further argued that, among other things, HH&R was inefficient. It noted:

Even the most cursory review of the actual time entries evidences the fact that senior attorneys were devoting substantial time and attention to matters that more properly should have been handled by more junior attorneys or paralegals.

A law firm tried to make as much money possible? Never in a million years would we expect that to happen.

Meanwhile, we find it very interesting that it at last appears that a future owner of a company — by way of a debt for equity swap — is understanding the extent that professional choices can result in (potential) value leakage to the estate. Indeed, as the now owner of PN, CBF has every incentive to claw back HH&R’s fees because each incremental dollar that it doesn’t pay to HH&R remains with and enhances the value of PN.

And so this is precisely what HH&R focuses on in its response. Indeed, HH&R wastes no time whatsoever leading off its response by stating (Docket 1011):

The Objection should be seen for what it is: an attempt to improve Cerberus’ return on a bad investment by shifting the cost of these Chapter 11 Cases to estate professionals. Having lent close to $200 million to the Patriot Debtors only to see the business collapse within a year, Cerberus apparently is frustrated by the Bankruptcy Code’s requirement that part of the price of confirming a chapter 11 plan of reorganization is paying the professional fees incurred in achieving that result. This Objection is brought out of naked self-interest. Now that the cases are over and the Plan effective, Cerberus simply does not want to pay the fees.

Bam! Counter-punch! Nothing like one paragraph that, if we may paraphrase, essentially says (i) you’re a crappy investor, (ii) you reap what you sow, (iii) you obviously don’t read PETITION enough because you clearly didn’t recognize that bankruptcy is big business (sorry, we had to), and (iv) you’re not even remotely slick, bro.

For good measure, HH&R throws Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP under the bus, highlighting that its invoices came in well over the budgeted amount for HH&R —creating a record that it, too, is certainly no bargain.

Moreover, HH&R highlights a fundamental issue with bankruptcy cases these days: who is the client? Clearly CBF believed it to be them. HH&R begged to differ.

Speaking of clients, HH&R sure seems to be cautioning law firms about what it might expect from the way CBF does business. HH&R wrote:

Cerberus waited until after Hughes Hubbard achieved confirmation of the Debtors’ chapter 11 plan of reorganization to object to Hughes Hubbard’s fees, despite the fact that Hughes Hubbard timely filed monthly fee statements in these Cases—fee statements that made it clear from the beginning that the fees incurred were substantially more than the DIP budget envisioned. Much like the numerous other estate professionals that Cerberus has stiffed throughout these cases (except its own professionals who demanded and received prompt payment from the Debtors), Cerberus refused to fund any interim payments to Hughes Hubbard after a single payment of $364,706.

This tactic of lying in the weeds while Hughes Hubbard achieved the results Cerberus wanted and then objecting to the fees required to achieve those results is inherently dishonest. It is also fundamentally unfair. The Court should not tolerate it here.

Something tells us that CBF’s direct lending competitors will have a field day with that language. Something also tells us that HH&R won’t be servicing any companies with CBF in the cap stack anytime soon. Yes, call us Captain Obvious.

At the end of the day, we can’t believe that this dispute saw the light of day. Clearly there is no love lost between HH&R, Schulte and CBF and now the record is replete with unflattering commentary about all three. Their loss. Our gain.

🎆Lehman = Anniversary Fever🎆

Initiate the Deluge of Lehman Retrospectives (Short History)

The onslaught of “10 years ago” retrospectives about the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the “Great Recession,” and lessons learned (and not learned, as the case may be), has officially begun. Brace yourselves.

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine writes:

Next weekend marks 10 years since the day that Lehman Brothers Inc. filed for bankruptcy. I suppose you could argue for other dates being the pivotal moment of the global financial crisis, but I think most people sensibly take Lehman Day as the anniversary of the crisis. Certainly I have a vivid memory of where I was on Sept. 15, 2008 (on vacation, in Napa, very confused about why no one around me was freaking out), which is not true of, say, Bear Stearns Hedge Funds Day. So expect a lot of crisis commemoration in the next week or two.

Fair point about Bear Stearns. As we’ll note in a moment, that isn’t the only pivotal moment that is getting lost in the Lehman Brothers focus.

Anyway, Levine pokes fun at a Wall Street Journal piece entitled, “Lehman’s Last Hires Look Back.” It is worth a read if you haven’t already. The upshot: all four of the folks who started at Lehman on or around the day it went bankrupt ended up landing on their feet. In fact, it doesn’t sound like any of them really suffered much of a gap of employment, if any at all.

Levine continues:

I mean he stayed there for two and a half years and left, not because he was working for a bank that had imploded and couldn’t pay him anymore, but because he got “super jaded.” Another one “was fortunate that my position was maintained at Neuberger Berman [an investment-management firm then owned by Lehman], and I spent eight years there” — and now works for Dick Fuld at his new firm. It is all a bit eerie to read. Of course Lehman’s bankruptcy led, fairly rapidly, to many job losses in the financial industry, and particularly — of course — at Lehman.  But there is a lot of populist anger to the effect that investment bankers brought down the global economy and escaped relatively unscathed, and that anger will not be much assuaged by learning that these young bankers — who, to be fair, had nothing to do with bringing down the economy! — kept their jobs for years after Lehman’s bankruptcy and left only when they felt super jaded.

He’s got a point.

It’s not as if this is a happy anniversary and so there are a number of folks who are doubling-down on the doom and gloom. McKinsey, for instance, notes that global debt continues to grow and households have reduced debt but are still over-levered. They also note, as we’ve written previously, that (i) corporate debt serves as a large overhang (e.g., developing country debt denominated in foreign currencies, growth in junk bonds, the rise in “investment grade” BBB bonds, the resurgence of CLOs), (ii) real-estate prices are out of control and creating housing shortages, (iii) China’s growth trajectory is becoming murkier in the face of significant debt, and (iv) nobody fully knows the extent to which high-frequency trading can affect markets in a panic. They don’t even mention the possible effects of Central Banks’ tightening and unwinding QE (Jamie Dimon must be shaking his head somewhere). Nevertheless, they conclude:

The good news is that most of the world’s pockets of debt are unlikely to pose systemic risk. If any one of these potential bubbles burst, it would cause pain for a set of investors and lenders, but none seems poised to produce a 2008-style meltdown. The likelihood of contagion has been greatly reduced by the fact that the market for complex securitizations, credit-default swaps, and the like has largely evaporated (although the growth of the collateralized-loan-obligation market is an exception to this trend).

But one thing we know from history is that the next crisis will not look like the last one. If 2008 taught us anything, it’s the importance of being vigilant when times are still good.

Arturo Cifuentes writes in The Financial Times that, unfortunately, ratings agencies, insurance companies and investment executives got off relatively unscathed (in the case of the former, some fines notwithstanding). The Economist notes that housing issues, offshore dollar finance, and the post-Great Recession rise in populism (which prevents a solution to the euro’s structural problems) continue to linger. Ben BernankeTimothy Geithner and Henry Paulson Jr. worry that Congress has de-regulated too much too soon.

Others argue that the crisis made us too afraid of risk, at least initially — particularly at the individual level. And that this is why the recovery has been so slow and, in turn, populism has been on the rise. Indeed, some note that the response to the crisis is why “the system is breaking now.” And still others highlight how the return of covenant-lite is Exhibit A to the argument that memories are short and any lessons went flying right out the window. Castles in the air theory reigns supreme.

Anyway, The Wall Street Journal has a full section devoted to “The Financial Crisis: 10 Years Later” so you can drown yourself in history all you want. This Financial Times pieceresonated with us: we remember embarking on the same prophylactic personal financial protections at the time. And how eerie it was.

But what haven’t we seen much of? We would love to see “A Man in the High Castle”-like coverage of what would have happened had AIG not been bailed out and been allowed to fail. The bailout of AIG has largely been relegated to a footnote in the history of the financial crisis — much like, as Levine implied, the failure of Bear Stearns. Make no mistake, it’s undoubtedly better off that way. But remember: the AIG bailout occurred one day afterLehman Brothers bankruptcy filing. It, therefore, didn’t take long for the FED to conclude amidst the carnage of Lehman’s failure that an AIG failure would do ever-more unthinkable Purge-like damage to the international financial system. In fact, many believed at the time that, through its relationships with all of the big banks and the extensive exposure it had to credit default swaps, that AIG was more strongly correlated to the international system (and hence more dangerous) than even Lehman.

After seeing what was happening once Lehman went bankrupt, this was simply a risk that the FED wasn’t willing to take. What if they were willing? Where would the world economy look like now? It’s interesting to think about.

One last note on AIG: Lehman had 25,000 employees. AIG is currently twice that. Even from the perspective of headcount, it was literally too big to fail.

Initiate the Deluge of Lehman Retrospectives (Short History)

10 Years Have Passed Since the Great Recession. What has Changed?

The onslaught of “10 years ago” retrospectives about the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the “Great Recession,” and lessons learned (and not learned, as the case may be), has officially begun. Brace yourselves.

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💣Diebold. Disrupted.💣

Are Point-of-Sale & Self-Checkout Systems Effed (Short Diebold Nixdorf)?

Forgive us for returning to recently trodden ground. Since we wrote about Diebold Nixdorf Inc. ($DBD) in “💥Millennials & Post-Millennials are Killing ATMs💥,” there has been a flurry of activity around the name. The company…

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📱Is Tech in Trouble? Part 2.📱

Short Hefty Seed Rounds

ICYMI, in “📱Is Tech in Trouble?📱,” we asked whether…well…tech was in trouble. We aren’t alone.

A few weeks ago Brad Feld of Foundry Group wrote the following in a piece entitled, “Early Stage VCs — Be Careful Out There”:

Yesterday, in one of the quarterly updates that we get, I saw the following paragraph.

“Historically, the $10 million valuation mark has been somewhat of a ceiling for seed stage startups. But so far this year, we’ve seen that a number of companies, often times with nothing more than a team and a Powerpoint presentation, have had great success raising capital north of that $10 million level. Furthermore, round sizes continue to tick up, with many seed rounds now in the $2.5 million to $4.0 million range.”

We are seeing this also and have been talking about it internally, so it prompted me to say something about it.

I view this is a significant negative indicator.

It has happened only one other time in my investing career – in 1999.

Man. There’s so much money out there looking for some action.

Read the piece. It’s short. He closes with this:

For anyone that remembers 2000-2003, this obviously ended badly. By 2002 investments at the seed level had evaporated (there were almost no seed financings happening). In 2003 the angels started to reappear (some of the best angel deals of all time were done between 2004 and 2007) and the super angel language started to be used around 2007.

All the experienced finance people I know talk regularly about cycles. If you believe in cycles, this one feels pretty predictable. Of course, there is an opportunity in every part of the cycle. But, be careful out there.

The kinds of companies he’s talking about aren’t in the same zone as those that we wrote about last week. These early stage companies are too early to have any of the characteristics (i.e., public equity, advanced IP, leases, exposed directors) that we noted might qualify a company to leap outside of the sphere of an assignment of benefit of creditors and into bankruptcy court. But still. This piece could just as easily slide into our “What to Make of the Credit Cycle” series.

To put a cherry on top, read this piece from Jason Calacanis. We typically think Mr. Calacanis is too high on his own sh*t but this cautionary letter to the founders he’s invested in is, in fact, instructive. We particularly liked his link to a Sequoia Capital presentation circa 2008. It’s a must read for anyone who wants a primer/refresher on what the hell happened back in the financial crisis and some insight into how investors thought about the time.

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The upshot: he instructs his founders to do everything they can to ensure 12-18 months of runway.

So, where are we in the credit cycle? The part where a number of folks are starting to exercise and advise a bit more caution.

💰Private Equity Own Yo Sh*t (Short Health. And Care)💰

Forget Toys R Us. Private Equity Now Owns Your Eyes and Teeth

It has been over a month since media reports that Bernie Sanders and certain other Congressman questioned KKR about its role in the demise of Toys R Us (and the loss of 30k jobs). At the time, in “💥KKR Effectively Tells Bernie Sanders to Pound Sand💥,” we argued that the uproar was pretty ridiculous — even if we do hope that, in the end, we are wrong and that there’s some resolution for all of those folks who relied upon promises of severance payments. Remember: KKR declared that it is back-channeling with interested parties to come to some sort of resolution that will assuage people’s hurt feelings (and pocketbooks). Since then: we’ve heard nothing but crickets.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. What might, however, is the degree to which private equity money is in so many different places with such a large potential societal impact. It extends beyond just retail.

Last week Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management posted a blog post entitled, “If You’re a Seller, Sell Now. If you’re a Buyer, Wait.” Here are some choice bits (though we recommend you read the whole thing):

I’ve never seen a seller’s market quite like the one we’re in now for privately held companies. In almost any industry, especially if it’s white collar, professional services and has a recurring revenue stream. There are thirty buyers for every business and they’re paying record-breaking multiples. There are opportunities to sell and stay on to manage, or sell to cash out (and bro down). There are rollups rolling up all the things that can be rolled up.

In my own industry, private equity firms have come in to both make acquisitions as well as to back existing strategic acquirers. This isn’t brand new, but the pace is furious and the deal size is going up. I’m hearing and seeing similar things happening with medical practices and accounting firms and insurance agencies.

Anything that can be harvested for its cash flows and turned into a bond is getting bought. The competition for these “assets” is incredible, by all accounts I’ve heard. Money is no object.

Here’s why – low interest rates (yes they’re still low) for a decade now have pushed huge pools of capital further out onto the risk curve. They’ve also made companies that rely upon borrowing look way more profitable than they’d ordinarily be.

This can go on for awhile but not forever. And when the music stops, a lot of these rolled-up private equity creations will not end up being particularly sexy. Whether or not the pain will be greater for private vs public companies in the next recession remains to be seen.

The Institutional Investor outright calls a bubble in its recent piece, “Everything About Private Equity Reeks of Bubble. Party On!” They note:

The private equity capital-raising bonanza has at least one clear implication: inflated prices.

Buyout multiples last year climbed to a record 10.2 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. This year they remained elevated at an average of 9.5 times ebitda through May, a level surpassing the 2007 peak of the precrisis buyout boom.

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When you’re buying assets at inflated prices/values and levering them up to fund the purchase, what could possibly go wrong?

*****

What really caught our eye is Brown’s statement about medical practices. Ownership there can be direct via outright purchases. Or they can be indirect, through loans. Which, in a rising rate environment, may ultimately turn sour.

Consider for a moment the recent news that private equity is taking over from and competing with banks in the direct lending business. KKR, Blackstone Group, Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management LLC and Ares Management LP are all over the space, raising billions of dollars, the latter recently closing a new $10 billion fund in Q2. They’re looking at real estate, infrastructure, insurance, healthcare and hedge funds. Per The Wall Street Journal:

Direct loans are typically floating-rate, meaning they earn more in a rising-rate environment. But borrowers accustomed to low rates may be unprepared for a jump in interest costs on what’s often a big pile of debt. That risk, combined with increasingly lenient terms and the relative inexperience of some direct lenders, could become a bigger issue in a downturn.

Regulators like that banks are wary of lending to companies that don’t meet strict criteria. But they are concerned about what’s happening outside their dominion. Joseph Otting, U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, said earlier this year: “A lot of that risk didn’t go away, it was just displaced outside of the banking industry.”

What happens when the portfolio companies struggle and these loans sour? The private equity fund (or hedge fund, as the case may be) may end up becoming the business’ owner. Take Elements Behavioral Health, for instance. It is the US’s largest independent provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment. In late July, the bankruptcy court for the District of Delaware approved the sale of it the centers to Project Build Behavioral Health, LLC, which is a investment vehicle established by, among others, prepetition lender BlueMountain Capital Management. In other words, the next time Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan need rehab, they’ll be paying a hedge fund.

The hedge fund ownership of healthcare treatment centers thing doesn’t appear to have worked out so well in Santa Clara County.

These aren’t one-offs.

Apollo Global Management LLC ($APO) is hoping to buy LifePoint Health Inc. ($LPNT), a hospital operator in approximately 22 states, in a $5.6 billion deal. Per Reuters:

Apollo’s deal - its biggest this year - is the latest in a recent surge of public investments by U.S. private equity, the highest since the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

With a record $1 trillion in cash at their disposal, top private equity names have turned to healthcare. Just last month, KKR and Veritas Capital each snapped up publicly-listed healthcare firms in multi-billion dollar deals.

Indeed, hospital operators are alluring to investors, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Joseph France said. Because their operations are largely U.S.-based, hospital firms benefit more from lower tax rates than the average U.S. company, and are also more insulated from global trade uncertainties, France said.

Your next hospital visit may be powered by private equity.

How about dentistry? Well, in July, Bloomberg reported KKR & Co’s purchase of Heartland Dental in that “Private Equity is Pouring Money Into a Dental Empire.” It observed:

In April, the private equity powerhouse bought a 58 percent stake that valued Heartland at a rich $2.8 billion, the latest in a series of acquisitions in the industry. Other Wall Street investment firms -- from Leonard Green & Partners to Ares Management -- are also drilling into dentistry to see if they can create their own mega chains.

Here’s a choice quote for you:

"It feels a bit like the gold rush," said Stephen Thorne, chief executive officer of Pacific Dental Services. "Some of these private equity companies think the business is easier than it really is."

Hang on. You’re saying to yourself, “dentistry?” Yes, dentistry. Remember what Brown said: recurring revenue. People are fairly vigilant about their teeth. Well, and one other big thing: yield baby yield!

The nitrous oxide fueling the frenzy is credit. Heartland was already a junk-rated company, with debt of 7.4 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization as of last July. KKR’s takeover pushed that to about 7.9, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which considered the company’s leverage levels "very high."

Investors were so hungry that they accepted lenient terms in providing $1 billion of the leveraged loans that back the deal, making investing in the debt even riskier.

Nevermind this aspect:

Corporate dentistry has come under fire at times for pushing unnecessary or expensive procedures. But private equity firms say they’re drawn by efficiencies the chains can bring to individual dental practices, which these days require sophisticated marketing and expensive technology. The overall market for dental services is huge: $73 billion in 2017, according to investment bank Harris Williams & Co. Companies such as Heartland pay the dentists while taking care of everything else, including advertising, staffing and equipment. (emphasis added)

Your next dental exam powered by private equity.

Sadly, the same applies to eyes. Ophthalmology practices have been infiltrated by private equity too.

Your next cataracts surgery powered by private equity.

Don’t get us wrong. Despite the fact that we harp on about private equity all of the time, we do recognize that not all of private equity is bad. Among other positives, PE fills a real societal need, providing liquidity in places that may not otherwise have access to it.

But we want some consistency. To the extent that Congressmen, members of the mainstream media and workers want to bash private equity for its role in Toys R’ Us ultimate liquidation and in the #retailapocalypse generally, they may also want to ask their emergency room doctor, dentist and ophthalmologist who cuts his or her paycheck. And double and triple check whether a recommended procedure is truly necessary to service your eyes and mouth. Or the practice’s balance sheet.

🍾Happy Anniversary, Tower Records!!🍾

Tower Records Filed for Chapter 22 on August 20, 2006 (Long Disruption)

12 years ago today Tower Records Inc. filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 2.5 years, ending the company’s run in the United States (and most other places of the world).

The company first filed for bankruptcy in February 2004. The music retailer had approximately 90 stores and more than $110mm in debt that it owed to the likes of AIG Investment Group, Goldman Sachs & Co., JPMorgan Chase and…wait for it…Bear Stearns Securities Corp. The first bankruptcy was a short prepackaged bankruptcy that eliminated $80mm of debt in a debt-for-equity swap, leaving the company’s famous and eccentric owners with 15% of the company. The company attempted a sale process but had no takers. CIT Group provided the company with a $100mm DIP credit facility. O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Richards Layton & Finger PA represented the company (and both signatories to the petition actually still remain at those firms).

Interestingly, with some limited exception, the narrative explaining the company’s demise is not-all-too-different from what we see from retailers today. SFGate wrote at the time:

Tower's difficulties reflect those of the music industry during the past few years. Industry sales declined from $10.49 billion in 1999 to $8.93 billion in 2002, according to a report from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, which attributed the swoon to digital downloading and copying. Retailers are also under pressure from online sales by firms such as Amazon.com, and from deep discounting by such rivals as Wal-Mart, and fierce competition from other chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

CBSNews added:

The filing is expected to help clear the way for selling the 93-store chain that suffered from rapid changes in the music business, especially the exploding popularity of downloading music for free from the Internet. Discounters such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart Stores also undercut Tower's prices and hurt the chain's earnings.

Those trends and a major slump in the music industry followed fast on the heels of the company's 1998 decision to expand using $110 million of borrowed money. The expansion drove Tower to a peak of more than $1 billion in annual revenue with nearly 200 stores in 21 states and numerous franchises internationally. But it has been rapidly downsizing since 2001.

A filing last April with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed the retailer had lost money for 13 straight quarters.

Wait. Amazon ($AMZN)? Check. Deep discounting from the likes of Walmart ($WMT)? Check. Too much debt to fund an over-expansion? Check. Revenue declines on the basis of technological innovation? Check. We guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And stay the same they did. Even then. It took just 2.5 years for the company to wind its way back into bankruptcy court. And for all of the same reasons. Two months later, Great American Group, a firm that specializes in liquidations, emerged as the highest and best bidder in an auction for the company, winning with a bid of $134.5mm; it beat Trans World Entertainment Corporation ($TWMC), an entertainment media retail store operator that — shockingly — still exists. You may be familiar with it: it’s largest specialty retail brand is fye, which as of May 2018, still operated 253 stores. It is hanging by a thread, but it still exists — largely on the back of its etailz segment, which apparently thrives by doing omni-channel business with Amazon, Ebay, Jet.com/Walmart and Wish.

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Anyway, Trans World had hoped to continue operating at least some of the Tower locations; it lost the bidding by $500k. And, accordingly, Tower Records liquidated. While there is such a thing as Tower Records in Asia, the name is all but a distant memory today.

#BustedTech's Secret: Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors

Long Private Markets as Public Markets

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⚡️🤓Nerd alert: we need to lay a little foundation in this one with some legal mumbo-jumbo. Consider yourself warned. Solid payoff though. Stick with it.🤓⚡️

Allow us to apologize in advance. It’s summer time and yet we’ve been nerding out more often than usual: on Sunday, we dove into net-debt short activism, for goodness sake! We know: you want to just sit on the beach and read about how Petsmart implicates John Wick. We get it. Bear with us, though, because there is a business development aspect to this bit that you may want to heed. So attention all restructuring professionals (and, peripherally, start-up founders and venture capitalists)!

Recently the Turnaround Management Association published this piece by Andrew De Camara of Sherwood Partners Inc, describing a process called an “assignment for the benefit of creditors” (aka “ABC”). It outlines in systematic fashion the pros and cons of an ABC, generally, and relative to a formal chapter 11 filing. When the bubble bursts in tech and venture capital, we fear a number of you will, sadly, become intimately familiar with the concept. But there’ll be formal bankruptcies as well. ABCs won’t cut it for a lot of these companies at this stage in the cycle.

Let’s take a step back. What is the concept? Per Mr. De Camara:

An ABC is a business liquidation device governed by state law that is available to an insolvent debtor. The ABC procedure has long existed in law and is sometimes addressed in state statutes. In an ABC, a company, referred to as the assignor, transfers all of its rights, title, and interest in its assets to an independent fiduciary known as the assignee, who liquidates the assets and distributes the net proceeds to the company’s creditors. The assignee in an ABC serves in a capacity analogous to a bankruptcy trustee in a Chapter 7 or a liquidating trustee in a Chapter 11.

He goes on to state some characteristics of an ABC:

  • Board and shareholder consent is typically required. “If a company is venture-backed, it may be required to seek specific consent from both preferred and common shareholders. It is possible to enter publicly traded companies into an ABC; however, the shareholder proxy process increases the difficulty of effectuating the ABC and results in a much longer pre-ABC planning process.”

  • There is no discharge in an ABC.

  • Key factors necessitating an ABC include (a) negative cash burn + no access to debt or equity financing, (b) lender wariness, (c) Board-level risk as a lack of liquidity threatens the ability to pay accrued payroll and taxes, and (d) diminished product viability.

And some benefits of an ABC:

  • ABC assignees have a wealth of experience conducting liquidation processes;

  • The assignee manages the sale/liquidation process — not the Board or company officers — which, as a practical matter, tends to insulate the assignee from any potential attack relating to the process or sale terms;

  • Lower admin costs;

  • Lower visibility to an ABC than a bankruptcy filing;

  • Secured creditors general support the process due to its time and cost efficiency, not to mention distribution of proceeds; and

  • Given all of the above, the process should result in higher distributions to general unsecured creditors than, say, a bankruptcy liquidation.

Asleep yet? 😴

Great. Sleep is important. Yes or no, stick with us.

ABCs also have limitations:

  • Secured creditor consent is needed for use of cash collateral.

  • Buyers cannot assume secured debt without the consent of the secured creditor nor is there any possibility for cramdown like there is in chapter 11.

  • There is, generally, no automatic stay. This bit is critical: “While the ABC transfers the assets out of the assignor and therefore post-ABC judgments may have no practical value or impact, litigation can continue against the assignor, and the assignee typically has neither the funding nor the economic motivation to defend the assignor against any litigation. In addition, hostile creditors may decide to shift their focus to other stakeholders (i.e., board members or officers in their capacity as guarantors or fiduciaries) if they believe there will likely be no return for them from the ABC estate.”

  • Assignees have no right to assign executory contracts, diminishing the potential value of market-favorable agreements.

  • No free-and-clear sale orders. Instead you get a “bill of sale.” Choice quote: “A bill of sale, particularly from an assignee who is a well-known and well-regarded fiduciary, is a very powerful document from the perspective of creditor protection, successor liability, etc., but it does not have the same force and effect as a free-and-clear sale order from a bankruptcy court.”

The question right now is, given the robust nature of the capital markets these days, should you care about any of the above? Per Pitchbook:

This is a golden age for venture capital and the startup ecosystem, as illustrated by PitchBook's latest PitchBook NVCA-Venture Monitor. So far this year, $57.5 billion has been invested in US VC-backed companies. That's higher than in six of the past 10 full years and is on pace to surpass $100 billion in deal value for the first time since the dot-com bubble.

Fundraising continues at breakneck speed. Unicorns are no longer rare, and deal value in companies with a $1 billion valuation or more is headed for a new record. The size of VC rounds keeps swelling. Deep-pocketed private equity players are wading in.

Signs of success (or is it excess?) are everywhere you look. On the surface, delivering a resounding verdict that the Silicon Valley startup model not only works, it works well and should be emulated and celebrated.

But what if that's all wrong? What if this is another mere bubble and the VC industry is in fact storing up pain…?

That's the question posited by Martin Kenney and John Zysman—of the University of California, Davis, and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively—in a recent working paper titled "Unicorns, Cheshire Cats, and the New Dilemmas of Entrepreneurial Finance?"

Instead of spending millions, or billions, in the pursuit of unicorns that could emulate the "winner-takes-all" technology platform near-monopolies of Apple and Facebook and the massive capital gains that resulted, VC investors and their LP backers could instead be buying a bunch of fat Cheshire cats. Bloated by overvaluation, and likely to disappear, leaving just a smile and big losses, since many software-focused tech startups have no tangible assets.

They then ask whether there’s more here than meets the eye. More from Pitchbook:

The problem is that this cycle has been marked by easy capital and a fetishization of the early-to-middle parts of the tech startup lifecycle. Lots of incubators and accelerators. "Shark Tank" on television. "Silicon Valley" on HBO. Never before has it been this easy and cheap to start or expand a venture.

Yet on the other end of the lifecycle, exit times have lengthened, as late-series deal sizes swell, reducing the impetus to IPO (in search of public market capital) or sell before growth capital runs out.

So, what’s the problem?

…in the view of Kenney and Zysman, the VC industry lacks discipline, seeking disruption and market share dominance without a clear path to profitability. You see, VC-fueled startups aren't held to the same standard as existing publicly traded competitors who must answer to investors worried about cash flows and operating earnings every three months. Or of past VC cycles where money was tighter, and thus, time to exit shorter.

We’ll come back to the public company standard in a second.

The interesting thing about the private markets becoming the new public markets (with funding galore) is that when the crazy frenzy around funding (PETITION NOTE: read the link) eventually stops, the markets will just be the markets. And all hell will break lose. The question then becomes whether a company has enough liquidity to stem the tide. What happens if it doesn’t?

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An ABC may very well be a viable alternative for dealing with the carnage. But with private markets staying in growth stages privately for longer, doesn’t that likely mean that there’s more viable intellectual property (e.g., software, data, customer lists)? That a company has a bigger and better San Francisco office (read: lease)? That directors have a longer time horizon advising the company (and, gulp, greater liability risk)? Maybe, even, that there’s venture debt on the balance sheet as an accompaniment to the last funding round (after all, Spotify famously had over $1b of venture debt on its balance sheet shortly before going public)?

All of which is to say that “the bigger they come, the harder they fall.” When the music stops — and, no, we will NOT be making any predictions there, but it WILL stop — sure, there will be a boatload of ABCs keeping (mostly West Coast) professionals busy. But there will also be a lot of tech-based bankruptcies of companies that have raised tens of millions of dollars. That have valuable intellectual property. That have a non-residential real property lease that it’ll want to assign in San Francisco’s heated real estate market. That have a potential buyer who wants the comfort of a “free and clear” judicial order. That have shareholders, directors and venture capital funds who will want once-controversial-and-now-very-commonplace third-party releases from potential litigation and a discharge.

Venture capitalists tend to like ABCs for private companies because, as noted above, they’re “lower visibility.” They like to move fast and break things. Until things actually break. Then they move fast to scrub the logos off their websites. What’s worse? Visibility or potential liability?

And then there are the public markets.

A month ago, we discussed Tintri Inc., a California-based flash and hybrid storage system provider, that recently filed for bankruptcy. Therein we cautioned against IPOs of companies with “massive burn rates.” We then went on to highlight the recent IPO of Domo Inc. ($DOMO) and noted it’s significant cash burn and dubious reasons for tapping the public markets, transferring risk to Moms and Pops in the process. The stock was trading at $19.89/share then. Here is where it stands now:

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In the same vein, on Monday, in response to Sunday’s Members’-only piece entitled “😴Mattress Firm's Nightmare😴,” one reader asked what impact a potential Mattress Firmbankruptcy filing could have on Purple Innovation, Inc. ($PRPL), the publicly-traded manufacturer and distributor of Purple bed-in-a-box product. Our response:

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And we forgot to mention rising shipping costs (which the company purports to have mitigated by figuring out…wait for it…how to fold its mattresses).*

And then yesterday, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide (who is excellent by the way) reported that “Cash Wildfire Spreads Among Young Tech Companies.” She wrote:

It’s time to get real about the financial fragility of young technology companies. Far too many are living beyond their means, flirting with disaster and putting their investors at risk. 

Bloomberg Opinion examined 150 U.S. technology companies that had gone public since the beginning of 2010 and were still operating independently as of Aug. 10. About 37 percent had negative cash from operations in the prior 12 months, meaning their cash costs exceeded the cash their businesses had generated. 

A handful of the companies, including online auto dealer Carvana Co., the mattress e-commerce company Purple Innovation Inc. and health-care software firm NantHealth Inc., were on pace to burn through their cash in less than a year, based on their current pace of cash from operations and reserves in their most recent financial statements.

In addition to Purple Innovation, Ms. Ovide points out that the following companies might have less than 12 months of cash cushion: ShiftPixy Inc. ($PIXY), RumbleON Inc. ($RMBL), RMG Networks Holding Corp. ($RMGN), NantHealth Inc. ($NH), Carvana Co. ($CVNA), and LiveXLive Media Inc. ($LIVX).

She continued:

The big takeaway for me: Young technology companies in aggregate are becoming more brittle during one of the longest bull markets ever for U.S. stocks. This trend is not healthy. Companies that persistently take in less cash than they need to run their businesses risk losing control of their own destinies. They need continual supplies of fresh cash, which could hurt their investors, and the companies may be in a precarious position if they can’t access more capital in the event of deteriorating market or business conditions.

It’s not unusual for young companies, especially fast-growing tech firms, to burn cash as they grow. But the scope of the companies with negative cash from operations, and the persistence of some of those cash-burning companies for years, was a notable finding from the Bloomberg Opinion analysis.

Notable, indeed. There will be tech-based ABCs AND bankruptcies galore in the next cycle. Are you ready? Are you laying the foundation? Are you spending too much time skating to where the puck is rather than where it will be?


*We’ll take this opportunity to state what should be obvious: you should follow us on Twitter.

But, seriously, and more importantly, we know we tout the disruptive effects of the direct-to-consumer model. But make no mistake: we are WELL aware that a number of these upstarts are going to fail. Make no mistake about that.