🏦How are the Investment Banks Doing? Part I.🏦

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There was a barrage of earnings over the last two weeks and they can sometimes be a bellwether of things to come for the economy so we figured we’d dig in. Here’s what we learned…

Evercore Inc. ($EVR) was among the first investment banks to report Q1 ‘19 earnings back in late April (though the Q was only filed on May 2) and, man, they came out of the gate fast and furious on the earnings call with all kinds of braggadocious talk about being fourth highest in global advisory revenue in ‘18, and how they’re kicking a$$ and taking names in ‘19 already, etc. Only then, however, to say that YOY results were down. Hahaha. Totally buried the lede. Revenues were $419.8mm, down 10% YOY. Investment banking fees were down 14%. This despite 59 fees greater than $1mm, as compared to 53 in the year ago period.

Regarding, M&A volume and Europe:

…if you look at the M&A environment generally the dollar volume of announced transactions in the first quarter was down mid teens and the number of announced transactions globally was down in the high 20s. In Europe there was actually a little bit more pronounced. The interesting thing is if one looks at our backlogs they're not really consistent with the announced activities in the first quarter and to be completely blunt about is we expect this year could be a pretty good year. We certainly don't see anything in our dialogues with clients that suggests that it won't be.

Some EVR-specific highlights include (i) increased emphasis on “liability management” as a source of revenue generation and (ii) in turn, no increased emphasis on coverage of smaller cap companies (like certain competitor banks). EVR says that is not a focus: the focus is on bigger deals or deals with “high quality companies that may not be big.” In other words, they don’t want quals for quals sake. They want to get paid. And get paid well.

Specifically relating to restructuring, this is what EVR had to say:

…our advisory revenues last year were up in every category including restructuring notwithstanding the fact that default levels are at almost all time lows. So I think we've been able – we've added talent in the restructuring area. We think we are well positioned to capitalize on a pickup of activity when that inevitably happens. But other than relatively isolated sector activity like retail or like we saw in energy two or three years ago, there certainly is no broad scale pick up in distressed companies at this point in time.

No sh*t. Though it does seem like things have picked up a notch, no?

*****

Greenhill & Co. Inc. ($GHL) reported only $51.2mm of revenue, down 42% on a “dearth of large completions and generally slower deal activity,” and a “decline in EU revenue” more than offsetting increases in other regions. Noticing a Euro-centric theme here?


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🌋FuelCell Sucks Wind (Long Distressed Power)🌋

Fuel Cell Power Plant Manufacturer Struggles

Amazon is not too big to fail… In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail,” Jeff Bezos said back in November. He makes a salient point: even once-uber-successful companies are subject to disruption and questions of sustainability over long periods of time. This is an industry-agnostic notion. 

We can debate the definition of “successful” but it seems fair to say a company that once had a market capitalization of $1.5b falls into that category. One such company that fits that bill, FuelCell Energy Inc. ($FCEL), is now a shell of its former self, teetering on the brink of chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

Connecticut-based FCEL designs, manufactures, installs, operates and services “ultra-clean” efficient and reliable stationary full cell power plants to an end market of commercial, industrial, government and utility customers. It’s mission is a worthy one: to deliver clean innovative power solutions, utilizing environmentally responsible fuel cells. There’s just one problem with all of that: it doesn’t make money. And it hasn’t since its fiscal year ended October 1997.

The company — not the first to experience distress in the power sector in recent times — is getting battered on all sides. Wind and solar have stolen a lot of the company’s mojo. Competitors such as the controversial Bloom Energy Corp. ($BE)have taken market share even while it, too, has seen its market cap shrink from over $4b to just over $1b. New order volume has been elusive. 

All of this shows in the company’s numbers. Revenues have declined from $190mm in 2013 to $90mm in 2018. LTM revenue is only ~$70mm. The company’s Quick Ratio and Current Ratio — both measures of the company’s ability to cover short-term financial obligations — are .6x and 1.3x respectively, versus industry comps of 1.1x and 1.5x. And, thanks to these numbers, capital sources may no longer be available.

The company’s historical financial channels included sales of equity (including a NUMBER of preferred equity issuances), corporate and project level debt financing, and local or state government loans or grants. Here is a snapshot of the company’s debt sitch:

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In the light of this debt, $41.6mm of debt at the corporate level, and the company’s declining revenue predicament, the company is focused on liquidity. Per the company’s most recent 10K:

The Company’s future liquidity will be dependent on obtaining a combination of increased order and contract volumes, increased cash flows from the Company’s generation and service portfolios and cost reductions necessary to achieve profitable operations.

To grow its generation portfolio, the Company will invest in developing and building turn-key fuel cell projects which will be owned by the Company and classified as project assets on the balance sheet. This strategy requires liquidity and is expected to continue to have increasing liquidity requirements as project sizes increase.

Which, you might appreciate, creates a bit of a circularity problem. The company needs to spend more to make more which means cash flow in the near term is highly unlikely.

Consequently, the company just sh*tcanned 135 people to save approximately $11.5mm. To the extent those employees held stock, well:

Bloomberg recently noted:

NRG, the largest independent U.S. power producer, has also been a key backer. It owned 1.4 million shares in the company, based on the latest holding data compiled by Bloomberg, and provided a $40 million revolving credit facility to help FuelCell build power plants. But that credit line may expire this year, and without another large investor willing to throw more money at the company's technology, FuelCell faces a grim future, [an analyst] said.

“Their only hope,” he said, “is to find someone who wants to finance this.”

We find it highly unlikely that any financing occurs outside of bankruptcy court. Notwithstanding a recently-announced new purchase power agreement with the City of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department, we suspect we’ll be seeing this thing in Delaware sometime soon. 

Casual Dining is a Hot Mess. Part VI. (Short Franchisees).

We’ve previously written about Kona Grill Inc. ($KONA) and Luby’s Inc. ($LUB) here. Indeed, we marked the former’s now-inevitable descent into bankruptcy as far back as April 2018. Subsequently, we’ve followed each quarter with interest only to witness the conflagration get bigger and bigger along the way. This sucker is certainly headed into bankruptcy.

Here is what’s new: Kona hired an Alvarez & Marsal Managing Director as its CEO — its fifth CEO in less than a year. It publicly indicated that it may have to file for bankruptcy. And Nasdaq delisted it. Stick a fork in it.

Likewise, we first highlighted Luby’s in July 2018. In a follow-up in January, we wrote:

And then there is Luby’s Inc. ($LUB)We featured the chain back in July, highlighting continued overall same store sales and total sales decreases. We did note, however, that the company has the advantage of owning a lot of its locations and that asset sales, therefore, could help buy the company time and assuage lender concerns. Real estate sales have, in fact, been a significant part of the company’s strategy. And so the lenders haven’t been its problem. Activist shareholders have been.

But that’s not entirely the full picture. We also noted that the company’s numbers “suck.” Which begs the question: now that another quarter has gone by, has anything changed?

On the performance side, not particularly.

Same store sales decreased 3.3%. Restaurant sales were down 12.1% (offset slightly by culinary contract services sales). Every single restaurant brand performed poorly: Luby’s Cafeterias were down 6.1%, Cheeseburger in Paradise (TERRIBLE name) down 76%, F*cked-ruckers…uh, Fuddruckers, was down 19%, and combo locations were down 7%. Basically this was an absolute bloodbath. Fuddruckers same-store sales were -5.3%. Analysts don’t even bother covering the stock. The company trades at $1.50/share at the time of this writing.

But things have changed a bit on the cost side. The company has closed 27 underperforming restaurants and sold $34.7mm in assets. It has also moved forward with its plans to refranchise many company-owned Fuddruckers, converting five units to franchisors who are clearly gluttons for punishment. The company has also engaged in food and operating cost cutting initiatives. Who is helping them out with this? Duh…the new CEO and Alvarez & Marsal’s “performance improvement” group

PETITION Note: we always find “PI” projects spearheaded by divisions out of large turnaround advisory firms to be interesting beasts. Imagine the conversations behind closed doors:

PI Managing Director: “Yeah, bro, we just took $0.2mm of SG&A out of the business and we believe there is more room to run there once we beat up the supply chain a bit, postpone repairs and maintenance, adjust employee hours, and make food cuts.

Restructuring Managing Director: “Food cuts, huh?

PI Managing Director: “Yeah, we DEFINITELY wouldn’t recommend you eat there.

Restructuring Managing Director: “Got it. So, uh, this is obviously a bit delicate but, uh, here’s the real question: how can you guys continue to take SOME costs out of the business and look like heroes…without…uh…improving performance…you know…TOO MUCH?

Boisterous bro-tastic laughs, winks and secret handshakes ensue.

Now, sure, sure, that’s cynical AF and not at all fair here: we’re not at all saying that anyone is doing anything untoward here. Yet, we wouldn’t be surprised, however, if conversations such as these happen though. Just saying.


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⚡️Update: Pier 1 Reports Horrific Numbers⚡️

And then there is the “ghastly” sh*tshow that is Pier 1 Imports Inc. ($PIR). Back in January, we asked “Is Pier 1 on the Ropes? (Short “Iconic” Brands)” — a question that a lot of retail analysts now seem to be asking in the wake of a horrendous earnings report. How horrendous was it? Comp sales decreased 13.7% YOY, net sales decreased 19.5% YOY, and the company had a net loss of $68.8mm (or $0.85/share). And apropos to the discussion above, the company indicated that it’s considering closing 45 stores in fiscal 2020 due to lease expirations — a number that could rise by upwards of 15% if the company’s new cost-cutting action plan (to the tune of $110mm) doesn’t bear fruit. The company hired A&G Realty to help with this initiative.

So, about that action plan. Here’s what the company has to say about it:

Pier 1 is implementing an action plan designed to drive benefits in fiscal 2020 of approximately $100-$110 million by resetting its gross margin and cost structure. Approximately one-third of the benefits are expected to be realized in gross margin, with the remaining two-thirds coming from cost reduction. After reinvesting in the business, the Company believes it will be positioned to recapture approximately $30-$40 million of net income and $45-$55 million of EBITDA in fiscal year 2020. The Company expects to capture efficiencies and drive improvement in the following areas: 1) Revenue and Margin; 2) Marketing and Promotional Effectiveness; 3) Sourcing and Supply Chain; 4) Cost Cutting; and 5) Store Optimization.

As part of the $100-$110 million of benefits discussed above, the Company has identified approximately $70-$80 million of selling, general and administrative (“SG&A”) savings opportunity for fiscal 2020, the majority of which is expected to be realized in the second half of the year. This SG&A savings opportunity for fiscal 2020 reflects an expected annual run-rate of approximately $95-$105 million.

The subsequent earnings call was…uh…interesting. Led off by an outside investor relations firm, the company’s interim CEO then took over the call by sharing, in the first instance, that an AlixPartners’ restructuring MD is now serving the company as interim CFO. Awesome start. Recent retail quals include Bon-Ton Stores and Gymboree. The team then went on at length about all of the various improvements they hope to instill in the business.

The analysts on the call were…shall we say…NOT EVEN REMOTELY convinced.

Beryl Bugatch, an analyst from Raymond James & Associates pounded the team with questions…

What is the guidance? The company declined to guide.

Where is the delta between the $100mm in cost savings and the $55mm in EBITDA improvement going? The company abstractly answered “we are reinvesting a portion of the savings back in the business.

Where though? Marketing? The company responded, “assortment strategy, our talent and capability and efficiencies and things to drive efficiency in the plan.” READ: HIGH PRICED ADVISORS.

What’s liquidity look like? The company said it had $55mm in cash, $50mm in the FILO tranche and an undrawn revolver — enough to get through fiscal 2020.

But how clean is the inventory?

By this point the company was like:

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⛅The Rise of the Cloud. (Long Cloud Usage. Short Debt-Laden Intermediaries).⛅

 

The “cloud” is such a fundamental business component today that cloud considerations inform various aspects of business planning. Look no farther than Amazon Inc. ($AMZN)Microsoft Inc. ($MSFT)Cisco Inc. ($CSCO), and Google Inc. ($GOOGL), and you’ll see cloud computing providers who are minting money on a quarterly basis for providing services that alleviate the server and storage burden of businesses across all kinds of industry verticals. Underscoring the importance of the cloud, IBM Inc. ($IBM) spent a fortune — $34 billion! — acquiring Red Hat Inc. to boost its cloud-for-business offering. Furthermore, recent IPOs have illustrated just how important cloud services are: Pinterest Inc.Snap Inc. ($SNAP)Lyft Inc. ($LYFT), and many other high-flying companies pay hundreds of millions in fixed contracts for cloud computing services that power their applications in ways that everyday end users almost certainly don’t recognize and/or appreciate.

The “cloud,” however, subsumes various other services in addition to computing/storage. There are connectivity-focused applications (provided by the likes of AT&T Inc. ($T)Comcast Corporation ($CMCSA), and others) unified cloud communications applications (i.e., Vonage Holdings Corp. ($VG)), and point solutions (e.g., Citrix Systems Inc. ($CTXS)). One could be forgiven for thinking that everything and anything touching cloud would be gold in this environment. Imagine, for instance, if one firm could serve as an intermediary linking together various cloud-based solutions for other small, medium and large businesses!! Cha Ching!! 

Apparently that’s not the case.

New York-based Fusion Connect Inc., “a provider of integrated cloud solutions, including cloud communications, cloud connectivity and business services to small, medium and large businesses” is bucking the hot cloud trend and barreling quickly towards a bankruptcy court. This begs the question: what the holy f*ck? How is that even possible?

Per a January investor presentation, this is Fusion’s cloud services revenue:

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The 2018 revenue is annualized: revenue in Q3 ‘18 was actually $143.4mm with gross margins of 49.1%. Net operating income was $4mm. Yet the company lost $0.23/share. How does that work? Well, the company had $21.6mm in interest expense.

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The weighted-average rate of interest across the company’s credit facilities is approximately LIBOR + 7.7%. 😬 Not exactly cheap. Compounding matters is that the debt isn’t exactly cov-lite (shocking, we know): rather, the company is subject to all kinds of affirmative and negative covenants. Yes, once upon a time, those did exist.

The company’s recent SEC reports constitute a perfect storm of bad news. On April 2, the company filed a Form 8-K indicating that (i) a recently-acquired company had material accounting deficiencies that will affect its financials and, therefore, certain of the company’s prior filings “can no longer be relied upon,” (ii) it won’t be able to file its 10-K, (iii) it failed to make a $7mm interest payment on its Tranche A and Tranche B term loan borrowings due on April 1, 2019, and (iv) due to the accounting errors, the company has tripped various covenants under the first lien credit agreement — including its fixed charge coverage ratio and its total net leverage ratio. Rounding out this horror show of news, the company disclosed that it may need to seek a chapter 11 filing (combined with a CCAA in Canada) and has hired Weil Gotshal & Manges LLPFTI Consulting Inc. ($FTI) and Macquarie Capital USA Inc. to advise it vis-a-vis strategic options. B.Riley/FBR ($RILY) analyst Josh Nicholsimmediately downgraded the company from “buy” to “neutral” (huh?!?) with a price target of $0.75 from $9.75. Uh, okay:

This is why you should never listen to equity analysts. This is the stock chart from the past year:

Like, the stock has been nowhere near $9.75, but whatevs.

On Monday, the company filed another Form 8-K. The company and 18 of its affiliated bankrupt US debtors…uh, we mean, guarantors…entered into a forbearance agreement with lenders under the Wilmington Trust NA-agented first lien credit agreement. The lenders will forbear from exercising rights and remedies stemming from the company’s defaults until April 29. The company had to pay 200 bps for the time to try and work this all out and agree to pay a slew of lender professionals, including Greenhill & Co. Inc. ($GHL) and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for an ad hoc group of Tranche B term lenders, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP for the lenders of Tranche A term loans and the revolving lenders, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer for Wilmington Trust.

The company’s Tranche B term lenders include East West BankGoldman SachsMorgan StanleyOnex Credit PartnersOppenheimer Funds and a whole bunch of CLOs. The latter fact may make a debt-for-equity swap interesting (PETITION Note: most CLOs are unable to hold equity securities).

The clock is ticking on this one.

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Ferrellgas Partners LP Lights Money on Fire

 
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Kansas-based Ferrellgas Partners LP ($FGP) is an old school business. For nearly 80 years, it has been a nationwide home and business propane provider with propane demand driven primarily by users of space and water heaters, and large engine operators (i.e., forklifts, mowers, and generators). According to the EIA, “[a]bout 5% of all U.S. households heat primarily with propane, and many of those households are in the Northeast and Midwest.” The market for the product, however, is fairly static, thereby limiting the company’s go-forward growth prospects. Accordingly, a few years back, it sought to supplement its core business and diversify its revenue streams via acquisition.

In 2015, therefore, the company acquired Bridger Logistics, a midstream services business involving the shipping and storage of oil, for approximately $837.5mm. The company paid nearly $563mm in cash (read: issued debt to pay cash) and the rest in stock: this elevated purchase price represented a 8.4x multiple on estimated next twelve months EBITDA of $100mm. The company noted the following at the time of the acquisition:

"The move positions Ferrellgas to significantly expand its midstream platform and is expected to be immediately accretive to Ferrellgas and supportive of future distribution growth.”

Only it wasn’t. Rather than being accretive, the transaction became the epitome of (i) haphazardly reaching beyond a core competency, (ii) stretched economics during a frothy seller’s market, and (iii) bad timing. Shortly after the transaction, the midstream services sectors got napalmed. And never recovered. In 2018, the Company reported that Bridger and other accumulated midstream asset gross margin decreased an astounding 75% to $12.6mm. Burdened by an over-levered capital structure, the company reversed course and rather than attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole, decided to start shedding assets to paydown debt. Indeed, the company sold the same acquired assets for a total of $92mm — which amounts to an absolutely BRUTAL level of value destruction.

Clearly that acquisition didn’t go as planned. After a brutal 18-month failure, the transaction left the most lasting impression on the company’s balance sheet:

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💸Goldman Sachs Hops Aboard the Mall Short💸

Mall Shorts Gather Steam

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In last Wednesday’s “Thanos Snaps, Retail Disappears👿,” we included a LOOOOOONG list of retailers that are shutting down stores. Subsequently, J.Crew Group announced that it is closing a net 10 stores (20 J.Crew locations offset by 10 Madewell openings), Williams-Sonoma Inc. ($WSM) announced that it plans to close a net total of 30 stores, Hibbett Sports Inc. ($HIBB) announced approximately 95 stores will close this year, and Tommy Hilfiger closed its global flagship store on Fifth Avenue (Query: is New York City f*cked?) and its Collins Avenue store in Miami.

The point of the piece, however, wasn’t to wallow in retail carnage: rather, it was to make the point that there’s no way the malls — or at least certain malls — could continue business as usual.* With thousands of stores coming offline, we argued, there have to be malls that start feeling the pain and, eventually, run afoul of their lenders. We used $CBL as our poster child and closed by stating that Canyon Partners was shorting mall-focused CMBS via a CDS index, the Markit CMBX.BBB- (and lower indices).

Apparently Goldman Sachs Inc. ($GS) is in on the action. Late last week, Goldman urgedclients join the "big short" bandwagon by going short CMBX AAA bonds (while hedging in a pair trade by going long five-year investment-grade corporate CDX).” ZeroHedgesummarizes the Goldman report as follows:

Citing the bank's recent review of potential areas of financial imbalance across the US corporate and household sectors, [the Goldman analyst] notes that stretched CRE valuations ranked near the top in terms of risk level; and while a large and immediate commercial property price downturn is not the bank's baseline forecast, "a scenario with falling commercial property prices in the next 1-2 years is one to which we would attach non-negligible probability" the analysts caution.

And, then, in customary hyperbolic form, Zerohedge concludes:

Why is this notable? Because regular readers will recall that the 2007/2008 financial crisis really kicked in only after Goldman's prop desk started aggressively shorting various RMBS tranches, both cash and synthetic, in late 2006 and into 2007 and 2008, with the trade eventually becoming the "big short" that was popularized in the Michael Lewis book.

Will Goldman's reco to short CMBX-6 AAA be the trigger that collapses the house of cards for the second time in a row? While traditionally lightning never strikes twice the same place, the centrally-planned market is now so broken that even conventional idioms have to be redone when it comes to the world's (still) most important trading desk. In any case, keep an eye on commercial real estate prices: while residential markets have already peaked with most MSAs sliding fast, commercial may just be the first domino to drop that unleashes a tsunami of disastrous consequences across the rest of the market.

It is far from certain that all of this noise about shorting CMBS is anything more than isolated trades. One thing that is certain? Zerohedge is better at drumming up fear than Jordan Peele.

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*****

Speaking of J.Crew, S&P took a dump all over it yesterday as it downgraded the issuer credit rating to CCC and simultaneously downgraded its “intellectual property notes” — ouch, that must sting some (short asset stripping?) — and its secured term loan facility. The ratings agency maintains a “negative outlook” on the company, saying that “operating results deteriorated considerably in the most recent quarter,” and “approaching maturities of the company’s very high debt burden could lead J.Crew to restructure its debt in the next 12 months.” S&P provides a damning assessment:

We think the company continues to face significant headwinds to turn around operations which haven’t meaningfully improved since the J Crew brand relaunch in 2018. These threats include fast fashion and online retail, as well as continued declines in mall traffic and greater price transparency across the apparel industry. We believe these trends are especially heightened for U.S. mid-priced apparel retail players as consumers shift apparel spending toward brands with a consistent customer message or more appealing prices, given the continued preference for value, freshness, and convenience.

Tell us how you really feel, S&P.

*****

Speaking of damning assessments, there was this flamethrower of a press release issued by Legion Partners Holdings LLC, Macellum Advisors GP LLC, and Ancora Advisors LLC regarding Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. ($BBBY). Burn, baby, burn.

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PETITION readers will recall our previous discussion of BBBY. In January in “Is Pier 1 on the Ropes? (Short “Iconic” Brands),” we included discussion of BBBY and declared:

Bed Bath & Beyond swam against the retail tide last week as the company’s stock showed huge gains after it said that it is ahead of its long-term plan and that it is successfully slowing down declines in operating profit and net earnings per share. Which is interesting because, putting forward guidance aside, the ACTUAL numbers weren’t all that great. In fact, the company’s trend of disappointing same-store sales continues unabated (negative 1.8%, worse than forecast). EPS and revenue numbers were slightly better and slightly worse, respectively, than expected. Which means that to drive the higher EPS, the company must be taking costs out of the business. We have no crystal ball and this is in now way meant to be construed as investment advice, but we’re not seeing justification for a massive stock price increase (up 15% from when we wrote about it and 30% from its December 24 low).

Suffice it to say, the aforementioned investors were far from impressed. The press release kicks off with:

Magnitude of value destruction necessitates wholesale board and leadership changes. CEO Steven Temares has overseen the destruction of more than $8 billion in market value over his 15-year tenure, with total shareholder returns of negative 58%. Since early 2015, the stock has lost over 80% of its value.

Certainly not mincing words there, that’s for sure.

It then follows with:

Failed retail execution and strategy. Apparent inability to prioritize a long list of poorly implemented initiatives and management’s lack of success in adapting its business model to a changing retail landscape, has resulted in stagnant sales and adjusted EBITDA margins declining from 18% in fiscal 2012 to 7% in the last 12-month period ending November 2018.

Deeply entrenched board lacking retail experience is an impediment to serving shareholder interests. Average director tenure is approximately 19 years and the lack of retail expertise and stale perspectives on the board have hindered proper oversight of the management team.

We mean…those are just cold. Hard. Facts. And they’re not wrong about the board: it strains credulity to think that the Head of the TIAA Institute, a pensioned partner at Proskauer Rose LLP, and an EVP for Verizon Communications Inc. know f*ck all about the travails afflicting retail these days (to be fair: it seems the founder and CEO of Red Antler, a reputable branding agency that has helped build the likes of Casper, Keeps, Boxed, Google, allbirds and Birchbox makes sense…if anything has value here…and, yes, we’re REALLY stretching here…its the, gulp, brand…like, maybe??…or, like, maybe not???).

Seriously, it’s not really difficult to argue with this (even if the investors take some liberties in defining companies like Restoration Hardware ($RH) as “retail peers”):

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Problematically, however, the three firms own merely 5% of the outstanding common stock so there’s not a ton that they can do to agitate for change. The market, though, doesn’t seem to give a sh*t: it just wants something…anything…to happen with this business.

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More significantly, investors simply cannot sit on the sidelines anymore and watch retail management teams flail in the wind. We discussed certain management teams that really seem to be skating to where the puck is going, see, e.g., $PLCE. But many others aren’t and those that aren’t act at their own peril. Here, at least, investors are putting management and the board of directors on notice.

Expect to see other investors act similarly in other cases.

*There are a number of malls, however, that do seem to be continuing business as usual. This piece makes the point that apocalypse is not as bad as the media makes out.

Disruption Milks Milk Producers (Long…Oats?)

Dean Foods Co. Dips into Distressed Territory

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Dean Foods Co. ($DF), the largest US supplier of milk and dairy to retailers with over 50 brands, announced this week that, in light of “a significant amount of change happening in the marketplace” and a “dynamic retail environment,” that it would pursue strategic alternatives (read: a sale, a take-private transaction, asset sales, a JV, or a merger). The company’s stock plunged nearly 12% on the announcement before rebounding slightly later in the week.* It is down 90% since its peak in 2007.

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💰All Hail Private Equity💰

Private Equity Rules the Roost (Long Following the Money)

So, like, private equity is apparently a big deal. Who knew?

Readers of PETITION are very familiar with the growing influence, and impact of, private equity. We wouldn’t have juicy dramatic bankruptcies like Toys R UsNine West and others to write about without leveraged buyouts, excessive leverage, management fees, and dividend recapitalizations. Private equity is big M&A business. Private equity is also big bankruptcy business. And it just gets bigger and bigger. On both fronts.

The American Lawyer recently wrote:

Private equity is pushing past its pre-recession heights and it is not expected to slow down. Mergermarket states that the value of private equity deals struck in the first half of 2018 set a record. PricewaterhouseCoopers expects that the assets under management in the private equity industry will more than double from $4.7 trillion in 2016 to $10.2 trillion in 2025.

With twice as much dry powder to spend on deals, private equity firms will play a large role in determining the financial winners and losers of the Am Law 100 over the next five-plus years. It amounts to a power shift from traditional Wall Street banking clients and their preferred, so-called white-shoe firms to those other outfits that advise hard-charging private equity leaders.

Indeed, PE deal flow through the first half of the year was up 2% compared to 1H 2017:

In August, the American Investment Council noted that there was $353 billion of dry powder leading into 2018. No wonder mega-deals like Refinitiv and Envision Healthcare are getting done. But, more to the point, big private equity is leading to big biglaw business, big league. Say that five times fast.

The American Lawyer continues:

It is hard to find law firm managing partners who don’t acknowledge the attraction of private equity clients. Their deals act as a lure, catching work for a variety of practice groups: tax, M&A, finance and employee benefits. And lawyers often end up handling legal work for the very companies they help private equity holders buy. Then, of course, there is always the sale of that business. A single private equity deal for one of the big buyout firms can generate fees ranging from $1 million to $10 million, sources say.

“It’s kind of like there’s a perfect storm taking all those things into consideration that makes private equity a big driver in the success of many firms, and an aspirational growth priority in many more firms,” says Kent Zimmermann, who does law firm strategy consulting at The Zeughauser Group.

Judging by league tables that track deals (somewhat imperfectly, as they are self-reported by firms), Kirkland has a leading position in the practice. According to Mergermarket, the firm handled 1,184 private equity deals from 2013 through this June. Latham is closest with 609. Ropes & Gray handled 323, while Simpson Thacher signed up 319.

Hey! What about “catching work” for the restructuring practice groups? Why is restructuring always the red-headed step child? Plenty of restructuring work has been thrown off by large private equity clients. And Kirkland has dominated there, too.

Which would also help explain Kirkland’s tremendous growth in New York. Per Crain’s New York Business:

In just three years, Kirkland & Ellis has grown massively. The company, ranked 12th on the 2015 Crain's list of New York's largest law firms, has increased its local lawyer count by 61% to climb into the No. 4 spot.

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Much of that growth has come in its corporate and securities practice, where Kirkland's attorney count has nearly doubled in three years. The 110-year-old firm's expansion in this area is by design, said Peter Zeughauser, who chairs the Zeughauser Group legal consultancy.

"There aren't many firms like Kirkland that are so focused on strategy," Zeughauser said. "Their strategy is three-pronged: private equity, complex litigation and restructuring. New York is the heart of these industries, and Kirkland has built a lot of momentum by having everyone row in the same direction. They've been able to substantially outperform the market in terms of revenue and profit."

Kirkland's revenue grew by 19.4% last year, according to The American Lawyer, a particularly remarkable increase, given that it was previously $2.7 billion. Zeughauser has heard that a growth rate exceeding 25% is in the cards for this year. The firm declined to comment on whether that prediction will hold, but any further expansion beyond the $3 billion threshold will put Kirkland's performance beyond the reach of most competitors.

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Zeughauser, the consultant featured in both articles, thinks all of this Kirkland success is going to lead to law firm consolidation. Kirkland has been pulling top PE lawyers away from other firms. To keep up, he says, other firms will need to join forces — especially if they want to retain and/or draw top PE talent at salaries comparable to Kirkland. We’re getting PTSD flashbacks to the Dewey Leboeuf collapse.

As for restructuring? This growth applies there too — regardless of whether these outlets want to acknowledge it. Word is that 40+ first year associates started in Kirkland’s bankruptcy group recently. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Fortunately, PE portfolio companies don’t appear to stop going bankrupt anytime soon. Kirkland’s bankruptcy market share, therefore, isn’t going anywhere. Except, maybe,…up.

That is a scary proposition for the competition. And those who don’t feast at Kirkland’s table — whether that means financial advisors or…gulp…judges.

*****

Apropos, on Monday, Massachusetts-based Rocket Software, “a global technology provider and leader in developing and delivering enterprise modernization and optimization solutions,” announced a transaction pursuant to which Bain Capital Private Equity is acquiring a majority stake in the company at a valuation of $2b.

Dechert LLP represented Rocket Software in the deal. Who had the private equity buyer? Well, Kirkland & Ellis, of course.

We can’t wait to see what the terms of the debt on the transaction look like.

*****

Speaking of Nine West, Kirkland & Ellis and power dynamics, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that a potential fight in the Nine West case has legs. Back in May, in “⚡️’Independent’ Directors Under Attack⚡️,” we noted that the Nine West official committee of unsecured creditors’ was pursuing efforts to potentially pierce the independent director narrative (a la Payless Shoesource) and go after the debtor’s private equity sponsor. We wrote:

In other words, Akin Gump is pushing back against the company’s and the directors’ proposed subjugation of its committee responsibility. They are pushing back on directors’ poor and drawn-out management of the process; they are underscoring an inherent conflict; they are highlighting how directors know how their bread is buttered. Put simply: it is awfully hard for a director to call out a private equity shop or a law firm when he/she is dependent on both for the next board seat. For the next paycheck.

Query whether Akin continues to push hard on this. (The hearing on the DIP was adjourned.)

The industry would stand to benefit if they did.

Well, on Monday, counsel to the Nine West committee, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, filed a motion under seal (Docket 717) seeking standing to prosecute certain claims on behalf of the Nine West estate arising out of the leveraged buyout of Jones Inc. and related transactions by Sycamore Partners Management L.P. This motion is the culmination of a multi-month process of discovery, including a review of 108,000 documents. Accompanying the motion was a 42-page declaration (Docket 719) from an Akin partner which was redacted and therefore shows f*ck-all and really irritates the hell out of us. As we always say, bankruptcy is an inherently transparent process…except when it isn’t. Which is often. Creditors of the estate, therefore, are victims of an information dislocation here as they cannot weigh the strength of the committee’s arguments in real time. Lovely.

What do we know? We know that — if Akin’s $1.72mm(!!) fee application for the month of August (Docket 705) is any indication — the committee’s opposition will cost the estate. Clearly, it will be getting paid for its efforts here. Indeed, THREE restructuring partners…yes, THREE, billed a considerable amount of time to the case in August (good summer guys?), each at a rate of over $1k/hour (nevermind litigation partners, etc.). Who knew that a task like “Review and revise chart re: debt holdings” could take so much time?🤔

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That’s a $10k chart. That chart better be AI-powered and hurl stats and figures at the Judge in augmented reality to justify the fees it took to put together (it’s a good thing it’s redacted, we suppose).

Speaking of fees it takes to put something together, this is ludicrous:

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The debtor has to pay committee counsel $100k for it to put together an application to get paid? For heaven’s sake. Even committee members should be up in arms about that.

And people wonder why clients are reluctant to file for bankruptcy.

*****

Speaking of independent directors, one other note…on the fallacy of the “independent” director in bankruptcy. Yesterday, October 9, Sears Holdings Corporation ($SHLD)announced that it had appointed a new independent director to its board. To us, this raised two obvious questions: how many boards can one human being reasonably sit on and add real value? At what point does a director run into the law of diminishing returns? Last we checked, it’s impossible to scale a single person.

But we may have been off the mark. One PETITION reader emailed us and asked:

The question you want to be asking is "what sham transaction that probably benefits insiders is the independent director being appointed to bless" or "what sham transaction that benefitted insiders is the independent director being appointed to "investigate" and find nothing untoward with?"

Those are good questions. Something tells us we’re about to find out. And soon.

Something also tells us that its no coincidence that the rise of the “independent fiduciary” directly correlates to the rise of fees in bankruptcy.

Tell us we’re wrong: petition@petition11.com.

☠️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.


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Oil & Gas is Back Baby

Long the West Texas’ Permian Basin; Short Anadarko

encino man.jpeg

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.

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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🎆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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🍟Casual Dining is a Hot Mess. Part IV 🍟

Short Kona Grill ($KONA)

We’ve been all over the casual dining space so much that it’s time to just make this a recurring series. We’ve previously discussed casual dining here (Macro trends, Kona GrillP.F. Ghang China Bistro Inc.Ruby Tuesday and Bertucci’s), here (Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar) and here (Luby’s Inc. and Steak ‘n Shake).

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

Aurelius Goes After Windstream Holdings Inc. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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💰Goldman Sachs Has its Cake and Eats it Too💰

Short GNC Holdings Inc. Long Care/of. 

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We’ve written extensively hereherehere and here about GNC Holdings Inc. ($GNC) and the challenges that the company faces. We won’t revisit all of that here other than to note that GNC was, upon information and belief, preparing for a bankruptcy filing prior to it amending and extending its term loan, entering into a new ABL, and obtaining $275mm of asset-backed FILO term loans. We quipped that this was the quintessential “kick-the-can-down-the-road” transaction. Goldman Sachs ($GS) advised the company on the entire capital structure fix. Suffice it to say, then, that Goldman Sachs is intimately familiar with the GNC business.

Which, naturally, makes the fact that Goldman Sachs Investment Partners (a division of Goldman Sachs Asset Management) served as the lead investor in vitamin startup Care/of’s Series B financing all the more interesting.

Now, of course, we know Goldman is a big shop. They’re probably talking to WeWorkabout how to design their spaces to balance the sheer volume of “Chinese walls” with the need for an aesthetic that appeals to the millennial mindset. And, surely, Goldman Sachs’ capital advisory arm is entirely different and separate from Goldman’s asset management and venture arm.

But still.

Earlier this week Care/of, a direct-to-consumer wellness brand that specializes in monthly subscriptions of personalized vitamins and supplements, announced the new round of $29mm. In addition to Goldman, investors included Goodwater Capital, Juxtapose, RRE Ventures and Tusk Ventures. Former President of GNC, Beth Kaplan, also invested and will be joining the Board. 🤔

Bloomberg notes:

Care/of, a startup selling vitamins and herbal supplements online, raised funds from investors including Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s venture arm that value the company at $156 million, within striking distance of publicly traded retail chains that are among the industry’s leaders.

The startup’s $156 million valuation isn’t far from Vitamin Shoppe Inc., with 3,860 employees and a market capitalization of about $203.5 million, or GNC Holdings Inc., which has a market value of $254.2 million with 6,400 employees. Care/of has about 100 workers, Chief Executive Officer Craig Elbert said.

“Consumers are increasingly shifting spend online and so I think large retail footprints have the potential to be a liability,” Elbert said in an interview. “There’s a lot of growth ahead of us and lot of reasons why this should be an e-commerce business.”

This is so Goldman-y. Collect an advisory fee to extend the life of the dominant brick-and-mortar retailer with one hand while investing in a nimble direct-to-consumer upstart that will chip away on that very same retailer on the other hand. Even before the former requires capital markets advice from a Goldman-type in a few years — which, it undoubtedly will — it may be on the lookout for an M&A banker. Perhaps to sell itself. Perhaps to buy a start-up and build a moat against Amazon. How convenient that Goldman will have familiarity with both businesses. We’d say that maybe there’d be a conflict somewhere in there but, well…do those really even exist anymore??

⚡️Is PG&E in Trouble?⚡️

PG&E Reported Earnings (Long Climate Change)

Long time PETITION readers know that our general theme is “disruption, from the vantage point of the disrupted.” Disruption can come in various forms. In many cases it comes from technological innovation. The dreaded “Amazon Effect” that everyone is so tired of hearing about falls into this category. But as we’ve said time and time again, mobile e-commerce is a big part of that story and that would never have been made possible — and perhaps brick-and-mortar would still be intact — if it weren’t for the Apple Iphone ($AAPL), for Shopify ($SHOP), and for Instagram ($FB), among many other disrupters. Today’s innovations are leading indicators for tomorrow’s bankruptcies.

Disruption — and, no, we don’t always use this term in the Clayton Christensen sense — can come in other forms. There can be regulatory and/or legislative disruption, political disruption, environmental disruption, etc. In the case of PG&E — short for Pacific Gas and Electric Company — it may be all of the above.

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