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.


ENJOY THIS SNIPPET OF WISDOM? CLICK HERE TO GET THE REST OF THE ARTICLE (AND THE NEXT SNIPPETS OF WISDOM PUTTING YOU AHEAD OF THE NEXT GUY).

We (STILL) Have a Feasibility Problem (Long the “Two-Year Rule”)

Payless ShoeSource Files for Chapter 11. Again.

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Man. That aged poorly AF.

That’s one + two + three…yup, three total “success” claims and that’s just the heading, subheading and intro paragraph. EEESH. This has turned into the bankruptcy equivalent of Oberyn Martell taking a victory lap in the fighting pits of King’s Landing.

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And, sadly, it almost gets as cringeworthy:

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Of course, we obviously know now that the Payless story is about as ugly as Oberyn’s fate.

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Payless is back in bankruptcy court — a mere 18 months after its initial filing — adorning the dreaded Scarlet 22. It will liquidate its North American operations, shutter over 2000 stores, and terminate nearly 20k employees. All that will remain will be its joint venture interests in Latin America and its franchise business — a telltale sign that (a) the brick-and-mortar operation is an utter sh*tshow and (b) the only hope remaining is clipping royalty and franchise fee coupons on the back of the company’s supposed “brand.” And so we come back to this:

That’s right. We have ourselves another TWO YEAR RULE VIOLATION!!

Okay. We admit it. This is all a little unfair. We definitely wrote last week’s piece entitled, “💥We (Still) Have a Feasibility Problem💥,” knowing full-well — thanks to the dogged reporting of Reuters and other outlets — that a Payless Holdings LLC chapter 22 loomed around the corner to drive home our point. Much like Gymboree and DiTech before it, this chapter 22 is the culmination of an abject failure of epic proportions: indeed, nearly everything Mr. Jones stated in the press release reflected above proved to be 100% wrong.

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Let’s start, given a dearth of new financial information, with the most obvious factor here as to why this company has round-tripped into bankruptcy — destroying tons of value and irreversibly hurting retail suppliers en masse along the way. In the company’s financial projections attached to its 2017 disclosure statement, the company projected fiscal year 2018 EBITDA of $119.1mm (PETITION NOTE: we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight the enduring optimism of debtor management teams who consistently offer up, and get highly-paid investment bankers to go along with, ridiculous projections that ALWAYS hockey stick up-and-to-the-right. Frankly, you could strip out the names and, in a compare and contrast exercise, see virtually no directional difference between the projected revenues of Payless and the actual revenues of Lyft. Seriously. It’s like management teams think that they’re at the helm of a high growth startup rather than a dying legacy brick-and-mortar retailer with sh*tty shoes at not-even-discounted-for-sh*ttiness prices.

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On what realistic basis on this earth did they think that suddenly — POOF! — same store sales would be nearly 10%.

Seriously. Give us whatever they’re smoking out in Topeka Kansas: sh*t must be lit. Literally.

So what did EBITDA actually come in at? Depending on which paragraph you read in the company’s First Day Declaration filed in support of the chapter 22 petition: negative $63mm or negative $66mm (it differs on different pages). For the mathematically challenged, that’s an ~$182mm delta. 🙈💩 “Outstanding leadership team,” huh? The numbers sure beg to differ.

This miss is SO large that it really begs the question: what the bloody hell transpired here? What is this dire performance attributable to? In its 2017 filing the company noted the following as major factors leading to its bankruptcy:

Since early 2015, the Debtors have experienced a top-line sales decline driven primarily by (a) a set of significant and detrimental non-recurring events, (b) foreign exchange rate volatility, and (c) challenging retail market conditions. These pressures led to the Debtors’ inability to both service their prepetition secured indebtedness and remain current with their trade obligations.

The company continued:

Specifically, a confluence of events in 2015 lowered Payless’ EBITDA by 34 percent—a level from which it has not fully recovered. In early 2015, the Debtors meaningfully over purchased inventory due to antiquated systems and processes (that have since undergone significant enhancement). Then, in February 2015, West Coast port strikes delayed the arrival of the Debtors’ products by several months, causing a major inventory flow disruption just before the important Easter selling period, leading to diminished sales. When delayed inventory arrived after that important selling period, the Debtors were saddled with a significant oversupply of spring seasonal inventory after the relevant seasonal peak, and were forced to sell merchandise at steep markdowns, which depressed margins and drained liquidity. Customers filled their closets with these deeply discounted products, which served to reduce demand; the reset of customer price expectations away from unsustainably high markdowns further depressed traffic in late 2015 and 2016. In total, millions of pairs of shoes were sold below cost in order to realign inventory and product mix. (emphasis added)

You’d think that, given these events, supply chain management would be at the top of the reorganized company’s list of things to fix. Curiously, in its latest First Day Declaration, the company says this about why it’s back in BK:

Upon emergence from the Prior Cases, the Debtors sought to capitalize on the deleveraging of their balance sheet with additional cost-reduction measures, including reviewing marketing expenses, downsizing their corporate office, reevaluating the budget for every department, and reducing their capital expenditures plan. Notwithstanding these measures, the Debtors have continued to experience a top-line sales decline driven primarily by inventory flow disruption during the 2017 holiday season, same store sales declines resulting in excess inventory, and challenging retail market conditions. (emphasis added).

Like, seriously? WTF. And it actually gets more ludicrous. In fact, the inventory story barely changed at all: the company might as well have cut and pasted from the Payless1 disclosure statement:

The Debtors also faced an oversupply of inventory in the fall of 2018 leading into the winter of 2019. As a result, the Debtors were forced to sell merchandise at steep markdowns, which depressed margins and drained liquidity. Customers filled their closets with these deeply discounted products, which served to reduce customer demand for new product. In total, millions of pairs of shoes were sold at below market prices in order to realign inventory and product mix. (emphasis added)

As if that wasn’t enough, the company also noted:

The delayed production caused a major inventory flow disruption during the 2017 Holiday season and a computer systems breakdown in the summer of 2018 significantly affected the back to school season, leading to diminished sales and same store sales declines.

Sheesh. Did the dog also eat the real strategy? Bloomberg writes:

The repeat bankruptcies are a sign the original restructuring may have been rushed through too quickly or didn’t do enough to solve the retailers’ industry-wide and company-specific problems.

And this quote, clearly, is dead on:

“One of the easiest ways to waste time and money in Chapter 11 is to use the process only to effect a change in ownership but not to take the time and protections afforded by the bankruptcy process to fix underlying operations,” Ted Gavin, a turnaround consultant and the president of the American Bankruptcy Institute, told Bloomberg Law. 

This begs the question: what did the original bankruptcy ACTUALLY accomplish? Apparently, it accomplished this pretty looking chart:

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And not a whole lot more.*

The company also failed to achieve another key strategic initiative upon which its post-bankruptcy business plan was based: investment in its stores and the deployment of omni-channel capabilities that, ironically, would make the company less dependent upon its massive brick-and-mortar footprint. Per the company:

…the Debtors’ liquidity constraints prevented the Debtors from investing in their store portfolio to open, relocate, or remodel targeted stores to keep up with competitors.

And:

Moreover, Payless was unable to fulfill its plan for omni-channel development and implementation, i.e., the integration of physical store presence with online digital presence to create a seamless, fully integrated shopping experience for customers. As of the Petition Date, the completion of this unified customer experience has been limited to approximately two hundred stores. Without a robust omni-channel offering, Payless has been unable to keep up with the shift in customer demand and preference for online shopping versus the traditional brick-and-mortar environment.

In other words “success” really means “still too much effing debt.” This would almost be funny if it didn’t tragically end with the termination of thousands of jobs of people who, clearly, mistakenly put their faith in a management team so entirely in over their heads. Literally nothing was executed according to plan. Nothing.

Seven months after emerging from bankruptcy the company was already in front of its lenders with its hand out seeking more liquidity. Which…it got. In March 2018, the company secured an additional $25mm commitment under the first-in-last-out portion of its asset-backed credit facility. What’s crazy about this is that, never mind the employees, the supplier community got totally duped again here. In the first case, the debtors extended their suppliers by ONE HUNDRED DAYS only for them, absent critical vendor status, to get nearly bupkis** as general unsecured claimants. Here, the debtors again extended their suppliers by as much as 80 days: the top list of creditors is littered with manufacturers based in Hong Kong and mainland China. Who needs Donald Trump when we have Payless declaring a trade war on China twice-over? (PETITION NOTE: we know this is easier said than done, but if you’re a supplier to a retailer in today’s retail environment, you need to get your sh*t together! Pick up a newspaper for goodness sake: how is it that the entire distressed community knows that a 22 is coming and yet you’re extending credit for 80-100 days? It’s honestly mind-boggling. The company cites over 50k total creditors (inclusive of employees) and $225mm of unsecured debt. That’s a lot of folks getting torched.)

Some other notes about this case:

Liquidators. Much like with Things Remembered and Charlotte Russe, they mysteriously have bandwidth again such that they no longer need to JV up as a foursome as they did in Gymboree. Instead, we’re back to the slightly-less-anti-competitive twosome of Great American Group LLC ($RILY) and Tiger Capital Group.

Kirkland & Ellis. There’s something strangely ironic here about the fact that the firm went from representing the company in the chapter 11 to representing its liquidators in the 22. Seriously. You can’t make this sh*t up.

Independent Directors. Here we go again. Remember: the Payless 11 led us to Nine West Holdings which led us to Sears Holding Corp. ($SHLD). We have documented that whole string of disasters here. In the first case, Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital got away with two separate dividend recaps totaling millions of dollars in exchange for a piddling $20mm settlement. Moreover, to incrementally increase the pot for general unsecured creditors, senior lenders had to waive their deficiency claims that would have otherwise diluted the unsecured pool and made recoveries even more insubstantial. So, here we are again. Two new independent directors have been appointed to the board and they will investigate whether controlling shareholder Alden Capital Management pillaged this company in a similar way that it has reportedly and allegedly pillaged newspapers across the country.***

Fees. If you want to quantify the magnitude of this travesty, note that the first Payless chapter 11 earned the following professionals the following approximate amounts:

  • Kirkland & Ellis LLP = $4.995mm

  • Armstrong Teasdale LLP = $495k

  • Guggenheim Securities LLC = $6.825mm

  • Alvarez & Marsal = $1.9mm

  • Munger Tolles = $898k

  • Pachulski Stang Ziehl & Jones LLP (as lead counsel to the UCC) = $2.5mm

  • Province Inc. = $2.6mm

  • Michel-Shaked Group = $560mm

Now THAT was money well spent.****


*Via three separate store closing motions, the company shuttered 686 stores. The second store closing motion proposed 408 store closures but was later revised downward to only 216.

**Unsecured creditors received their pro rata share of two recovery pools in the aggregate amount of $32.3mm, $20mm of which came from the company’s private equity sponsors as settlement of claims stemming from two pre-petition dividend recapitalization transactions. In exchange, the private equity firms received releases from potential liability (without having to admit any wrongdoing).

***Alden Global Capital is no stranger to controversy over its media holdings. In the same week it finds itself in bankruptcy court for Payless, Alden found itself in the news for its reported desire to buy Gannett. This has drawn the attention of New York Senator Chuck Schumer who expressed concerns over Alden’s “strategy of acquiring newspapers, cutting staff, and then selling off the real estate assets of newsrooms and printing presses at a profit.” 

***This is but a snapshot. There were several other professionals in the mix including, significantly, the real estate advisors who also made millions of dollars.

Nine West Finally Bites It

Another Shoe Retailer Strolls into Bankruptcy Court

A few weeks back, we wrote this in “👞UGGs & E-Comm Trample Birkenstock👞,”

“Mere days away from a Nine West bankruptcy filing, we can’t help but to think about how quickly the retail landscape is changing and the impact of brands. Why? Presumably, Nine West will file, close the majority of - if not all of - its brick-and-mortar stores and transfer its brand IP to its creditors (or a new buyer). For whatever its brand is worth. We suppose the company’s lenders - likely to receive the company’s IP in a debt-for-equity swap, will soon find out. We suspect ‘not a hell of a whole lot’.”

Now we know: $123 million. (Frankly more than we expected.)

Consistent with the micro-brands discussion above, we also wrote,

“Saving the most relevant to Nine West for last,

Sales at U.S. shoe stores in February 2017 fell 5.2%, the biggest year-over-year tumble since 2009. Online-only players like Allbirds, Jack Erwin, and M.Gemi have gained nearly 15 percentage points of share over five years.

Yes, the very same Allbirds that is so popular that it is apparently creating wool shortages. Query whether this factor will be featured in Nine West’s First Day Declaration with such specificity. Likely not.”

Now we know this too: definitely not.

But Nine West Holdings Inc., the well-known footwear retailer, has, indeed, finally filed for bankruptcy. The company will sell the intellectual property and working capital behind its Nine West and Bandolino brands to Authentic Brands Group for approximately $200 million (inclusive of the above-stated $123 million allocation to IP, subject to adjustment) and reorganize around its One Jeanswear Group, The Jewelry Group, the Kasper Group, and Anne Klein business segments. The company has a restructuring support agreement (“RSA”) in hand with 78% of its secured term lenders and 89% of its unsecured term loan lenders to support this dual-process. The upshot of the RSA is that the holders of the $300 million unsecured term loan facility will own the equity in the reorganized entity focused on the above-stated four brands. The case will be funded by a $247.5 DIP ABL which will take out the prepetition facility and a $50mm new money dual-draw term loan funded by the commitment parties under the RSA (which helps justify the equity they’ll get).

Regarding the cause for filing, the company notes the following:

“The unprecedented systemic economic headwinds affecting many brick-and-mortar retailers (including certain of the Debtors’ largest customers) have significantly and adversely impacted the operating performance of the Debtors’ footwear and handbag businesses over the past four years. The Nine West Group (and, prior to its sale, Easy Spirit®), the more global business, faced strong headwinds as the macro retail environment in Asia, the Middle East, and South America became challenged. This was compounded by a difficult department store environment in the United States and the Debtors’ operation of their own unprofitable retail network. The Debtors also faced the specific challenge of addressing issues within their footwear and handbag business, including product quality problems, lack of fashion-forward products, and design missteps. Although the Debtors implemented changes to address these issues, and have shown significant progress over the past several years, the lengthy development cycle and the nature of the business did not allow the time for their operating performance within footwear and handbags to improve.”

Regarding the afore-mentioned “macro trends,” the company further highlights,

“…a general shift away from brick-and-mortar shopping, a shift in consumer demographics away from branded apparel, and changing fashion and style trends. Because a substantial portion of the Debtors’ profits derive from wholesale distribution, the Debtors have been hurt by the decline of many large retailers, such as Sears, Bon-Ton, and Macy’s, which have closed stores across the country and purchased less product for their stores due to decreased consumer traffic. In 2015 and 2016, the Debtors experienced a steep and unanticipated cut back on orders from two of the Debtors’ most significant footwear customers, which led to year over year decreases in revenue of $16 million and $46 million in 2015 and 2016, respectively. These troubles have been somewhat offset by e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Zappos, but such platforms have not made up for the sales volume lost as a result of brick-and-mortar retail declines.”

No Allbirds mention. Oh well.

But wait! Is that a POSITIVE mention of Amazon ($AMZN) in a chapter 11 filing? We’re perplexed. Seriously, though, that paragraph demonstrates the ripple effect that is cascading throughout the retail industrial complex as we speak. And it’s frightening, actually.

On a positive note, The One Jeanswear Group, The Jewelry Group, the Kasper Group, and Anne Klein business segments, however, have been able to “combat the macro retail challenges” — just not enough to offset the negative operating performance of the other two segments. Hence the bifurcated course here: one part sale, one part reorganization.

But this is the other (cough: real) reason for bankruptcy:

Source: First Day Declaration

Source: First Day Declaration

Soooooo, yes, don’t tell the gentlemen mentioned in the Law360 story but this is VERY MUCH another trite private equity story. 💤💤 With $1.6 billion of debt saddled on the company after Sycamore Partners Management LP took it private in 2014, the company simply couldn’t make due with its $1.6 billion in net revenue in 2017. Annual interest expense is $113.9 million compared to $88.1 million of adjusted EBITDA in fiscal year 2017. Riiiiight.

A few other observations:

  1. Leases. The company is rejecting 75 leases, 72 of which were brick-and-mortar locations that have already been abandoned and turned over to landlords. Notably, Simon Property Group ($SPG) is the landlord for approximately 35 of those locations. But don’t sweat it: they’re doing just fine.

  2. Liberal Definitions. As Interim CEO, the Alvarez & Marsal LLC Managing Director tasked with this assignment has given whole new meaning to the word “interim.” Per Dictionary.com, the word means “for, during, belonging to, or connected with an intervening period of time; temporary; provisional.” Well, he’s been on this assignment for three years — nearly two as the “interim” CEO. Not particularly “temporary” from our vantage point. P.S. What a hot mess.

  3. Chinese Manufacturing. Putting aside China tariffs for a brief moment, if you're an aspiring shoe brand in search of manufacturing in China and don't know where to start you might want to take a look at the Chapter 11 petitions for both Payless Shoesource and Nine West. A total cheat sheet.

  4. Chinese Manufacturing Part II. If President Trump really wants to flick off China, perhaps he should reconsider his (de minimus) carried interest restrictions and let US private equity firms continue to run rampant all over the shoe industry. If the recent track record is any indication, that will lead to significantly over-levered balance sheets borne out of leveraged buyouts, inevitable bankruptcy, and a top 50 creditor list chock full of Chinese manufacturing firms. Behind $1.6 billion of debt and with a mere $200 million of sale proceeds, there’s no shot in hell they’d see much recovery on their receivables and BOOM! Trade deficit minimized!!

  5. Yield Baby Yield! (Credit Market Commentary). Sycamore’s $120 million equity infusion was $280 million less than the original binding equity commitment Sycamore made in late 2013. Why the reduction? Apparently investors were clamoring so hard for yield, that the company issued more debt to satisfy investor appetite rather than take a larger equity check. Something tells us this is a theme you’ll be reading a lot about in the next three years.

  6. Athleisure & Casual Shoes. The fleeting athleisure trend took quite a bite out of Nine West’s revenue from 2014 to 2016 — $36 million, to be exact. Jeans, however, are apparently making a comeback. Meanwhile, the trend towards casual shoes and away from pumps and other Nine West specialties, also took a big bite out of revenue. Enter casual shoe brand, GREATS, which, like Allbirds, is now opening a store in New York City too. Out with the old, in with the new.

  7. Sycamore Partners & Transparency in Bankruptcy. Callback to this effusive Wall Street Journal piece about the private equity firm: it was published just a few weeks ago. Reconcile it with this statement from the company, “After several years of declines in the Nine West Group business, part of the investment hypothesis behind the 2014 Transaction was that the Nine West® brand could be grown and strong earnings would result.” But “Nine West Group net sales have declined 36.9 percent since fiscal year 2015—from approximately $647.1 million to approximately $408 million in the most recent fiscal year.” This is where bankruptcy can be truly frustrating. In Payless Shoesource, there was considerable drama relating to dividend recapitalizations that the private equity sponsors — Golden Gate Capital Inc. and Blum Capital Advisors — benefited from prior to the company’s bankruptcy. The lawsuit and accompanying expert report against those shops, however, were filed under seal, keeping the public blind as to the tomfoolery that private equity shops undertake in pursuit of an “investment hypothesis.” Here, it appears that Sycamore gave up after two years of declining performance. In the company’s words, “Thus, by late 2016 the Debtors were at a crossroads: they could either make a substantial investment in the Nine West Group business in an effort to turn around declining sales or they could divest from the footwear and handbag business and focus on their historically strong, stable, and profitable business lines.” But don’t worry: of course Sycamore is covered by a proposed release of liability. Classic.

  8. Authentic Brands Group. Authentic Brands Group, the prospective buyer of Nine West's IP in bankruptcy, is familiar with distressed brands; it is the proud owner of the Aeropostale and Fredericks of Hollywood brands, two prior bankrupt retailers. Authentic Brands Group is led by a the former CEO of Hilco Consumer Capital Corp and is owned by Leonard Green & Partners. The proposed transaction means that Nine West's brand would be transferred from one private equity firm to another. Kirkland & Ellis LLP represented and defended Sycamore Partners in the Aeropostale case as Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP & the company tried to go after the private equity firm for equitable subordination, among other causes of action. Kirkland prevailed. Leonard Green & Partners portfolio includes David's Bridal, J.Crew, Tourneau and Signet Jewelers (which has an absolutely brutal 1-year chart). On the flip side, it also owns (or owned) a piece of Shake Shack, Soulcycle, and BJ's. The point being that the influence of the private equity firm is pervasive. Not a bad thing. Just saying. Today, more than ever, it seems people should know whose pockets their money is going in to.

  9. Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors. It’ll be busy going after Sycamore for the 2014 spin-off of Stuart Weitzman®, Kurt Geiger®, and the Jones Apparel Group (which included both the Jones New York® and Kasper® brands) to an affiliated entity for $600 million in cash. Query whether, aside from this transaction, Sycamore also took out management fees and/or dividends more than the initial $120 million equity contribution it made at the time of the transaction. Query, also, whether Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP will be pitching the committee to try and take a second bite at the apple. See #8 above. 🤔🤔

  10. Timing. The company is proposing to have this case out of bankruptcy in five months.

This will be a fun five months.

🌑Trouble Brews in Coal Country🌑

Enter FirstEnergy, MurrayEnergy & Westmoreland

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Earlier this week we posted our brief summary of FirstEnergy Solutions Corp’s chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on our free website. We wrote,

The issue, though, is whether the rejection of the nine PPAs will cause disruption to the continued supply of wholesale electricity or impact the reliability of the transmission grid in the regional transmission organization that governs FES and FG. That generally means YOUR electricity - if you live in the Northeast. Naturally, the debtor argues it won't. The federal government may think otherwise. And this is precisely why the company filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment and injunction against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") to prevent the feds from hindering -- on the basis of the Federal Power Act -- the company's attempts to reject the PPAs under the federal bankruptcy code. FERC regulates the wholesale power market. It is also why the company has filed a request for assistance from Rick Perry, President Trump's Energy Secretary. This is some real dramatic sh*t folks: a conflict between federal statutes with efforts for executive branch intervention. Someone dial up Daniel Day-Lewis and bring him out of retirement: this could be the next "Lincoln." 

Hyperbolic as that may be, this bankruptcy filing does, indeed, put the President in an odd spot. FirstEnergy has asked President Trump to intervene under his purported “202(c) emergency authority” under the Federal Power Act by compelling the nation’s largest electric grid operator, PJM Interconnection LLC, to deploy power from FirstEnergy’s coal and nuclear units in priority before any other power provider. The main argument is that too much reliance on natural gas, a volatile commodity, could create a natural security risk. And in the absence of intervention — or a sale to another entity — FirstEnergy will close its nuclear plants by 2021 heightening that risk. Proponents of intervention argue that, in addition to avoiding national security risks, thousands of nuclear and coal-related jobs would be saved — at FirstEnergy and further down the stack.

Apropos, Murray Energy Corp., a coal supplier to FirstEnergy, has sent a number of high profile letters to the Trump Administration advocating the use of 202(c) powers. In a letter dated August 17, 2017, Robert Murray wrote about the prospect of FirstEnergy filing for chapter 11,

"Their bankruptcy will force Murray Energy Corporation into immediate bankruptcy, terminating our 6,500 coal mining jobs. Each of our coal mining jobs spins off up to eleven (11) more jobs in our coal mining communities, according to university studies. This would be a disaster for President Trump and for our coal miners and employees."

Mr. Murray continued,

"Absent immediate action to preserve these power plants, many thousands of jobs in Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere will be at dire risk. In addition, the risk to the grid and national security will reach a level that is unacceptable. You fully understand the war on coal that was waged during the previous Administration and you have taken steps to end that war and provide for a potential future once again for coal. But the wounds from that war have not healed and the future of coal is dependent upon surviving the present. As more plants shut down, the future of coal becomes bleaker and bleaker. The storm is here and we will suffer significant harm if the Secretary fails to take emergency action. Not only are coal jobs at risk, but nuclear jobs are also at risk as well as the nuclear infrastructure in the United States that is vital to our global nuclear dominance."

Shall we commence the Murray Energy Corp. bankruptcy countdown? 🤔🤔

Opponents call this whole scheme a big “bailout” and note that intervention on behalf of higher-cost fossil-based power will lead to increased prices for the end user — companies and consumers across a bunch of states.

*****

Elsewhere in coal land, Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Company ($WLB) reported its fourth quarter and full year 2017 financial results on Monday, April 2. The company has U.S. coal operations in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Texas, New Mexico and Ohio; it also has operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan Canada. While certain EBITDA metrics — primarily US-based results — surprised minimally to the upside, the overall results aren’t good enough given revenue declines, a large debt load and macro coal sales trends.

In the US, consolidated EBITDA was up 18% YOY in Q4 and 2% YOY for the fiscal year. In Canada, consolidated EBITDA was down 41% YOY in Q4 and up 2% YOY for the fiscal year. Finally, in its “Coal - MLP” segment (which governs Ohio operations), consolidated EBITDA was down 25% YOY in Q4 and down 13% YOY for the fiscal year. Here, according to the company’s recent 10-K filing, is a snapshot of coal tons sold from 2015-2017 for the company’s US-based mines:

Source: Westmoreland 10-K

Source: Westmoreland 10-K

A pretty marked downward trends across most of the mines.

This, of course, makes it challenging for the company to service its capital structure. The company carries an $50 million untapped revolver (CIBC and East West Bank), $350 million of 8.75% secured notes due 2022 (US Bank NA), a $425 million secured term loan due 2020 (Bank of Montreal), a $125 million San Juan loan due 2020 (NM Capital Utility Corporation), and a $295 million WMLP term loan due in December 2018 (US Bank NA). For the math challenged, that is $1.075 billion of total debt.

Some other disturbing facts included in the filing:

  • #1 Risk Factor. “We may seek protection from our creditors under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code ("Chapter 11") or an involuntary petition for bankruptcy may be filed against us, either of which could have a material adverse impact on our business, financial condition, results of operations, and cash flows and could place our shareholders at significant risk of losing all of their investment in our shares.” Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Centerview Partners and Alvarez & Marsal North America LLC continue to advise the company. Yup, more Kirkland and Alvarez.

  • Going Concern Warning. The company’s auditor has issued an explanation that “the Company has a substantial amount of long-term debt outstanding, is subject to declining industry conditions that are negatively impacting the Company’s financial position, results of operations, and cash flows, and has stated that substantial doubt exists about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern“. This constitutes a breach of the company’s revolver covenants and its San Juan term loan. Currently there is a waiver in place with respect to the potential event of default and this, in turn, has kept potential cross-defaults under the company’s term loan and senior notes at bay. Substantially all of the company’s debt is now classified as current. The waiver expires on May 15, 2018.

  • Competition for the publicly-traded WMLP segment ($WMLP). “WMLP's principal direct competitors are other coal producers, including but not limited to (listed alphabetically) Alliance Resource Partners, L.P., Alpha Natural Resources, CONSOL Energy, Foresight Energy, Hallador Energy Company, Murray Energy Corporation, Peabody Energy Corp., Rhino Resource Partners, L.P. and various other smaller, independent producers.” There are a number of familiar names there for those who have been following bankruptcy. Note, also, Murray Energy Corporation!

  • No CEO. “Westmoreland has suspended the search for a permanent Chief Executive Officer until the conclusion of the capital structure negotiations.” Must be having a hard time recruiting for this sh*tshow.

In summary, like a lot of its coal-producing competitors before it, Westmoreland looks effed.

*****

Earlier this week, Riccardo Puliti, the World Bank's global head of energy and extractives, indicated in a CNBC interview that coal reliance will dramatically decline in the next 30 years.

Given the FirstEnergy drama and Westmoreland’s current state of affairs, will President Trump have anything (more) to say about that?

Is Spotify Ultimately the Death of Music?

Spotify Made Liam Gallagher Make His Own Coffee. That's Bad. 

Source: Pexels.com

Source: Pexels.com

It’s 2018 and that means that, unless side-tracked by $1.6b litigationSpotify’s “direct listing” is imminent, marking the company’s latest foray screwing over (read: disrupting) professionals who endeavor to make money. No, we don’t have much sympathy for the bankers who will lose out on rich underwriting fees. If anything, the blown IPOs for Snapchat ($SNAP) and Blue Apron ($APRN) kinda made the direct listing alternative a fait accompli. Now the market will be watching with great interest to see how the stock does without the various IPO-related safeguards in place. 

The real professionals on the short end of Spotify's stick, however, aren’t the bankers but may just be the artists themselves. Recall this video from Liam Gallagher. Recall this chart highlighting the juxtaposition between digital and physical sales. But that's not all, there's this piece: it stands for the proposition that Spotify really ought to go f*ck itself. Indeed, "To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system." To point, Spotify has perfected "the automation of selling out. Only it subtracts the part where artists get paid." There is so much to this piece. 

And then there is this piece - from a musician - which really puts things in perspective, as far as second order effects go. One choice quote (among many in this must read piece), “As a dad seeing my kids fall for an indistinguishable blob of well-coiffed brandoid bands and Disney graduates, I’m not at all shocked that amid their many fast-germinating aesthetic and creative ambitions, my own offspring have never seriously taken it into their heads to pick up an instrument or start a band. The craft of music has entirely succumbed to its marketed spectacle.” 

Against this backdrop, the distressed state of Gibson Brands Inc. and Guitar Center Inc.makes more sense. Here is Gibson Brands:

Given these disturbing downward trends, it's no wonder that Jefferies is working with the company to address the company's balance sheet and that Alvarez & Marsal LLC is helping streamline costs on the operational side. Indeed, last quarter the company negotiated some amendments (EBITDA, for one) with its lender, GSO, and even more recently negotiated, per reports, an extension of time to report financials to GSO. We can't wait to get our hands on those.

Guitar Center Inc., meanwhile, reported pre-holiday YOY increases in top and bottom line numbers, including a 1.3% increase in same store sales. Which surprised basically everyone. They have yet to release holiday numbers. They did, however, get a nice downgrade leading into Christmas. And there are debt exchanges to come in '18 for the company to manage an over-levered balance sheet unsustained by recent revenues.

Remember, Spotify did all of this with the help of $1b in venture debt (and NYC taxpayer subsidies, but we digress). Which, unless something has changed, is a ticking timebomb getting more expensive with each quarter the company fails to go public. 

Lest anyone fail to appreciate the growth trajectory of Spotify, there's the chart below to put it in perspective. 

One last note here. A few weeks ago Josh Brown wrote a piece entitled, "Just own the damn robots." If you haven't read it, we recommend that you do. The upshot of it is that the massive stock moves of the FANG stocks and other tech stocks are rooted in people's fear of being automated out of relevance. 

In that vein, maybe Spotify's imminent listing is the BEST thing that could possibly happen to creatives. Get a significant part of the company out of Daniel Ek's hands, out of the hands of the venture debt holders (assuming they have an equity kicker), and the venture capitalists. Get it in the hands of the artists themselves. Perhaps that way they can have SOME manner of control over their own commoditization. 

That Escalated Quickly: Toys R' Us Continues to Fade...

Distressed Investors and Private Equity Owners Seemingly Surprised

People can't seem to get enough of it and so we'll lead again with...you guessed it...Toys R' Us. Let's warm you up with a brief history lessonLast week we speculated that supplier concerns were turning a stressed situation into a distressed situation. Looks like we may have been right. And so investors who may have been caught off guard are sending CDS coverage flying through the roof in an effort to hedge the value of rapidly declining debt holdings. Speaking of investors who may be worried...CMBS anyone? Now, rumors are that Alvarez & Marsal LLCand Prime Clerk LLC have been hired by the company to complement the previous retentions of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Lazard Ltd. The smart money seems to think that that full array of professional retentions means a bankruptcy filing is IMMINENT. Alternatively, perhaps the public's newfound awareness of that full array of professional retentions means a bankruptcy filing is imminent. These things have a way of being self-fulfilling. Especially if vendors are paying attention. And it certainly seems like they are. Meanwhile, query what this all means for Vornado Realty Trust ($VNO). Sheesh. Anyway, we're old enough to remember when there was talk of an IPO