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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

These aren’t one-offs.

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

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

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

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

Your next hospital visit may be powered by private equity.

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

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

Here’s a choice quote for you:

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

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

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

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

Nevermind this aspect:

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

Your next dental exam powered by private equity.

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

Your next cataracts surgery powered by private equity.

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

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

Home Security is a Tough Business

Short Ascent Capital Group

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Tough is one word for it.

Saturated is another.

There are countless players in the home security and monitoring space including (i) recently-IPO’d ADT Inc. (owned by Apollo Asset Management),* (ii) Vivint Inc., (iii) Guardian Protection Services, (iv) Vector Security Inc., (v) Comcast Corporation, and (vi) SimpliSafe Inc. And there is also the identity-confused schizophrenic Monitronics International Inc., formerly known as MONI Smart Security and now known as Brinks Home Security, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of publicly-traded holding company Ascent Capital Group ($ASCMA)(did you get all of that?). Nearly all of these companies compete in the market for “alarm monitoring agreements” (AMAs) — contracts pursuant to which these companies provide home monitoring services in exchange for predictable recurring revenue. Predictable in a manner of speaking: with this much competition, the industry is getting a wee bit…less…predictable…?

Ascent Capital Group noted in its most recent 10-K:

Competition in the security alarm industry is based primarily on reputation for quality of service, market visibility, services offered, price and the ability to identify and obtain customer accounts. Competition for customers has also increased in recent years with the emergence of DIY home security providers and other technology companies expanding into the security alarm industry. We believe we compete effectively with other national, regional and local alarm monitoring companies, including cable and telecommunications companies, due to our reputation for reliable monitoring, customer and technical services, the quality of our services, and our relatively lower cost structure. We believe the dynamics of the security alarm industry favor larger alarm monitoring companies, such as MONI, with a nationwide focus that have greater resources and benefit from economies of scale in technology, advertising and other expenditures. (emphasis added).

Make no mistake: ASCMA is purposefully highlighting its monitoring expertise, size and scale. And that is because the market for AMAs is getting increasingly challenged by a number of home security providers. And many of them are of the do-it-yourself (“DIY”) variety. For instance, home owners can get home security devices from Arlo by Netgear.** Or Canary. Or Honeywell ($HON). Or Google (Nest)($GOOG). Amazon Inc. ($AMZN) recently bought Ring Doorbell for $1 billion and that, too, has a home security system. Gadget stores are replete with options for DIY home security systems. Do people even need professional installation and/or monitoring anymore? With property crimes on a nationwide decline, is a self-monitoring system viable enough? Why bother when you can just get alerts to the phone in your pocket or the watch on your wrist? These are the big questions.

Especially for Monitronics.

Monitronics primarily sells its home security and monitoring services through a network of authorized dealers. While it also deploys certain direct-to-consumer initiatives under its DIY-focused subsidiary, LiveWatch Security LLC, the company’s real action is from the recurring fees baked into AMAs. Unfortunately:

In recent years, MONI's acquisition of new customer accounts through its dealer sales channel has declined due to the attrition of large dealers, efforts to acquire new accounts from dealers at lower purchase prices, consumer buying behaviors, including trends of buying security products through online sources and increased competition from telecommunications and cable companies in the market. MONI is increasingly reliant on its internal sales channel and strategic relationships with third parties, such as Nest, to counter-balance this declining account generation through its dealer sales channel. If MONI is unable to generate sufficient accounts through its internal sales channel and strategic relationships to replace declining new accounts through dealers, MONI's business, financial condition and results of operations could be materially and adversely affected. (emphasis added)

Was that a borderline “Amazon Effect” reference mixed in there? 🤔 Wait. There’s more:

As of December 31, 2017, MONI was one of the largest alarm monitoring companies in the U.S. when measured by the total number of subscribers under contract. MONI faces competition from other alarm monitoring companies, including companies that have more capital and that may offer higher prices and more favorable terms to dealers for alarm monitoring contracts or charge lower prices to customers for monitoring services. MONI also faces competition from a significant number of small regional competitors that concentrate their capital and other resources in targeting local markets and forming new marketing channels that may displace the existing alarm system dealer channels for acquiring alarm monitoring contracts. Further, MONI is facing increasing competition from telecommunications, cable and technology companies who are expanding into alarm monitoring services and bundling their existing offerings with monitored security services. The existing access to and relationship with subscribers that these companies have could give them a substantial advantage over MONI, especially if they are able to offer subscribers a lower price by bundling these services. Any of these forms of competition could reduce the acquisition opportunities available to MONI, thus slowing its rate of growth, or requiring it to increase the price paid for subscriber accounts, thus reducing its return on investment and negatively impacting its revenues and results of operations.

And here we thought people were shunning the cable companies?

Anyway, can Monitronics circumvent these issues with a superior product? By investing in new technology to ward off the onslaught of newcomers? More from the 10-K:

…the availability of any new features developed for use in MONI's industry (whether developed by MONI or otherwise) can have a significant impact on a subscriber’s initial decision to choose MONI's or its competitor’s products and a subscriber's decision to renew with MONI or switch to one of its competitors. To the extent its competitors have greater capital and other resources to dedicate to responding to technological innovation over time, the products and services offered by MONI may become less attractive to current or future subscribers thereby reducing demand for such products and services and increasing attrition over time. Those competitors that benefit from more capital being available to them may be at a particular advantage to MONI in this respect. If MONI is unable to adapt in response to changing technologies, market conditions or customer requirements in a timely manner, such inability could adversely affect its business by increasing its rate of subscriber attrition. MONI also faces potential competition from improvements in self-monitoring systems, which enable current or future subscribers to monitor their home environments without third-party involvement, which could further increase attrition rates over time and hinder the acquisition of new alarm monitoring contracts. (emphasis added)

Luckily this isn’t an issue because Monitronics currently has the best most technologically-advanced home security offering on the market. Oh. Hmmm. Wait. We spoke to soon…

Here is Wirecutter reviewing “The Best Home Security System.” And suffice it to say, the Monitronics’ product is not the winner. In fact, Wirecutter knocks the “Brinks Home Complete with Video” system on cost.

Here is PCmag reviewing “The Best Smart Home Security Systems of 2018” and the LiveWatch Plug & Protect IQ 2.0 is buried down the list with a 3.5 star rating (out of 5).

And here is Reviews.com’s list of “The Best DIY Home Security” and neither LiveWatch nor Brinks are listed. 😜

To offset all of these current challenges, the company luckily has unconstrained liquidity and a clean balance sheet to invest in marketing to dealers and upgrading its technology for the future. Oh. Hmmm. Wait. We spoke to soon. Again. 😜

Late last week, Moody’s Investors Service Inc. downgraded Monitronics International Inc.to Caa2 from B3; it also downgraded (i) the company’s $1.1 billion senior secured first-lien L+5.50% term loan due 2020 to Caa1 from B2 and (ii) its 9.125% $585 million senior unsecured notes to Caa3 from Caa2. To complete the capital structure picture, the company also has approximately $68.5 million outstanding on a $295 million L+4% credit facility “super priority” revolver due 2021. So, to make sure you grasp the magnitude here: 1 + 2 + 3 = $1.8 billion of debt. Yup, you read that right. There’s a lot of interest expense attached to that. Oh, and per ASCMA’s last 10-K:

The maturity date for both the term loan and the revolving credit facility under the Credit Facility are subject to a springing maturity 181 days prior to the scheduled maturity date of the Senior Notes. Accordingly, if MONI is unable to refinance the Senior Notes by October 3, 2019, both the term loan and the revolving credit facility would become due and payable.

Hmmm. 🤔 Siri, set an alarm for April 2019‼️💥

Moody’s noted:

The downgrade of Monitronics' CFR and facility ratings reflects strains on the company's liquidity and capital structure caused by impending maturities, as well as its continued lackluster operating performance.

The liquidity rating downgrade to SGL-4 reflects the approaching debt maturities. Moody's views Monitronics' liquidity as operationally adequate, but weak in terms of imminent, likely accelerating debt maturities. As a result of the company's continued lackluster performance, Moody's expects Monitronics to generate barely breakeven free cash flow this year. The (unrated) $295 million, super-priority revolving credit facility is large and has, as of early July 2018, a time of seasonally heavy revolver borrowing, roughly $80 million drawn. Reliance on the revolver also creates liquidity risk because the revolver expiration will spring to October 2019 if the notes are not refinanced. While cash on hand continues to be modest ($30 million at March 31st), Monitronics' parent company, Ascent Capital Group, Inc.("Ascent"), has nearly $110 million of cash, which may be viewed as providing additional implied support. Still, Monitronics' combined sources of liquidity are weak relative to the quantum of debt coming due in the next few years. Reliance on the revolver for operational initiatives and to fund purchases of new subscriber contracts from dealers will also prevent meaningful deleveraging over the next year. Weak operational metrics also continue to shrink the cushion it has relative to covenant limits, and the risk of a covenant violation over the next 12-15 months is elevated.

Ergo, the capital structure is rumored to be advisored up with (a) Houlihan Lokey and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan working with an ad hoc group of unsecured holders and (b) Jones Day and Evercore working with the term lenders. Latham & Watkins LLP reportedly represents the company. Anchorage Capital may be a bit of a wild card here as they allegedly hold a meaningful position in the term loan and the unsecured bonds.

All of this drama has taken its toll on ASCMA’s stock:

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This company is looking a bit insecure.

* ADT IPO’d earlier this year championing its revenue-generation. In its S-1 filing it noted, “In the nine months ended September 30, 2017 and the year ended December 31, 2016, we had total revenues of $3,210 million and $2,950 million, respectively, and net losses of $296 million and $537 million, respectively.” Um, okay. This looks like a textbook Apollo dump. And the market seems to be responding. Here is the range-bound stock performance post-IPO:

Hard to blame Apollo for getting out while the gettin’ is good.

** As we were researching and writing this piece, Arlo Technologies filed its S-1 for a planned $194mm IPO. The firm posted $6.6 million in income on $370.7 million in revenue for 2017.

As we said, “saturated.”

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

The Embattled Caesars Entertainment is FINALLY out of Bankruptcy

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

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

A few bits we wanted to highlight:

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

THIS is how you advocate for your client: 

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

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

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

A Canadian Property Bubble? ($HCG, $OCN, $APO, $BX)

Last week we mentioned Canada's emerging property bubble. After reading this warning from BlackRock and then this alarming report by RMG Investment Management (out of the UK), perhaps we should've been a bit more focused on it. In a nutshell, they query whether the Home Capital Group (HCG) collapse roughly a week ago - taking a massive and expensive credit facility, stock plummeting, short seller Marc Cohodes ranting and raving - is the precursor to "the bubble" bursting. At five pages, the report is a bit lengthy but it's worth it. The chart within juxtaposing Canadian housing vs. US housing is particularly interesting. As is the fact that Steve Eisman's investment idea at the Sohn Conference in 2013 was to short Canadian housing, including HCG. We wonder if he had the patience to maintain that short over this duration. Either way, perhaps this is all a moot point if, as reported by Reuters, buyout firms such as Apollo Global Management LLC, Blackstone Group LP and Centerbridge Partners LP are looking to buy HCG. Meanwhile, stateside, Ocwen Financial's problems seem to be mounting.