🚗Auto is Effed (Short the Supply Chain)🚗

AlixPartners LLP cautions, “Auto Suppliers Have a Critical Window to Take Action Before the Slowdown.” The preface:

It may be spring in North America, but for the automotive industry, winter is coming. The industry is on the cusp of a potential cyclical slowdown, which is compounded by changes in technology and evolving consumer preferences. For automotive players—particularly suppliers—it’s critical to start examining worst-case scenarios in their planning and taking decisive action today to ensure that they can ride out the storm.

Storm? What makes Alix think one is imminent? For starters, we’re due. We’re due for a recession and when it comes, it’ll hit the cyclical auto industry hard. Second, technology. You’re either dumb or living in a cave if you haven’t noticed that every OEM is focused on what Alix dubs the “C.A.S.E.” ecosystem — connected, autonomous, shared mobility and electric cars. IHS Markit recently projected that fully electric vehicles will account for 7.6% of US vehicle sales in 2026. Per Axios:

"By 2023, IHS Markit forecasts 43 brands will offer at least one EV option — this will include nearly all existing brands as well as new brands entering the market — compared to 14 brands offering EVs in 2018.”

As we’ve discussed previously, that will have a devastating effect on the supply chain as parts critical to the combustion engine are no longer necessary. EVs require a fraction of the parts that combustion engine-based vehicles do. And, then, finally, Alix predicts this:

Overall, leverage among suppliers is still low compared to the financial crisis, but 2018 saw an increase, with a few large suppliers piling debt on top of weaker EBITDA. Several have already seen credit downgrades, earnings misses, or revisions to their earnings projections for 2019. The coming volume declines may leave some vulnerable suppliers unable to cover their debt—leading either to balance-sheet restructurings or more chapter 11 filings. Strong demand covers up a lot of issues, but in the current market, even a small drop in demand will have a dramatic impact on a capital intensive sector like automotive.

Coming volume declines? What is Alix referring to?


WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT ALIX IS REFERRING TO? FIND OUT BY SUBSCRIBING HERE, DISRUPT THE COMPETITION WITH PETITION.

💩Will KKR Pay Toys R Us' Severance?💩

Optimism Remains in Toys R Us Situation

Surprisingly.

You’d think that every person on the planet would be sufficiently jaded by anything Toys R Us at this point. Apparently not everyone. And, oddly, the optimism seems to come from someone typically critical/skeptical of private equity…

Yesterday Axios’ Dan Primack’s lead piece asked, “Should the former private equity owners of Toys "R" Us pay around $70 million in severance to the company's 33,000 laid-off employees?” The question seems to stem from reports that limited partners (i.e., pension funds) are questioning what took place with the Toys investment. We noted this on Sunday:

🔥Elsewhere in private equity, maybe there’ll be backlash emanating out of Toys R Us?? The Minnesota State Board of Investment voted to halt investments in KKR pending a review of the bigbox toy retailer. 🔥

With this as background, Primack wrote:

This is not an academic question. It's become the subject of some public pension investment committee meetings, prompted by a lobbying campaign by left-leaning nonprofit advocacy groups, and has gotten the private equity industry's attention.

  • The basic argument: Bain Capital, KKR and Vornado killed Toys "R" Us by saddling it with too much debt, while taking out fees along the way. It's only fair that they help folks who are without work because of private equity's mismanagement, particularly when PE firms are so rich and many of the employees were living paycheck-to-paycheck.

  • The legal argument: There is none. The private equity firms no longer own Toys "R" Us, and a bankruptcy court judge threw out the severance package because employees weren't high enough in the creditor stack.

We’re old enough to remember when mass shootings got private equity’s attention too. They promised to divest. They didn’t. And then Vegas happened. And then Florida happened. And then Bank of America ($BAC) swore off lending to gun companies only to, uh, lend to Remington Outdoor Company.

We’re old enough to remember people like Warren Buffett say that they should pay more in taxes. That his secretary has a higher effective tax rate than he does. But, to our knowledge, he didn’t exactly voluntarily write a billion dollar check to the U.S. Treasury.

Likewise, neither will KKR write a severance check to employees. No frikken way in hell. Why? Because there is no compulsion to do so. The legal argument? He’s right, “[t]here is none.” So, yeah, good luck with that.

And so the above is really where the piece should stop. A nice little moral high ground piece about how employees and vendors got effed, it is what is, now on to tariffs, Petsmart’s asset stripping “mystery,” Harley Davidson’s ($HOG) war with President Trump or Moviepass owner Helios & Matheson’s ($HMNY) stock hitting a record low.

But Primack also points out,

Finally, the pro-severance folks are a bit liberal (no pun intended) with their math. They argue the PE firms took out $464 million, by adding up advisory fees ($185m), expenses ($8m), transaction fees ($128m) and interest on debt held by the sponsors ($143m). Yes, we were first to point out how the general partners may have gotten back more than they put in. But some of those fees were shared with LPs — including the now-aghast public pensions — while the interest was held in CLOs that had their own investors. In other words, PE "profit" was much smaller than claimed (although, on the flip side, you could argue the firms collected management fees on Toys-related capital that ended up being set on fire... again, it's complicated). (emphasis added)

Right. We’re sure the Minnesota State Board of Investment is cutting a check as we speak.

Sadly Primack didn’t stop there; he continued,

PE firms do have moral obligations to portfolio company employees. You break it, you own it (even if you technically broke it while owning it, which caused someone else to own it).

Um, ok, sure.

He continues,

Bottom line: The PE firms should pay at least some of the severance, or figure out some other form of compensation. And I have a sense that they might. Not because of preening public pension staffers or legal obligations, but because it's the right thing to do. Sometimes it's just that simple.

LOL. Riiiiiiight. In the absence of Mr. Primack having an inside track at KKR, it’s just that fantastic (def = “imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality.”).

Is Digital Media in Trouble?

Don't Sleep on Digital Media "Distress"

Last week we announced that we'll be rolling out our Founding Member subscription program in early '18. The response was overwhelmingly positive with many of you reaching out and essentially saying "what took you so long." That warmed our heart: thank you! We look forward to educating and entertaining you well into the future. The timing fortuitously dovetails into a general narrative about the state of digital media today. 

For instance, is it fair to characterize Mashable as a distressed asset sale? Well, the company - once valued at $250mm - is reportedly being sold to Ziff Davis, the digital media arm of J2 Global Inc., for just $50mm. So, what happened? New capital for media companies has dried up (unless, apparently, you're Axios) amidst weakness in the ad-based business model. With Google ($GOOGL) and Facebook ($FB) dominating ads to the point where even Twitter ($TWTR) and Snapchat ($SNAP) are having trouble competing, digital media brands are feeling the heat. Bloomberg highlights that at least a half dozen online media companies - from Defy Media (Screen Junkies, Made Man, Smosh) to Uproxx Media (BroBible) - are also considering sales to bigger platforms. Indeed, in an apparent attempt to de-risk, Univision is ALREADY reportedly trying to offload a stake in the Gawker sites it recently bought out of bankruptcy.

Which is not to say that bigger platforms are killing it too: the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that both Buzzfeed and Vice will miss internal revenue targets this year. Oath, which is Yahoo and AOLbinned 560 people this week. Of course, those in the distressed space know that one's pain is another's gain. To point, Bloomberg quotes Bryan Goldberg, founder of Bustle, saying "Small and more challenged digital media companies have been hit hard. This is a time for companies with cash flow and capital to start acquiring the more challenged digital assets." That sounds like the mindset of a distressed investor: the buyside and sellside TMT (telecom/media/technology) bankers must be licking their chops. Back to restructuring, these sorts of mandates may be decent consolation prizes for those professionals not lucky enough to be involved with the imminent bankruptcies of (MUCH larger and obviously different) media companies like Cumulus Media ($CMLS) and iHeartMedia Inc. ($IHRT), both of which are coming close to bankruptcy (footnote: click the iHeartMedia link and tell us that that headline isn't dangerous in the age of 280-characters!). For instance, Mode Media is an example of a digital media property that failed last year despite at one time having a "unicorn" valuation (based on $250mm in funding), a near IPO, and tens of thousands of users. It sold for "an undisclosed sum" (read: for parts) in an assignment for the benefit of creditors. Scout Media Inc. filed for bankruptcy in December of last year and sold in bankruptcy to an affiliate of CBS Corporation for approximately $9.5mm. Not big deals, obviously, but there are assets to be gained there. And fees to be made. 

In response, (some) digital media brands are looking more and more to subscribers and less and less to advertisers in an effort to survive. Longreads' "Member Drive," for example, drummed up $140,760 which, crucially, it'll use to pay writers for quality long-form content. Ben Thompson has turned Stratechery into a money-making subscription-only service; he told readers that they're funding his curiosity and their education. Indeed, his piece this past week on Stitch Fix ($SFIX) may have, in fact, impacted sentiment on the company's S-1 and, in turn, the company's IPO price. These are only two of many examples but, suffice it to say, the "Subscription Economy" is on the rise

Which is all to say that our path is clear. And we look forward to having you along for the ride. Please tell your friends and colleagues to subscribe TODAY: existing subscribers will get a preferential rate.

Shorting Retail Just Got Easier

Quick caveat: nothing we write in PETITION ought to be construed as investment advice and we have all kinds of lawyerly things to say on this topic in our disclaimer here. Cool? Cool.

Now that that boring disclaimer stuff is out of the way, if you've ever wondered whether you could ACTUALLY short retail - other than getting into restructuring - there is a new group of ETFs that do just that. Bloomberg and Axios both reported this week on the rise of ETFs targeting the retail industry, including, gulp, one's that use leverage to do so. It's our understanding that even firms with strict trading/conflicts policies allow for index fund investing. So, knock yourselves out. 

(Footnote: another alternative is investing in distressed Puerto Rican real estate.)

Again, note the disclaimer and if you lose money don't blame us.