⚡️Update: What's Up With Francesca's ($FRAN)?⚡️

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We first wrote about Houston-based Francesca’s Holdings Corp. ($FRAN) back in February when (i) the stock was trading at $0.92/share, (ii) the company had announced that it had retained Rothschild & Co. and Alvarez & Marsal LLC, and (iii) the company was coming off of a quarter where it (a) reported -14% same store sales, -10% net sales, and a net loss of $16mm, (b) acknowledged that 17% of its retail footprint was “underperforming,” and (c) blew out its fifth CEO in seven years. That’s all.

A lot has transpired since then. Going into its second quarter ‘19 earnings, the stock — after declining 80% over the last year — was suddenly and mysteriously on a small August upswing, reaching as high as $5.16/share on September 9 (PETITION Note: the company did a mid-summer 12-for-1 reverse stock split so that mostly explains the recovery from the $0.92/share level we’d previously written about but the upswing continued thereafter).

Then some weird sh*t happened. The company issued earnings and comp store sales were down 5% and net sales decreased 6%. Gross margins were also down.

Here is a snapshot of the company’s sales growth / (decline) over the years:

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The company noted a decrease in margin’s due to aggressive markdowns, here are EBITDA margins over the last few years:

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Here is the overall performance over the years:

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And yet the stock popped on the report:

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That’s right. It got as high as $18.14/share on this report. We know what you’re thinking: “that report sucks, the numbers were terrible.” Yes, yes indeed, they were. But, on a relative basis, this marked a dramatic improvement.


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😬Securitization Run Amok (Long the ABS Market)😬

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On Sunday, in “💥Securitize it All, We Say💥,” we continued our ongoing “What to Make of the Credit Cycle” series with discussion of, among several other things, Otis, a new startup that intends to securitize cultural assets and collectables like sneakers, comic books, works of art, watches and more. We quipped, “What isn’t getting securitized these days?” If we do say so ourselves, that is a: GOOD. EFFING. QUESTION. Why is securitization all of the rage these days? EVEN. BETTER. EFFING. QUESTION. The answer: YIELD, BABY, YIELD.

Back in early June, Bloomberg’s Brian Chappatta reported on the rise of “esoteric asset-backed securities known as ‘whole business securitizations.’” Restaurant chains with large swaths of franchisees, long-standing operations, and dependable brands, he wrote, are using these instruments to access cheaper financing in a yield-starved market. He wrote:

The securities are about as straightforward as the name implies — franchise-focused companies sell virtually all of their revenue-generating assets (thus, “whole business”) into bankruptcy-remote, special-purpose entities. Investors then buy pieces of the securitizations, which tend to have credit ratings five or six levels higher than the companies themselves, according to S&P Global Ratings. Creditors take comfort in knowing the cash flows are isolated from bankruptcy.

Cumulative gross issuance of whole-business securitizations reached about $35 billion at the end of 2018, compared with about $13 billion just four years earlier, according to S&P. The past two years have been banner years for the structures, with $7.9 billion offered in 2017 and $6.6 billion last year, according to data from Bloomberg News’s Charles Williams.

These structures are contributing to the deluge of BBB-rated supply.


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☄️Future First Day Declaration: Forever21☄️

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We figured we'd take the first crack at the First Day Declaration for Forever21 Inc.'s potential bankruptcy* and spare the company some professional fees.

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"Preliminary Statement in Support of Forever21's Chapter 11 Petition"

As you know, retail sucks. The list of bankrupted retailers is long and “iconic” and so we got FOMO and decided, what the heck! Everyone’s failing, so we might as well also!

But first, we did want to make sure that we could explain to our uber-loyal fanbase (who clearly isn’t buying enough of our sh*t) that we did everything in our power to stay out of bankruptcy court. And so we did what all retailers today do: we focused on omni-channel; upped our Insta spend; updated the lighting in our stores and refurbished our “look”; stretched our vendors; sh*tcanned some employees; negotiated extensively with our landlords; closed a few underperforming locations; negotiated with our lenders, and more! According to Bloombergwe’ve hired Latham & Watkins LLP to deal with this hot mess, including our $500mm asset-backed loan. We’ve been busy bees!!

We had one Hail Mary trick up our sleeves that we thought would really save the business: partnerships. With first class brands. Like Cheetos. That’s right Cheetos!! GET PUMPED!!! Everything is so 🔥🔥🔥.

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This sh*t got ~45k likes (“worst things since the Kardashians!” haha). Which pales compared to this doozy, which got ~47k likes:

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This is the most ridiculous clothing line I’ve ever seen.

Nothing drives sales sales sales like thoughts of “ball cheese” (PETITION Note: sorry…we had to). #Fail.

But, wait! There’s more. We brought back Baby Phat too!!

May G-d have mercy on all of us.

*Sources tell us that the company may not be as close to a bankruptcy filing as some previous media reporting implied. Nevertheless, the name has been kicking around for some time now within the lender community and it does appear that the company is focused on some operational fixes. This “mock” first day declaration should not be construed as indicating that a bankruptcy is, in fact, imminent.

🚴 Peloton = Gympocalypse? 🚴

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

Source: Mirror

Source: Mirror

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

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

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

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

Web Smith frames it another way

He writes:

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

He continues:

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

And:

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

He finished by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City CRE (Long the Changing Retail Landscape)

Is anything available in New York City for less than $5? Some of you are about to find out.

Yesterday, Bloomberg noted the following:

Retail rents are tumbling in Manhattan, especially in the toniest neighborhoods.

In the area around the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, home to the borough’s priciest retail real estate, rents fell 13.5 percent in the second quarter from the previous three months, the largest decline among the 16 neighborhoods tracked by brokerage CBRE Group Inc. The drop was due in part to a single space that had its price cut from $3,500 a square foot to $2,500, CBRE said in a report Tuesday.

Tenants have the upper hand in New York as landlords contend with a record number of empty storefronts. Across Manhattan, 143 retail slots have sat vacant for the past year, and rents have been reduced on more than half of those spaces, CBRE said. Property owners are increasingly willing to negotiate flexible terms in an effort to get tenants to commit to leases, according to the report.

Apparently a number of commercial real estate brokers didn’t get the memo. Brokers reportedly lashed out last week upon news that General Growth Properties ($GGP) leased out a large space to Five Below, a discount consumer products chain, at 530 Fifth Avenue. Per Commercial Observer:

Some brokers expressed disappointment with the tenant selection.

“It’s not a Fifth Avenue-type tenant. Everyone is pissed,” one broker said of the deal because of the nature of the tenant on a prized part of Fifth Avenue. He added: “There goes the neighborhood.” A more suitable location, the broker said, would have been south of 42nd Street.

“Not sure this was the tenant surrounding landlords with available space were hoping for,” said Jeffrey Roseman, a vice chairman at Newmark Knight Frank Retail, who was not involved in the deal.

Wait. What? Currently, there’s literally a JPMorgan Chase Bank, a Walgreens and a Kaffe 1668 right there there. Who among that lot can rightfully object?

What these brokers don’t appear to grasp is that the brick-and-mortar landscape has dramatically changed. There aren’t very many tenant options for landlords — at least not for 10,800 square foot spaces (which is what this is). And there’s no benefit to any of the other retailers in the vicinity of the space for it to remain vacant. Apropos, as noted in Commercial Observer, one broker appears to get it:

“Five Below is the updated variety store or five-and-dime store of our day—something for everyone,” said Faith Hope Consolo, the chairman of the retail leasing and sales division at Douglas Elliman. “As for the character or image of the street, that is not really affected or important. The key is that a big space was absorbed and this type of tenant will generate traffic.”

Our thoughts exactly. Those adhering to a New York City of yesteryear clearly haven’t noticed the influx of coffee shops, pharmacies and banks on every corner. Who else would take such a large space? Toys R Us?

What? Too soon?

Where’s the Auto Distress? (Short PETITION’s Prognistications)

Back in October, we asked “Is Another Wave of Auto-Related Bankruptcy Around the Corner?” The (free) piece is worth revisiting — particularly in light of Tesla’s recent travails. Among many other things, we wrote:

Supply Chain Distress. Last year we saw DACCO Transmission Parts Inc. file for bankruptcy. During the Summer, Takata Inc. filed for bankruptcy (on account of a massive liability, but still) and Jack Cooper Enterprises Inc., a finished-vehicle logistics/transportation provider, reached a consensual agreement with its noteholders that kept the company out of bankruptcy court. For now. Then, a little over a week ago, GST Autoleather Inc. filed for bankruptcy, citing declining auto output. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Hard to say. Literally on the same day that GST filed for bankruptcy - again, citing declining auto output - General MotorsFord and other OEMs reported the first YOY sales increase (10%), surprising to the upside. It seems, however, that the (sales) uptick may be artificial: in part, it's attributable to (a) Hurricane Harvey damage and mass vehicle replacement; and (b) heavy vehicle discounting. On a less positive note, Ford announced that it will be slashing billions in costs to shore up its financial condition; it also announced back in September that it would slash production at five of its plants. And General Motors Co. announced earlier this week that it would be idling a Detroit factory and cutting production. Production levels, generally, are projected to decline through 2021. Obviously, reduced production levels and idled plants portend poorly for a lot of players in the auto supply chain. 

But, with limited exception (like Nissan’s announcement this week that it would cut U.S. production by 20%), the auto world has been largely quiet since then. Another exception: International Automotive Components Group S.A., a Detroit-based interior parts manufacturer with 77 manufacturing plants worldwide, announced, in April, a new financing transaction through the issuance of $215 million of ‘23 second lien notes funded by Gamut Capital Management LP. Perhaps we just need to be more patient?

Rumblings abound around two more names that may be in more near-term trouble. First, American Tire Distributors’ suffered downgrades on the heels of the announcement that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. ($GT) opted to discontinue use of ATD as a distributor. Notably, GT’s stock, itself, is down 20% in the last year:

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Anyway, back to ATD. Per Crain’s Cleveland Business,

The news cratered the market value of ATD's $975 million of bonds and its $700 million term loan. S&P Global Ratings quickly cut the company's credit grade deeper into junk and Moody's followed suit, saying its capital structure was no longer sustainable.

Then, on May 9, the 800-pound gorilla entered the industry, as Amazon.com Inc. teamed up with Sears Holdings Corp. to allow customers to buy replacement tires online and have them installed at the troubled department store.

The moves signal radical changes in the replacement-tire market. Manufacturers are taking control of their own distribution, cutting out wholesalers like ATD, and along with retailers are developing their own internet capabilities to reach consumers directly, according to New York-based research firm CreditSights.

Ah, there it is: Amazon ($AMZN). Is a PETITION entry complete without the mandatory Amazon reference? Indeed, Moody’s noted,

“All else being equal, the magnitude of the associated earnings and cash flow decline will compound an already levered financial risk profile, rendering a pre-emptive debt restructuring increasingly likely, in our estimation.”

The Huntersville North Carolina company is a wholesale distributor of tires, custom wheels and other related auto equipment; it is a behemoth with $5.3 billion in revenues in 2017 and 140 distribution centers located across the U.S. and Canada. It also happens to have $1.8 billion of debt. The company is equally owned by private equity firms Ares Management LP and TPG Capital.

The debt — coupled with the loss of a major customer — is a big concern. More from Crain’s,

But ATD's capital structure is stretched tight, said Lawrence Orlowski, a director in corporate ratings at S&P. While the company has access to $465.4 million in asset-based lending facilities and $22.7 million in cash as of the end of 2017, even that liquidity may not be enough to stay solvent if ATD permanently loses Goodyear's business or if any other major tire makers pressure the company for concessions, according to Orlowski.

Something tells us (restructuring) advisors may be circling around trying to determine whether it can get together a group of the company’s term lenders.

*****

Second, Tweddle Group Inc., a The Gores Group-owned manufacturer of automotive owners’ manuals (that nobody ever reads) likewise suffered a disastrous blow when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. announced back in April that it was no longer using Tweddle’s services. Fiat reportedly accounted for 40% of Tweddle’s 2017 revenue and will be hard to replace. Consequently, Moody’s issued downgrades noting,

“The downgrades reflect a credit profile that is expected to be significantly weakened following Tweddle's loss of certain work from a key customer, and the resultant mismatch between the company's earnings and cash flow prospects and its now much more levered balance sheet.”

This reportedly put pressure on the company’s $225mm ‘22 first lien term loan and now the company reportedly has hired Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP for assistance. While it will likely take some time for the loss or revenue to trip any leverage ratios in the company’s credit agreement, this is a name to watch.

*****

Finally, Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently released its “Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018” report. Therein in noted that there are a variety of factors driving EV sales forward:

  • Lithium-ion battery prices have tumbled, dropping 79% in seven years. Meanwhile, the batteries’ energy density has improved roughly 5-7% per year.

  • Chinese and European policies are pushing fleet electrification.

  • Automakers are aggressively pushing the electrification of their fleets. Choice bit: “The number of EV models available is set to jump from 155 at the end of 2017 to 289 by 2022.”

Bloomberg notes:

Our latest forecast shows sales of electric vehicles (EVs) increasing from a record 1.1 million worldwide in 2017, to 11 million in 2025 and then surging to 30 million in 2030 as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

Marinate on that for a second. That is a massive 10x increase in the next 7 years followed by an additional 3x increase in the following 5 years.

Bloomberg continues,

By 2040, 55% of all new car sales and 33% of the global fleet will be electric.

But what about President Trump (#MAGA!) and efforts to limit future alternatives subsidies?

The upfront cost of EVs will become competitive on an unsubsidized basis starting in 2024. By 2029, most segments reach parity as battery prices continue to fall.

So, sure. Distressed activity thus far in 2018 has been light in the automotive space. But dark clouds are forming. Act accordingly.

DO. NOT. MESS. WITH. DAISY. CHAPTER 2 of 3 (Short Pet Retailers) 🔫🔫

🐶 Petsmart Inc.: "Outlook Negative" 🐶 

On this day exactly one year ago, Recode first reported that Petsmart acquired Chewy.com for $3.35 billion — the “largest e-commerce acquisition ever.” Venture capitalists — and the founders — of course, rejoiced. This was an a$$-kicking exit — particularly for a company that, at the time, was only six years old. The reported amount of venture funding topped out at $451 million, a massive sum, but sufficiently low enough for the VCs to make a substantial return. Recode wrote,

“The deal is a huge one by any standard — bigger than Walmart’s $3.3 billion deal for Jet.com last year — and especially for a retail company like PetSmart, which was itself valued at only $8.7 billion when private equity investors took it over in 2015.

But Chewy.com has been one of the fastest-growing e-commerce sites on the planet, registering nearly $900 million in revenue last year, in what was only its fifth year in operation. The company had been a potential IPO candidate for this year or next, but was taken out by its brick-and-mortar competitor before that. It was not profitable last year.”

Recode continued,

“The deal seems like the type of bet-the-company acquisition by a traditional retailer that commerce-focused venture capitalists have been betting on for some time. While Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com was a huge deal by e-commerce standards, it represented just a fraction of Walmart’s market value.”

Toss of the dice notwithstanding, most talking heads seemed to think that the acquisition made “strategic sense.” Nevertheless, Recode’s sentiment was more prescient than they likely suspected — mostly due to the havoc it has wreaked to Petsmart’s cap stack.

The company financed the purchase with a two-part debt offering of (a) $1.35 billion of ‘25 8.875% senior secured notes and (b) $650 million of ‘25 5.875% unsecured notes. Rounding out the capital structure is a $750 million ABL, a $4.3 billion cov-lite first-lien term loan and $1.9 billion cov-lite ‘23 senior unsecured notes. Let us help you out here: 1+2+3+4 = $8.2 billion in debt. The equity sponsors, BC PartnersGICLongview Asset ManagementCaisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and StepStone Group, helped by writing a $1.35 billion new equity check. So, what did all of this financing lead to?

One year later, CEO Michael Massey is gone and hasn’t been replaced. More recently, Ryan Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of Chewy.com has departed. Blue Buffalo Pet Products Inc., which reportedly accounted for 11-12% of PetSmart’s sales, opted to supply its food products to mass-market retailers like Target ($T) and Kroger ($KR). The notes backing the Chewy.com deal are trading (and have basically, since issuance, traded) at distressed levels. Petsmart’s EBITDA showed a 34% YOY decline in Q3. And, worse even (for investors anyway), the bondholders are increasingly concerned about asset stripping to the benefit of the company’s private equity sponsors. S&P Global Ratings downgraded the company in December. It stated,

“The downgrade reflects our view that the capital structure is unsustainable at current levels of EBITDA, although we do not see a default scenario over the next year given liquidity and cash generation. Such underperformance came from the company's rapid e-commerce growth that generated higher losses, and unanticipated negative same-store sales at its physical stores. As Chewy aggressively expands its customer base, we believe operating losses will widen because the company has not yet garnered the size and scale to offset the unprofitable business volume from new customers.”

Financial performance and ratios were a big consideration: margin is compressed, in turn negatively affecting the company’s interest coverage ratio and leverage ratio (approximately 8.5x).

Moody’s Investor Service also issued a downgrade in January. It wrote,

“We still believe the acquisition of Chewy has the potential of being transformative for PetSmart as it will exponentially increase its online penetration which was previously very modest. However, as Chewy continues to grow its topline aggressively and incur increasing customer acquisition costs we expect its operating losses to increase. More importantly, the increasingly competitive business environment particularly from e-commerce and mass retailers has led to increased promotional activity which has negatively impacted PetSmart's top line and margins. We expect this trend to continue in 2018.”

Bloomberg adds,

“Buying Chewy.com was supposed to be a coup for PetSmart Inc. For debt investors who funded the deal, it’s been more like a dog.”

See what they did there?

With 1600 stores, the company isn’t light with its footprint and same store sales and pricing power are on the decline. Still, the company’s liquidity profile remains relatively intact and its services businesses apparently still drive foot traffic. Which is not to say that the situation doesn’t continue to bear watching — particularly if Chewy.com’s customer-acquisition-costs continue to skyrocket, overall brick-and-mortar trends continue to move downward, and the likes of Target ($T), Walmart ($WMT) and Amazon ($AMZN) continue to siphon off market share. A failure to stem the decline could add more stress to the situation.

*****

💥We’ll discuss Petco Holdings in “DO. NOT. MESS. WITH. DAISY. CHAPTER 3 of 3 (Short Pet Retailers 2.0) 🔫🔫🔫” in our Members’-only briefing on Sunday.💥

Toys R Us is a Dumpster Fire

All Signs Point to the Big Box Retailer Being in Serious Trouble

This week AlixPartners LLC released its latest "Retail Viewpoint" and its "Monthly Retail and Economic Update." Both documents cover retail results from the ever-important holiday season. Alix says this in its preface:

"The year 2017 may have been one of apocalyptic headlines, but a lot of forecasts—including ours—still predicted that retailers would have a good holiday performance.

No one thought it would be this good.

According to advance and preliminary numbers from the US Census Bureau, retailers brought the noise this past holiday-shopping season. Core retail sales increased 6.3% over 2016's, blowing past the National Retail Federation's forecast—and ours too. Sales in November and December were absolutely explosive, accounting for 17.2% of annual sales, the largest percentage since 1999.

Every core retail sector performed significantly better than it did the rest of the year (figure 1). Not even public enemy number one—e-commerce pure plays—could stop other sectors from increasing 2.3% during the holiday season compared with the rest of 2017. There must have been a lot of happy little kids (and bigger kids) gathered 'round the tree, because the poster children of recession-era bankruptcies, electronics and sporting goods/hobby/book/music stores, had the largest increases of all: 7.4% and 4.7%, respectively."

While there may have been "a lot of happy little kids," we're guessing they were NOT "Toys R Us kids." 

Consider this week's Toys R US-related operational news: 

  • The Washington Post reports that 182 stores will close, with CEO Dave Brandon acknowledging "operational missteps" during the holiday season. The article cites various issues including (i) confusion around the bankruptcy filing, (ii) fear of buying gifts that can't be returned, (iii) weak marketing, and (iv) ineffective email promotions. An analyst at BMO Capital Markets notes that holiday sales in North America were down more than 10%. On the bright side, Reuters reports that all 83 stores in Canada will remain open.
  • Quartz notes that the company seeks permission to pay store closing bonuses to those employees who help the company wind down the aforementioned 182 stores (which, for the record, is roughly 20% of the US footprint). Notably, neither the company nor Quartz is estimating the sheer number of jobs these closings affect. But it will be a meaningful number. #MAGA!!
  • Bloomberg reported that the company obtained court approval to pay landlords' fees and expenses related to the Chapter 11 case in exchange for additional time for the company to decide whether to assume or reject leases. Nerd alert: the bankruptcy code imposes a 210-day deadline for a company to decide a course of action vis-a-vis its non-residential real property leases. These promised payments were in exchange for an extension of that timeframe. 

And consider, further, this week's Toys R Us-related financial news:

  • Per RetailDive, Toys R Us won't release holiday sales results
  • Per Debtwire, Toys R Us circulated a limited holiday performance snapshot for its international enterprise. The report didn't include number after December 23. Yes, Christmas is on December 25. 

We wonder: why the reluctance to release numbers? Our suspected answer: they must be ugly AF. In the period of October 29 - November 25, the company reported a net deficit (disbursements > receipts) of approximately $53mm. Later this week, we should see the company's monthly filing for the period covering Christmas. We don't like to speculate, but we can only imagine that the deficit will be even greater; we suspect that the company is burning cash like nobody's business. And we're wondering whether a liquidation of the US side of the business is out of the question given all of the "missed opportunities." 

For now, what we KNOW is that - through no fault of its own - Alix' assessment is incomplete. The fine folks over there may want to amend their report after we hear more from Toys R Us in coming days. 

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By extension of the above - and now is as good a time as any to remind you that nothing we write should be construed as investment advice - we'd think it's also safe to assume that this Bloomberg piece about efforts by Hasbro Inc. ($HAS) and Mattel Inc. ($MAT) to innovate is, maybe, a wee bit too rosy. While, yes, they may be pivoting towards mobile and less dependence on brick-and-mortar, how many times have we heard that a transition is slower and harder than anticipated? That excuse is cited in virtually every retail "First Day Declaration" of the past two years. We don't have high hopes for Q4 reports (Mattel supposedly reports Q4 earnings on 2/1 followed by Hasbro on 2/7). Along those lines, Meisheng Cultural Co. may want to wait and see what happens to Jakks Pacific's ($JAKK) numbers before it overpays. 

One last related note: Sphero, the Disney-backed ($DIS) maker of STEM toys like a robotic BB-8 that you can buy at...wait for it...TOYS R US, announced earlier this week that it was laying off 45 staff members globally "following a holiday season that failed to live up to expectations." Curious. Maybe it was too dependent upon a certain big box toy retailer? 

 

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.

Gearing Up for Auto Distress

Is Another Wave of Auto-Related Bankruptcy Around the Corner?

We take this break from your regularly scheduled dosage of retail failure-porn to introduce a topic we haven't addressed yet in detail: auto-related distress.

The auto narrative appears to change by the week depending on, uh, well, generally whatever Elon Musk says/tweets, so let's take a look at what's really been happening recently and filter out the hype (note: Tesla recently failed to deliver on production, lost key execs, and fired hundreds of people on Friday...draw your own conclusions...p.s. stock still going bananas): 

  • Short Interest in Auto Parts StocksIt has increased. This piece attributes this to Amazon's new foray into the car parts business. Is that really the reason why? 
  • Sales. Car and light truck sales are trending downward. Auto loans that maybe - just maybe - jacked up sales are also on the decline. Mostly because default rates are going up. Here's a chart showing auto debt climbing as a share of household liability.
  • Supply Chain Distress. Last year we saw DACCO Transmission Parts Inc. file for bankruptcy. During the Summer, Takata Inc. filed for bankruptcy (on account of a massive liability, but still) and Jack Cooper Enterprises Inc., a finished-vehicle logistics/transportation provider, reached a consensual agreement with its noteholders that kept the company out of bankruptcy court. For now. Then, a little over a week ago, GST Autoleather Inc. filed for bankruptcy, citing declining auto output. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Hard to say. Literally on the same day that GST filed for bankruptcy - again,citing declining auto output - General MotorsFord and other OEMs reported the first YOY sales increase (10%), surprising to the upside. It seems, however, that the (sales) uptick may be artificial: in part, it's attributable to (a) Hurricane Harvey damage and mass vehicle replacement; and (b) heavy vehicle discounting. On a less positive note, Ford announced that it will beslashing billions in costs to shore up its financial condition; it also announced back in September that it would slash production at five of its plants. And General Motors Co. announced earlier this week that it would be idling a Detroit factory and cutting production. Production levels, generally, are projected to decline through 2021. Obviously, reduced production levels and idled plants portend poorly for a lot of players in the auto supply chain. 
  • EV Manufacturing. There is increasing interest in investing in and developing the (electric) car of the future. And that includes major luxury car manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and Audi. These manufacturers may just be putting the nail in the coffin for upstarts like Faraday Future, which barely seems like it can get off the ground.
  • EV Manufacturing - Second Order EffectsEarlier this year we covered Benedict Evans' (now famous) piece on the second-order effects of the rise of electric and autonomous cars. Others, more recently, have been raising questions about what this electric-car future will look like. While others, still, are saying chill the eff out. We, rightfully questioned what would happen once electric cars gained greater traction given the relatively small number of components therein relative to the combustion engine vehicle. To point, Bloomberg writes, "After disassembling General Motors’s Chevrolet Bolt, UBS Group AG concluded it required almost no maintenance, with the electric motor having just three moving parts compared with 133 in a four-cylinder internal combustion engine." Whoa. That's a lot of dis-intermediated parts manufacturing. UBS also projects that electric vehicles will overtake gas and diesel cars by 2038 - with a rapid ramp up succeeding a slow build. 
  • Charging PointsThey've doubled in Germany and a plan is in place to get more super-chargers in place by 2020. Royal Dutch Shell announced on Thursday that it agreed to buy NewMotion, one of Europe's largest EV charging companies; it plans to deploy them at existing gas stations. All of this points to bullish views about EV adoption - worldwide. And we didn't even mention China, which is voraciously trying to curb emissions/pollution and go electric
  • IncreasesRange and prices. Anything that combats "range anxiety" will help adoption. Prices, however, still have to come down for electric cars to be competitive. 
  • Derivative Distress. This was interesting: folks are concerned that autonomous cars may also mean the end of public radio. Will other players that benefit from captive car audiences, e.g., iHeartMedia Inc. and Sirius, also see effects? In all of iHeartMedia's discussions (see below), what are analysts assuming about the future of car ownership? About the rise of podcasts? 

To put the cherry on top, The Washington Post had a piece just this week asking whether 2017 will mark the end of the internal combustion engine. Once you add up all of the above? Well, it becomes clearer that restructuring professionals may have to re-acquaint themselves with auto distress strategies. Maybe that dude who was once the "gaming guy" who is now the "oil and gas guy" will have enough time to become the "auto guy."

Where is the Restructuring Work?

Strong Voices in Finance Are Raising the Alarm

We have some very exciting things planned for the Fall that we cannot wait to share with you. Until then, we'll be channeling our inner John Oliver and spending the rest of the summer researching and recharging. Oh, and structuring our imminent ICO in a way that (i) circumvents the SEC's recent decision noting that ICOs are securities offerings and (ii) gives all current PETITION subscribers a first look at participation. Don't know what we're talking about? For a crash course, read thisthis, and this. The ICO stuff is BANANAS and, yes, we're TOTALLY KIDDING about doing one. We are not kidding, however, about our planned Summer break. We'll be back in September with the a$$-kicking curated weekly commentary you've come to know and love. In the meantime, please regularly check out our website petition11.comour LinkedIn account, and our Twitter feed (@petition) for new content throughout August. 

But before we ride off to the Lake, a few thoughts (and a longer PETITION than usual)...

There has been a marked drop-off in meaningful bankruptcy filings the last several weeks and people are gettin' antsy. Where is the next wave going to come from? A few weeks ago, Bloomberg noted that there was a dearth of restructuring deal flow and a lot of (restructuring) mouths to feed. Bloomberg also reported that, given where bond prices/yields are, bank traders are so bored that they're filling their days by Tindering and video-gaming like bosses rather than...uh...trading. (You're not going to want to thumb-wrestle millennials.) These trends haven't stopped the likes of Ankura Consulting from announcing - seemingly on a daily basis - a new Managing Director or Senior Managing Director hire (misplaced optimism? Or a leading indicator?). No surprise, then, that financial advisors and bankers are whipping themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to complement Paul Weiss as advisors to a potential ad hoc group in Guitar Center Inc. (yes, people do buy guitars online on Amazon and, yes, $1.1b of debt is a lot given declining trends in guitar playing). Even the media is getting desperate: now the Financial Times is pontificating on the "short retail" trade (firewall; good charts within) that others have been discussing for a year or soThe internet is impacting shopping malls (firewall)? YOU DON"T SAY! Commercial mortgage delinquencies are rising (firewall)? NO WAY! We've gotten to the point that in addition to having nothing to do, no one actually has anything original to say

That is, almost no one. After all, there is always Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management, who, once again, demonstrates how much fun he must be at parties. Damn this was good. Looooong, but good. And you have to read it. Boiled down to its simplest form he's asking this very poignant question: what the f&*K is going on? Why? Well, because:
(i) we now see some of the highest equity valuations in history;
(ii) the VIX index is at an all-time low;
(iii) the trajectory of can't-lose stocks is staggering, see, e.g., FAANG (though, granted, Amazon ($AMZN) and Alphabet ($GOOGL) both got taken down a notch this week);
(iv) more than $1 trillion has moved into value-agnostic investing;
(v) we're seeing the lowest yields in history on low-rated bonds/loans (and cov lite is rampant again);
(vi) we're seeing even lower yields on emerging market debt;
(vii) there's gangbusters PE fundraising (PETITION NOTE: we'd add purchase price multiple expansion and, albeit on a much smaller scale, gangbusters VC fundraising);
(viii) there is the rise of the biggest fund of all time raised for levered tech investing (Softbank); and
(ix) bringing this full circle to where we started above, there are now "billions in digital currencies whose value has multiplied dramatically" - even taking into account a small pullback.

Maybe we really should consider an ICO after all. 

And then there's also Professor Scott Galloway. He, admittedly, looks at "softer metrics" and highlights various signals that show "we're about to get rocked" in this piece, a sample of which follows (read the whole thing: it's worth it...also the links): 

We don't think he's kidding, by the way. Anyway, we here at PETITION would add a few other considerations:

  1. The Phillips Curve. Current macro trends countervail conventional thinking about the relationship between unemployment and inflation/wages (when former down, the latter should be up...it's not);
  2. The FED. Nobody, and we mean NOBODY, knows what will happen once the FED earnestly begins cleansing its balance sheet and raising rates; 
  3. (Potentially) Fraudulent Nonsense Always Happens Near the Top. SeeHampton Creek. See Theranos. See Exxon ($XOM). See Caterpillar ($CAT). See Martin Shkreli. And note worries about Non-GAAP earnings;
  4. Auto loans. Delinquencies are on the rise; and
  5. Student loans. Delinquencies are on the rise.

We're not even going to mention the dumpster fire that is Washington DC these days (random aside: is anyone actually watching House of Cards or is reality enough?). 

And, finally, not to steal anyone's thunder but one avid biglaw reader added that a telltale sign of an imminent downturn is the rise of biglaw associate salaries. Haha. At least there are wage increases SOMEWHERE.

All of the above notwithstanding, even Marks cautions against calling an imminent downturn admitting, upfront and often, how he has been premature in the past. That said, nobody saw oil going from $110 to $30 as quickly as it did either. So he's right to be highlighting these issues now. At a minimum, it ought to give investors a lot of pause. And, perversely, this all ought to give restructuring professionals a little bit of hope for what may lay ahead for '18 and '19. 

Have a fun and safe rest of Summer, everyone. Don't miss us too much.

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. 

Divided Recaps Under Attack in Payless Holdings Case

Niiiiiiiiiice. We're impressed that Reuters and Bloomberg both picked up on something that happens - or at least appears to happen - often in bankruptcy cases: a conflict. 

Here's the drill: the official committee of unsecured creditors (UCC) in the Payless Holdings LLC case filed an application seeking to employ The Michel-Shaked Group as expert consultants. The mandate included providing "expert consulting services and expert testimony regarding the Debtors' estates' claims relating to the pre-petition dividend recapitalizations and leveraged buyout, including solvency and capital surplus analysis." As a quick refresher, Payless' private equity overlords Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital dividended themselves hundreds of millions of dollars of value via debt incurred - albeit under relatively low interest rates - on the company's balance sheet. The company's debt load - in addition to various other factors characteristic of retail players today - was a major factor in the company's eventual bankruptcy filing.

Payless Holdings LLC - through Munger Tolles & Olson LLP ("MTO") as counsel to "the independent director of the Debtors" - subsequently objected to the UCC's application. The independent director (the "ID") claimed that the application is, at a maximum, duplicative of the services to be rendered by another UCC professional and at a minimum, premature. Why premature? Well, because the ID is conducting, through MTO, his own investigation into the dividend recapitalization claims the company might have against the private equity firms. That investigation is ongoing. Having a simultaneous analysis runs the danger of not only being duplicative and premature but also hindering the Debtors' aggressive proposed timeline for emergence from bankruptcy. 

As loyal readers of PETITION know, we're big fans of the (shadiness of the) dividend recap and, as such, we really enjoyed Bloomberg's snark: "That's right, someone close to private equity is investigating private equity firms for doing a very private equity thing." To be clear, separate counsel at the direction of an independent director is investigating the private equity firms. But, close enough. 

Let's pull the thread. Payless' main counsel, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, does a ton of private equity work - including, upon information and belief, work for the private equity sponsors implicated here. According to its own retention application, K&E has been representing Payless since 2012 as general corporate counsel. The private equity transaction dates back to 2012. Curious. K&E began representing the Debtors in connection with restructuring matters in November 2016; its engagement letter is dated January 4, 2017. 

The ID presumably got his mandate because he has "served as an independent or disinterested director for various companies in financial distress and restructurings." Among his qualifications are four other current director engagements including iHeartMedia Inc. and Energy Future Intermediate Holding Company LLC. Recognizing that the recap might be at issue, the ID hired separate counsel shortly after joining the board in January 2017 - right around the same time that K&E got hot-and-heavy on the restructuring side (if the engagement letter date is any indication). 

So, to summarize, K&E and management have been working with the private equity owners for five years. During that time, the dividend recaps occurred. The ID came on board right around the same time that K&E's restructuring team got enmeshed with the company. The same ID has a board portfolio of 5 directorships, 60% of which are for companies that are using K&E as restructuring counsel as we speak. Meanwhile, we have to assume that the ID gets paid tens of thousand of dollars for each board mandate with, perhaps, some equity consideration thrown in for good measure. Defensively, the objection drops a nice little footnote to assure us all that the ID is truly independent:

From the Debtors' Objection to the Shaked Application.

From the Debtors' Objection to the Shaked Application.

Perhaps the benefit of the doubt ought to be given to the ID and approval of the Shaked application delayed until after the ID completes his investigation. After all, if he comes down against the private equity shops, the application is moot. On the flip side, well, he won't. Notably, the objection already lays the case that the company relied in its business judgment on the opinions of Duff & Phelps, which issued a solvency opinion and presentation at the time of the transaction(s). Naturally, the UCC won't believe it and will push, again, for this engagement. Presumably, the company will jam them with the "train has left the station" defense. The upshot: if we were litigating this on behalf of the UCC we would certainly call into question the actual "independence" of the investigation sooner rather than later and see if the Judge bites. If done tastefully and in a way that doesn't impugn the character of the ID (which we are in no way advocating), it will at least somewhat offset the impression the Debtors are leaving with the Duff & Phelps bit and plant the seed in the Judge's mind for consideration upon the results of the investigation.

The hearing on the matter was scheduled for May 31 but was subsequently pushed indefinitely.