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."

Dov Charney = Bankruptcy Pro

This is a long holiday weekend in need of a longform beach read. So here is a recent piece about American Apparel's founder and iconoclast, Dov Charney. Why bother? Well, because Charney probably knows more about retail restructurings at this point than half of you. We kid, we kid. 

Anyway, trust us and take a look. The article demonstrates how in ten short years the retail space has dramatically changed. Charney expanded from a B2B wholesaler to a B2C brick-and-mortar destination in an astounding amount of time (sidenote: Charney's architect running the expansion was none other than WeWork co-founder, Miguel McKelvey). Will we ever see that level of retail expansion again? It doesn't seem likely. 

Otherwise, American Apparel's double vault into bankruptcy is well documented by this point. Charney tried to buy the company out of the first bankruptcy for $300mm; he was denied. He didn't try to buy it the second time which came a cold 6 months later and the company sold its intellectual property to Gilden Apparel for $88mm. Gilden then shut down the entirely of the retail footprint (and the company's Los Angeles warehouse). Now Charney is launching "Los Angeles Apparel" and going all Clint Eastwood on Gilden. We love a good showdown. 

If, at this point, you're thinking "This is my long holiday weekend and I don't want to stress out by reading something about that dumba$$, Charney," well, we get it. So, a few highlights to otherwise spare you:

Choice Quote #1: "...the private equity firms can't wait to get out. They want a pay day. They're not looking to hang around or create something unique, or win accolades for their creativity. They're measured by how much money they can extract from the business. They're not interested in the customer; it's not about authenticity." PETITION note: see, e.g., Payless Shoesource, rue21 Inc., Gymboree, Claire's Stores...arggh, you get the point. 

Choice Quote #2: "'The money's not talented...[t]he money doesn't create the value. Basically the hedge funds and the private equity firms - and it's not all of them - they hire these consulting firms. What these guys do, they just come in, they raid the company - basically the suits take over. But it hasn't worked out in fashion, as far as I can tell." PETITION note: see, e.g., Wet Seal, rue21, Gymboree, Claire's Stores...arggh, you get the point. Query also: which consulting firm is he referring to? Hmmm.

Choice Quote #3: "To avoid over-production, some of those smaller players go as far as crowdfunding their inventory, waiting for a minimum order from their customers before they even contemplate production...." PETITION Note: we've been wondering whether inventory-by-crowdfunding would become more of a trend. Significantly, Elon Musk has been doing that with new Tesla models: make an order and pay a deposit. He he can then know precisely how many new models to manufacture and project cash needs accordingly. Andreesen Horowitz folks cover this topic in this interesting podcast. Moreover, other big brands are using crowdsourcing for consumer product goods. Retail is a tough business these days: we wonder whether additional brands will deploy crowdsourcing to create awareness/buzz and manage inventory simultaneously. Stay tuned and watch this trend.

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