More Shenanigans in Retail: Neiman Marcus Edition

Retail Schmetail (Long Shenanigans; Long Litigation-Based Investment)

Just when retail was starting to get boring, Neiman Marcus stepped up this week to provide some real entertainment for bond investors. Thanks Neiman Marcus!

First, lending an additional boost the now-popular narrative that the "#retailapocalypse story is over, the luxury department store retailer reported earnings on September 18 that reflected (i) a 2.3% increase in quarterly revenue YOY, (ii) a dramatically reduced Q4 net loss on a YOY basis, and (iii) an increase in adjusted EBITDA. For fiscal year 2018, it reported total revenues of $4.9 billion, a 4.9% increase YOY. Free cash flow was $122.6mm vs. negative $57.7mm last year. Online revenues were up 12.5% for the quarter and accounted for 35% of the overall business.

And that last bit is where the rubber meets the road. At the tail end of its press release, Neiman slipped in this doozy like a slickster:

Subsequent to the end of the fourth quarter, the Company effected an organizational change as a result of which the entities through which the Company operates the MyTheresa business now sit directly under Neiman Marcus Group, Inc., the Company’s ultimate parent entity. These entities were unrestricted, non-guarantor subsidiaries under the Company’s debt instruments. As a result of this change, going forward the financial results of the MyTheresa entities will no longer be included in the Company’s publicly reported financial statements. The change is not expected to meaningfully affect operations for Neiman Marcus or MyTheresa.

Indeed, the company’s term loan and bonds — part of its $4.7 billion debt stack — did trade down but it wasn’t due to misplaced optimism. Rather, it was more likely attributable to the fact that the company, in a Petsmart-PTSD-inducing maneuver, just significantly weakened the bondholder collateral package.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

Before the transfer of MyTheresa to the parent company, Neiman Marcus Group Inc., there was some anticipation that the retailer would use the MyTheresa shares to entice bondholders to swap their debt for bonds with a longer maturity.

“Some bondholders may have incorrectly assumed that the company would embark on a distressed debt exchange involving MyTheresa shares as collateral,” said Steven Ruggiero, an analyst at Pressprich & Co.

It appears so.

James Goldstein, a retail analyst at CreditSights, noted that proceeds from any sale could now go directly to the investment companies that control the Neiman parent company, with bondholders likely having no claim. The parent company is owned by Ares Management LP and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

“MyTheresa was already in an unrestricted subsidiary, but the way it’s structured now proceeds of any sale of MyTheresa goes straight to sponsors’ pockets without having to deal with the bondholders,” Mr. Goldstein said.

For now, this is a (potential) win for pensioners and a loss for hedge funds holding the debt. And one such hedge fund was, shall we say, a wee bit nonplussed. On Friday September 21, Marble Ridge Capital LP sent a letter to the company’s board of directors (and subsequently issued a very public press release about said letter) stating:

"…what these transactions appear to be is an attempt to move the MyTheresa business beyond the reach of existing creditors sitting between the sponsors' equity and the valuable MyTheresa assets. Most troubling, we understand that Ares and CPPIB usurped this massive benefit and took the MyTheresa business for no consideration."

"Marble Ridge has reason to believe that the Company was insolvent at the time of the Transactions or was rendered insolvent thereby. The Company is the issuer and/or guarantor of at least $4.7 billion of indebtedness. Based on LTM EBITDA of $478.2 million, the Company's indebtedness prior to the Transactions implies nearly a 10x leverage multiple (far in excess of any of its peers). Moreover, a dividend or other form of a spinoff by an insolvent guarantor to its equity sponsors, for no consideration, has all the hallmarks of an intentional or constructive fraudulent transfer (or illegal dividend) and raises serious questions of breaches of duties of care and loyalty, with exposure for Ares and CPPIB, as controlling shareholders, and for the Company's board. As noted above, Marble Ridge also has concerns that the Transactions do not comply with the Indentures."

The Wall Street Journal had previously reported that:

Neiman Marcus hired Lazard Ltd. and Kirkland & Ellis last year for advice on how to restructure its debt.

Looks like they deployed some of that advice.

Professional-Services.ai

Short junior attorneys...the machines are coming for them. And, frankly, why shouldn't they come for attorneys at ALL levels? After all, are there situations where there is "overzealous advocacy and hyperactive legal efforts"? When there are "so many attorneys and their respective billings"? "When the hourly rates and amount of time billed are simply unreasonable"? "Staggering," in fact?  Suffice it to say, you won't see Weil filing any cases in Southern District of Iowa anytime soon (see below). Frankly, "overzealous advocacy and hyperactive legal efforts" seems like it could have just as easily applied to the pissing contest that was the equitable subordination claim in Aeropostale but who are we to judge a grudge match between Weil and Kirkland & Ellis (which the the latter convincingly won)? We were too busy popping popcorn and putting our feet up. Switching gears and looking elsewhere in changing labor markets, here's to wondering: is the "gig economy" working? And what becomes of those 89,000 lost retail jobs?

Speaking of retail jobs, it looks like the bankers have all of them. Now there's M&A noise around Neiman Marcus, which is heating up with Hudson's Bay sniffing around hard but trying to avoid assumption of Neiman's substantial debt-load. Meanwhile Nine West Holdings has hired Lazard to figure out its capital structure. Elsewhere in retail, Macy's ($M), Kohl's ($KSS), Nordstrom ($JWN) and J.C. Penney ($JCP) all reported earnings that looked like a dumpster fire and the stocks promptly got decimated. We're sure the bankers are salivating. And speaking of retailers with jacked-up debt (and bankers), GNC Holdings Inc. and its agent bankers JPMorgan reportedly attempted but ultimately failed to extend GNC's $1.13b loan by three years. Now GNC says it will use its "strong" free cash flow to fund ops and deal with its '18 maturity. This is an interesting story on many levels. First, there have been a TON of share buybacks in recent years (the public equivalent of a dividend recap - our favorite) and so it was only a matter of time before one of them bit an uncreative and misled -- uh, we mean, generous shareholder-minded - management team in the bum. Second, the "Amazon-effect" apparently applies to meatheads too with vitamin sales allegedly shifting online. Who knew Biff could function in an m-commerce world? Go Biff. Third, despite a variety of downward trending financials, GNC's loan is still trading at a tick below par and so the proposed transaction might have affected the lenders' yield metrics (hence the rejection). Which gets us to #4: with crappy loans like GNC's ticking up so far upward, most distressed players can't stop complaining about a dearth of opportunities to target: everything is priced to perfection. Sadly, everyone needs the yield wherever they can get it hoping (praying?) that when the going gets rough, they'll be the first to hit eject. No, no (rate-fueled) bubble to see here.  

Diving into Retail I (M&A'ing Like a Boss)

With Walmart's rumored acquisition of Bonobos, perhaps we can finally do away with the narrative that these fashion startups will alleviate some of the brick-and-mortar vacancy. Walmart isn't buying Bonobos for its 31 "guideshops"; it is buying Bonobos because it needs to increase its e-commerce skillset and acquire a different demographic of shopper than the typical Walmart shopper. Or, we could be wrong: perhaps with Walmart's resources behind it, Bonobos will, in fact, be able to open more guideshops. But will they be independent of Walmart, or within Walmart? So many questions. And here's another one: if brick-and-mortar retailers continue to go the way of the showroom, which suppliers get hammered? Paper (shopping bag) producers? Meanwhile, speaking of bargain shopping at places like Walmart, it appears that Neiman Marcus shoppers are now getting price conscious too: it's amazing what comparative information at your fingertips can do.