🎢Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee🎢

⚡️Update: WeWork⚡️

This was us covering the hourly news diarrhea that came out about WeWork in the last 48 hours alone:

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Which, we suppose, is better than how the company’s equity and existing noteholders must be managing:

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Or the fine bankers over at JPMorgan Chase ($JPM) who are tasked with finding capital markets suckers…uh…investors…who’d be so kind as extend this steaming pile a lifeline:

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So, sifting through the constant headlines, where are we at?

Okay, right. The hot mess of a liquidity profile and limited amount of debt capacity to get a deal done.  Nothing to see here. All good.

Reminder: it is widely believed that WeWork will run out of cash by the end of the year without a new deal in place. Axios reports:

The company reported $2.4 billion of cash at the end of June, with a first-half net loss of $904 million. At that pace, it should have been able to survive at least through the middle of 2020. But I'm told that it significantly increased spend in Q3, partially due to the lumpy nature of real estate cap-ex, believing it would be absorbed by $9 billion in proceeds from the IPO and concurrent debt deal. One source says that there's probably enough money to get through Thanksgiving, but not to Christmas.

Riiiiiight. So here are the options:

  • Softbank Group new equity and debt bailout pursuant to which they get control of WeWork and napalm Masa’s former boy, Adam Neumann, in the process. This would reportedly be an aggregate $3b package “to get through the next year” — repeat, TO GET THROUGH THE NEXT YEAR — with the equity component coming significantly cheaper than the previous self-imposed $47b valuation (at a $10b valuation); or

  • JPM arranges some hodge-podge debt package and tests the market’s never-ceasing thirst for yield, baby, yield. The early reports were that the financing package would be $3b, comprised of $1 billion of 9-11% secured debt, $2b of unsecured PIK notes yielding 15% (1/3 cash pay, 2/3 PIK), and letter of credit availability. Wait, 15%?! How does a company with no liquidity even pay that? That’s why the PIK component is so critical: it would simply add 2/3 of the interest due to the principal of the debt. Said another way, the debt would compound annually and creep past $2.5b in two years. Per Bloomberg, “The $2 billion of proposed unsecured debt may carry an additional sweetener for investors: equity warrants designed so that investors could boost their return to around 30% if the company gets to a $20 billion valuation, according to the person who described the structure.” Because debt won’t dilute equity like Softbank’s equity-heavy proposal would, WeWork insiders (read: Neumann) apparently prefer the JPM approach. Regardless of what insiders prefer, however, is whether the market will be receptive to what one investor dubbed, per Bloomberg, “substantial career risk.

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We’re old enough to remember when WeWork’s notes rebounded a mere five days ago for reasons that were wildly inexplicable to us then and even more so now.

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So, to summarize, who are the big winners? IWG/Regus ($IWGFF)(long?). We’re pretty sure they’re loving what’s happening here; we have to imagine that the inbound calls have to be on the upswing. Also, the restructuring professionals. Whether you’re Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP (Softbank), Houlihan Lokey ($HLI)(Softbank), or Perella Weinberg Partners (WeWork’s Board of Directors), you’re incurring more billables/fees than you expected to mere days weeks ago. Somehow, some way, the restructuring pros always seem to come out ahead. And, finally, Goldman Sachs ($GS). Because there’s nothing more Goldman-y than them selling their prop stock right out from under a proposed IPO.

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⛅The Rise of the Cloud. (Long Cloud Usage. Short Debt-Laden Intermediaries).⛅

 

The “cloud” is such a fundamental business component today that cloud considerations inform various aspects of business planning. Look no farther than Amazon Inc. ($AMZN)Microsoft Inc. ($MSFT)Cisco Inc. ($CSCO), and Google Inc. ($GOOGL), and you’ll see cloud computing providers who are minting money on a quarterly basis for providing services that alleviate the server and storage burden of businesses across all kinds of industry verticals. Underscoring the importance of the cloud, IBM Inc. ($IBM) spent a fortune — $34 billion! — acquiring Red Hat Inc. to boost its cloud-for-business offering. Furthermore, recent IPOs have illustrated just how important cloud services are: Pinterest Inc.Snap Inc. ($SNAP)Lyft Inc. ($LYFT), and many other high-flying companies pay hundreds of millions in fixed contracts for cloud computing services that power their applications in ways that everyday end users almost certainly don’t recognize and/or appreciate.

The “cloud,” however, subsumes various other services in addition to computing/storage. There are connectivity-focused applications (provided by the likes of AT&T Inc. ($T)Comcast Corporation ($CMCSA), and others) unified cloud communications applications (i.e., Vonage Holdings Corp. ($VG)), and point solutions (e.g., Citrix Systems Inc. ($CTXS)). One could be forgiven for thinking that everything and anything touching cloud would be gold in this environment. Imagine, for instance, if one firm could serve as an intermediary linking together various cloud-based solutions for other small, medium and large businesses!! Cha Ching!! 

Apparently that’s not the case.

New York-based Fusion Connect Inc., “a provider of integrated cloud solutions, including cloud communications, cloud connectivity and business services to small, medium and large businesses” is bucking the hot cloud trend and barreling quickly towards a bankruptcy court. This begs the question: what the holy f*ck? How is that even possible?

Per a January investor presentation, this is Fusion’s cloud services revenue:

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The 2018 revenue is annualized: revenue in Q3 ‘18 was actually $143.4mm with gross margins of 49.1%. Net operating income was $4mm. Yet the company lost $0.23/share. How does that work? Well, the company had $21.6mm in interest expense.

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The weighted-average rate of interest across the company’s credit facilities is approximately LIBOR + 7.7%. 😬 Not exactly cheap. Compounding matters is that the debt isn’t exactly cov-lite (shocking, we know): rather, the company is subject to all kinds of affirmative and negative covenants. Yes, once upon a time, those did exist.

The company’s recent SEC reports constitute a perfect storm of bad news. On April 2, the company filed a Form 8-K indicating that (i) a recently-acquired company had material accounting deficiencies that will affect its financials and, therefore, certain of the company’s prior filings “can no longer be relied upon,” (ii) it won’t be able to file its 10-K, (iii) it failed to make a $7mm interest payment on its Tranche A and Tranche B term loan borrowings due on April 1, 2019, and (iv) due to the accounting errors, the company has tripped various covenants under the first lien credit agreement — including its fixed charge coverage ratio and its total net leverage ratio. Rounding out this horror show of news, the company disclosed that it may need to seek a chapter 11 filing (combined with a CCAA in Canada) and has hired Weil Gotshal & Manges LLPFTI Consulting Inc. ($FTI) and Macquarie Capital USA Inc. to advise it vis-a-vis strategic options. B.Riley/FBR ($RILY) analyst Josh Nicholsimmediately downgraded the company from “buy” to “neutral” (huh?!?) with a price target of $0.75 from $9.75. Uh, okay:

This is why you should never listen to equity analysts. This is the stock chart from the past year:

Like, the stock has been nowhere near $9.75, but whatevs.

On Monday, the company filed another Form 8-K. The company and 18 of its affiliated bankrupt US debtors…uh, we mean, guarantors…entered into a forbearance agreement with lenders under the Wilmington Trust NA-agented first lien credit agreement. The lenders will forbear from exercising rights and remedies stemming from the company’s defaults until April 29. The company had to pay 200 bps for the time to try and work this all out and agree to pay a slew of lender professionals, including Greenhill & Co. Inc. ($GHL) and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP for an ad hoc group of Tranche B term lenders, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP for the lenders of Tranche A term loans and the revolving lenders, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer for Wilmington Trust.

The company’s Tranche B term lenders include East West BankGoldman SachsMorgan StanleyOnex Credit PartnersOppenheimer Funds and a whole bunch of CLOs. The latter fact may make a debt-for-equity swap interesting (PETITION Note: most CLOs are unable to hold equity securities).

The clock is ticking on this one.

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💥Sycamore Partners is a B.E.A.S.T. Part I.💥

🔥Rinse Wash & Repeat (Long Sycamore Partners)🔥

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Sycamore Partners is a private equity firm that specializes in retail and consumer investments; it “partner[s] with management teams to improve the operating profitability and strategic value of their businesses.” Back in the summer of 2017, Sycamore Partners acquired Massachusetts-based office retailer Staples Inc. for $6.9b — a premium to the company’s then-trading price but a significant discount from its 2014 high. Your office supplies, powered by private equity! The acquisition occurred shortly after Staples ran afoul of federal regulators who prevented Staples from acquiring Florida-based Office Depot Inc. ($ODP)(which, itself, appears to just trudge along).

Sycamore’s reported thesis revolved around Staples’ delivery unit, a B2B supplier of businesses. Accordingly, per Reuters:

Sycamore will be organizing Staples along three lines: its stronger delivery business, its weaker retail business and its business in Canada, two sources familiar with the deal said. This structure will give Sycamore the option to shed Staples’ retail business in the future, one of the sources said.

The retailer had 1255 US and 304 Canadian stores at the time of the deal. The business reportedly had 48% of the office supply market, generating $889mm of adjusted free cash flow in 2016.

*****

Fast forward 18 months and, Sycamore is already looking to take equity out of the company. According to Bloomberg, the plan is for Staples to issue $5.2b of new debt ($3.2b in term loans and $2b of other secured and unsecured debt), which will be used to take out an existing $3.25b ‘24 term loan and $1b of 8.5% ‘25 unsecured notes (which Sycamore reportedly owns roughly $71mm or 7% of).* This is textbook Sycamore, so much so that it’s actually cliche AF — or as Dan Primack said, “…this sort of myopic greed gives ammunition to private equity’s critics.” Like this guy:

And this gal:

Talk about reputations preceding…

Anyway, here’s what the deal would look like once consummated:

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That $1b difference is the equity that Sycamore is taking out of the company. What does the company get in return? F*ck all, that’s what. Zip. Zero. Dan Primack also wrote:

Dividend recaps are a mechanism whereby private equity-owned companies issue new debt, and then hand proceeds over to the private equity firm (as opposed to using it to grow the business). Sometimes they don't matter too much. Sometimes they form leveraged anchors around a company's neck. (emphasis added)

Yup. That about sums it up. Here is Sycamore placing a leveraged anchor on…uh…improving “the strategic value” of Staples:

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This is the market reacting to Sycamore’s strategy for Staples:

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If the above GIF looks familiar, that’s because this is like the Taken series: Sycamore has a very particular set of skills. Skills it has acquired over a very long run. Skills that make them a nightmare for retailers like Staples. They look poised to deploy those particular skills over the course of a repetitive trilogy: the first chapter centered around Aeropostale. And here’s how that ended:

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The sequel was Nine West and this is how that ended:

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And, well, you get the point. Staples looks like it may be next to experience those very particular skills.

———

Okay, so the above was a bit unfair. In Aeropostale, the company went after Sycamore Partners hard, seeking to ding Sycamore, among others, for equitable subordination and recharacterization of their (secured) claims. Why? Well, Sycamore was not only the company’s term lender (to the tune of $150mm), but it was also a major equity holder with 2 board seats and the majority-owner of Aeropostale’s largest (if not, second largest) merchandise sourcer and supplier, MGF Sourcing Holdings Ltd.

NERD ALERT: for the uninitiated, equitable subordination is an equitable remedy that a bankruptcy court may apply to render justice or right some unfairness alleged by a debtor (or some other party in the shoes of the debtor, if applicable). It is generally VERY DIFFICULT TO WIN on this argument because the burden of proof is on the movant and there are multiple factors and subfactors that the accuser needs to satisfy — because, like, this is the law and so everything has a test, a sub-test, and a sub-sub-test and maybe even a sub-sub-sub-test. Judges love tests, sub-tests, and multi-pronged sub-tests. Three-prongs. Four-prongs. Everywhere a prong prong. Just take our word for it. It’s true.

Recharacterization is another equitable remedy that, if satisfied and granted by the court, would have resulted in Sycamore’s $150mm secured term loan position being reclassified as equity. This is a big deal. This would be like Mike Trout being on the verge of winning the MVP and the World Series AND securing a $350mm 10-year contract only to, on the eve of all of that, get (a) caught partying with R. Kelly til six in the morning with enough PED needles lodged in his butt to kill a team of horses, (b) suspended from baseball, (c) exiled into an early retirement a la Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds, and (d) forced into personal bankruptcy like Latrell Sprewell or Antoine Walker. Or, more technically stated, since secured debt is way higher in “absolute priority” than equity, this would instantaneously render Sycamore’s position worthless and juice the potential recovery of unsecured creditors. Then there is the practical side: for this remedy to apply, the bankruptcy court would have to make a “finding” that prong after prong has been satisfied and issue an order saying you’re the shadiest m*therf*cker on the planet because you’re actually dumb and careless enough to have met all of the prongs. So, as you might imagine, this is pretty much the worst case scenario for any secured party in bankruptcy and a career ender for the poor schmo who orchestrated the whole thing.

In Aeropostale, the Debtors argued that Sycamore and its proxy MGF engaged in inequitable conduct prior to Aeropostale’s filing, including (a) breach of contract, (b) “a secret and improper plan to buy Aeropostale at a discount” and (c) improper stock trading while in possession of material non-public information. This one had the added drama of arch enemies Kirkland & Ellis LLP (Sycamore) and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP (Aeropostale) duking it out to the ego-extreme. Just kidding: this was all about justice! 😜

Anyway, there was a trial with fourteen testifying witnesses over eight presumably PAINFUL days that, in a nutshell, went like this:

WEIL GOTSHAL: “Sycamore are a bunch of conspiratorial PE scumbags who ran this company into the ground, your Honor!

JUDGE LANE: “Not credible. Good day, sir. I said GOOD DAY!

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KIRKLAND & ELLIS/SYCAMORE:

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In the end, Sycamore fared pretty well. They got nearly a full recovery** and releases under the plan of reorganization. Relatively speaking, the company also fared well. It didn’t liquidate.*** Instead, two members of the official committee of unsecured creditors — GGP and Simon Property Group ($SPG)— formed a joint venture with Authentic Brands Group and some liquidators and roughly 5/8 of the stores survived — albeit as a shell of its former self and with heaps of job loss (improved strategic value!!). Sure, millions of dollars were spent pursuing losing claims but that’s exactly the point: when Sycamore is involved, they win**** and others lose.***** The extent of the loss is just a matter of degree.

———

Speaking of degrees, all the while Nine West was lurking in the shadows all like:

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WHOA. BOY. THIS ONE WAS A COMPLETE. AND UTTER. NEXT LEVEL. SH*TSHOW.

We’ve discussed Nine West at length in the past. In fact, it won our 2018 Deal of the Year! We suggest you refresh your recollection why (including the links within): it’s worth it. But what was the end result? We’ll discuss that and the (impressively) savage tactics deployed by Sycamore Partners therein in Part II, coming soon to an email inbox near you.

*At the time of this writing, the unsecured bonds last traded at $108.01 according to TRACE. This potentially gives Sycamore the added benefit of booking significant gains on the $71mm of unsecured notes in its portfolio.

**It’s unclear whether Sycamore recovered 100% but given that they got $130mm under the cash collateral order out of an approximately $160mm claim, it’s likely to have been close. Now, they did lose $53mm on AERO stock.

***A f*cking low bar, sure, but still. Have you seen what’s happening in these other retail cases?

****Putting aside nation-wide destruction, hard to blame LPs for investing in the fund. They get returns. Plain and simple. This ain’t ESG investing, people.

*****Sure, Weil “lost” its attempt to nail Kirkland…uh Sycamore…here but they got paid $15.3mm post-petition and $4.4mm pre-petition so that’s probably the best damn consolation prize we’ve ever heard of in the history of mankind. Weil has, to date, also avoided having a chapter 22 and liquidation in its stable of quals so there’s that too. In retail, you have to take the victories where you can get them.

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💥Windstream Blown Into Bankruptcy💥

Windstream Files for Bankruptcy (Long Litigation-Induced Bankruptcy)

Well, that sure escalated quickly.

Days after being on the wrong-side of a ruling by Judge Jesse Furman in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in U.S. Bank National Association v. Windstream Services, Inc. v. Aurelius Capital Master, Ltd., Case No. 17-cv-7857 (JMF), Arkansas-based Windstream Holdings Inc. ($WIN) — a provider of (i) network communications and technology solutions for businesses and (ii) broadband, entertainment and security solutions to retail consumers and small businesses in small rural areas across 18 states — filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York (along with 204 affiliates). The upshot of Judge Furman’s decision is that, as of the petition date, the debtors are on the hook for approximately $5.6b in funded debt obligations. And they are f*cking pissed about it. Likewise, a number of investors (BlackrockVanguard), hedge funds (Elliott Management CorporationBrigade Capital Management LPPointState Capital LPBlueMountain Capital Management LLC), retirees (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and counterparites (AT&T…yikes…a $49.5mm unsecured claim) are likely also a wee bit miffed this week. But remember: “💥Aurelius is NOT Litigious, Y'all💥” and The Rise of Net-Debt Short Activism (Short Low Default Rates).” MAN THIS IS SAVAGE.

In the press release announcing the debtors’ bankruptcy filing, CEO Tony Thomas said:

“The Company believes that Aurelius engaged in predatory market manipulation to advance its own financial position through credit default swaps at the expense of many thousands of shareholders, lenders, employees, customers, vendors and business partners. Windstream stands by its decision to defend itself and try to block Aurelius’ tactics in court. The time is well-past for regulators to carefully examine the ramifications of an unregulated credit default swap marketplace.

“Windstream did not arrive in Chapter 11 due to operational failures and currently does not anticipate the need to restructure material operations,” Thomas said. “While it is unfortunate that Aurelius engaged in these tactics to advance its returns at the expense of Windstream, we look forward to working through the financial restructuring process to secure a sustainable capital structure so we can maintain our strong operational performance and continue serving our customers for many years to come.”

Eeesh. Here’s a live shot of Mr. Thomas after getting board authorization for the bankruptcy filing:

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In turn, here’s a live shot of Aurelius’ Capital Management LLP’s Mark Brodsky:

(Yes, we thought that Mike Tyson was an apt choice here given how hard this punch landed). Aurelius absolutely loves this sh*t.

For those of you who are new to this sh*tshow, here is a link to Judge Furman’s decision. If you don’t feel like reading 55 pages of boring legalese, here is a summary by Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP. Therein, Weil succinctly recounts (i) the 2015 transaction wherein Windstream created a new holdco to enter into a sale-leaseback transaction with a spunoff real estate investment trust, Uniti Group Inc. ($UNIT), and (ii) the 2017 transaction wherein WIN obtained post facto consent from a majority of noteholders to waive the resultant (alleged) default in exchange for money money money and new notes. To these events, Aurelius was like:

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And Judge Furman concurred; he ruled that the 2015 transaction was a prohibited sale-leaseback transaction under WIN’s indenture and invalidated the 2017 consent solicitation, awarding Aurelius $310.5mm plus interest. As justification, the Judge basically concluded that (i) the new holdco was just a legal shell/pretense, (ii) the subsidiaries who previously owned the assets continued to use those assets, (iii) the subsidiaries exercised effective control over the assets, (iv) the subsidiaries were effectively paying rent under the lease by way of dividending payments up through the new shell holdco, and (v) WIN had admitted to nine state regulators that the transferor entities would get the benefit of the leaseback. In other words, for all intents and purposes, the new holdco’s name was on the transaction but no legal abracadabra was going to fool anyone into thinking that the original transferring subsidiaries weren’t the real parties under the lease.

Yet, suffice it to say, this result was not at all what WIN expected. Here was WIN’s statement relating to the decision. And here is Aurelius laughing and pointing at WIN as it responded to WIN’s statement. They wrote:

We take no pleasure in Windstream's resulting financial predicament.  Windstream could easily have averted it – first by not playing fast and loose with its noteholders in 2015, hoping nobody would hold the company to account, and second by settling.  Instead, Windstream wasted an exorbitant amount – more than would have been needed to settle with us at the time – on an ineffective exchange offer and then on litigation. 

In our view, a management and a board with an extreme and unwarranted assessment of Windstream's legal case chose to bet the company.  The company lost.

They take no pleasure, huh? We find that a bit hard to believe. Why? This is a live shot of Aurelius writing its response:

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Check out the rest:

According to its statement last Friday, Windstream now intends to appeal.  This is welcome news for our fund, as it will require Windstream to post a surety bond exceeding $300 million.  That surety bond will pay in full the notes our fund owns when Windstream loses the appeal.  We are happy to take the surety company's credit over Windstream's.

To noteholders who chose to play the company's game even after it had broken its promise, we wish you luck with your exchange notes.  Between their dubious status and their OID risk in bankruptcy, we suspect you will need it.

🔥💥🔥💥

Dubious status? What dubious status? Per Weil:

While the court held that the notes issued under the Indenture—i.e. any notes outstanding prior to the exchange offers—are accelerated, it specifically declined to hold that the New Notes issued in the 2017 exchange are invalid, giving rise to confusion over their status. (See Op. at 51). Because the Court held that the Third Supplemental Indenture containing the waiver of default was invalid, it follows that all holders of the 2023 Notes at the time of the exchange—not just Aurelius—should be entitled to a judgment. At least some of this confusion could have been obviated by a finding that all holders of the New Notes are to be restored to their status quo ante as it existed prior to the exchange offers. While this ruling would also raise complex issues, it would better accord with the operation of the Indenture.

Right. That probably would have made more sense. Insert some litigation here. And Weil doesn’t otherwise comment one way or another as to whether the Judge took liberties by extending his review outside the four corners of the legal document. They simply state:

The Court’s reliance on Windstream’s admissions is a reminder for counsel to consider not just whether a proposed transaction fits within the literal terms of the debt documents, but also whether it is: (1) consistent with the company’s public statements; (2) supported by the contemporaneous factual record; and (3) whether the economic substance of the transaction is consistent with its characterization.

But Professor Stephen Lubben did. He writes:

The court readily concedes that the plain language of the indenture does not cover the transaction on its face. Rather the court repeatedly argues that the “economic realities” of the transaction bring it within the terms of the indenture.

In essence, the court has granted Aurelius covenant protection that it (and its predecessors) were not savvy enough to negotiate in the first place. That’s the kind of interpretive stretch that law professors expect to see with sympathetic plaintiffs – the classic “widowers and orphans.” But Aurelius?

As the author of a law school corporate finance text, I’ve read my share of these sorts of opinions. I often tell my students that the one constant theme running through the bulk of corporate finance jurisprudence is that “if you want protection, you’d better contract for it.”

The Windstream opinion represents a clear departure from that trend. Instead, the theme seems to be, “I know what you really meant.”

Meh. We could get an ID with a picture of Chris Hemsworth next to it but that doesn’t make us Chris Hemsworth. You get what we’re saying?

Anyway, Lubben also reiterates a prior alarm that credit default swaps are having a deleterious effect on the market. He writes:

Long ago I warned that the growth the of the CDS (credit default swap) market represented a threat to traditional understandings of how workouts and restructurings are supposed to happen. The recent Windstream decision from the SDNY shows that these basic issues are still around, notwithstanding an intervening financial crisis and resulting regulatory reform.

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine adds:

“…the universal assumption is that Aurelius has also bought a lot of credit-default swaps that will pay out if Windstream defaults on its debt: By pushing Windstream into default, Aurelius will make a profit on its CDS, even if it loses money on the bonds. And, look, in general, I am all for CDS creativity, but here even I find it distasteful. “We, along with others in the market, found Windstream’s arguments that Aurelius pursued this litigation in bad faith and in order to ensure a payout on its CDS to be compelling,” wrote analysts at CreditSights.”

The Financial Times writes:

“The judge just missed . . . the big picture”, said one hedge fund set to lose money from the ruling, noting Aurelius’ position in credit derivatives. “This decision opens a Pandora’s Box and is going to encourage a lot of aggressive behaviour”.

Ugly fights between creditors and companies over clauses in dense legal agreements are nothing new. But Aurelius’s win has companies suddenly wondering what enterprising hedge fund is now combing through their past wheeling-and-dealing, looking for an obscure technical violation that could result in a ransom payment. Debt investors have recently targeted Sprint/T-Mobile and Safeway over similar covenant technicalities.

Matt Levine rightly continues:

“Windstream’s accusation of market manipulation is nonsense,” says Aurelius, and that is completely correct as far as it goes. As far as Windstream is concerned, all that Aurelius did was read its bond documents, assert its rights under those documents, go to court to argue its position, and win in court. None of those things could be market manipulation. If Aurelius also bet in the CDS market that it would be correct, well, (1) that doesn’t sound like manipulation to me and (2) Windstream wasn’t selling CDS so the integrity of the CDS market isn’t its problem.

But of course the overall result is very much Windstream’s problem: Windstream is bankrupt now because Aurelius came after it, and it’s hard to imagine Aurelius coming after it if Aurelius hadn’t bought a lot of CDS on Windstream first. (Windstream’s other bondholders were very willing to forgive Windstream’s covenant violation, tried to help it fend off Aurelius, and are now facing huge losses due to Aurelius’s activism.) It is not hard to sympathize with Windstream’s view that something is wrong with the CDS market, if this is the result.

Sure, but, like, maybe don’t hate the player, hate the game??

Putting aside the CDS aspect, the (one) comment to Mr. Lubben’s piece is indignant and raises valid points. Sisi Clementine (cute name) writes:

WIN opco spun out the assets, and then holdco leased them back. What did holdco do with those assets? Well, they allowed opco to use the assets freely. Hmm, okay, but then how did holdco pay rent? Well, opco pays a dividend to holdco in the exact rent amount and then holdco pays it to the spinoff. I see. So do holdco and opco share the property? No, holdco has no separate address, employees or business, so the property is for the exclusive use of opco. Umm, does this smell funny to anyone else?

In fact, it does! The judge! In his ruling, he cite a body of case law on leases that shows that a person who makes regular fixed payments in exchange for the exclusive use of a space is the holder of a lease, regardless of whether a paper contract exists. Personally, I find this conclusion to be on firmer legal ground than Windstream's version of events, which is essentially that the lease goes to holdco and then disappears inside the company in an opaque cloud of trust.

Of course, the Judge did not rely exclusively on this reasoning for his judgment. He added two further, independent reasons why the opco was party to the lease. The first is that Windstream, as a regulated telecom carrier, required approval from state regulators for the transaction. When regulators expressed concern, WIN formally told them it was a sale-leaseback transaction to reassure them. The judge then estopped WIN from changing its story in court. The second independent reason is that WIN opco signed 120 subleases on the space. You cannot sublease without a lease, therefore opco must have had a lease in order so sign those contracts.

What Prof Lubben has not told you, is that the court's habit of siding with businesses in matters of likely covenant breaches is only about a decade old. Market participants have found it troubling that businesses are given the benefit of the doubt as long as they have some legal explanation, no matter how tenuous. Management has grown increasingly brazen over the last few years, often with the backing of their private equity sponsors. The fact that it has taken an opportunist like Aurelius to right this wrong is proof that there are no heroes here. But maybe one day the legal establishment will wake up and end this plainly predatory behavior. (emphasis added)

Apologies, Clementine, but Aurelius may have achieved the impossible with all of this:

Aurelius, of all funds, may actually live long enough to see itself become the hero. In contrast to Levine, Clementine is saying that WIN is the predator, NOT Aurelius! And Clementine isn’t alone:

Levine adds:

You can choose to view Aurelius not as an interloper messing up a perfectly amicable situation between a company and its bondholders, but rather a vindicator of the rights of bondholders against an overbearing issuer. The story might be that, in 2015, Windstream flagrantly violated the terms of its bonds and dared its bondholders to do something about it, and those bondholders were too meek or confused to defend themselves. They were simple long-only credit investors, they don’t have the time or inclination to sue, their positions weren’t concentrated enough to make it worthwhile, they weren’t expert document-readers, or whatever: They were mugged by Windstream and had no practical way to stand up for themselves. But eventually they (well, some of them) sold their bonds to Aurelius, and Aurelius stood up for bondholders’ rights. And now other bond issuers will think twice before trying to steamroll their bondholders in the future, knowing that Aurelius may be lurking to call them on it.

As for Windstream placing the blame at Aurelius’ feet? Aurelius had something to say about that too. Per Barron’s:

“Windstream’s accusation of market manipulation is nonsense,” says an Aurelius spokesperson. “Rather than whining about us and Judge Furman, Windstream’s management and board should engage in much-needed introspection. They alone caused the company to enter into a terrible sale-leaseback and prejudice its bondholders by breaking its promises to them.”

Things really ARE getting weird in distress these days. Just imagine what will happen when we finally tip into an actual distressed cycle…? Will less boredom lead to less “manufactured” action??

So, where do things stand now? The bankruptcy court held the first day hearing yesterday and generally the debtors got all requested relief approved (including access to $400mm in interim funding — out of a committed $1b — under the DIP credit facility). This will obviously address the immediate liquidity crunch the company faced upon the post-judicial-decision acceleration of its debt.

So now all focus turns to Uniti Group Inc. which, itself, isn’t exactly unscathed by all of this.

Source: Yahoo Finance.

Source: Yahoo Finance.

Per Bloomberg:

Uniti’s future is clouded because the company gets more than two-thirds of its revenue from its former parent, with a master lease giving Windstream the exclusive right to use the Uniti’s telecommunications network. That lease could be in jeopardy because of its sizable expense to Windstream -- more than $650 million a year -- and bankruptcy proceedings often lead to revision or rejection of existing contracts.

Windstream relies on Uniti to serve its customers, and it’s also Uniti’s biggest customer, making a complete cutoff of their relationship less likely. 

So, yeah. There’s that. There are also those — notably, the ad hoc group of second lien noteholders — who may agitate for the debtor to go after Aurelius for its “manufactured default.”

Not for everyone (if it happens…we’re dubious). In fact, we’re pretty sure none of WIN, its debt and equity investors, or its other interested parties find this “interesting” at all.

Is Fairway Group Holdings Corp. Headed for Chapter 22?

We were tempted to just leave it alone at “yes,” but we’ll at least add what Moody’s had to say:

"Despite the lower debt burden following the company's emergence from bankruptcy in 2016, we believe Fairway's capital structure is unsustainable given weaker than anticipated operating performance and upcoming debt maturities," stated Moody's Vice President and lead analyst for the company, Mickey Chadha. "Fairway is facing an extremely promotional business environment, and with competitive openings in its markets expected to continue, the ability to improve profitability at a level sufficient to support the current capital structure looks highly suspect, rendering a further debt restructuring highly likely in our estimation over the next 12-18 months," added Chadha.

Furthermore:

The ratings reflect elevated risk of another requisite debt restructuring or distressed exchange given Fairway's deemed untenable capital structure, evidenced in part by very weak credit metrics, weak and eroding liquidity, and upcoming debt maturities including a $25 million LC facility that matures October 2018 and more than $100 million (including PIK interest) of senior secured term loans that mature in January 2020. Moody's estimates lease adjusted debt-to-EBITDA in excess of 10 times, and EBIT-to-interest of less than 1.0 time over the next twelve months.

Remember: this company already shed $140mm of secured debt and $8mm in annual interest expense in the last bankruptcy a mere two years ago. In the company’s Disclosure Statement, company counsel Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP wrote:

Upon emergence from bankruptcy, all borrowings under the DIP Term Loan will be converted into an exit facility on a first out basis leaving an estimated $42 million of cash and cash equivalents on Fairway’s balance sheet that will allow it to maintain its operations and satisfy its obligations in the ordinary course of business and position Fairway for long term success.

Not to get ahead of ourselves here as Moody’s can surely be wrong. But, are we crazy or has the definition of “long term success” dramatically changed?

Which begs an interesting series of questions. First, at what point do professionals who have multiple chapter 22s attached to their names start to feel the affect of that in the marketplace? At what point do they get credibility checked on plan feasibility by judges at the confirmation hearing? “Mr. Lawyer ABC and Mr. Restructuring Advisor XYZ. Could you please explain why I should believe a thing you say about feasibility given that your last [insert applicable number here] grocery restructurings have all ended up back in bankruptcy court within short order? Have you properly guided your client to a truly ‘feasible long term success’ trajectory? Or are you really just succumbing to the wishes of stakeholders at the other side of the table (cough, GSO) whose business you hope to obtain in the future?

To be fair, we suppose if you service a monopoly of cases is a given sector and that sector is going to hell in a hand basket the way the grocery space is the likelihood of repeat bankruptcies goes up. Still, you’d think management teams (and/or the sponsors) would start to question the value of “quals” when those quals all ultimately result in an expensive round-trip ticket back to bankruptcy court.

Asset Values Soar: Human Asset Values. (Long Inflation)

Asset values have been soaring off into the stratosphere to the point that even Warren Buffett is complaining about a dearth of reasonably-priced opportunities (hence his short dalliance with Uber?). The FED, meanwhile, is keeping tabs on inflation; perhaps the Fed ought to look no farther than the legal world. It is experiencing two forms of inflation this week.

First, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy announced that it was raising first year associate salaries to $190k and generally all associate salaries between $10k-15k. Choice bit from The American Lawyer:

“Two years have now gone by, and there is cost-of-living increases and inflation,” Edelman said. “We want to signal to the market that we do want the best, and we’re willing to pay for the best, and we think after two years, an additional increase is appropriate.”

Inflation indeed. As one biglaw partner told us a year ago, a clear cut sign of a market top is when biglaw firms raise first year associate salaries. Well, then…let the recession commence!

Indeed, nothing says "good timing" (or income inequality) like a pay raise to know-nothing lawyers at a time when Toys R Us’ fees are front page news and mad-as-hell employees are picketing KKR's offices. Sometimes biglaw can be its own worst enemy. More:

Edelman said the change would not have “a material effect on firm finances,” adding that he didn’t expect partner capital contributions to change.

Right. Because with 500 associates, the extra $5 million in expense will surely be passed on to the clients. Get ready for a fee increase folks. That’s something worth singing about in court even.

Anyway, we’re not hating. After all, Milbank needs to incentivize people to go to law school AND choose them over several other biglaw firms. Why would anyone do that if they can make $40k/month as a social media influencer? Why would anyone do that if they can be “Running a $500,000 Retail Empire by iPhone?” Good and serious question. That is the competition these days.

*****

Second, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP announced that, in an effort to incentivize lawyers to stay, partnership (and, for some, counsel position) will now be offered to lawyers that have been with the firm for a mere 7.5 years. Per the ABA Journal,

Weil, Gotshal & Manges hopes to improve associate retention by cutting the wait for partnership by two years. 

Except, those "partners" will be non-share partners making “fixed income” rather than receiving partner distributions. And, except, further,

Lawyers in the niche counsel category for specialty practices can remain there as long as they stay at the firm. Lawyers in the other category get, at most, three years in the position. During that time, they may be promoted to partner. Those who don’t make it will be transitioned out of the firm.

Hahaha. C’mon. So you’ll basically have 10.5 years to prove that you merit equity partner before they unceremoniously toss you out into the wilderness…uh, sorry…”transitioned.” You know, rather than 9.5 years. But that new title though!! Title inflation!!

Query: where did Weil get that idea from? (Cough, Kirkland & Ellis). What's that saying: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? We guess they’re waiting 7.5 years before labeling someone a “partner” rather than 6 years so, uh, there’s that. Just what biglaw needs: more lawyers running around with an inflated sense of self.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 8.07.34 PM.png

On point.

2018 Q1 Preliminary Review (Part 3: Financial Advisors)

In 2018 Q1 Preliminary Review (Long Duopolies = Long Kirkland & Weil), we noted the ongoing duopolistic slugfest between Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP with respect to company-side mandates. We subsequently noted in 2018 Q1 Preliminary Review (Part 2: Investment Banking) the following,

But then the question becomes, who benefits from this duopoly? In Q1 anyway, it appears that it was Evercore ($EVR) and PJT Partners ($PJT). The former was involved in three of the four Weil cases noted above; the latter in two of the four Kirkland & Ellis cases (as well as two other big Q1 deals, Bon-Ton Stores and Ascent Resources Marcellus Holdings LLC). Notably, Moelis & Co. ($MO) and Lazard Ltd. ($LAZ) were also company-side banker in 3 deals each in Q1. Read: relationships matter and it pays to be at the top of the duopolists’ list.

In the financial advisory world, no firm has worked those relationships for company-side mandates better than...to read this rest of this a$$-kicking commentary, you must be a Member.

2018 Q1 Preliminary Review (Part 2: Investment Banking)

In 🌑Trouble Brews in Coal Country🌑, we acknowledged a company-side duopoly, writing,

We wanted to answer this question: who is dominating the restructuring industry? Well, Captain Obvious: Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.

We admit: we’re not surprised by this. We’ve been paying attention. In Q1 2018, Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed EXCO Resources Inc.PES Holdings LLCCenveo Inc.iHeartMedia Inc., and the Toys R Us “propco.” Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP filed Fieldwood Energy LLCTops Holdings II Corp.Claire’s Stores Inc. and Southeastern Grocers. That’s a meaningful and significant share of the large bankruptcy filings in the quarter. The industry is definitely a two-horse race when it comes to law firms and debtor filings. If we could long these firms, we would.

Subsequently in✌🏾Peace Out Nine West✌🏾, we added,

Last week in our preliminary Q1 report, we noted the slugfest transpiring between Weil Gotshal & Manges and Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Well, only one week into Q2 and Kirkland has thrown down the gauntlet by filing three cases: Nine West Holdings LLCVER Technologies and EV Energy. Savage.

We highlight this because, whether you’re an investor (and this is certainly not investment advice), a B-school student or law student, it is often very difficult to ascertain who is doing what in restructuring. The above ought to give you a better idea on the legal side.

But then the question becomes, who benefits from this duopoly?

To read this rest of this a$$-kicking commentary, you must be a Member...

Nine West Finally Bites It

Another Shoe Retailer Strolls into Bankruptcy Court

A few weeks back, we wrote this in “👞UGGs & E-Comm Trample Birkenstock👞,”

“Mere days away from a Nine West bankruptcy filing, we can’t help but to think about how quickly the retail landscape is changing and the impact of brands. Why? Presumably, Nine West will file, close the majority of - if not all of - its brick-and-mortar stores and transfer its brand IP to its creditors (or a new buyer). For whatever its brand is worth. We suppose the company’s lenders - likely to receive the company’s IP in a debt-for-equity swap, will soon find out. We suspect ‘not a hell of a whole lot’.”

Now we know: $123 million. (Frankly more than we expected.)

Consistent with the micro-brands discussion above, we also wrote,

“Saving the most relevant to Nine West for last,

Sales at U.S. shoe stores in February 2017 fell 5.2%, the biggest year-over-year tumble since 2009. Online-only players like Allbirds, Jack Erwin, and M.Gemi have gained nearly 15 percentage points of share over five years.

Yes, the very same Allbirds that is so popular that it is apparently creating wool shortages. Query whether this factor will be featured in Nine West’s First Day Declaration with such specificity. Likely not.”

Now we know this too: definitely not.

But Nine West Holdings Inc., the well-known footwear retailer, has, indeed, finally filed for bankruptcy. The company will sell the intellectual property and working capital behind its Nine West and Bandolino brands to Authentic Brands Group for approximately $200 million (inclusive of the above-stated $123 million allocation to IP, subject to adjustment) and reorganize around its One Jeanswear Group, The Jewelry Group, the Kasper Group, and Anne Klein business segments. The company has a restructuring support agreement (“RSA”) in hand with 78% of its secured term lenders and 89% of its unsecured term loan lenders to support this dual-process. The upshot of the RSA is that the holders of the $300 million unsecured term loan facility will own the equity in the reorganized entity focused on the above-stated four brands. The case will be funded by a $247.5 DIP ABL which will take out the prepetition facility and a $50mm new money dual-draw term loan funded by the commitment parties under the RSA (which helps justify the equity they’ll get).

Regarding the cause for filing, the company notes the following:

“The unprecedented systemic economic headwinds affecting many brick-and-mortar retailers (including certain of the Debtors’ largest customers) have significantly and adversely impacted the operating performance of the Debtors’ footwear and handbag businesses over the past four years. The Nine West Group (and, prior to its sale, Easy Spirit®), the more global business, faced strong headwinds as the macro retail environment in Asia, the Middle East, and South America became challenged. This was compounded by a difficult department store environment in the United States and the Debtors’ operation of their own unprofitable retail network. The Debtors also faced the specific challenge of addressing issues within their footwear and handbag business, including product quality problems, lack of fashion-forward products, and design missteps. Although the Debtors implemented changes to address these issues, and have shown significant progress over the past several years, the lengthy development cycle and the nature of the business did not allow the time for their operating performance within footwear and handbags to improve.”

Regarding the afore-mentioned “macro trends,” the company further highlights,

“…a general shift away from brick-and-mortar shopping, a shift in consumer demographics away from branded apparel, and changing fashion and style trends. Because a substantial portion of the Debtors’ profits derive from wholesale distribution, the Debtors have been hurt by the decline of many large retailers, such as Sears, Bon-Ton, and Macy’s, which have closed stores across the country and purchased less product for their stores due to decreased consumer traffic. In 2015 and 2016, the Debtors experienced a steep and unanticipated cut back on orders from two of the Debtors’ most significant footwear customers, which led to year over year decreases in revenue of $16 million and $46 million in 2015 and 2016, respectively. These troubles have been somewhat offset by e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Zappos, but such platforms have not made up for the sales volume lost as a result of brick-and-mortar retail declines.”

No Allbirds mention. Oh well.

But wait! Is that a POSITIVE mention of Amazon ($AMZN) in a chapter 11 filing? We’re perplexed. Seriously, though, that paragraph demonstrates the ripple effect that is cascading throughout the retail industrial complex as we speak. And it’s frightening, actually.

On a positive note, The One Jeanswear Group, The Jewelry Group, the Kasper Group, and Anne Klein business segments, however, have been able to “combat the macro retail challenges” — just not enough to offset the negative operating performance of the other two segments. Hence the bifurcated course here: one part sale, one part reorganization.

But this is the other (cough: real) reason for bankruptcy:

Source: First Day Declaration

Source: First Day Declaration

Soooooo, yes, don’t tell the gentlemen mentioned in the Law360 story but this is VERY MUCH another trite private equity story. 💤💤 With $1.6 billion of debt saddled on the company after Sycamore Partners Management LP took it private in 2014, the company simply couldn’t make due with its $1.6 billion in net revenue in 2017. Annual interest expense is $113.9 million compared to $88.1 million of adjusted EBITDA in fiscal year 2017. Riiiiight.

A few other observations:

  1. Leases. The company is rejecting 75 leases, 72 of which were brick-and-mortar locations that have already been abandoned and turned over to landlords. Notably, Simon Property Group ($SPG) is the landlord for approximately 35 of those locations. But don’t sweat it: they’re doing just fine.

  2. Liberal Definitions. As Interim CEO, the Alvarez & Marsal LLC Managing Director tasked with this assignment has given whole new meaning to the word “interim.” Per Dictionary.com, the word means “for, during, belonging to, or connected with an intervening period of time; temporary; provisional.” Well, he’s been on this assignment for three years — nearly two as the “interim” CEO. Not particularly “temporary” from our vantage point. P.S. What a hot mess.

  3. Chinese Manufacturing. Putting aside China tariffs for a brief moment, if you're an aspiring shoe brand in search of manufacturing in China and don't know where to start you might want to take a look at the Chapter 11 petitions for both Payless Shoesource and Nine West. A total cheat sheet.

  4. Chinese Manufacturing Part II. If President Trump really wants to flick off China, perhaps he should reconsider his (de minimus) carried interest restrictions and let US private equity firms continue to run rampant all over the shoe industry. If the recent track record is any indication, that will lead to significantly over-levered balance sheets borne out of leveraged buyouts, inevitable bankruptcy, and a top 50 creditor list chock full of Chinese manufacturing firms. Behind $1.6 billion of debt and with a mere $200 million of sale proceeds, there’s no shot in hell they’d see much recovery on their receivables and BOOM! Trade deficit minimized!!

  5. Yield Baby Yield! (Credit Market Commentary). Sycamore’s $120 million equity infusion was $280 million less than the original binding equity commitment Sycamore made in late 2013. Why the reduction? Apparently investors were clamoring so hard for yield, that the company issued more debt to satisfy investor appetite rather than take a larger equity check. Something tells us this is a theme you’ll be reading a lot about in the next three years.

  6. Athleisure & Casual Shoes. The fleeting athleisure trend took quite a bite out of Nine West’s revenue from 2014 to 2016 — $36 million, to be exact. Jeans, however, are apparently making a comeback. Meanwhile, the trend towards casual shoes and away from pumps and other Nine West specialties, also took a big bite out of revenue. Enter casual shoe brand, GREATS, which, like Allbirds, is now opening a store in New York City too. Out with the old, in with the new.

  7. Sycamore Partners & Transparency in Bankruptcy. Callback to this effusive Wall Street Journal piece about the private equity firm: it was published just a few weeks ago. Reconcile it with this statement from the company, “After several years of declines in the Nine West Group business, part of the investment hypothesis behind the 2014 Transaction was that the Nine West® brand could be grown and strong earnings would result.” But “Nine West Group net sales have declined 36.9 percent since fiscal year 2015—from approximately $647.1 million to approximately $408 million in the most recent fiscal year.” This is where bankruptcy can be truly frustrating. In Payless Shoesource, there was considerable drama relating to dividend recapitalizations that the private equity sponsors — Golden Gate Capital Inc. and Blum Capital Advisors — benefited from prior to the company’s bankruptcy. The lawsuit and accompanying expert report against those shops, however, were filed under seal, keeping the public blind as to the tomfoolery that private equity shops undertake in pursuit of an “investment hypothesis.” Here, it appears that Sycamore gave up after two years of declining performance. In the company’s words, “Thus, by late 2016 the Debtors were at a crossroads: they could either make a substantial investment in the Nine West Group business in an effort to turn around declining sales or they could divest from the footwear and handbag business and focus on their historically strong, stable, and profitable business lines.” But don’t worry: of course Sycamore is covered by a proposed release of liability. Classic.

  8. Authentic Brands Group. Authentic Brands Group, the prospective buyer of Nine West's IP in bankruptcy, is familiar with distressed brands; it is the proud owner of the Aeropostale and Fredericks of Hollywood brands, two prior bankrupt retailers. Authentic Brands Group is led by a the former CEO of Hilco Consumer Capital Corp and is owned by Leonard Green & Partners. The proposed transaction means that Nine West's brand would be transferred from one private equity firm to another. Kirkland & Ellis LLP represented and defended Sycamore Partners in the Aeropostale case as Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP & the company tried to go after the private equity firm for equitable subordination, among other causes of action. Kirkland prevailed. Leonard Green & Partners portfolio includes David's Bridal, J.Crew, Tourneau and Signet Jewelers (which has an absolutely brutal 1-year chart). On the flip side, it also owns (or owned) a piece of Shake Shack, Soulcycle, and BJ's. The point being that the influence of the private equity firm is pervasive. Not a bad thing. Just saying. Today, more than ever, it seems people should know whose pockets their money is going in to.

  9. Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors. It’ll be busy going after Sycamore for the 2014 spin-off of Stuart Weitzman®, Kurt Geiger®, and the Jones Apparel Group (which included both the Jones New York® and Kasper® brands) to an affiliated entity for $600 million in cash. Query whether, aside from this transaction, Sycamore also took out management fees and/or dividends more than the initial $120 million equity contribution it made at the time of the transaction. Query, also, whether Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP will be pitching the committee to try and take a second bite at the apple. See #8 above. 🤔🤔

  10. Timing. The company is proposing to have this case out of bankruptcy in five months.

This will be a fun five months.

Q1 2018 Preliminary Review

Long Duopolies = Long Kirkland & Ellis & Weil Gotshal & Manges

As we think about duopolies today, Google ($GOOGL) and Facebook ($FB) come to mind. The two large companies - recent controversies notwithstanding - represent a significant amount of annual ad revenue generation and have increasingly siphoned off market share and revenue from other advertising mediums; in other words, they have dominated the advertising industry. But this isn’t the kind of duopoly that we’re focused on today.

Over last week’s brief holiday respite, we set out to examine restructuring activity in Q1 2018. We wanted to answer this question: who is dominating the restructuring industry? Well, Captain Obvious: Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.

We admit: we’re not surprised by this. We’ve been paying attention. In Q1 2018, Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed EXCO Resources Inc., PES Holdings LLC, Cenveo Inc., iHeartMedia Inc., and the Toys R Us “propco.” Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP filed Fieldwood Energy LLC, Tops Holdings II Corp., Claire’s Stores Inc. and Southeastern Grocers. That’s a meaningful and significant share of the large bankruptcy filings in the quarter. The industry is definitely a two-horse race when it comes to law firms and debtor filings. If we could long these firms, we would.

But, there are some changes afoot. Quintessential creditor-side firms are encroaching on the debtor shops and vice versa. Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP filed Remington Outdoor Company and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP filed Rand Logistics Inc. and FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. In turn, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP seems to be positioning itself to take a chunk of revenue out of other firm’s debtor-side deals where it can — by sitting in other seats at the table. Weil represents both the potential buyer and the private equity sponsors in iHeartMedia Inc. and the ad hoc first lien group in Cobalt International Energy. Said another way, while Akin and Milbank are no longer creditor-only shops, Weil is no longer a debtor-shop only.

Getting even more granular, Weil Gotshal - along with Evercore Group LLC ($EVR) and FTI Consulting Inc. ($FTI) - have dominated the beleaguered grocery space. After working on the A&P Chapter 22 (which, for all three firms, was a round trip), the trifecta secured both Tops’ and Southeastern’s chapter 11 filings.

Meanwhile, DLA Piper LLP seems to be securing a foothold in the healthcare space. It was involved in Adeptus Health last year and recently filed Orion Healthcare Corp. and 4 West Holdings LLC. This is a firm to watch as people suspect more healthcare flow on the horizon.

Southeastern Grocers = Latest Bankrupt Grocer (Long Amazon/Walmart)

Another day, another bankrupt grocer.

Yesterday, March 27 2018, Southeastern Grocers LLC, the Jacksonville Florida-based parent company of grocery chains like Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie, filed a prepackaged bankruptcy in the District of Delaware. This filing comes mere weeks after Tops Holding II Corporation, another grocer, filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York. Brutal.

In its filing papers, Southeastern noted that, as part of the chapter 11 filing, it intends to "close 94 underperforming stores," "emerge from this process likely within the next 90 days," and "continue to thrive with 582 successful stores in operation." Just goes to show what you can do when you aren’t burdened by collective bargaining agreements. In contrast to Tops.

Also unlike Tops, this case appears to be fully consensual. It appears that all relevant parties in interest have agreed that the company will (i) de-lever its balance sheet by nearly $600 million in funded liability (subject to increase to a committed $1.125 billion and exclusive of the junior secured debt described below), (ii) cut its annual interest expense by approximately $40 million, and (iii) swap the unsecured noteholders' debt for equity. The private equity sponsor, Lone Star Funds, will see its existing equity interests cancelled but will maintain upside in the form of five-year warrants that, upon exercise, would amount to 5% of the company. 

Financially, the company wasn’t a total hot mess. For the year ended December 2017, the company reflected total revenues of approximately $9,875 million and a net loss of $139 million. Presumably the $40 million cut in interest expense and the shedding of the 94 underperforming stores will help the company return to break-even, if not profitability. If not - and, frankly, in this environment, it very well may be a big "if" - we may be seeing this trifecta of professionals (Weil, Evercore, FTI Consulting) administering another Chapter 22. You know: just like A&P. To help avoid this fate, the company has secured favorable in-bankruptcy terms from its largest creditor, C&S Wholesale Grocers, which obviates the need for a DIP credit facility. C&S has also committed to provide post-chapter 11 credit up to $125 million on a junior secured basis. 

Other large creditors include Coca-Cola ($KO) and Pepsi-Cola ($PEP). Given, however, that this is a prepackaged chapter 11, they are likely to paid in full. Indeed, a letter sent to suppliers indicates exactly that:

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 4.21.12 AM.png

In addition to its over-levered capital structure, the company has a curious explanation for why it ended up in bankruptcy: 

"The food retail industry, including within the Company’s market areas in the southeastern United States, is highly competitive. The Company faces stiff competition across multiple market segments, including from local, regional, national, and international supermarket retailers, convenience stores, retail drug chains, national general merchandisers and discount retailers, membership clubs, warehouse stores and “big box” retailers, and independent and specialty grocers. The Company’s in-store delicatessens and prepared food offerings face competition from restaurants and fast food chains. The Company’s primary competitors include Publix Supermarkets, Inc., Walmart, Inc., Food Lion, LLC, Ingles Markets Inc., Kroger Co., and Amazon."

"Adding to this pressure is the recent growth in consumer demand for a “gourmet” shopping experience, complete with offerings of natural, organic, and gluten-free foods. Some of the Debtors’ competitors have expanded aggressively in marketing a range of natural and organic foods, prepared foods, and quality specialty grocery items. The Debtors have been at a disadvantage to companies that have the financial flexibility to devote greater resources to sourcing, promoting, and selling the most in-demand products."

Sound familiar? Here is what Tops said when it filed for bankruptcy:

"The supermarket industry, including within the Company’s market areas in Upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania, and Vermont, is highly competitive. The Company faces stiff competition across multiple market segments, including from local, regional, national and international supermarket retailers, convenience stores, retail drug chains, national general merchandisers and discount retailers, membership clubs, warehouse stores and “big box” retailers, and independent and specialty grocers. The Company’s in-store delicatessens and prepared food offerings face competition from restaurants and fast food chains. The Company also faces intense competition from online retail giants such as Amazon."

"Adding to this competitive pressure is the recent growth in consumer demand for a “gourmet” shopping experience, complete with offerings of natural, organic, and gluten-free foods. Some of the Debtors’ competitors have expanded aggressively in marketing a range of natural and organic foods, prepared foods, and quality specialty grocery items. The Debtors have been at a competitive disadvantage to companies that have the financial flexibility to devote greater resources to sourcing, promoting, and selling the most in-demand products."

At least Weil is consistent: we wonder whether they pitch clients now on cost efficiencies they derive from just copying and pasting verbiage from one company's papers into another...? We also wonder whether the billable hours spent drafting the First Day Declaration here are less than they were in Tops. What's your guess? 

Anyway, there's more. No "First Day Declaration" is complete without a reference to Amazon ($AMZN). Here, though, the company also notes other competitive threats — including Walmart ($WMT). In "Tops, Toys, Amazon & Owning the Robots," we said the following,

In Bentonville, Arkansas some Walmart Inc. ($WMT) employee is sitting there thinking, “Why does Amazon always get the credit and free publicity? WTF.” 

Looks like Weil and the company noticed. And Walmart got their (destructive) credit. Go $WMT! 

Other causes for the company's chapter 11 include food deflation of approximately 1.3% ("a drastic difference from the twenty-year average of 2.2% inflation"), and reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps). And Trump wasn’t even in office yet.

Finally, in addition to the store closures, the company proposes to sell 33 stores pursuant to certain lease sale agreements it executed prior to the bankruptcy filing. 

Will this mark the end of grocery bankruptcies for the near term or are there others laying in wait? Email us: petition@petition11.com.

The US Postal Service Could Use Bankruptcy

The Mail-Carrier is a Financial Hot Mess

We here at PETITION use an e-newsletter as our primary source of direct communication with our readers. Non-subscribers can see some, but not all, of the same content on our website on a delayed basis. And of course we tweet on occasion too (follow us here). Once upon a time, however, this kind of messaging depended upon physical marketing mail. 

Not so much anymore. The U.S. Postal Service recently reportedly a deluge of negative numbers. In the nine months ended 6/30, first-class mail volume fell 4.1% YOY and marking mail volume declined 1.8%. Per the Wall Street Journal"[T]he Postal Service's financial situation has continued to deteriorate. It has been hurt by the decline in first-class mail, its largest and most profitable business, as more communications shift online."  No. Sh*t. Sherlock. 

The situation is bad: the USPS has severely strained liquidity. The USPS reported a net loss of $2.1b for the fiscal third quarter, a nearly 25% loss YOY. It hasn't made payments to its retiree fund for five years (which basically means that retirees are financing operations) - skipping a $6.9b payment at the end of September. Retirees are owed $40b in total. Now the USPS seeks to increase the price of stamps and various shipping rates. But the Postal Regulatory Commission needs to approve such measures; it currently has a vacant Board of Governors that President Trumphasn't bothered to fill. Hard to think about the USPS during the middle of your latest golf round, we guess. #MAGA! 

Naturally, human capital costs are a big part of the problem. Decrease the high cost of employment - whether due to pensions, workers comp, wages, etc. - and this business may be more sustainable. This seems to be a pervasive theme for human capital businesses. This is why Uber, for instance, is so aggressively pursuing autonomous vehicles; it suffers from the same issue. 

And so what is the USPS looking into now to help promote economic efficiencies and curtail costs? Self-driving mail trucks, of course! A USPS-issued report notes that a semiautonomous prototype is in development now with a December delivery date (PETITION query: where the hell did the money come from?). As Wired reports, the idea is to have more efficient driving and fewer accidents, all the while allowing postal workers to perform other tasks in-truck rather than focusing on the driving 100% of the time. That way, no jobs are lost! Riiiiiiiiiiight. From Wired"The report's authors insist they're not looking to dump human workers, and that AVs can help by trimming other costs. The agency paid about $67 million in repair and tort costs associated with vehicle crashes last year. It also shelled out $570 million for diesel fuel. If the robots perform as promised, making driving much safer and more efficient, those costs could plummet. If the USPS sticks with this plan, the jobs of the nation's 310,000 mail carriers could change, for better or worse. Once the vehicles do all the driving, the humans will be left with the sorting and the intricacies of the delivery process. Unless, of course, a robot can figure out how to do those too. And whatever the report says about protecting jobs, it's clear that the best way to cut down on employee health care costs is to cut down on employees."  Our sentiments exactly. 

Someone needs to reorganize this dumpster fire. And fast. But can the USPS even file for bankruptcy? We'll leave others to the analysis: hereWeil Gotshal & Manges LLP's Charles Persons (written four years ago and we're STILL talking about this). If only we had a President who appreciated the benefits of bankruptcy AND had a same-party-Congress to do his bidding. Hmmm.