Aurelius Goes After Windstream Holdings Inc.
🤓Another nerd alert: this is about to get technical.🤓
With default rates low, asset prices high, and a system awash with heaps of green, investors are under pressure by LPs and looking for ways to generate returns. They’ll manufacture them if needs be. These forces help explain the recent Hovnanian drama, the recent McClatchey drama and, well, basically anything involving credit default swaps (“CDS”) nowadays. To point, the fine lawyers at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz (“WLRZ”) write:
The market for corporate debt does not immediately lend itself to the same kind of “activism” found in equity markets. Bondholders, unlike shareholders, do not elect a company’s board or vote on major transactions. Rather, their relationship with their borrower is governed primarily by contract. Investors typically buy corporate debt in the hope that, without any action on their part, the company will meet its obligations, including payment in full at maturity.
In recent years, however, we have seen the rise of a new type of debt investor that defies this traditional model.
Right. We sure have. Boredom sure is powerful inspiration. Anyway, WLRZ dubs these investors the “net-short debt activist” investor.
The net-short debt activist investor has a particular modus operandi. First, the investor sniffs around the credit markets trolling for transactions that arguably run afoul of debt document covenants (we pity whomever has this job). Once the investor identifies a potential covenant violation, it scoops up the debt (the “long” position”) while contemporaneously putting on a short position by way of CDS (which collects upon a default). The key, however, is that the latter is a larger position than the former, making the investor “net short.” Relying on its earlier diligence, the investor then publicly declares a covenant default and, if it holds a large enough position (25%+ of the issuance), can serve a formal default notice to boot. The public nature of all of this is critical: the investor knows that the default and/or notice will move markets. And that’s the point: after all, the investor is net short.
In the case of a formal notice, all of this also puts the target in an unenviable position. It now needs to go to court to obtain a ruling that no default has occurred. Absent that, the company is in a world of hurt. WLRK writes:
Unless and until that ruling is obtained, the company faces the risk not only that the activist will be able to accelerate the debt it holds, but also that other financial debt will be subject to cross defaults and that other counterparties of the company — such as other lenders, trade creditors, or potential strategic partners — may hesitate to conduct business with the company until the cloud is lifted.
Savage. Coercive. Vicious. Long low default rate environments!
In the case of Little Rock Arkansas-based Windstream Holdings Inc. ($WIN), a provider of voice and data network communications services, all of this is especially relevant.