“Debts are fun when you are acquiring them, but none are fun when you set about retiring them.” So said Ogden Nash, the late American poet and humorist. What then for companies that racked up billions of dollars of cheap debt during the go-go years of the credit boom? How will they cope now, faced with rather more sober refinancing conditions as maturity dates move into view?
s economic historians debate whether or not Lehman Brothers could have been saved, it’s clear that the global financial markets crisis of 2008 was entirely a self-inflicted wound, which had been years in the making. There were no external factors or shocks to blame. Quite simply, investors collectively lost confidence in the decision-making and risk-taking practices of large financial institutions, private investment capital and large swathes of Corporate America – arguably with good reason.
In the corporate sector, credit quality had never been so poor going into a recession. As we entered the maelstrom a little over a year ago, some 62% of rated U.S. non-financial corporate issuers were considered speculative-grade by Standard & Poor’s (S&P), of which over two-thirds were considered “deeper junk” (B+ or worse) – a significant deterioration in the distribution of credit ratings compared to a decade earlier. The leveraged buyout (LBO) craze of mid-decade contributed greatly to this phenomenon, with some $400 billion of LBO-related loans made in the U.S. between 2005 and 2007, according to Reuters LPC. European borrowers got in on the act too, with the equivalent of some $580 billion of leveraged M&A loans made during this same period, over half of them earmarked for LBO transactions. Already that fallout has begun; S&P recently noted that 42 of 46 European debt defaults of credit-rated or credit-estimated issuers that occurred in the first half of 2009 were LBO deals gone sour.
Today, even after cleansing the pool of rated issuers of hundreds of defaults that have occurred since early 2008, corporate credit quality remains exceptionally weak. Operating and financial challenges for high-risk borrowers still abound. The damage inflicted on a fragile global financial system from the combination of excessive risk-taking, high leverage and sharp economic contraction cannot be repaired in haste, notwithstanding the impressive rally in global credit markets since March 2009. This article will explore how risky borrowers have responded to largely inaccessible credit markets since late 2008 and the challenges that remain firmly in place even as the global economy seems poised for recovery in 2010.
How are Financial Markets Faring?
Following the near-death experience in capital markets last fall and the precipitous price declines that continued into early 2009, the recovery in global financial markets has been striking. Conversations have moved on from open-ended bailouts, the nationalization of troubled industries and other dire rescue plans to, ultimately, the realization that the collective commitments and bold actions of policymakers in the developed world appear to have prevented the Depression-like scenario that seemed plausible last December. Yet this is no guarantee of smooth sailing in the months and years ahead, and it is certainly not a harbinger of borrower-friendly credit markets. Capital markets have opened up again to investment-grade and near investment-grade corporate issuers, but global fixed-income investors remain highly selective (and demanding) for riskier issuers.
One striking feature of the environment today is the growing divide that has opened up between investment banks and their corporate and retail counterparts. Investment banks – particularly in more traditional business areas such as foreign exchange – are delivering exceptionally good results. This is because a lot of capacity and capital has been withdrawn from the wholesale markets. By contrast, retail and corporate banking continues to struggle with asset quality and a lack of attractive new business.
As might have been expected, the first beneficiaries of government intervention programs have been financial markets. Equities, in particular, have rallied globally, while corporate credit markets have returned to pre-Lehman levels.
What’s Happening on Main Street?
The recession, which officially began in December 2007, is both a by-product of credit tightening and a contributor to its perpetuation; and this recession has been particularly brutal in terms of its impact on U.S. employment and economic activity and the destruction of personal wealth. Real U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by nearly 6% in the six-month period ended March 2009: its worst two-quarter slump since 1958. Real median household income declined 3.6% in 2008 – erasing gains of the past three years; and household net worth has fallen by 22% from its peak in mid-2007. Consequently, consumers and businesses alike have become exceedingly cautious in their spending and finance decisions of late – largely by choice, but also driven by market-imposed discipline.
Consumer spending, the main driver of U.S. economic activity, remains in deep doldrums. This is hardly surprising, given that three pillars of consumer confidence have crumbled: house prices (down nationally by nearly one-third), the unemployment rate (more than doubling to 9.8% – its highest level in 26 years) and the value of financial assets such as savings accounts and 401(k)s (down by more than 20% since the peak).
There are clear signs that many consumers have downshifted to survival mode. Monthly discretionary spending totals by U.S. consumers have been consistently lower by near double-digit rates or worse (year-on-year) in most product categories outside of consumables.
Despite talk of early recovery, there is virtually no evidence that consumers are willing to open their wallets without steep incentives, such as the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program. Survey data consistently shows that about three-quarters of all Americans have cut back on personal spending. Credit-card debt outstanding has contracted at a record rate so far in 2009, while the personal savings rate has moved from nearly zero to its highest level in more than two decades – distinct signs that behavioral changes afoot may be more than just temporary adjustments.
This state of high anxiety within the private sector is not just an American storyline. Consumer-driven demand in much of Continental Europe remains in contraction and massive government intervention has been required to prop up economies in most Western European nations. Despite recent indications that the recession may have ended in Germany and France, the outlook for private consumption in Europe remains poor in 2010.
Clouds are mostly gray in the corporate sector. Operating earnings for the S&P 500 Index have declined 53% from their peak in 2007, considerably worse than the 32% peak-to-trough decline in the 2001 recession and the 25% decline in the 1990-91 recession. Most companies that are meeting or exceeding earnings estimates in 2009 are doing so as a result of aggressive cost-cutting rather than generating top-line growth.
These tough measures are driving employers to shed staff in record numbers, blunting consumer confidence and reinforcing their reluctance to spend. Until there is discernible improvement in consumer sentiment, it is difficult to foresee any meaningful growth in their current timid spending patterns. Yes, a Depression-like scenario may have been avoided, but a period of prolonged economic weakness or anemic growth remains a distinct possibility.
We should remember that while equities are in recovery mode, the default and employment cycles are lagging indicators, which will continue to generate bad news for many months to come.
What are the Prospects for Corporate Borrowers?
Over the past two years, we have also seen a dramatic change in the composition of the lender landscape. There
are now fewer financial institutions, and those that remain are significantly more risk-averse. New paper issuance by collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), structured finance vehicles which provided so much cheap capital during the peak years, has largely dried up. Other non-bank lenders, such as hedge funds and pension funds, which also fed the leveraged loan market, have pulled back in a big way.
Traditional banks, many of which are either capital-challenged or propped up with federal assistance, are significantly more cautious lenders than previously. All told, new leveraged loan activity remains several hundred billion dollars below peak levels (see Chart A), and this decline dwarfs any buoyancy of new issuance activity in high-yield bond markets so far in 2009.
This much is clear. Big changes in the regulation of banks are coming. The effect of events over the past two years has prompted regulators in major countries to revisit rules and consider sweeping changes. The area of change most likely to affect corporate borrowers is that of capital requirements for banks.
Regulators are almost certain to introduce new rules to limit both the risks that many banks retain and the size of their asset base for any given level of capital. The message here is that banks will need to raise fresh capital just to stay where they are in terms of size. Meanwhile, loan underwriting standards are being raised, too. At best, all of this will make refinancing more challenging and expensive; at worst, over-zealous rule-making could lead to severe deleveraging and credit contraction.
Throw in the unfolding collapse of real asset values, and you have a heady cocktail likely to cause a lingering hangover. Declining residential property values, negative home equity and rising foreclosures have dominated business headlines for a while, but there is widespread belief that commercial real estate defaults are the next headline-makers.
Collateral values underlying commercial real estate debt are widely expected to drop by 35%-40% from peak 2007 levels during this down cycle. Transaction activity has plummeted and Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS) markets, previously a major source of real-estate finance, remain dormant, making the prospect of refinancing maturing debt without additional equity incredibly difficult.
A recent article in The New York Times (citing a widely read Deutsche Bank report) noted that “as many as 65% of commercial mortgages maturing over the next few years are unlikely to qualify for refinancing because of the drop in property values and new stricter underwriting standards.” Deutsche Bank Securities expects loss rates from defaulting real estate loans to exceed 10% of outstanding CMBS loan balances, a loss rate that would exceed the real estate crash of the early 1990s.
Until there is some persuasive evidence that the economic recovery has traction and that businesses are finally starting to expand again, markets for commercial real estate are unlikely to improve. Generally speaking, commercial real-estate markets tend to lag behind the economic cycle by at least one year.
A dearth of deal activity and depressed values in the M&A market are also impeding corporate turnarounds. There is little appetite to do deals at what might have once been considered ‘fair value,’ limiting the options of distressed corporates looking to dispose of assets to provide liquidity or refinance debt. Companies that can afford to do so are biding their time until the deal-making environment improves.
It is against this backdrop that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of leveraged corporate debt and commercial property loans will be maturing over the next five years. The ability of borrowers to meet or otherwise satisfy these upcoming obligations will depend on market-place conditions and economic circumstances outside their control, thus prolonging uncertainty in credit markets and corporate turnaround prospects.
Quantifying the Potential Size of the Refinancing Problem
An S&P study published in May showcases the scope of the future debt threat. The study analyzed nearly $4.4 trillion of U.S.-issued rated non-financial corporate debt, which included loans, notes and bonds. About $2 trillion (or 45%) was rated as speculative-grade debt, and $1.3 trillion of this total – or nearly two-thirds – was rated single-B or lower, a common threshold of ‘deep junk.’ Moreover, of the $1.4 trillion of speculative-grade debt scheduled to mature within the next five years, nearly $900 billion is rated single-B or worse. This is especially worrisome, given the ongoing difficulties of low-rated issuers in accessing credit markets despite the 2009 rally, and the materially higher default rates for issuers rated single-B or worse. The current skew of S&P’s ratings distribution of speculative-grade debt towards deep junk is one big reason why the rating agency is projecting an all-time high spec-grade default rate of 14% during this cycle, and a solidly double-digit default rate one year from now. Charts B and C show breakdowns of maturing debt by current rating and by debt type over the next five years.
For many leveraged loans, most maturities in the 2010-2014 time frame represent incredibly borrower-friendly deals originating from 2005-2007. Renewals at previous levels, terms and rates are most unlikely even for compliant, well-performing borrowers. Furthermore, a sizeable slug of these maturing loans represents LBO financings for deals that were aggressively structured and favorably priced.
In many cases, the new math simply won’t work come maturity time. Reuters LPC data indicates that some $230 billion of U.S. LBO-related term loans will mature within five years. This phenomenon is by no means endemic to the U.S.; Western European nations were also caught up in the leveraged buyout craze and the equivalent of $140 billion of LBO-related term loans will likewise be maturing by the end of 2014.
Access to revolving credit continues to be reined in as traditional lenders seek to cut the size of new facilities, increase pricing spreads, shorten maturities and enhance collateral packages – in short, reduce their exposure to high-risk corporate borrowers. In May, Sears Holdings agreed to a bifurcated extension of its existing $4 billion asset-based revolver that was scheduled to mature in March 2010. Sears could only manage to get its lending syndicate to extend $2.4 billion of the original first lien facility by two years, despite a generous pricing margin increase of over 300 bps, a LIBOR floor, upfront fees and a BB+ rating. Now that’s risk aversion! It’s hard to believe the original ABL revolver was priced at only 88 bps over LIBOR in 2005.
The withdrawal or restriction of a line of credit can drive trade creditors and other critical suppliers to reduce their own exposures, by changing credit terms or placing riskier accounts on limit. This can intensify the pressure on a struggling company’s working capital when they are most likely to need it. In today’s new credit environment, the negotiating advantage has undoubtedly shifted back in favor of lenders, following several years when it was the borrowers that tended to call the shots. While large global companies often have access to alternative financing options or the ability to generate working capital spontaneously, those inhabiting the most precarious end of the borrowing spectrum typically have little choice but to accept more onerous terms and conditions offered by lenders.
Conservative lending practices and capital rationing by banks will disproportionately hurt small and middle-market companies, since the new emphasis on relationship banking and key accounts naturally favors the largest and most diverse clients that generate business volume and can be cross-sold an array of banking services. Middle-market borrowers are already feeling the neglect.
Patching Up the Wounded
Despite the daunting parade of upcoming corporate-debt maturities, there are no outward signs of panic just yet. Scheduled maturities for 2010 are relatively light (Chart B) and most likely to be manageable under current market conditions. However, the refinancing burden will intensify in 2011 and beyond. Concerned senior executives of underperforming businesses may be working hard to create a meaningful earnings recovery by then, but few are banking on it to save the day, judging by their actions of late.
Compelling evidence of highly cautious attitudes about the corporate credit environment can be found by examining the flurry of amends and extends (A&Es) carried out in 2009, often pre-emptive and usually on very costly terms, for debt maturities that were one or two years away. A&Es are essentially short-term deals that allow a company to extend loan maturities.
For borrowers, A&Es can push out maturities that cannot be refinanced outright, or they can grant financial covenant relief or added headroom until operating results improve. Lenders typically get to re-price these loans closer to market spreads, insert tougher loan covenants and extract lucrative fees as well. A&Es account for much of the recent leveraged lending activity, with S&P reporting over 200 rated borrower requests for loan amendments in the first half of 2009.
The problem with the A&E solution, known as ‘forward-start agreements’ in Europe, is that often it just delays the inevitable day of reckoning. It is a leap of faith by borrowers and lenders that the lending environment and operating conditions will be substantially better in the not-too-distant future. It does nothing to remedy the fundamental problem: too much debt. And given the mountains of debt due for refinancing before 2014, there is no assurance that credit markets won’t be just as tight or selective as these revised maturity dates approach.
Similarly, on the bond side, debt-exchange offers – whereby companies offer bondholders the opportunity to exchange maturing bonds for new bonds with a later maturity date and/or equity positions – have figured prominently in restructuring activity this year. Through August, S&P tabulated 74 distressed debt exchanges of rated securities in 2009 – easily more than twice as many as in the whole of 2008. Like A&Es, these transactions are often viewed as short-term fixes that allow distressed borrowers to buy some time to repair their businesses while achieving some degree of near-term financial relief.
This option is only possible because junior creditors often recognize that they are unlikely to see any meaningful recovery under a bankruptcy scenario, given the present economic environment and marketplace conditions. Ironically, it is the distressed borrower that often has the upper hand in these colorful, if not contentious, negotiations with bondholders, by using the prospect of a Chapter 11 filing as a cudgel to get creditors on board with an exchange proposal. Despite these fervent efforts to stave off payment defaults and bankruptcy, history tells us that many companies orchestrating distressed debt exchanges today will eventually file for Chapter 11 relief.
Both A&Es and distressed debt exchanges are practical responses to the scarcity of fresh capital for perceived high-risk borrowers in today’s new lending regime. But what other options are available, and what should companies facing significant maturities in 2011 and 2012 be doing now to prepare for the refinancing that’s just ahead?
The Potential Fallout
For the legions of companies that financed their growth with piles of cheap debt, the double-whammy of a recession and a stringent credit environment is likely to hasten a showdown with lenders or creditors. While A&Es and distressed debt exchanges might paper over the cracks in the short term, by allowing struggling companies to limp along in an uncompetitive fashion, the pain is merely prolonged, and recoveries for creditors may ultimately worsen.
This backdrop is likely to mean heightened levels of bankruptcies well beyond the end of this recession. Once upon a time, a failing business might still have had new money thrown at it. Nowadays investors or lenders are more likely to be throwing in the towel, or at least be looking at other ways to extract value and maximize recoveries – without necessarily saving the enterprise. Turnaround professionals and interim managers will be utilized more extensively as key players lose patience with incumbent executives in floundering organizations.
While deal-making continues to be difficult, there has been a huge upturn in distressed M&A activity. The Deal recently reported that Section 363 sales – the equivalent of auctioning off a failed entity’s business or assets – have almost doubled in 2009. These days especially, it may take a while to get to a Chapter 11 filing, but once there, the timetable really accelerates for some debtors.
Vulnerable sectors going forward will include a raft of consumer-dependent businesses that are asset-intensive, and burdened with debt or other onerous financial obligations. This extends well beyond the retail sector itself and includes airlines, travel and lodging, gaming, consumer finance, media and entertainment and consumer product makers, among others. In the healthcare sector, retirement homes and assisted-living communities are also looking vulnerable as the falling value of residential real estate and retirement accounts is frustrating the ability of potential new customers to take on units in these communities.
Lastly, consider the state of the banking sector. While some Wall Street banks were considered too big to fail, smaller regional banks will end up being too small to rescue. The irony is that many regional banks were conventional lenders that mostly avoided material exposure to toxic paper, risky financial derivatives and other structured investments that embroiled Wall Street. However, sliding values for commercial real estate, a business mainstay of regional banks, will inevitably impair their collateral and erode capital levels. Many believe the knock-on effect on balance sheets could prompt smaller regionals to fall by the wayside. No doubt the best assets of these failed institutions will be snapped up at bargain prices by national money centers and large investment banks – some of which qualified for previous bailout assistance.
In all of this, antitrust authorities will likely seek to play a more active role, but their voices may ultimately favor measures that restore corporate profitability and the preservation of jobs. It follows that strong companies should have a good opportunity to pursue in-market acquisitions successfully over the next year or two, particularly if the target would otherwise struggle financially, or go bankrupt.
There Are No Magic Bullets
So what can be done? Most important is for companies to address the appropriateness of their capital structure and debt layering long in advance of refinancing dates, bearing in mind both the new tolerances and valuation parameters of capital markets and the expected persistence of weaker operating earnings in light of the recession.
As previously mentioned, a distressed debt exchange, especially one involving a substantial debt-for-equity swap, is a means by which a troubled borrower can reconfigure an unsustainable balance sheet in the absence of new money, and possibly without the need for filing for bankruptcy. But it requires Herculean negotiating efforts with recalcitrant creditor groups which may end up on the courthouse stairs in any event.
Secondly, companies must focus ruthlessly on driving business efficiency. Many have done so admirably during this downturn, with the retail sector coming to mind first. Large U.S. retailers generally surpassed Wall Street’s low earnings expectations in the second quarter, despite slumping sales and gross margin compression. Such results can be achieved through a combination of cost-cutting, vendor and landlord negotiations, reduced capital investment and better inventory management. Senior executives should keep an eagle eye on subtle changes in critical trends that impact their business, and should understand how key performance indicators can be utilized.
Companies with marketable assets might consider selling some of the family silver to pay down debt. While M&A markets are slow, the deal environment is gradually improving. Sometimes such measures are painful, but necessary. Struggling retailer The Talbots sold the J Jill Group – a business segment it could no longer support, given the distress at its namesake chain – in June to a private equity shop for $75 million. Talbot’s purchased the J Jill chain some three years earlier for $500 million in cash. Even if a sale is not possible straight away, companies can start positioning some dispensable businesses or assets for sale as soon as markets improve.
Which Way Now?
We know that refinancing the dozens of billions of high-risk debt slated to mature over the next few years will be a challenge for most, and impossible for many. While there is a good chance that economic conditions may be showing signs of improvement as we move into a new decade, the consensus points to a slow, below average recovery. It is likely to take several years for corporate earnings to return to 2007 levels, for job prospects and personal wealth to recover enough to kick-start consumer spending and for lenders to shake themselves free of the noxious overhang of bad assets and bad practices that they acquired during the halcyon days of the credit boom.
However, some just can’t hold out that long; others will be unable to earn their way out of their financial predicaments. The term ‘jobless recovery’ is already being bandied around with a casualness that belies the grim reality of the expression for many millions of Americans. To make matters worse, federal budget deficits and borrowing needs will remain exorbitant. It’s not exactly a recipe for optimism.
2010 is certain to be a pivotal year for the U.S. and global economies – a ‘show me’ year in the minds of both equity and credit investors who now fully expect to see fresh, indisputable evidence of positive economic growth and solid earnings recovery, and who have already priced such expectations into capital markets. Many economists, though, are less sanguine about any rosy growth scenario as long as stricken consumers stay planted on the sidelines. The interplay between corporate operating performance and credit market conditions will likely be reinforcing: better than expected earnings may further embolden credit investors and ease access to capital, which will in turn bolster corporate results. But it could work the other way too, with vast pockets of economic weakness that persist into 2010 finally causing financial markets to doubt the adequacy or sustainability of a recovery. How the economy unfolds in 2010 may very well determine whether the debt maturity challenge eventually rises to the level of a crisis. We’ll be watching closely.
Dominic DiNapoli is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of FTI Consulting, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company’s five business segments.