The Worst of Times – the Not So Worst of Times

Posted on June 26, 2009

The recently released Brookings Institution Metro Monitor confirms something I have thought for some time; the recession’s impact has been very different in the Central U. S., including Memphis, where I live.  Certainly unemployment is up, but there is no feeling of impending doom or of pervasive despair.

Fourteen of the strongest twenty metros in the report are in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa or Kansas.  Memphis and its neighbor to the south, Jackson, MS, are in the second quintile.  Housing prices in Memphis were flat from Q1 2008 to Q1 2009 and they were actually up in many of the Texas markets.  “What’s going on here?” you might ask.  Certainly the regional focus on agriculture and energy, which remain relatively strong, doesn’t hurt, but I don’t think that’s the primary issue.  The mid-continent never enjoyed the full force of the Bubble to the extent experienced on the coasts, so we just didn’t have as far to fall.

This recession is proving to be a great leveler.  My guess it that this applies not just to states and regions, but to economic strata as well.  All that data which Robert Reich and others use to deplore a growing concentration of wealth at the top, has likely turned dramatically down over the past year as portfolio values have collapsed and outsized bonuses have become the bête noir of the American economy.  For the first time in my thirty-six year career, fear stalks the halls of the major law firms as hundreds, perhaps thousands of six figure associates and more than a few seven figure partners have been laid off by some of the largest and most prestigious law firms in America and similar impacts are being felt throughout the higher end of the economy.

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Categories: Business Survival, Economics, Uncategorized

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Commercial Lending – Schizophrenia Reigns Supreme

Posted on June 26, 2009

senior-loan-officers-survey

Many companies remain under pressure from their lenders, but we have seen recent signs that selected lenders are becoming more aggressive in offering new loans to credit-worthy borrowers.  We are quite active in helping companies find senior debt to replace existing lenders and are getting good response from selected lenders, primarily banks that were less impacted by the financial crisis and independent asset based lenders.  In prior years there was little or no need for an investment banker’s assistance in arranging senior facilities, as multiple lenders (both banks and non-banks) aggressively chased all but the worst of credits.  That is no longer the case; today senior deals take a lot of work and persistence, but they can be done.

To summarize the current situation:

•    At the higher end, the loan syndication market remains catatonic with no signs of near term recovery.  This both reflects and creates the almost complete collapse of the Private Equity acquisition market for the larger deals north of $100 million.  Most syndication activity that does occur relates to restructuring of existing credits.

leveraged-loan-maturities
Source: Churchill Financial and Standard and Poors

As the chart above demonstrates, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in leveraged loan maturities.  The peak years for refinancing/renegotiation of the loans created in the buyout boom are 2013-2014, but we are already seeing a strong increase in the number of buyout bankruptcies.  This five year overhang in potentially troubled leveraged loans, means that we are a long way from cleanup of the problems created by excessively liberal lending practices during the buyout bubble.  This indicates that we are unlikely to see another debt fueled boom in the buyout industry before we are well into the 2010’s.  The chart below provides a dramatic demonstration of the extent of the decline in syndicated loan volume, with very little … read the rest

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Time for Transparency on Bailing Out the Banks’ Bondholders

Posted on April 20, 2009

This morning the New York Times reported that the Treasury is planning to convert TARP holdings of preferred stock into common equity at a number of banks. As we previously raised, the real issue is whether and why the Treasury is committed to protect the bondholders of the big banks. There is a great deal of capital in the banking system in the form of unsecured debt.  In a normal world, when a company goes broke, some or all of the debtholders’ interests will ultimately be converted to equity capital either in bankruptcy or in an out of court restructure.  The current issue of The Institutional Risk Analyst makes a very interesting proposal for conversion of Citibank debt into equity, which would address the capitalization issue once and for all.  It’s time the Treasury explains in clear English why they are electing to further commit taxpayer funds to bailing out the big banks’ bondholders.

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Categories: Bailouts, Bankruptcy, Banks, Business Survival, Distress, Economics, Junior Capital

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We’re Seven Months into the Great Mess. What’s Going to Happen Next?

Posted on April 14, 2009

Seven months ago (Monday September 15, 2008) we learned of the failure of Lehman Brothers and soon thereafter the sale of Merrill Lynch and the bailout of AIG.  These events were the culmination of a series of market shocks that had started with the demise of the sub-prime loan market, had accelerated with the collapse of the leveraged loan market starting in August 2007 and had included the takeover of Bear Stearns in March 2008.  But September 15, 2008 is the current era’s equivalent of 1929’s Black Monday.

Since September we have witnessed dramatic governmental actions designed to prevent the current crisis from descending into a downward spiral reminiscent of the 1930s.  For the moment, the stock market seems to be giving these actions (as well as our charismatic new President) a vote of confidence.  We’re also hearing from some of our clients that their operations improved in March and that they are more optimistic about their businesses looking toward the summer.  Another “green shoot” is the middle market M&A market, where I spend much of my time.  The M&A market has definitely improved since the first of the year and indications are that it will remain reasonably strong for a while, at least for profitable companies in favored industries such as government contracting, IT services and health care.

So what is the economic scorecard to date and what can we expect to see going forward?

1)    The World economy is in the midst of the first major global recession of the postwar era.  Global trade has been collapsed for many of the major exporters, particularly China, Japan and Germany.

china-exports1

While there have been some recent hints that the rate of decline is slowing (the second derivative of negative growth) or even bouncing a little, world trade is still an area of significant concern.  … read the rest

It’s Raining; Has Your Banker Asked for the Umbrella Back?

Posted on April 13, 2009

The old saw goes “a banker is someone who lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining and asks for it back when it begins to rain.” It’s certainly raining now and we are working with a number of clients who are in danger of losing their umbrellas. My partners Stan Cutter and Mike Zook have recently published a very insightful article which addresses some of the issues companies are facing with their banks. One of their key points: you may be in trouble even if your company is performing well, if your lender is in trouble or has recently been sold. We’ve reproduced the article in its entirety below:

Is Your Company Ready to Face Financial Institutions in a TARP World?

By Stan Cutter and Mike Zook

What is your strategy if your bank calls and invites you to find a new lender? One of our customers recently met with their banker to find that their loan renewal would have substantially different provisions. The Bank requested:

* Higher collateral levels,
* Lower availability,
* An interest rate floor provision,
* Increased fees for changing the agreement.

Another customer was told to raise more equity before the bank would renew the loan!

Risks and Opportunities of Credit Restructuring Issues

Today’s credit environment is characterized by market turbulence, bank consolidation, markets in disarray and increased regulatory scrutiny. Many companies find themselves weathering the storm although business is not as good as they would like. But, even if every interest and principal payment has been made on time and there is no apparent reason for concern, the onset of credit restructuring issues can be sudden.

Companies and managers need to understand the risks and opportunities surrounding the financial markets’ impact on capital availability. While most often the impact is felt through banking relationships, the impact … read the rest

Categories: Banks, Business Survival, Distress

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How Much Risk is the Treasury Really Assuming from the Financial Institutions?

Posted on April 7, 2009

What does it really mean to talk about saving “the banks”?  The Treasury would like us to have a mental picture of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, protecting the savings and mortgages of the good citizens of Bedford Falls.  In truth, for all material purposes, the current Public Private Investment Plan (PPIP) is about saving four mammoth financial institutions considered too big to fail, BankAmerica, Citicorp, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo.

These financial behemoths, each as large as a significant number of the world’s national economies, bear as much relationship to the Bedford Falls Building and Loan as a rowboat does to the Titanic.  For public consumption, however, it is convenient for the Treasury to continue to describe its efforts as a rescue of “the banks”;   rescuing hydra-headed financial giants just doesn’t have quite the same ring.  Additionally by lumping these institutions under the category of “banks” the Treasury can continue the fiction that the bailout is about “getting the banks lending again.”

Notwithstanding this fiction, as we showed last week, even Secretary Geithner has abandoned the pretense that the PPIP program is about encouraging direct bank lending in the traditional sense of taking deposits and making loans, admitting that the primary purpose of PPIP is to restore the strength of these wholesale institutions so that they can restart the private securitization markets that fueled the credit bubble earlier in the decade.  So here’s the plan.  Just remove the toxic assets from the books of the financial giants and the system will be restored to its former picture of robust health.  Hopefully the PPIP will be sufficient to fund the fix.  If not the Treasury can use its proposed new liquidation authority, invest few hundred billion dollars more to fill the gaps and sell the freshly minted “clean” … read the rest

Categories: Bailouts, Banks, Business Survival, Business Turnarounds, Distress, Economics

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We’re The Marks

Posted on March 17, 2009

From Dictionary.com

Def. Mark – noun

15. b.   Slang.  the intended victim of a swindler, hustler, or the like: e.g. “The cardsharps picked their marks from among the tourists on the cruise ship.”

It’s midnight in Vegas.  A somewhat paunchy fiftyish guy from the Midwest has just sauntered over to the poker table.  With a bourbon in his right hand and a party girl on his left arm, he stumbles slightly before announcing “mind if I join you guys?”  The player with the dark glasses looks up briefly, mumbles something unintelligible and looks back at his cards.  The one in the cowboy hat says “howdy partner, glad to have you”.  Our hero throws his chips on the table and takes his seat.  “Boy I’m feeling lucky tonight.”

Guess who’s flying back to river city tomorrow with a lot fewer chips than he came with?

Uncle Sam stumbled into the world’s highest stakes casino last fall.  He didn’t know how to play the game, but he certainly knew how to raise the table stakes.  Nothing that has happened since then increases my confidence that the U. S. of A. will be leaving this game as a winner.

This morning Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times was on Morning Joe making the case for payment of the AIG bonuses.  His core argument in an article in Tuesday’s Times is that we can’t ignore contractual rights just because they’re not politically popular.  To do so would cause untold damage to the American economy.  On Morning Joe Andrew was brave enough to take the even more unpopular position that the partially nationalized financial institutions must pay up to hire good people or the smart guys at Goldman, et. al. will clean their (and our) clocks.

That this has suddenly become a major political issue should … read the rest

Categories: Bailouts, Banks, Economics

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Beware the Ides of March

Posted on March 1, 2009

We won’t be seeing bloody togas on the Senate steps, but there will be great pain and destruction in the American business community.  There’s an annual ritual which starts in March and generally goes through sometime in April, in which tens of thousands of private companies, the heart blood of the American economy, deliver their annual audits and reviewed financial statements to their banks.  For many the results will not be pretty.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, firms throughout the manufacturing, retail and distribution economy, and likely in a number of other sectors as well, were hit by a strong downdraft precipitated by the credit crunch of September and October.   Many of these companies sustained a precipitous drop-off in revenues and resulting operating losses for the quarter.  Others may have seen a dramatic decline in the value of their inventories, particularly if they were in industries dependent on volatile commodities or imported raw materials.  The bottom line is that many companies will report a loss for the fourth quarter and a substantial number for the full year 2008 as well.

Contrary to current opinion, banks don’t like to take losses and will do everything in their power to avoid doing so.  Until now banks have been relatively lenient with their commercial borrowers other than in industries related to residential construction, where the reality of losses is too obvious to be ignored.  Unfortunately for their borrowers, however, banks are subject to strict accounting rules and answer to regulatory supervisors that demand that action be taken to head off potential loan losses.  Delivery of the 2008 annual audits and reviewed financial statements will make the potential for problems all too obvious.

Partially in response to the CRA (Community Reinvestment Act), within the last ten years many banks began to apply credit scoring and other “objective” … read the rest

SURVIVOR- Main Street America’s New Reality Show

Posted on November 13, 2008

Shading Denote Recession

Shading Denotes Recession

By now we know the story all too well. Sixteen strangers debark onto a jungle island and are told they must work together to survive. While they pretend they’re on the same team, from the start they scheme to position themselves to outlast the other contestants, because at the end of the day they know there will only be one SURVIVOR.

Every business leader in America (and the World for that matter) is anxious to understand the impact of the financial crisis on their own business and personal prospects. How bad is it going to be? Does the crash present new opportunities? What should I do now? And yes, “What must I do to survive?”

Based on conversations with our clients and with financial and strategic investors, many are choosing to “hunker down” and ride out the storm. For some firms this may be an appropriate course. Yet to make such a decision without a realistic evaluation of your firm’s financial survivability in light of the new circumstances would be shortsighted at best. Unless you have capital reserves sufficient to weather a very protracted (perhaps eighteen months or more) and severe downturn, your business could be at grave risk. And if you depend on leverage, this calculation must also take into account the potential impact of reduced loan availability and dramatically higher loan pricing, which may well come sooner than you expect.

What We Know

The U. S. economy is in the midst of what will likely be the worst recession in the postwar era. It appears that the decline is rapidly spreading around the world and that we may well experience a serious global recession that will dramatically affect even the (until now) rapidly developing economies of Asia and Latin America as well as the developed world. The effects of … read the rest

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