Bankruptcy: Where are You on the Capital Structure Totem Pole?

March 18, 2010 at 11:34 pm 1 comment

The media likes to focus in on the microscopic universe of 30 stocks we like to call the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the “market.”  The reality is the Dow is like a drop in the ocean if you consider the global opportunity set across the capital structure. What is the capital structure? Well, you can think of the capital structure like a totem pole. The actual universe of investment opportunities spans everything from Blue Chip dividend paying stocks to illiquid international convertible preferred securities. The selection of the security type will determine where you sit on the capital structure (totem pole), and the location is especially important when the topic shifts to the dreaded word…B-A-N-K-R-U-P-T-C-Y.

Opening the Chapter Book on Bankruptcy

From a security or safety standpoint, the preferred investor location is at the top of the totem pole (capital structure). Why? Because once an entity declares Chapter 7 and begins asset liquidation, the bondholders/creditors at the top of the structure get paid first – whereas the equity holders at the bottom of the pole get paid last (if there are any asset proceeds remaining to be distributed). Here is a general ranking, from top to bottom, of the major security categories along the capital structure (more specialized hybrid security versions can fit in between the listed items):

1)       Secured Bonds

2)      Unsecured Bonds

3)      Convertible Bonds

4)      Preferred Stocks

5)      Common Stock/Equity

Bankruptcy is a legal process that provides relief to many individuals who can no longer pay all of their debts. A potential outcome in the bankruptcy process is “debtor discharge,” which wipes away some or all of an individual’s debt. Here is a brief synopsis of the bankruptcy flavors:

Chapter 11: Designed primarily for businesses, Chapter 11 bankruptcy law allows financially distressed businesses to remain in business as debt payments are reorganized under the supervision of the courts. Technically, individuals can also choose to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, however practically speaking, individuals generally choose other paths. High profile examples of Chapter 11 bankruptcies include Lehman Brothers, Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc., General Motors Co., and Chrysler Group.

Chapter 7 & 13: These segments of the bankruptcy code are principally constructed for individuals. A means test reviewing an individual’s financial situation will determine which plan is most feasible. Here are brief descriptions:

  • Chapter 7 is often referred to as the liquidating bankruptcy. This bankruptcy strategy is often used by individuals to save assets like a home and/or car. Although  non-exempt assets will be liquidated by the owner to pay off creditors, many of a debtors assets are categorized as exempt – meaning the owner will not be forced to sell assets and creditors are held at bay.
  • Chapter 13 allows individuals to retain assets by following a court sanctioned payment plan. Typically debt payments are made by the individual over years, and as long as payments remain current, the owner can retain assets.

More to Gain, More to Lose at the Bottom

Being at the bottom of the capital structure totem pole (owning stocks) involves relatively more price volatility. If you combine the wild swings with the fact that about 50% of households own stock in some shape or form (Edward N. Wolff at New York University – 2009), then you create a recipe of intrigue. Theoretically, stocks have unlimited profit potential (not the case for most bonds). The media loves to report on the daily fortunes won and lost on the global stock exchanges, in addition to following the bigwig billionaires.

More Boredom, Less to Lose at the Top

Being at the top of the capital structure totem pole (owning bonds) comes with more security (less volatility), but also more boredom (less profit potential). That’s not to say healthy returns cannot be achieved in the bond market. We saw firsthand, during the financial crisis, how bankruptcy fears rocked certain areas of the bond market (e.g., high yield bonds), creating extraordinary investment opportunities. With liquidity returning to the market, and signs of economic stability coming back, investors will need to climb much higher up the tree to grab the hanging fruit.

Although there is plenty of room for optimism given certain macroeconomic and corporate indicators, the global economy is certainly not out of the woods. Business bankruptcies remain elevated, just as investors are piling into the perceived safe arms of corporate bonds. Interest rates, along with industry and company-specific factors will obviously impact the price performance of corporate bonds. If the economy hits choppy waters again, it behooves investors in higher yielding bonds to get a better understanding of where they sit on the capital structure totem pole. If not, those bond investors will slide down the capital structure, left commiserating about losses with their neighboring risk-loving stockholders.   

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in Lehman Brothers, Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc., General Motors Co., and Chrysler Group or any security mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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