Getting Distressed can be a Beach
It was just another 65 degree winter day on the sunny shores of Huntington Beach at the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit (March 1st through 3rd) when I entered the conference premises. Before digging into the minutiae of the distressed markets, a broad set of industry experts spoke to a diverse crowd including, pension fund managers, consultants, and hedge fund managers at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. The tone was somewhat restrained given the gargantuan price rebounds and tightening spreads (the premium paid on credit instruments above government securities) in the credit markets, nonetheless the tenor was fairly upbeat thanks to opportunities emanating from the still larger than average historical spreads.
Topics varied, but several speakers gave their views on the financial crisis, macroeconomic outlooks, general debt/credit trends, and areas of distressed credit opportunity. Like investors across all asset classes, many professionals tried to put the puzzle pieces together over the last few years, in order to provide a clearer outlook for the future of distressed markets. To put the addressable market in context, James Perry, Conference Chair and Investment Officer at the San Bernadino County Employees Retirement Association, described the opportunity set as a $2.5 trillion non-investment grade market, with $250-$400 billion in less liquid securities. Typically distressed securities consist of investments like bonds, bank debt, and/or CLOs (collateralized loan obligations), which frequently carry CCC or lower ratings from agencies such as Standard & Poors, Moodys, and Fitch.
As mentioned previously, since the audience came from a diverse set of constituencies, a broad set of topics and themes were presented:
- Beta Bounce is Gone: The collapse of debt prices and massive widening of debt spreads in 2008 and 2009 have improved dramatically over the last twelve months, meaning the low hanging fruit has already been picked for the most part. Last year was the finest hour for distressed investors because price dislocations caused by factors such as forced selling, technical idiosyncracies, and credit downgrades created a large host of compelling prospects. For many companies, long-term business fundamentals were little changed by the liquidity crunch. As anecdotal evidence for the death of the beta bounce, one speaker observed CLOs trading at 30-35 cents during the March 2009 lows. Those same CLOs are now trading at about 80 cents. Simple math tells us, by definition, there is less upside to par (the bond principal value = 100 cents on dollar).
- Distressed Defaults: Default rates are expected to rise in the coming months and years because of record credit issuance in the 2006-2007 timeframe. The glut of questionable buy-outs completed at the peak of the financial markets driven by private equity and other entities has created a sizeable inventory of debt that has a higher than average chance of becoming distressed. One panel member explained that CCC credit ratings experience a 40% default within 5 years, meaning the worst is ahead of us. The artificially depressed 4-7% current default rates are now expected to rise, but below the 12% default rate encountered in 2009.
- Wall of Maturities: Although the outlook for distressed investments look pretty attractive for the next few years, a majority of professionals speaking on the topic felt a wave of $1 trillion in maturities would roll through the market in the 2012-2014, leading to the escalating default rates mentioned above. CLOs related to many of the previously mentioned ill-timed buyouts will be a significant component of the pending debt wall. Whether the banks will bite the bullet and allow borrowers to extend maturities is still an open topic of debate.
- Mid Market Sweet Spot: Larger profitable companies are having little trouble tapping the financial markets to access capital at reasonable rates. With limited capital made available for middle market companies, there are plenty of opportunistic investments to sift through. With the banks generally hoarding capital and not lending, distressed debt investments are currently offering yields in the mid-to-high teens. Borrowers are effectively beggars, so they cannot be choosers. The investor, on the other hand, is currently in a much stronger position to negotiate first lien secured positions on the debt, which allows a “Plan B,” if the underlying company defaults. Theoretically, investors defaulting into an ownership position can potentially generate higher returns due forced restructuring and management of company operations. Of course, managing the day-to-day operations of many companies is much easier said than done.
- Is Diversification Dead? This question is relevant to all investors but was primarily directed at the fiduciaries responsible for managing and overseeing pension funds. The simultaneous collapse of prices across asset classes during the financial crisis has professionals in a tizzy. Several diversification attacks were directed at David Swensen’s strategy (see Super Swensen article) implemented at Yale’s endowment. Although Swensen’s approach covered a broad swath of alternative investments, the strategy was attacked as merely diversified across illiquid equity asset classes – not a good place to be at the beginning of 2008 and 2009. The basic rebuttal to the “diversification is dead mantra” came in the form of a rhetorical question: “What better alternative is there to diversification?” One other participant was quick to point out that asset allocation drives 85% of portfolio performance.
- Transparency & Regulation: In a post-Bernie Madoff world, even attending hedge fund managers conceded a certain amount of adequate transparency is necessary to make informed decisions. Understanding the strategy and where the returns are coming from is critical component of hiring and maintaining an investment manager.
- Distressed Real Estate Mixed Bag: Surprisingly, the prices and cap rates (see my article on real estate and stocks) on quality properties has not dramatically changed from a few years ago, meaning some areas of the real estate market appear to be less appealing . Better opportunities are generally more tenant specific and require a healthy dosage of creativity to make the deal economics work. Adjunct professor from Columbia University, Michael G. Clark, had a sobering view with respect to the residential real estate market home ownership rates, which he continues to see declining from a peak of 70% to 62% (currently 67%) over time. Clark sees a slow digestion process occurring in the housing market as banks use improved profits to shore up reserves and slowly bleed off toxic assets. He believes job security/mobility, financing, and immigration demographics are a few reasons we will witness a large increase in renters in coming periods. Also driving home ownership down is the increased density of youngsters living at home post-graduation. Clark pointed out the 20% of 26-year olds currently living at home with their parents, a marked increase from times past.
Overall, I found the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit a very informative event, especially from an equity investor’s standpoint, since many stock jocks spend very little time exploring this part of the capital structure. Devoting a few days at the IMN sponsored event taught me that life does not have to be a beach if you mix some distress with a little sun, sand, and fun.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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