Private Equity: Hitting Maturity Cliff
Wow, those were the days when money was as cheap and available as that fragile, sandpaper-like toilet paper you find at gas stations. Private equity took advantage of this near-free, pervasive capital and used it to the greatest extent possible. The firms proceeded to lever up and gorge themselves on a never-ending list of target companies with reckless abandon (see also Private Equity Shooting Blanks). Now the glory days of abundant, ultra-cheap capital are history.
Rather than rely on low-cost bank debt, private equity firms are now turning to the fixed income markets – specifically the high yield market (a.k.a. junk bonds). As The Financial Times points out, more than $170 billion of junk bonds have been issued this year, in large part to refinance debt issued in the mid-2000s that has gone sour due to overoptimistic projections and a flailing U.S. economy. In special instances, private equity owners are fattening their own wallets by declaring special dividends for themselves.
Even though some of these over-levered, private equity portfolio companies have received a temporary reprieve from facing the harsh economic realities thanks to these refinancings, the cliff of maturing debt in 2012 is fast approaching. Some have estimated that $1 trillion in maturing debt will roll through the market in the 2012-2014 timeframe. Either the economy (or operating performance) improves enough for these companies to service their debt, or these companies will find themselves falling off these maturity cliffs into bankruptcy.
Junk is Not Risk-Free
Driving this trend of loan recycling is risk aversion to stocks and a voracious appetite for yield in a yield desert. Stuffing the money under the mattress, earning next to nothing on CDs (Certificates of Deposit) and money market accounts, will not help in meeting many investors’ long-term objectives. The “uncertain uncertainty” swirling around global equity markets has nervous investors flocking to bonds. The opening of liquidity in the high yield markets has served as a life preserver for these levered companies desperate to refinance their impending debt. This high-yield debt refinancing window is also an opportunity for companies to lower their interest expense burden because of the current, near record-low interest rates.
But as the name implies, these “junk bonds” are not risk free. For starters, embedded in these bonds is interest rate risk – with a Federal Funds rate at effectively zero, there is only one upward direction for interest rates to go (bad for bond prices). In addition, credit risk is a concern as well. In the midst of the financial crisis, many of these high-yield bonds corrected by more than -40% from their highs in 2008 until the bottom achieved in early 2009. If the economy regresses back into a double-dip recession, many of these bonds stand to get pummeled as default rates escalate (see also, bond risks).
Pace Not Slowing
Does the appetite for high yield appear to be slowing? Au contraire. In the most recent week, Dealogic noted $15.4 billion in junk bonds were sold. The FT sees the pace of junk deals handily outpacing the record of $185.4 billion set in 2006.
The Wall Street Journal used the following deals to provide a flavor of how companies are using high-yield debt in the present market:
“First Data Corp. sold $510 million of 10-year notes this week, at 9.125%, to pay down bank debt due in 2014. Peabody Energy sold $650 million of 6.5%, 10-year notes to pay off the same amount of higher-priced debt due in three years. MultiPlan Inc., a health-care cost-management provider, sold $675 million of notes this week, at 9.875%, to help fund a buyout of the company. Cott Corp., a maker of store-branded soft drinks, sold $375 million of debt at 8.125% to fund its purchase of another company, Cliffstar Corp.”
The roads on the junk bond highway appear to be pothole free at the moment, however a cliff of debt is rapidly approaching over the next few years, so high-yield investors should travel carefully as conditions in the junk market potentially worsen. As we witnessed in 2008-2009, it can take a while to hit rock bottom in the riskier areas of the credit spectrum.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including HYG and JNK), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in First Data Corp., Peabody Energy (BTU), MultiPlan Inc., Cott Corp. (COT), Cliffstar Corp., or any security referenced 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.