Bankruptcies Suddenly Soar Across Corporate America, Worst First Quarter Since 2009

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by Wolf Street

“Come down to Houston,” William Snyder, leader of the Deloitte Corporate Restructuring Group, told Reuters. “You’ll see there is just a stream of consultants and bankruptcy attorneys running around this town.”

But it’s not just in Houston or in the oil patch. It’s in retail, healthcare, mining, finance…. Bankruptcies are suddenly booming, after years of drought.

In the first quarter, 26 publicly traded corporations filed for bankruptcy, up from 11 at the same time last year, Reuters reported. Six of these companies listed assets of over $1 billion, the most since Financial-Crisis year 2009. In total, they listed $34 billion in assets, the second highest for a first quarter since before the financial crisis, behind only the record $102 billion in 2009.

The largest bankruptcy was the casino operating company of Caesars Entertainment that has been unprofitable for five years. It’s among the zombies of Corporate America, kept moving with new money from investors that had been driven to near insanity by the Fed’s six-plus years of interest rate repression.

Next in line were Doral Financial, security services outfit Altegrity, RadioShack, and Allied Nevada Gold. The first oil-and-gas company showed up in sixth place, Quicksilver Resources [Investors Crushed as US Natural Gas Drillers Blow Up].

Among the largest 15 sinners on the list, based on Bankruptcydata.com, are six oil-and-gas related companies. But mostly in the lower half. So far, larger energy companies are still hanging on by their teeth.

US-bankruptcies-Q1-2015This isn’t the list of a single troubled sector that ran out of luck. This isn’t a single issue, such as the oil-price collapse. This is the list of a broader phenomenon: too much debt across a struggling economy. And now the reckoning has started.

So maybe the first-quarter surge of bankruptcies was a statistical hiccup; and for the rest of the year, bankruptcies will once again become a rarity.

Wishful thinking? The list only contains publicly traded companies that have already filed. But the energy sector, for example, is full of companies that are owned by PE firms, such as money-losing natural gas driller Samson Resources. It warned in March that it might have to use bankruptcy to restructure its crushing debt.

Similar troubles are building up in other sectors with companies owned by PE firms. As a business model, PE firms strip equity out of the companies they buy, load them up with debt, and often pay special dividends out the back door to themselves. These companies are prime candidates for bankruptcy.

Restructuring specialists are licking their chops. Reality is setting in after years of drought when the Fed’s flood of money kept every company afloat no matter how badly it was leaking. These folks are paid to renegotiate debt covenants, obtain forbearance agreements from lenders, renegotiate loans, etc. At some point, they’ll try to “restructure” the debts.

“There is a ton of activity under the water,” explained Jon Garcia, founder of McKinsey Recovery & Transformation Services.

Just on Wednesday, gun maker Colt Defense, which is invoking a prepackaged Chapter 11 filing, proposed to exchange its $250 million of 8.75% unsecured notes due 2017 for new 10% junior-lien notes due in 2023, according to S&P Capital IQ/LCD. But at a pro rata of 35 cents on the dollar!

Equity holders are out of luck. The haircut would “address key issues relating to Colt’s viability as a going concern,” the filing said. It would allow the company “to attract new financing in the years to come.” Always fresh money!

Also on Wednesday, Walter Energy announced that it would skip the interest payment due on its first-lien notes. In early March, when news emerged that it had hired legal counsel to explore restructuring options, these first-lien notes plunged to 64.5 cents on the dollar and its shares became a penny stock.

None of them has shown up in bankruptcy statistics yet. They’re part of the “activity under water,” as Garcia put it.

But these Colt Defense and Walter Energy notes are part of the “distressed bonds” whose values have collapsed and whose yields have spiked in a sign that investors consider them likely to default. These distressed bonds, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data, have more than doubled year over year to $121 billion.

The actual default rate, which lags behind the rise in distressed debt levels, is beginning to tick up. Yet it’s still relatively low thanks to the Fed’s ongoing easy-money policies where new money constantly comes forward to bail out old money.

But once push comes to shove, equity owners get wiped out. Creditors at the lower end of the hierarchy lose much or all of their capital. Senior creditors end up with much of the assets. And the company emerges with a much smaller debt burden.

It’s a cleansing process, and for many existing investors a total wipeout. But the Fed, in its infinite wisdom, wanted to create paper wealth and take credit for the subsequent “wealth effect.” Hence, with its policies, it has deactivated that process for years.

Instead, these companies were able to pile even more debt on their zombie balance sheets, and just kept going. It temporarily protected the illusory paper wealth of shareholders and creditors. It allowed PE firms to systematically strip cash out of their portfolio companies before the very eyes of their willing lenders. And it prevented, or rather delayed, essential creative destruction for years.

But now reality is re-inserting itself edgewise into the game. QE has ended in the US. Commodity prices have plunged. Consumers are strung out and have trouble splurging. China is slowing. Miracles aren’t happening. Lenders are getting a teeny-weeny bit antsy. And risk, which everyone thought the Fed had eradicated, is gradually rearing its ugly head again. We’re shocked and appalled.


Fed’s Dudley Warns about Wave of Municipal Bankruptcies

The Fed is doing workshops on municipal bankruptcies now.

It has been a persistent ugly list of municipal bankruptcies: Detroit, MI; Vallejo, San Bernardino, Stockton, and Mammoth Lakes, CA; Jefferson County, AL. Harrisburg, PA; Central Falls, RI; Boise County, ID.

There are many more aspirants for that list, including cities bigger than Detroit. Detroit was the test case for shedding debt. If bankruptcy worked in Detroit, it might work in Chicago. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to make Chapter 9 bankruptcies legal for cities in his state, which is facing its own mega-problems.

“Bankruptcy law exists for a reason; it’s allowed in business so that businesses can get back on their feet and prosper again by restructuring their debts,” Rauner said. “It’s very important for governments to be able to do that, too.”

His plan for sparing Illinois that fate is to cut state assistance to municipalities, which doesn’t sit well with officials at these municipalities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office countered that balancing the state budget on the backs of the local governments is itself a “bankrupt” idea.

Puerto Rico doesn’t even have access to a legal framework like bankruptcy to reduce its debts, but it won’t be able to service them. It owes $73 billion to bondholders, about $20,000 per-capita – more than any of the 50 states. If you own a muni bond fund, you’re probably a creditor. Bond-fund managers use its higher-yielding debt to goose their performance. But now some sort of default and debt relieve is in the works. The US Treasury Department is involved too.

“People before debt,” the people in Puerto Rico demand. It’s going to be expensive for bondholders.

That’s the ugly drumbeat in the background of New York Fed President William Dudley’s speech today at the New York Fed’s evocatively  named workshop, “Chapter 9 and Alternatives for Distressed Municipalities and States.”

So they’re doing workshops on municipal bankruptcies now….

“We at the New York Fed are committed to playing a role in ensuring the stability of this important sector,” he said, referring to the sordid finances of state and local governments. But he wasn’t talking about future bailouts by the Fed. He was issuing a warning to municipalities and their creditors about “the emerging fiscal stresses in the sector.”

It’s a big sector. State and local governments employ about 20 million people – “nearly one in seven American workers.” The sector accounts for about $2 trillion, or 11%, of US GDP. And its services like public safety, education, health, water, sewer, and transportation, are “absolutely fundamental to support private sector economic activity.”

The problem is how all this and other budget items have gotten funded. There are about $3.5 trillion in municipal bonds outstanding. So Dudley makes a crucial distinction:

When governments invest in long-lived capital goods like water and sewer systems, as well as roads and bridges, it makes sense to finance these assets with debt. Debt financing ensures that future residents, who benefit from the services these investments produce, are also required to help pay for them. This principle supports the efficient provision of these long-lived assets.

“Unfortunately,” he said, governments borrow to “cover operating deficits. This kind of debt has a very different character than debt issued to finance infrastructure.” It’s “equivalent to asking future taxpayers to help finance today’s public services.”

In theory, 49 states require a balanced budget every year, but it’s easy enough to “find ways to ‘get around’ balanced budget requirements” and cover operating expenses with borrowed money, he said, including the widespread practice of “pushing the cost of current employment services into the future” by underfunding pensions and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees.

The total mountain of unfunded liabilities remains murky, but estimates for unfunded pension liabilities alone “range up to several trillion dollars.” With these unfunded liabilities, employees are the creditors. That would be on top of the $3.5 trillion in official debt, where bondholders are the creditors.

And eventually, high debt levels and the provision of services clash as in Detroit and Stockton, he said, and render public sector finances “unsustainable.”

But cutting services to the bone to be able to service the ballooning debt entails a problem: citizens can vote with their feet and move elsewhere, thus reducing the tax base and economic activity further. To forestall that, municipalities may alter their priorities and favor the provision of services over debt payments. “This may occur well before the point that debt service capacity appears to be fully exhausted,” he said.

In other words, the prioritization of cash flows to debt service may not be sustainable beyond a certain point. While these particular bankruptcy filings [by Detroit and Stockton] have captured a considerable amount of attention, and rightly so, they may foreshadow more widespread problems than what might be implied by current bond ratings.

That was easy to miss: foreshadow more widespread problems than what might be implied by current bond ratings. Dudley in essence said that current bond ratings – and therefore current bond prices and yields – don’t reflect the ugly reality of state and municipal financial conditions.

It was a warning for states and municipalities to get their financial house in order “before any problems grow to the point where bankruptcy becomes the only viable option.”

It was a warning for public employees and retirees – in their role as creditors – to not rely on promises made by their governments concerning pensions and retiree healthcare benefits.

And it was a warning for municipal bondholders that their portfolios were packed with risky, but low-yielding securities that might end up being renegotiated in bankruptcy court, along with claims by public employees and what’s left of their pension funds. And it was a blunt warning not to trust the ratings that our infamous ratings agencies stamp on these municipal bonds.

Some states are worse than others. Even with capital gains taxes from the booming stock market and startup scene raining down on my beloved and crazy state of California, it ranks as America’s 7th worst “Sinkhole State,” where taxpayers shoulder the largest burden of state debt.

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