Even before the coronavirus pandemic, US malls were in a crisis, with vacancies in January hitting a record high.
However, in the post-corona world, commercial real estate has emerged as one of the most adversely impacted sectors (perhaps because the Fed has so far refused to bail it out), with the number of new delinquencies soaring to a record high in recent weeks.
The gloom facing malls has also helped push the Big Short trade, which was the CMBX Series 6 BBB- tranche (the one with the most exposure to malls), to a fresh all time low last week.
And now, the implosion of the US retail sector has reached the very top, because according to Bloomberg The Mall of America, the largest US shopping center, has missed two months of payments for a $1.4 billion commercial mortgage-backed security, in confirmation that no business is immune to the devastating consequences of the coronavirus.
“The loan is currently due for the April and May payments,” according to a report filed by the trustee of the debt, Wells Fargo & Co., which is also the master servicer for the loan. “Borrower has notified master servicer of Covid-19 related hardships.”
Mall owners reported rock-bottom April rent collections, including about 12% for Tanger Factory Outlet Centers Inc., roughly 20% for Brookfield Property Partners LP and 26% for Macerich. Retailers and their landlords, hurt by competition from online stores before coronavirus-spurred shutdowns made things worse, are struggling to make rent and mortgage payments.
The 5.6 million-square-foot (520,000-square-meter) mall was ordered closed on March 17, and has announced plans to begin reopening on June 1, starting with retailers, followed later by food services and attractions, such as the mega-mall’s aquarium, cinema, miniature golf course and indoor theme park.
“Reopening a building the size of Mall of America is no small task, but we are confident taking the necessary time to reopen will help us create the safest environment possible,” the mall said in a statement on its website.
The Mall of America is owned by members of the Ghermezian family, whose holdings also include the West Edmonton Mall, a 5.3 million-square-foot complex in their Canadian hometown, and American Dream, a 3 million-square-foot mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
(ZeroHedge) Back in March 2017, a bearish trade emerged which quickly gained popularity on Wall Street, and promptly received the moniker “The Next Big Short.”
As we reported at the time, similar to the run-up to the housing debacle, a small number of bearish funds were positioning to profit from a “retail apocalypse” that could spur a wave of defaults. Their target: securities backed not by subprime mortgages, but by loans taken out by beleaguered mall and shopping center operators which had fallen victim to the Amazon juggernaut. And as bad news piled up for anchor chains like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, bearish bets against commercial mortgage-backed securities kept rising.
The trade was simple: shorting malls by going long default risk via CMBX 6 (BBB- or BB) or otherwise shorting the CMBS complex. For those who have not read our previous reports (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) on the second Big Short, here is a brief rundown via the Journal:
each side of the trade is speculating on the direction of an index, called CMBX 6, which tracks the value of 25 commercial-mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS. The index has grabbed investor attention because it has significant exposure to loans made in 2012 to malls that lately have been running into difficulties. Bulls profit when the index rises and shorts make money when it falls.
The various CMBX series are shown in the chart below, with the notorious CMBX 6 most notable for its substantial, 40% exposure to retail properties.
One of the firms that had put on the “Big Short 2” trade back in late 2016 was hedge fund Alder Hill Management – an outfit started by protégés of hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper – which ramped up wagers against the mall bonds. Alder Hill joined other traders which in early 2017 bought a net $985 million contracts that targeted the two riskiest types of CMBS.
“These malls are dying, and we see very limited prospect of a turnaround in performance,” said a January 2017 report from Alder Hill, which began shorting the securities. “We expect 2017 to be a tipping point.”
Alas, Alder Hill was wrong, because while the deluge of retail bankruptcies…
… and mall vacancies accelerated since then, hitting an all time high in 2019…
… not only was 2017 not a tipping point, but the trade failed to generate the kinds of desired mass defaults that the shorters were betting on, while the negative carry associated with the short hurt many of those who were hoping for quick riches.
One of them was investing legend Carl Icahn who as we reported last November, emerged as one of the big fans of the “Big Short 2“, although as even he found out, CMBX was a very painful short as it was not reflecting fundamentals, but merely the overall euphoria sweeping the market and record Fed bubble (very much like most other shorts in the past decade). The resulting loss, as we reported last November, was “tens if not hundreds of millions in losses so far” for the storied corporate raider.
That said, while Carl Icahn was far from shutting down his family office because one particular trade has gone against him, this trade put him on a collision course with two of the largest money managers, including Putnam Investments and AllianceBernstein, which for the past few years had a bullish view on malls and had taken the other side of the Big Short/CMBX trade, the WSJ reports. This face-off, in the words of Dan McNamara a principal at the NY-based MP Securitized Credit Partners, was “the biggest battle in the mortgage bond market today” adding that the showdown is the talk of this corner of the bond market, where more than $10 billion of potential profits are at stake on an obscure index.
However, as they say, good things come to those who wait, and are willing to shoulder big losses as they wait for a massive payoffs, and for the likes of Carl Icahn, McNamara and others who were short the CMBX, payday arrived in mid-March, just as the market collapsed, hammering the CMBX Series BBB-.
And while the broader market has rebounded since then by a whopping 30%, the trade also known as the “Big Short 2” has continued to collapse and today CMBX 6 hit a new lifetime low of just $62.83, down $10 since our last update on this storied trade several weeks ago.
That, in the parlance of our times, is what traders call a “jackpot.”
Why the continued selling? Because it is no longer just retail outlets and malls: as a result of the Covid lock down, and America’s transition to “Work From Home” and “stay away from all crowded places”, the entire commercial real estate sector is on the verge of collapse, as we reported last week in “A Quarter Of All Outstanding CMBS Debt Is On Verge Of Default“
Sure enough, according to a Bloomberg update, a record 167 CMBS 2.0 loans turned newly delinquent in May even though only 25% of loans have reported remits so far, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a research note Wednesday, triple the April total when 68 loans became delinquent. This suggests delinquencies may rise to 5% in May, and those that are late but still within grace period track at 10% for the second month.
Looking at the carnage in the latest remittance data, and explaining the sharp leg lower in the “Big Short 2” index, Morgan Stanley said that several troubled malls that are a part of CMBX 6 are among the loans that were newly delinquent or transferred to special servicers. Among these:
Crystal Mall in Waterford, Connecticut, is currently due for the April and May 2020 payments. There has been a marked decline in both occupancy and revenue. This loan accounts for nearly 10% of a CMBS deal called UBSBB 2012-C2
Louis Joliet Mall in Joliet, Illinois, is also referenced in CMBX 6. The mall was originally anchored by Sears, JC Penney, Carson’s, and Macy’s. The loan is also a part of the CMBS deal UBSBB 2012-C2
A loan for the Poughkeepsie Galleria in upstate New York was recently transferred to special servicing for imminent monetary default at the borrower’s request. The loan has exposure in two 2012 CMBS deals that are referenced by CMBX 6
Other troubled mall-chain tenants include GNC, Claire’s, Body Works and Footlocker, according to Datex Property Solutions. These all have significant exposure in CMBX 6.
Of course, the record crash in the CMBX 6 BBB has meant that all those shorts who for years suffered the slings and stones of outrageous margin calls but held on to this “big short”, have not only gotten very rich, but are now getting even richer – this is one case where everyone will admit that Carl Icahn adding another zero to his net worth was fully deserved as he did it using his brain and not some crony central bank pumping the rich with newly printed money – it has also means the pain is just starting for all those “superstar” funds on the other side of the trade who were long CMBX over the past few years, collecting pennies and clipping coupons in front of a P&L mauling steamroller.
One of them is mutual fund giant AllianceBernstein, which has suffered massive paper losses on the trade, amid soaring fears that the coronavirus pandemic is the straw on the camel’s back that will finally cripple US shopping malls whose debt is now expected to default en masse, something which the latest remittance data is confirming with every passing week!
According to the FT, more than two dozen funds managed by AllianceBernstein have sold over $4 billion worth of CMBX protection to the likes of Icahn. One among them is AllianceBernstein’s $29 billion American Income Portfolio, which crashed after written $1.9bn of protection on CMBX 6, while some of the group’s smaller funds have even higher concentrations.
The trade reflected AB’s conviction that American malls are “evolving, not dying,” as the firm put it last October, in a paper entitled “The Real Story Behind the CMBX. 6: Debunking the Next ‘Big Short’” (reader can get some cheap laughs courtesy of Brian Philips, AB’s CRE Credit Research Director, at this link).
Hillariously, that paper quietly “disappeared” from AllianceBernstein’s website, but magically reappeared in late March, shortly after the Financial Times asked about it.
“We definitely still like this,” said Gershon Distenfeld, AllianceBernstein’s co-head of fixed income. “You can expect this will be on the potential list of things we might buy [more of].”
Sure, quadruple down, why not: it appears that there are still greater fools who haven’t redeemed their money.
In addition to AllianceBernstein, another listed property fund, run by Canadian asset management group Brookfield, that is exposed to the wrong side of the CMBX trade recently moved to reassure investors about its financial health. “We continue to enjoy the sponsorship of Brookfield Asset Management,” the group said in a statement, adding that its parent company was “in excellent financial condition should we ever require assistance.”
Alas, if the plunge in CMBX continues, that won’t be the case for long.
Meanwhile, as stunned funds try to make sense of epic portfolio losses, the denials got even louder: execs at AllianceBernstein told FT the paper losses on their CMBX 6 positions reflected outflows of capital from high-yielding assets that investors see as risky. They added that the trade outperformed last year. Well yes, it outperformed last year… but maybe check where it is trading now.
Even if some borrowers ultimately default, CDS owners are not likely to be owed any cash for several years, said Brian Phillips, a senior vice-president at AllianceBernstein.
He believes any liabilities under the insurance will ultimately be smaller than the annual coupon payment the funds receive. “We’re going to continue to get a coupon from Carl Icahn or whoever — I don’t know who’s on the other side,” Phillips added. “And they’re going to keep [paying] that coupon in for many years.”
What can one say here but lol: Brian, buddy, no idea what alternative universe you are living in, but in the world called reality, it’s a second great depression for commercial real estate which due to the coronavirus is facing an outright apocalypse, and not only are malls going to be swept in mass defaults soon, but your fund will likely implode even sooner between unprecedented capital losses and massive redemptions… but you keep “clipping those coupons” we’ll see how far that takes you. As for Uncle Carl who absolutely crushed you – and judging by the ongoing collapse in commercial real estate is crushing you with every passing day – since you will be begging him for a job soon, it’s probably a good idea to go easy on the mocking.
Afterthought: with CMBX 6 now done, keep a close eye on CMBX 9. With its outlier exposure to hotels which have quickly emerged as the most impacted sector from the pandemic, this may well be the next big short.
“You have enormous buyers of debt meeting massive coordinated fiscal stimulus by governments across the globe. For bond investors, you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
With the Fed buying $622 billion in Treasury and MBS, a staggering 2.9% of US GDP, in just the past five days…
… any debate what to call the current phase of the Fed’s asset monetization – “NOT NOT-QE”, QE4, QE5, or just QEternity – can be laid to rest: because what the Fed is doing is simply Helicopter money, as it unleashes an unprecedented debt – and deficit – monetization program, one which is there to ensure that the trillions in new debt the US Treasury has to issue in the coming year to pay for the $2 (or is that $6) trillion stimulus package find a buyer, which with foreign central banks suddenly dumping US Treasuries…
… would otherwise be quite problematic, even if it means the Fed’s balance sheet is going to hit $6 trillion in a few days.
The problem, at least for traders, is that this new regime is something they have never encountered before, because during prior instances of QE, Treasuries were a safe asset. Now, however, with fears that helicopter money will unleash a tsunami of so much debt not even the Fed will be able to contain it resulting in hyperinflation, everything is in flux, especially when it comes to triangulating pricing on the all important 10Y and 30Y Treasury.
Indeed, as Bloomberg writes today, core investor tenets such as what constitutes a safe asset, the value of bonds as a portfolio hedge, and expectations for returns over the next decade are all being thrown out as governments and central banks strive to avert a global depression.
And as the now infamous “Money Printer go Brrr” meme captures so well, underlying the uncertainty is the risk that trillions of dollars in monetary and fiscal stimulus, and even more trillions in debt, “could create an eventual inflation shock that will trigger losses for bondholders.”
Needless to say, traders are shocked as for the first time in over a decade, they actually have to think:
“You have enormous buyers of debt meeting massive coordinated fiscal stimulus by governments across the globe. For bond investors, you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
And while equity investors may be confident that in the long run, hyperinflation results in positive real returns if one sticks with stocks, the Weimar case showed that that is not the case. But that is a topic for another day. For now we will focus on bond traders, who are finding the current money tsunami unlike anything they have seen before.
Indeed, while past quantitative easing programs have led to similar concerns, this emergency response is different because it’s playing out in weeks rather than months and limits on QE bond purchases have quickly been scrapped.
Any hope that the Fed will ease back on the Brrring printer was dashed when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said Thursday the central bank will maintain its efforts “aggressively and forthrightly” saying in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that the Fed will not “run out of ammunition” after promising unlimited bond purchases. His comments came hours after the European Central Bank scrapped most of the bond-buying limits in its own program.
The problem is that while this type of policy dominates markets, fundamental analysis scrambling to calculate discount rates and/or debt in the system fails, and “strategic thinking is stymied and some prized investment tools appear to be defunct”, said Ronald van Steenweghen of Degroof Petercam Asset Management.
“Valuation models, correlation, mean reversion and other things we rely on fail in these circumstances,” said the Brussels-based money manager. Oh and as an added bonus, “Liquidity is also very poor so it is difficult to be super-agile.”
The irony: the more securities the Fed soaks up, be they Treasuries, MBS, Corporate bonds, ETFs or stocks, the worse the liquidity will get, as the BOJ is finding out the hard way, as virtually nobody wants to sell their bonds to the central bank.
Another irony: normally the prospect of a multi-trillion-dollar government spending surge globally ought to send borrowing costs soaring. But central bank purchases are now reshaping rates markets – emulating the Bank of Japan’s yield-curve control policy starting in 2016 – and quashing these latest volatility spikes.
In effect, the Fed’s takeover of bond markets (and soon all capital markets), means that any signaling function fixed income securities have historically conveyed, is now gone, probably for ever.
“Investors shouldn’t expect to see much more than moderately steep yield curves, since the Fed and its peers don’t want higher benchmark borrowing costs to undermine their stimulus,” said Blackrock strategist Scott Thiel. “That would be detrimental to financial conditions and to the ability for the stimulus to feed through to the economy. So the short answer is, it’s yield-curve control.”
Said otherwise, pretty soon the entire yield curve will be completely meaningless when evaluating such critical for the economy conditions as the price of money or projected inflation. They will be, simply said, whatever the Fed decides.
And with the yield curve no longer telegraphing any inflationary risk, it is precisely the inflationary imbalances that will build up at an unprecedented pace.
Additionally, when looking further out, Bloomberg notes that money managers need to reassess another assumption that’s become widely held in recent years: that inflation is dead. Van Steenweghen says he’s interested in inflation-linked bonds, though timing a foray into that market is “tricky.”
Naeimi also said he expects that the coordination by central banks and governments will spike inflation at some stage. “It all adds to the volatility of holding bonds,” he said. But for the time being, he’s range-trading Australian bonds — buying when 10-year yields hit 1.5%, and selling at 0.6%.
That’s right: government bonds have become a daytrader’s darling. Whatever can possibly go wrong.
But the biggest fear – one we have warned about since 2009 – is that helicopter money, which was always the inevitable outcome of QE, will lead to hyperinflation, and the collapse of both the US Dollar, and the fiat system, of which it is the reserve currency. Bloomberg agrees:
Many market veterans agree that faster inflation may return in a recovery awash with stimulus that central banks and governments may find tough to withdraw. A reassessment of consumer-price expectations would be a major setback for expensive risk-free bonds, especially those with the longest maturities, which are most vulnerable to inflation eroding their value over time.
Of course, at the moment that’s hard to envisage, with market-implied inflation barely at 1% over the next decade, but as noted above, at a certain point the bond market no longer produces any signal, just central bank noise, especially when, as Bloomberg puts it, “central bank balance sheets are set to explode further into unchartered territory.” Quick note to the Bloomberg editors: it is “uncharted”, although you will have plenty of opportunity to learn this in the coming months.
Alas, none of this provides any comfort to bond traders who no longer have any idea how to trade in this new “helicopter normal“, and thus another core conviction is being revised: the efficacy of U.S. Treasuries as a safe haven and portfolio hedge.
Mark Holman, chief executive and founding partner of TwentyFour Asset Management in London, started questioning that when the 10-year benchmark hit its historic low early this month.
“Will government bonds play the same role in your portfolio going forward as they have in the past?” he said. “To me the answer is no they don’t — I’d rather own cash.”
For now, Mark is turning to high-quality corporate credit for low-risk income, particularly in the longer maturity bonds gradually rallying back from a plunge, especially since they are now also purchased by the Fed. He sees no chance of central banks escaping the zero-bound’s gravitational pull in the foreseeable future. “What we do know is we’re going to have zero rates around the world for another decade, and we’re going to have the need for income for another decade,” he said.
Other investors agree that cash is the only solution, which is why T-Bills – widely seen as cash equivalents – are now trading with negative yields for 3 months and over.
Yet others rush into the safety of gold… if they can find it. At least check, physical gold was trading with a 10% premium to paper gold and rising fast.
Ultimately, as Bloomberg concludes, investors will have to find their bearings “in a crisis without recent historical parallel.”
“It’s very hard to look at this in a historical context and then apply an investment framework around it,” said BlackRock’s Thiel. “The most applicable period is right before America entered WW2, when you had gigantic stimulus to spur the war effort. I mean, Ford made bombers in WW2 and now they’re making ventilators in 2020.”
There was something strange about today’s continuation rally in stocks: while risk assets soared, the VIX barely moved. In fact the Vix is now roughly where it was on Monday, largely ignoring the move in stocks.
But there was another more sinister move in today’s risk rally, which as we noted earlier, appears to have been mostly a massive short squeeze, in fact the biggest two-day short squeeze in history…
… namely the persistent buying of safe havens such as Treasury’s but more importantly, Bills.
And so, one week after we reported that yields on many T-Bills through 3 months turned negative for the first time since the financial crisis, today virtually all Bills maturing around July had a negative yield.
Needless to say, a scramble for both cash-equivalents (i.e. Bills) and stocks is rather unorthodox, and sparked debate among Wall Street desks what may be behind it. One answer that emerged is that for those who did not have faith in today’s stock rally and wanted to allocate their funds elsewhere, yet in the absence of available physical gold as a result of the unprecedented scarcity described yesterday, the one place where investors could find “cash equivalent” securities was among the short T-Bill maturities.
If this theory is correct, it would mean that the pent up demand for physical gold is unprecedented and any newly available precious metal will be quickly snapped up as soon as it is available, which in light of the unprecedented expansion in central bank balance sheets as virtually every state is now pursuing helicopter money, is hardly that surprising.
Given where Ford’s CDS was trading – more in line with B1/BB- rated American Axle – it should hardly come as a surprise that S&P has finally bitten the bullet and downgraded Ford debt to junk.
The decision to downgrade Ford Motor Co. from investment grade to speculative grade reflects that the company’s credit metrics and competitive position became borderline for the investment-grade rating prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and the expected downturn in light-vehicle demand made it unlikely that Ford would maintain the required metrics.
Ford Motor Co. announced it is suspending production at its manufacturing sites in Europe for four weeks and halting production in North America to clean these facilities and boost containment efforts for the COVID-19 coronavirus. We expect Ford’s EBITDA margin to remain below 6% on a sustained basis and believe that its free operating cash flow to debt is unlikely to exceed 15% on a consistent basis.
Ford has drawn $13.4 billion on its corporate credit facility and $2 billion on its supplemental credit facility. We believe the company’s current cash position stands at about $36 billion.
We are downgrading our long-term issuer credit rating to ‘BB+’ from ‘BBB-‘. At the same time, we are assigning issue-level ratings of ‘BB+’ on Ford’s unsecured debt.
We are also placing the ratings on Credit Watch with negative implications, which reflects at least a 50% chance that we could lower the ratings depending on factors such as the duration of the plant shutdowns, the rate of cash burn, and the adequacy of Ford’s liquidity position.
This S&P move follows Moody’s cutting Ford’s long-term corporate family rating to Ba2 from Ba1 earlier in the day.
With a total amount of public bonds & loans outstanding around $95.8 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, Ford has just become one of the largest fallen angels yet.
Will this sudden large fallen angel lead to further repricing in the junk bond market, just as the market is dead-cat-bouncing on Fed intervention?
Perhaps of most note, the downgrade to junk means – we think – that this disqualifies Ford debt from The Fed’s corporate-bond-buying bandwagon – which is likely to make the cliff for Ford debt even more dramatic (especially after rallying so hard the last two days).
On the day when The Fed unveils it will be buying agency MBS and CMBS (along with IG corporate debt) in unlimited size “to maintain the smooth functioning of markets,” The Wall Street Journal reports that for at least one major mortgage investor – it could be too late.
For a sense of the scale of collapse in CMBS markets alone, here is CMBX Series 6 BBB- tranche (a popular hedge fund “next big short” trade that is heavily exposed to malls/retail)…
And mortgage markets are becoming notably illiquid (hence The Fed’s unlimited injections)…
And the infamous ‘basis’ trade in ETF land, is extreme…
All of which has left an investment fund focused on mortgage investments struggling to meet margin calls from lenders.
WSJ’s Greg Zuckerman reports that the AG Mortgage Investment Trust, a real-estate investment trust operated by New York hedge fund Angelo, Gordon & Co., is among those feeling pressure, the company said, and, in the latest sign of turmoil in crucial areas of the credit markets, is examining a possible asset sale.
“In recent weeks, due to the turmoil in the financial markets resulting from the global pandemic of the Covid-19 virus, the company and its subsidiaries have received an unusually high number of margin calls from financing counter parties,” AG Mortgage said Monday morning.
The company said it had met “or is in the process of meeting all margin calls received,” though it acknowledged missing the wire deadline for some on Friday.
On Friday evening, the company “notified its financing counter parties that it doesn’t expect to be in a position to fund the anticipated volume of future margin calls under its financing arrangements in the near term,” AG Mortgage said in its statement, which said the company is in discussions with its lenders “with regard to entering into forbearance agreements.”
It’s stock has collapsed…
As have the Preferreds…
Concern about losses in mortgage bonds could feed turmoil in the overall mortgage market that ultimately drives up borrowing costs for consumers looking to buy homes and refinance. Mortgage rates have risen in recent weeks, despite a fall in benchmark rates.
All of which sounds ominously similar to July 2007, when two Bear Stearns hedge funds (Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Fund and the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Enhanced Leveraged Fund) – exposed to mortgage-backed securities and various other leveraged derivatives on same – crashed and burned and started the dominoes falling…