#jonathanrochford

Credit is normalising, but… excellent commentary from Narrow Road Capital

If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage people to sign up to Narrow Road Capital’s insights on high yield and distressed credit markets. Even better it is free. Jonathan really puts together his thoughts in a very digestible format.

Jonathan has penned this excellent summary of the state of debt markets and cautions us not to get too excited. We have highlighted the things that stood out for us.

Credit is Normalising, But…

Credit securities, both in Australia and globally are getting back on their feet. The bookbuilds this week of $1 billion of corporate debt by Woolworths, $1.25 billion of RMBS by La Trobe and the $500 million of hybrids by Macquarie are all positive signs. However, secondary trading in many debt sectors is light and a few sectors remain moribund. Whilst the signs are generally encouraging, three dark clouds on the horizon point to the possibility of worsening conditions.

The leverage fuelled, panic driven sell-off started on February 24 and ran until March 23 . The circuit breaker was the Federal Reserve’s announcement of “unlimited quantitative easing”. At that time, there were widespread reports of global investors struggling to sell even the highest quality government bonds. Given how dire it was, it has been a relatively quick journey back from the abyss.

In Australia, major bank senior bonds recovered first and are now trading at similar spreads to three months ago. Corporate and securitisation debt has had a far slower recovery with trading remaining patchy. The large issuance this week by Woolworths and La Trobe, as well as a smaller issue by Liberty showed that buyers were willing to return. But unlike major bank bonds, spreads on corporate and securitisation debt have been reset at much higher levels.

At the same time as credit markets are improving, the economic outlook is also brightening in some ways with the gradual easing of restrictions on business. There is a growing view that the worst of Covid-19 has past and that a vaccine or drug treatment might not be far away. The optimism of the human spirit seems boundless with some investors seeing the pandemic as just another opportunity to buy the dip.

Where many investors are seeing mostly positives, I’m seeing mostly negatives. Australia has gone nearly 30 years without a recession leaving our economy fat and lazy. Asset prices (notably housing) have been propped up by population growth, credit growth and interest rates cuts, all factors unlikely to repeat. We’ve had over a decade of Federal Government deficits, destroying the legacy of Peter Costello’s decade of fiscal discipline. The economic buffers we had before the last crisis have been frittered away, leaving Australia poorly placed to withstand and rebound from the current economic and financial crisis. Given this backdrop, there are three standout risks for investors to factor in.

Remember 2007 – Fundamentals Matter

The bounce back in the last two months reminds me a great deal of 2007. In July 2007 credit markets slammed into a brick wall with credit default swaps and CDOs taking substantial damage. Bank bonds sold off as the riskier European banks started to have their solvency questioned. Yet after an initial shock, some of the markdowns turned around offering a window to get out with limited losses.

At first, equities and property continued on their merry way oblivious to the damage in credit markets. Australian equities peaked in October 2007 but held near record levels until January 2008. In December 2007, the property sector was slammed as Centro disclosed it couldn’t roll over its debt. Both at the time and in hindsight, the second half of 2007 was a bizarre period where fundamentals and market prices were so divergent. Given the medium term outlook for Australia includes significant unemployment and business failures, it is hard not to conclude that most investors are ignoring the fundamentals, just like they did in 2007.

Quantitative Easing

If the global debt markets are likened to plumbing, then quantitative easing is the duct tape used to cover the cracks. Central bank buying of government debt has delivered liquidity to debt markets at a time when governments and corporates are going on record borrowing sprees. If investors weren’t able to sell assets to governments via quantitative easing programs, they wouldn’t have capacity to buy the new issuance and bond yields would soar. Quantitative easing is beating back the bond vigilantes temporarily.

Australia has been a late entrant to this charade but is making up for lost time with the RBA hoovering up 7% of Australian government bonds in two months. At this rate, they will own the entire government bond market by the end of 2022. Whilst the RBA buying government bonds is the main game, there’s also been cheap funding for banks and the securitisation market. It’s no longer a case of merely providing liquidity against super safe assets, the recent purchases of sub-investment grade securitisation tranches come with the meaningful possibility of capital losses.

Whilst quantitative easing has yet to hit its unknown limits in developed economies, emerging markets have shown what happens when citizens and investors lose confidence in a fiat currency. The widespread use of US dollars in Argentina, Ecuador, Lebanon, Venezuela and Zimbabwe is the practical outworking of a country adopting funny money practices. At some point, the duct tape stops working and the value of the currency goes down the drain.

Global High Yield and Emerging Market Debt

Whilst most credit sectors are recovering well, corporate high yield debt and emerging market debt are on life support. The US high debt market has recovered around half of the losses that occurred since mid-February. However, this has been a quality driven rally with BB rated companies able to issue whilst B- and CCC rated companies are stuck in the doghouse. Several failed transactions have been a clear warning that lenders have little appetite for companies that can’t demonstrate their solvency in the medium term. The weaker airlines, energy companies and tourism associated businesses are looking at their cash positions and making calls about when to enter bankruptcy.

It’s a similar outlook for the weaker sovereign borrowers, particularly in emerging markets. The years leading up to this crisis saw an explosion in lending to the lowest rated sovereigns. Many of these countries are now turning to the IMF for bailouts; at last count roughly half of the world’s countries had put their hands up for help. There’s a global wave of jobs that will be lost as the weakest companies and countries are forced to reign in their spending. Whilst investors are pricing in a solid probability of defaults, they are ignoring the wider economic impacts of defaulting borrowers on the global economy.

Written by Jonathan Rochford for Narrow Road Capital on 16 May 2020. Comments and criticisms are welcomed and can be sent to info@narrowroadcapital.com

Disclosure

This article has been prepared for educational purposes and is in no way meant to be a substitute for professional and tailored financial advice. It contains information derived and sourced from a broad list of third parties and has been prepared on the basis that this third party information is accurate. This article expresses the views of the author at a point in time, and such views may change in the future with no obligation on Narrow Road Capital or the author to publicly update these views. Narrow Road Capital advises on and invests in a wide range of securities, including securities linked to the performance of various companies and financial institutions.

Why insolvency is the best option for Virgin

Virgin Australia | Climate Active

Narrow Road Capital’s Jonathan Rochford believes that insolvency is the best option for Virgin Australia. The common misconception with insolvency is that most people think that means termination. Not so. Insolvency allows companies to take a long hard look at the business and restructure in ways to ensure the rebirth makes for a healthier business on the other side. The most important point to make is that the sooner the pain is taken, the better the ultimate outcomes.

We recall the last time American Airlines went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it ordered 900 brand new Airbus & Boeing aircraft the VERY NEXT DAY. Why? Because the leasing companies knew that helping the ailing airline by restructuring its fleet with more efficient aircraft would facilitate a quicker revival. Insolvency is all about forcing hard questions to be asked and executed upon, not waiting for endless lifebuoys to be tossed when all options haven’t been properly assessed.

Over to Jonathan:

“Virgin Australia has been poorly managed and poorly capitalised for years. Whilst the Coronavirus lock-down is the most recent cause of its woes it is merely the latest in a long list of excuses. Qantas had its turn with the begging bowl in early 2014, I wrote then that the Australian Government should deny it a bailout as it wasn’t necessary. A bailout would have gotten in the way of Qantas fixing its problems, which it ultimately did without government help. The situation is somewhat different for Virgin, it is most likely to go into administration without a bailout. However, insolvency is the best pathway for Virgin as it is the best opportunity to fix the longstanding problems.

The Problems with Virgin

Virgin’s structural problems are the result of years of mismanagement. It is trapped between being much more expensive than Jetstar and with a lesser offering than Qantas, although routinely being almost as expensive as Qantas. As a result, Virgin has consistently struggled to attract the high paying customers and load factors that would take it from being a loss maker to a strong competitor.

Virgin’s ongoing financial problems are no secret. After an IPO at $2.25 in 2003, its shares have rarely traded above $0.50 in the last decade. The company has pursued growth over profits adding marginal routes that weighed down the good business it had servicing the capital city routes. This failed strategy has left the airline overloaded with aircraft. The sale and subsequent repurchase of part of the frequent flyer business has left it loaded with debt, with most of the fleet and the frequent flyer business locked up by secured creditors.

The Alternatives to Insolvency

Virgin is now pursuing a dual pathway to attempt to remain solvent, searching for fresh equity whilst at the same time negotiating with lenders for a debt restructuring. Whilst either of these, or both in combination would give the business more time, both are likely to be fruitless endeavours. Virgin needs to go through a deep restructuring of its entire business including;

-Handing back/selling off aircraft it will not need in the medium term

-Making redundant staff it cannot put to work in the medium term

-Negotiating with suppliers for cheaper goods and services

-Reducing office space and corporate overheads

All of this needs to be done at the same time as the business is burning through cash, estimated to be at a rate of $5-7 million per day. Without most of the fleet being back in the air and carry near capacity loads, a situation extremely unlikely in 2020, Virgin will simply run out of cash. Even if all the unsecured debt was converted to equity it would make little difference to the cost base. The only feasible option to right size the business is voluntary administration.

The Earlier the Better for Insolvency

Given Virgin has limited cash left and is rapidly burning through it, an insolvency in a matter of weeks offers the best prospects of preserving a broad business. The less cash that is left when insolvency begins, the more likely it is that Virgin will follow in the footsteps of Ansett and be sold off for scrap. With a decent starting cash balance and in the current economic environment administrators would have a strong hand to:

-Cut a new deal on the greatly reduced number of aircraft that will be needed; aircraft lenders and lessors will be reluctant to take back aircraft given the current glut and economic outlook. [note FNF Media mentioned the history of actions by leasing companies here]

-Reduce staff numbers and cut staff costs back to levels in line with a low-cost carrier; remaining staff will be glad to still have a job.

-Negotiate with airports for reduced charges; the alternative for airports is being left with a dominant customer that is already throwing its weight around.

-Slash debt levels and reduce the balance of unsecured creditors

-Hand back office space and eliminate unnecessary corporate overheads

A leaner Virgin, with a lower cost base and greatly reduced liability position, has good prospects of attracting new owners and winning back customers. Only an insolvency can deliver this outcome. The alternatives of fresh equity, a debt for equity swap or a government bailout, if put in place without insolvency, would all delay and obstruct the necessary restructuring and increase the risk that Virgin ultimately ends up like Ansett.”

A gem on how to work our way out of the coming economic crisis

Image result for truck nitroglycerin movie

Jonathan Rochford of Narrow Road Capital has written a gem on the role of central banks in spawning this current crisis. An excerpt here:

The rapid and widespread sell-off over the last four weeks is a textbook systemic deleveraging. Whilst the culprits are many; hedge funds, risk parity strategies and investors using margin loans have all been caught out, the underlying cause is excessive leverage across the economy and particularly the financial system. The timing of the unwind and the economic damage from the Coronavirus wasn’t predictable, but such a highly leveraged system was like a truck loaded with nitroglycerin driving down a road dotted with landmines.

Frustratingly, this inevitable deleveraging was clearly predicted. Rather than act to reduce systemic risks central banks encouraged governments, businesses and investors to increase their risk tolerances and debt levels.

Naturally, it fits our own long-held view on central banks.

Jonathan adds some sensible actions which are contained in this link. The question remains whether governments will put principle ahead of expediency in the cleanup?