November 9, 2017

If you were only to read one thing…

Bloomberg – America’s ‘Retail Apocalypse’ Is Really Just Beginning – Matt Townsend, Jenny Surane, Emma Orr, and Christopher Cannon 11/8

  • “The so-called retail apocalypse has become so ingrained in the U.S. that it now has the distinction of its own Wikipedia entry.”
  • “The industry’s response to that kind of doomsday description has included blaming the media for hyping the troubles of a few well-known chains as proof of a systemic meltdown. There is some truth to that. In the U.S., retailers announced more than 3,000 store openings in the first three quarters of this year.”
  • “But chains also said 6,800 would close. And this comes when there’s sky-high consumer confidence, unemployment is historically low and the U.S. economy keeps growing. Those are normally all ingredients for a retail boom, yet more chains are filing for bankruptcy and rated distressed than during the financial crisis. That’s caused an increase in the number of delinquent loan payments by malls and shopping centers.”
  • “The reason isn’t as simple as Amazon.com Inc. taking market share or twenty-somethings spending more on experiences than things. The root cause is that many of these long-standing chains are overloaded with debt—often from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder—even for healthy chains.”
  • “The debt coming due, along with America’s over-stored suburbs and the continued gains of online shopping, has all the makings of a disaster. The spillover will likely flow far and wide across the U.S. economy. There will be displaced low-income workers, shrinking local tax bases and investor losses on stocks, bonds and real estate. If today is considered a retail apocalypse, then what’s coming next could truly be scary.”
  • “Until this year, struggling retailers have largely been able to avoid bankruptcy by refinancing to buy more time. But the market has shifted, with the negative view on retail pushing investors to reconsider lending to them. Toys “R” Us Inc. served as an early sign of what might lie ahead. It surprised investors in September by filing for bankruptcy—the third-largest retail bankruptcy in U.S. history—after struggling to refinance just $400 million of its $5 billion in debt. And its results were mostly stable, with profitability increasing amid a small drop in sales.”
  • “Making matters more difficult is the explosive amount of risky debt owed by retail coming due over the next five years.”
  • “Just $100 million of high-yield retail borrowings were set to mature this year, but that will increase to $1.9 billion in 2018, according to Fitch Ratings Inc. And from 2019 to 2025, it will balloon to an annual average of almost $5 billion. The amount of retail debt considered risky is also rising. Over the past year, high-yield bonds outstanding gained 20%, to $35 billion, and the industry’s leveraged loans are up 15%, to $152 billion, according to Bloomberg data.”
  • “Even worse, this will hit as a record $1 trillion in high-yield debt for all industries comes due over the next five years, according to Moody’s. The surge in demand for refinancing is also likely to come just as credit markets tighten and become much less accommodating to distressed borrowers.”
  • “Retailers have pushed off a reckoning because interest rates have been historically low from all the money the Federal Reserve has pumped into the economy since the financial crisis. That’s made investing in riskier debt—and the higher return it brings—more attractive. But with the Fed now raising rates, that demand will soften. That may leave many chains struggling to refinance, especially with the bearishness on retail only increasing.”
  • “One testament to that negativity on retail came earlier this year, when Nordstrom Inc.’s founding family tried to take the department-store chain private. They eventually gave up because lenders were asking for 13% interest, about twice the typical rate for retailers.”
  • “Store credit cards pose additional worries. Synchrony Financial, the largest private-label card issuer, has already had to increase reserves to help cover loan losses this year. And Citigroup Inc., the world’s largest card issuer, said collection rates on its retail portfolio are declining. One reason that’s been cited is that shoppers are more willing to stop paying back a card from a chain if the store they went to has closed.”
  • “The ripple effect could also be a direct hit to the industry that is the largest employer of Americans at the low end of the income scale. The most recent government statistics show that salespeople and cashiers in the industry total 8 million.”
  • “During the height of the financial crisis, store workers felt the brunt of the pain when 1.2 million jobs disappeared, or one in seven of all the positions lost from 2008 to 2009, according to the Department of Labor. Since the crisis, employment has been increasing, including in the retail industry, but that correlation ended as jobs at stores sank by 101,000 this year.”
  • “The drop coincides with a rapid acceleration in store closings as bankruptcies surge and many of the nation’s largest retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., have decided that they have too much space. Even before the e-commerce boom, the U.S. was considered over-stored—the result of investors pouring money into commercial real estate decades earlier as the suburbs boomed. All those buildings needed to be filled with stores, and that demand got the attention of venture capital. The result was the birth of the big-box era of massive stores in nearly every category—from office suppliers like Staples Inc. to pet retailers such as PetSmart Inc. and Petco Animal Supplies, Inc.”
  • “Now that boom is finally going bust. Through the third quarter of this year, 6,752 locations were scheduled to shutter in the U.S., excluding grocery stores and restaurants, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That’s more than double the 2016 total and is close to surpassing the all-time high of 6,900 in 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis. Apparel chains have by far taken the biggest hit, with 2,500 locations closing. Department stores were hammered, too, with Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. downsizing. In all, about 550 department stores closed, equating to 43 million square feet, or about half the total.”
  • “One response to the loss of store-based retail jobs is to note that the industry is adding positions at distribution centers to bolster its online operations. While that is true, many displaced retail workers don’t live near a shipping facility. The hiring also skews more toward men, as they make up two-thirds of the workforce, and retail store employees are 60% women.”
  • “The coming wave of risky retail debt maturities doesn’t take into account that companies currently considered stable by ratings agencies also have loads of borrowings. Just among the eight publicly-traded department stores, there is about $24 billion in debt, and only two of those—Sears Holdings Corp. and Bon-Ton Stores Inc.—are rated distressed by Moody’s.”
  • “’A pall has been cast on retail,’ said Charlie O’Shea, a retail analyst for Moody’s. ‘A day of reckoning is coming.’”

Perspective

FT – Forbes says Wilbur Ross lied about being a billionaire – Lindsay Fortado and Shawn Donnan 11/7

  • “Forbes business magazine has booted US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross off its list of the richest people in America for the first time in 13 years, alleging he lied to them about his net worth by more than $2bn.”

FT – Electric cars’ green image blackens beneath the bonnet – Patrick McGee 11/7

  • “Nico Meilhan, a Paris-based car analyst and energy expert at Frost & Sullivan, says regulators should not encourage this race to sell electric vehicles with bigger batteries. ‘It’s a race, but it’s a very stupid race. It’s not towards a good solution,’ he says. ‘If you switch from oil to cobalt and lithium, you have not addressed any problem, you have just switched your problem.’”
  • “Instead, he says regulators should take weight into account by taxing heavier vehicles and creating incentives for smaller models in both electric and traditional vehicles.”
  • “Mr. Meilhan points out that petrol-engine cars weighing just 500kg — such as the French Ligier microcar or some popular ‘kei cars’ in Japan — emit less lifecycle emissions than a mid-sized electric vehicle even when driven in France, where carbon-free nuclear power generates three-quarters of electricity.”
  • “’If we really cared about CO2,’ he adds, ‘we’d reduce car size and weight.’”

WSJ – Jet-Set Debt Collectors Join a Lucrative Game: Hunting the Superrich – Margot Patrick 11/7

  • “Private investigators spend millions, scour globe, chasing an estimated $2 trillion in pending claims.”

Worthy Insights / Opinion Pieces / Advice

Economist – Asian households binge on debt 11/2

  • “What should be good news for the global economy has its downsides.”

FT – The House of Trump and the House of Saud – Edward Luce 11/8

  • “The blossoming relationship with Riyadh symbolizes the decay of the US-led order.”

Markets / Economy

Business Insider – Someone deleted some code in a popular cryptocurrency wallet – and as much as $280 million in ether is locked up – Becky Peterson 11/7

  • “An estimated $280 million worth of the cryptocurrency ether is locked up because of one person’s mistake.”
  • “An unidentified user accidentally deleted the code library required to use recently created digital wallets within Parity, a popular digital-wallet provider, according to a security alert posted on the company’s blog on Tuesday.”
  • “The freeze affects all multi-signature wallets created on Parity after July 20.”
  • “Multi-sig wallets are especially popular among cryptocurrency startups and other groups because they require more than one person to agree before any currency gets moved around. It’s a safeguard against rogue employees who might want to run off with the money.”

WSJ – Clamor for Tech IPOs Reaches Fever Pitch in Asia – Saumya Vaishampayan and Steven Russolillo 11/8

  • “Nearly three quarters of the 66 tech floats in the first nine months of 2017 have been in Asia, and the companies have raised about 40% of the total $16.8 billion from the sector, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”
  • “Shares of newly public companies in Asia, on average, have risen by 141% from their IPO prices this year through the end of October, according to Dealogic. That compares with an average 25% gain for U.S. IPOs and a 13% increase for new issues in Europe.”

WSJ – Daily Shot: FRED – US Student Loan Balance 11/8

Real Estate

WSJ – Republican Tax Plan Would Slam California Housing Market – Laura Kusisto 11/8

  • “Limits on mortgage-interest deduction would affect many buyers in coastal regions around the U.S.”

WSJ – Co-Working Trend Eats Into Office Demand – Peter Grant 11/7

  • “The co-working trend, popularized by startup businesses like WeWork Cos., has been attractive to entrepreneurs and small companies looking for communal office space and short-term commitments.”
  • “But it could turn out badly for landlords, according to a new report from Green Street Advisors. The report predicts co-working will detract from cumulative office demand through 2030 by about 2% to 3% as the shared working space approach spreads from small businesses to large ones.”
  • “The report estimates there will be about 14,000 co-working locations world-wide by the end of this year, compared with 600 in 2010. WeWork alone has more than 20 locations in London and is now among New York’s largest office tenants, it says.”
  • “’The most ominous prospect for landlords is that [corporate] users could ‘outsource’ big chunks of their headquarters and regional offices to co-working operators,’ the report warns.”
  • “Consider the new business that WeWork launched earlier this year that creates tailored WeWork centers for big companies that employ hundreds or even thousands of workers. Named Onsite Solutions, it is marketing itself to employers that have flexible office space requirements or who want to circulate employees through hipper environments than their traditional workplaces.”
  • “Mr. Reagan (Jed Reagan, Green Street analyst) said such initiatives have the potential to hurt office landlords because co-working facilities typically require less space: about 75 square feet per worker compared with 175 square feet in traditional offices. Also, co-working leases for big tenants tend to be six months to five years, much shorter than the common lease term of five to 15 years, he said.”
  • “’That could undermine the stability and security of cash flow for landlords and could create more churn among tenants,’ Mr. Reagan said.”

India

FT – One year on, jury is still out on India’s ‘black money’ ban – Amy Kazmin 11/7

  • “Economy has slowed and cash in circulation is 90% of previous level, data show.”

South America

FT – Venezuela’s debt struggle poses more questions for investors – Robin Wigglesworth 11/7

  • “Analysts and investors say there are more questions than answers surrounding Venezuela’s plans to ‘refinance and restructure’ its financial liabilities.”
  • “Venezuela has about $63bn of foreign bonds outstanding, according to Torino Capital, while the central bank estimates the country’s overall foreign debts at about $90bn. The real number say most analysts is much higher.” 
  • “PDVSA, the state oil company, has sold $28.6bn of bonds and owes billions of dollars more in ‘promissory notes’. Venezuela owes another $4bn or so to creditors that have taken it to the World Bank’s ICSID court. Stuart Culverhouse, chief economist at Exotix, thinks total public sector external debts range between $100bn and $150bn.”
  • “Even this is uncertain. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has mentioned ‘refinancing’ and ‘restructuring’ the country’s external liabilities. But a refinancing usually implies something voluntary while a restructuring means forcibly ‘haircutting’ creditors. Crucially, US sanctions imposed this summer in practice means both options are off the table.” 
  • “That Mr. Maduro named vice-president Tareck El Aissami as the lead negotiator with bondholders complicates matters further. Mr. Aissami has himself been sanctioned by the US as an alleged narcotics trafficker, which means US investment groups — the biggest holders of Venezuelan debt — cannot enter talks with him.” 
  • “’The logistics seem almost impossible,’ notes Siobhan Morden, head of Latin American fixed income strategy at Nomura. ‘The cynical interpretation is that the impossible deadline for negotiations conveniently shifts the blame of default to bondholders for their unwillingness (inability) to negotiate.’”
  • “With a competent government and more orthodox economic policies, Venezuela could probably handle its debt burden. Although oil exports are declining, it still boasts the world’s largest proven reserves and prices are at their highest level for more than two years.”
  • “But chronic mismanagement by governments under Hugo Chávez and now Mr. Maduro and the oil slump has taken its toll. According to the IMF, the economy has shrunk by a third over the past five years.”
  • “The country’s options appear limited. Venezuela is overdue on the interest payments on bonds that mature in 2019, 2024, 2025 and 2026, demonstrating the ‘significant fiscal strain’ the country is facing, S&P notes. Foreign currency reserves are below $10bn — and much of this is in gold that will be hard to liquidate. China is wary of deepening its financial exposure to Venezuela while the country has already restructured some of its bilateral loans from Russia.”
  • “The price of Venezuela’s bond maturing in August next year has tumbled from 72 cents on the dollar to about 34 cents this week, as investors panicked after the restructuring announcement and bank traders pulled out of the market, causing prices to ‘gap’ lower.” 
  • “Russia could provide a loan secured by Venezuelan oil assets that the government could either use to pay creditors, or to buy back some of its bonds at their current big price discount.” 
  • “Venezuela could also seek to improve its fiscal space by separating PDVSA from the state, defaulting on the latter debts while staying current on the oil company’s bonds. That could in theory prevent creditors from interrupting PDVSA’s oil sales, while letting Venezuela’s sovereign creditors stew. Suing countries is much harder than companies with assets that can be seized.”
  • “Moreover, ringfencing PDVSA from the government will be tricky. Crystallex, a Canadian miner, is already suing Venezuela and arguing that PSDVA is the ‘alter ego’ of the state. If Crystallex wins, it opens the door for all creditors to try to seize Venezuelan and PDVSA assets interchangeably.” 
  • “The most likely outcome, investors and analysts say, is a protracted period of financial limbo, with a restructuring precluded by US sanctions and Venezuela facing a barrage of lawsuits that will tie it up for years to come.”

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