Who Needs Equity?

With new stock offerings going nowhere, capital-hungry issuers are turning instead to zero-coupon convertible bonds.

After financing two major acquisitions last year through a $1.1 billion bond offering, Arrow Electronics Inc. planned to issue new equity to reduce its debt ratio. But Arrow found the equity market unreceptive. “We waited,” says CFO Samuel Leno, “but the market went from bad to worse as the year went on.” Stock in the $13 billion company, like that of many in the electronics distribution sector, bounced up and down, ending the year at $28 a share, more than a third below its April high of $46. “Issuing straight equity was not really an option at that point,” explains Leno.

So Arrow, like an increasing number of companies these days, opted instead to issue convertible bonds, debt instruments that include a call option on the offeror’s stock. The value of these securities reflects the underlying equity, based on the conversion premium–the difference between the price at which the bond may be converted to equity, which is set on the day of issuance, and the current stock price. Because convertibles are structured as debt, they offer downside protection if the stock price falls, and thus have been a haven for investors fleeing the bear market. And because convertibles also provide upside potential from the underlying equity, issuers need pay less interest than they would on traditional bonds to attract buyers.

Recently, demand for convertibles has been so strong that sellers have offered them with no coupon at all. Convertible bond proceeds jumped 50 percent last year, to a record $61 billion; about $15 billion were zero-coupon bonds. So far this year, companies have offered about $50 billion in convertibles, $25 billion of it in zero-coupon notes.

For Arrow, the hungry market meant a $600 million issue of 20-year convertible bonds in February, with a yield of 4 percent and an equity conversion premium of 30 percent above Arrow’s share price the day of the offerings. The bond’s zero-coupon feature makes the “all-in” premium at the end of the fifth year about 58.5 percent, says Leno, with the expectation that the note will be either converted to equity or refinanced at its first put-call date. “It’s really the best of all worlds for the issuer,” he says.

Convertible underwriters, predictably, are ecstatic about the surge in activity, and see convertible structures as an increasingly mainstream piece of the corporate balance sheet. “Until last year, most convertible issuers in the [United States] were noninvestment-grade, high-growth companies that saw this as a way to stretch their balance sheet,” says E. Philip Jones, head of global equity product development for Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York. “Today, top-tier companies are using convertibles regularly.”

Understandably attracted by nearly free money, investment-grade companies such as Tyco International, Enron, The Loews Cos., and The Shaw Group are tapping the market at an unprecedented pace. But the duration of the boom is debatable. While bankers assert that the pricing and volume shifts in the marketplace are permanent, some analysts view these conditions as temporary, and the risks as higher than they seem. Moreover, the cost of selling these bonds may be understated, if only because of their accounting treatment.

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