The Great Dilution

Companies may be forced to follow banks’ lead and tap their shareholders.

In 2008 battered banks scurried to raise fresh capital. As the recession bites, they will have to come back for more. Jostling with them for limited funds will be a fast-growing number of cash-strapped non-financial firms. Pain is spreading fast across the corporate world: analysts estimate that fourth-quarter profits across the S&P 500 fell by 15 percent year-on-year, the sixth decline in a row—the worst run on record. Days after laying off 13,500 and cutting production, Alcoa, a bellwether for earnings, announced a crushing $1.2 billion loss. Even traditionally defensive industries, such as pharmaceuticals, are suffering: Pfizer plans to lay off up to 8 percent of its researchers.

With banks loth to lend and credit markets still in turmoil, a tsunami of defaults seems imminent, despite the fact that credit has thawed a little in recent weeks: junk-bond spreads have fallen from their dizzying peak of 22 percentage points over government debt, and firms are paying less to issue commercial paper, widely used to finance working capital. But they will still struggle to roll over much of the $518 billion of corporate bonds and more than $1 trillion in loan facilities that, according to Citigroup, must be refinanced this year—especially given increased competition from sovereign borrowers seeking to plug deficits. Worse, a growing band of investors is using a mix of short-selling and credit-default swaps (CDSs) to bet against firms with heavy refinancing exposures. As their CDS spreads widen, those companies find it ever harder to sell fresh debt.

This could leave a lot of companies having to cough up big chunks of principal on top of their regular interest payments when bonds mature, just as revenues plummet. The debt-service coverage ratios (free cashflow divided by repayment obligations) of highly geared firms are falling below the critical level of one at a pace that seems to be unprecedented, says Barrie Wilkinson of Oliver Wyman, a consultancy. Cutting interest rates to the bone does little for firms that suddenly find themselves having to repay principal.

CDS spreads imply that around 10 percent of American firms will be forced into default. To avoid this, those that have trouble rolling over their debt have two main options. The first is to sell assets and use the proceeds to pay down debt. But losses booked from selling at fire-sale prices could quickly wipe through thin layers of equity. The second route is to raise capital, either through a debt-for-equity swap—as GMAC, a troubled vehicle-finance and mortgage lender, has done—or a discounted offering, such as a rights issue.

Some have already taken this last route to get lenders off their backs. Britain’s Premier Foods, for instance, is planning a rights issue in exchange for banks loosening the terms of its debt covenants. Others are likely to follow. Andrew Smithers of Smithers & Co, a research firm, expects American companies to swing from being net buyers of their own equity (through buybacks) to net sellers. Mr. Wilkinson predicts a “great dilution” of existing shareholders in 2009. This could drive another round of selling in stockmarkets, he argues, which have hitherto focused only on falling profits. Fear over the need for further capital-raising contributed to the decline of banks’ shares.

Cash-poor firms would do well to move quickly. Banks that needed equity but dithered last year discovered to their cost that the pool of available capital was not limitless; they had to pay far more for it later, if they could get it at all. And stronger firms are drinking at the pool, too: Scottish & Southern, a British energy group, has just raised £479m ($704m), in part to bolster its ammunition for opportunistic deals.

As the problem grows, governments in America, Britain and Germany are starting to step in. But all this woe has a silver lining—at least for the investment bankers who have already been through it. The wave of corporate capital-raising will bring in underwriting fees that will help offset the slump in mergers and flotations. If they can find willing takers, that is.

Discuss

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *