I just recently managed to regroup my dropped jaw after reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis. But this week's Bloomberg report on junk bonds left me in disbelief once again.
Atlanta-based Beazer Homes is adding more debt. Heaping more on their already over-laden plate will allow them to pay dividends to shareholders but at what eventual cost? "Kicking the can down the road" comes to mind.
Then there is the risk faced by investors partnered with the money managers purchasing these and other risky corporate bonds. Bloomberg tells the tale:
Even with housing starts hovering at their lowest levels on record, Beazer Homes USA Inc. managed to sell bonds this month on terms that allow it to add more debt. The Atlanta-based builder couldn’t even do that when it issued debentures at the height of the housing bubble in 2006 and its credit rating was seven levels higher. In a report last week Moody’s singled out CF Industries Inc., Standard Pacific Corp., AK Steel Corp. as borrowers offering debt on terms historically available only to higher-rated companies.
“We got ourselves in trouble with that in the past and here it is again,” James Kochan, the chief fixed-income strategist at Wells Fargo Fund Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, said of the trend toward looser debt covenants. “It’s not that surprising, but it is disturbing,” said Kochan, who helps oversee $179 billion.
Lenders are letting down their guard just as worsening government finances raise doubts about the sustainability of the global economic recovery. Money managers say they have little choice but to go along. They need to find a home for the record $29.4 billion that has flowed into high-yield bond mutual funds the past 16 months from retail investors seeking to join in a rally that has produced an average 69 percent return since the market bottom in March 2009.
About 60 percent of high-yield borrowers this year offered weaker investor safeguards than on debt they issued previously, according to Covenant Review LLC, a New York-based research firm that analyzes bond offerings. Those include no limits on the amount of debt companies can have and few restrictions on using assets as collateral for future borrowing, reducing what’s available to satisfy creditor claims in a bankruptcy.
“This trend represents more than an episode of ‘back to the future,’” Moody’s analysts including Alex Dill, the firm’s senior covenant officer, wrote in their report. “It reflects a weakening in covenant protections even below those existing at the peak of the market, in 2006 and 2007.”
Beazer sold $300 million of 9.125 percent bonds due in 2018 on May 4 that carry lighter restrictions than its 2006 issue on the amount of debt the builder can add and how it can use money raised from selling assets. The terms also allow Beazer to double its capacity to pay dividends to shareholders even after a 90 percent drop in its stock, according to Covenant Review.
The company’s senior unsecured bonds are rated Caa2, which Moody’s defines as “judged to be of poor standing and are subject to very high credit risk.” Beazer was rated Ba1, one step below investment grade, in June 2006, when it issued $275 million of 8.125 percent 10-year notes.
Jeffrey Hoza, a vice president and treasurer of Beazer, and Chief Financial Officer Allan Merrill didn’t return calls seeking comment. Junk bonds are rated below Baa3 by Moody’s and less than BBB- by Standard & Poor’s.
Covenant Review believes they have the right take on the junk bonds being offered up and issues a warning. Sounds eerily familiar …
“In 2008, all the companies that we said would screw the bondholders did it,” said Cohen of Covenant Review. “Now, it feels like 2007 to me. We’re telling them they’re going to get screwed and they’re not paying attention.”