Relying on the Kindness of Strangers as an Investment Strategy

In 2002, when many credits were troubled, I would look at some of troubled positions that we held and do a recovery analysis, to see what we might get if the company filed for insolvency. Often in that process, I would find that investors elsewhere in the capital structure had different motivations than we did. The bank might prefer to liquidate the stinker, while the bondholders, in a more junior position, would prefer it kept as a going concern. Or, the equity investors that have control of the company might pursue a unprofitable strategy that encumbers the assets of the firm, leaving the bondholders with a less valuable entity for their debt claims. Or, the company could issue secured debt, effectively subordinating bondholders, while providing cash that could be used to buy back stock. Another case is when you have a valuable company with a liquidity problem. The banks will be willing to lend against that trapped value so that the company can repay bondholders, right? Right?! (Sigh.) In most of these situations, a bond investor finds that he is implicitly relying on the kindness of strangers. That is rarely a good place to be. 🙁

Now, a few judicious debt covenants could partially level the playing field, but with investment grade bonds those are rare. (Covenants work a lot better than fraudulent conveyance lawsuits, etc….) My main point here is that it pays to analyze situations in advance to understand when your bargaining power is weak. Risk control is best done on the front end, not the back end. Equity/Management will always hold the “capital structure” option to some degree, and unsecured lenders will always have a weak hand there.

So when I read this article about ladies in Baltimore losing their homes because they didn’t do enough scrutiny of the mortgage documents, partly because they were deceived by people who were seemingly experts, who said that they would be able to refinance the rate when the reset date hit, I thought about relying on the kindness of strangers again. It would be one thing if guaranteed refinance terms were offered at the initial refinancing, but absent that, credit conditions are fickle, and it can be a short interval between loose credit and tight credit. Relying on the ability to refinance a debt is always risky.

Today, consumer credit terms are tight. A year ago, they were moderately loose. Two years ago, terms were stupid loose. Who knows, later this year, terms could become stupid tight, where even good quality borrowers with adequate security can’t get credit.

Again, in investing, and even in personal finance, strive to understand your bargaining position. Do you hold the options? If it’s not you or those with you in your position, then others hold the options to control the assets. Usually those are held by the equityholders (or management, who sometimes act in their own interest, not that of the shareholders), and senior or secured debtholders. Those with weak positions, like preferred stockholders, unsecured and junior debtholders must be compensated for the weak position with extra yield or covenant protections.

The same analysis applies to structured securities, whether the credit enhancement comes from a guarantor or a senior-subordinate structure. In the good times, the equity controls the deal. In the really bad times, control often slides to those who are most senior in the capital structure.

On a personal level, a house is controlled by the owner if he can stay current on the payments (if any). Absent that, the bank controls the situation, subject to the rights of other claimants (the taxman, home equity lenders, mortgage insurers, etc.)

If strangers are kind to you, that is a good thing. Be grateful for a society that encourages that kindness. But don’t rely on it in investing or personal finance.

PS — sometimes even a good analysis of your rights and options can go awry. The KMart bankruptcy was a good example of that, where KMart had assets worth more than their liabilities, and could have gotten financing to continue. But a bankruptcy judge allowed their petition, and they were able to give creditors and lessors the short end of the stick. Those that controlled KMart post-bankruptcy made out handsomely. It would be difficult to repeat that aspect of the success.

Thus, you might look at this good article on Sears Holdings (successor name for KMart) in a slightly different light. The financial engineering gains can’t be repeated. It now must make its money as a retailer. As the article gently points out, being a good investor and a good retailer don’t naturally go together.

Bringing this back to topic, does management of Sears act in the best interests of shareholders? Management has the incentives to do so, but sometimes the intellectual gratification of the CEO can get in the way of making good business decisions. Management has control, the outside passive minority investors do not. Their only options are to ride on the Sears bus, or get off. If an investor doesn’t think the management of Sears is doing it right, he would be foolish to trust them with his money.