Category Archives: financial policy

Can Hedging Save Cyprus?

Lenos Trigeorgis has a piece in the Financial Times’ Economists’ Forum advocating the use of GDP-linked bonds for Cyprus.

Suppose that its steady-state GDP growth is 4 per cent and that fixed interest on EU rescue loans is 3% per cent Instead of the fixed rate loan, Cyprus could issue bonds paying interest at its GDP growth minus 1% (the difference between the average growth rate and the EU bailout rate). If GDP growth next year is 0 per cent, lenders would pay the Cypriot government 1%, providing Cyprus with some relief in hard times. But if after, say, 10 years GDP growth is 7 per cent, lenders would instead receive 6 per cent. In essence, during recession EU lenders will provide insurance and interest subsidy to troubled Eurozone members, helping them pull themselves up, in exchange for higher growth returns during good times. Increased interest bills in good times might also discourage governments from sliding back into bad habits.

As we’ve written in a couple of earlier posts, this is easier said than done. But it’s certainly thinking along the right lines.

Two Tales of Debt Financing

Debt financing is always a gamble. And often a seductive bet.

The Financial Times’ Andrew Jack reports on the pharmaceutical company Valeant which has been on a buying spree financed by debt. For an ambitious businessman with a view, debt is the tool that makes scale feasible. And, as long as everything works out as planned, the returns are great.

But what if they don’t work out as planned? Who’s bearing that risk?

The Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff over at the New York Times takes a look at debt financing concocted the other way ‘round. Instead of used as a tool to enable acquisitions, it is offloaded as a part of a spinoff.

In these cases, it’s often much clearer who is bearing the risk.

How large is the taxpayer subsidy to Too-Big-To-Fail banks?

The issue came up yesterday when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the Senate Banking Committee. Senator Elizabeth Warren cited a Bloomberg report that put the number at $83 billion to the 10 largest U.S. banks. The Bloomberg figure is extrapolated from the finding of an IMF study that the backstop provided to banks lowers their cost of borrowing by approximately 0.8 percentage points.

Matt Levine at Dealbreaker makes the provocative claim that “The Too Big to Fail Subsidy is Negative Sixteen Billion Dollars”. This comes in the second round of Levine’s tit-for-tat with Bloomberg. His original critique started off with a reasonable and incisive drill down into the numbers.[1] Now, after an effective rejoinder by Bloomberg, he abandons the two main points from his original critique and substitutes new ones.

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Alternatives to Captives & Contagion

Last week we wrote about the financial contagion from Peugeot’s auto manufacturing business to its captive finance unit, Banque PSA Finance (PFA). The important question this raises for management is whether there are other ways to get the synergies associated with a captive finance unit without at the same time being susceptible to the contagion.

One set of alternatives keeps the unit as a captive, but tries to find financial structures that are not subject to the contagion. This includes separating funding sources and eliminating cross recourse. PFA is now considering offering deposits and making its liabilities separate from the Peugeot.

It is also possible to capture the synergies by some other means such as a strategic alliance with an otherwise independent bank. That’s what Fiat/Chrysler is doing with Banco Santander. The new venture, Chrysler Capital, will provide funds to consumers purchasing and leasing Chrysler’s cars and trucks, as well as loans to dealerships construction, real estate and working capital.

In the new venture with Santander, the automaker Chrysler will not even be listed as a shareholder. Chrysler decided against it because of its low credit rating (B1 by Moody’s and B+ by S&P), arguing that it would have damaged Chrysler Capital’s borrowing costs and ability to raise funds. Chrysler Group vice president of dealer network development and fleet operations, Peter Grady, is quoted in the Bloomberg story saying that “We were looking for a bank with some significant heft” that could “provide the financial backstop that would be needed in a downturn if another capital market disruption occurred.”

 

Captives and Contagion

peugeot

The French automaker Peugeot is in trouble. Automobile sales in Europe saw a dramatic 8.6% slump in 2012. For Peugeot it was even worse: a 15% drop. Since the company relies overwhelmingly on sales in Europe, the company was burning through cash at a rate of €200 million per month, according to the Financial Times. Earlier today the company reported a loss of €5.01 billion in 2012. Already last March, Moody’s had downgraded the company’s credit rating to junk. To stabilize its finances, management last year initiated a program of asset sales, an issue of new equity, and the closure of one of its manufacturing plants near Paris.

Like many other manufacturers, Peugeot owns a captive finance arm, Banque PSA Finance (BPF). The bank has a special access to Peugeot-Citroen dealer networks and supports automobile sales by offering loans, leases and insurance to customers.

The bank gets its funds in the wholesale market, as shown in the figure below, taken from the bank’s 2012 annual report.

BPF

BPF’s captive relationship with Peugeot-Citroen exposes it to the risks of the car company. The sales volumes achieved on Peugeot and Citroën cars directly affect the bank’s own business opportunities. The ownership relationship, too, creates exposure. Accordingly, the credit rating agency Moody’s determined that its rating of the bank is constrained by its rating of the parent.

In 2012, the automaker’s financial problems infected the bank. As the parent was downgraded, Moody’s also reviewed the rating of the bank, and it was downgraded. In July, the parent was downgraded to junk, and Moody’s announced that the bank’s credit rating was in review for possible downgrade to junk status.

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Is wholesale power trading as profitable a line of business as they say?

EDF Trading

Gregory Meyer, in today’s Financial Times, reports that banks are scaling back their trading in U.S. wholesale electric power markets. In his companion article, he quotes me saying that

The banks had the balance sheet, but the reality was it was the taxpayers that were giving them the balance sheet. It’s not clear we want the taxpayer subsidising proprietary trading in electricity or even hedging in electricity.

I am very circumspect about whether power trading operations are as profitable as they are often advertised to be. Here’s one reason why.

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With a hedge, could Conoco have it all?

conoco logo

Liam Denning’s Heard on the Street column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is reliably hard-nosed about budget trade-offs:

Investors want it all—but they should be careful about companies that promise it.

ConocoPhillips is a case in point. … E&P stocks tend to compete on growth, whereas the integrated majors are prized for how much cash they return to shareholders. Conoco offers both. It targets annual production growth of between 3% and 5% a year out to 2016. And it offers a dividend yield of 4.6%, around double the average for its peers.

What’s not to like about that?

…Conoco’s near-term strategy implicitly relies on high oil prices, not merely to provide operating cash flows but also to attract high prices for disposals. The danger is not that Conoco suddenly can’t pay its dividend; indeed, it has prioritized it. Rather, it is that weaker prices or unexpected costs would upset the cash-flow math and force investors to dial back their enhanced expectations–and Conoco’s valuation with them.

Conoco’s exposure to oil prices is a matter of choice, not circumstances. The company does practically no hedging. The company’s stated “policy is to remain exposed to the market price of commodities.” In fact, the company takes this curious commitment so far that “we use swap contracts to convert fixed-price sales contracts which are often requested by natural gas and refined product customers, to floating market prices.”[1]

Conoco has good company as a non-hedger. We’ve written before about the notable fact that ExxonMobil refuses to hedge. But even among smaller E&P firms, roughly 50% of the firms report no hedges at all in any given year.[2]

Perhaps Conoco can afford to remain exposed. Its balance sheet is in very good shape so that it has unused debt capacity which could cover some shortfall. Nevertheless, if exposure to commodity prices were truly a threat to Conoco’s twin goals of investing for growth and paying a reliable dividend, the company could do something about that. But to do so would require giving up its third goal of being fully exposed to oil prices.

Two out of three ain’t bad.


[1] ConocoPhillips Form 10-K for FY2011, p. 74.

[2] Haushalter, G. David, 2000, Financing Policy, Basis Risk and Corporate Hedging: Evidence from Oil and Gas Producers, Journal of Finance 55, 107-152.

Deleveraging and the creation of the Eurozone Keiretsu

Many Eurozone banks are going through huge deleveraging: they are selling their portfolios of loans to hedge funds, reducing and cutting revolvers to corporations, and shortening the overall maturity of their exposures. Faced with higher capital requirements as they experience melting equity values, and unable to raise funds from the US money market, European banks are left with no options but downsizing and help from the European Central Bank.

The banks’ deleveraging is paralyzing the European economy. Even healthy borrowers can’t be certain they’ll have the loans and lines of credit necessary for their regular operations. Many are going capital light: cancelling investments, shrinking working capital and selling non-core assets. Banks’ deleveraging has fostered a downward spiral amplified by institutional and retail investors dumping the stocks and bonds of banks and bank dependent borrowers. This is particularly nasty for the Eurozone, given the role banks have traditionally played in funding European firms.

New forms of intermediation are being developed. The most vigorous are via internal capital markets. Holding companies are tightening their grip over funds available at their subsidiaries—even when these are exchange listed companies—and are playing a much more prominent role in the allocation of funds.

A few large corporations are going beyond that and creating their own banks to make up for the vacuum created by the banks disappearing from the funding scene. Having a bank allows these corporations direct access to funds from the ECB, and enables them to store their excess liquidity in-house, instead of in deposits at outside banks that may be vulnerable to runs. The European aerospace firm EADS is considering doing just that. EADS’ bank could be the financial center of a large network of entities with business relations with the corporation, each with access to funds and able to deposit funds with EADS bank. If one counts EADS’ suppliers and major customers, as well as the suppliers of EADS’ suppliers and all their employees combined, that could be a very large bank indeed.

Out of necessity, the European Keiretsu is born!

Sweeping for cash in the hedges

Natural gas producers in the US are faced with tough choices. Advances in drilling technology have made low cost production from shale resources viable on a large scale, and the industry has been in a race to lay claim to the most valuable properties and to capture a competitive advantage in mastering the technology. But at the very same time, the price of natural gas has collapsed, erasing profits. This has pinched budgets and forced companies to be creative in finding fresh sources of capital. It has also forced companies to re-evaluate development plans and resource acquisitions.

The price of natural gas in the US has been falling almost continuously since mid-2008 when it peaked at over $13/mmBtu. It now lies just above $2/mmBtu.

Despite the falling price, natural gas production in the US has continued to climb. According to data from the EIA, between July 2008 and January 2012 US production increased 17%. Companies have been slow to adjust their expansion plans to the falling price. Finally, in late 2011 and early 2012, companies have begun to adjust their capital expenditures to the current low natural gas price reality. Gregory Myers has reported on this in the Financial Times, citing decisions at Chesapeake Energy and ConocoPhillips. In 2011, Encana Corp finally confronted reality and abandoned its 2008 pledge to double production.

Even as capital budgets are cutback, companies still face a need to raise new cash. The new technologies can also be applied to production of unconventional oil resources, like the tight oil in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale or Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, as well as to development of liquid rich gas fields. Since the price of oil remains high, it can pay to develop these resources. But many natural gas companies with experience in the new technologies find themselves cash poor due to the low operating profits on their gas properties. Cash poor, and prospect rich.

These companies are selling their traditional gas assets to buy higher value shale deposits. Equity issuance is also at historically high levels. Dealogic estimates that share issuance by the sector represents one-fifth of all the US equity raised this year.

A more interesting development is to get cash from accrued gains with pre-existing hedges as reported by Ajay Makan in the FT. An example would be of a company which had entered in 2009 into short positions in forward/futures natural gas contracts for the next six years, until 2015. Right now, in March 2012, the company has on its books gas contracts with maturities varying from June 2012 to 2015. Since the gas yield curve back in 2009 when the company initiated the positions was significantly higher than the current gas yield curve, the company is sitting on significant unrealized gains. Consider just one of its many futures positions: 1000 contracts sold in 2009 with maturity March 2014. The price in 2009 of a March 2014 contract was around $4. Now the same 2014 futures price is around $3.4. Since each contract is for 10,000 mmBTU, the company can close the position and make a profit of 10,000 mmBTU x ($4-$3.4) = $6,000 per contract, for a total of $6 million.

The companies can close out these contracts in order to cash in on the gains.

A couple of questions are in order:

1. Why would the companies want to do that?

2. If the companies sold the hedges wouldn’t they become unhedged and exposed to greater risks?

The answer to the first question lies in the fact that with low gas prices, companies are not able to generate enough cash from operations to fund investment in land, drilling and exploration of shale gas fields, when the industry faces a lot of competition to own such assets.  Faced with an operating cash squeeze, the companies are tapping their reservoir of gains generated by pre-existing hedges.

But, going forward, won’t the companies be much more vulnerable to price gyrations if they liquidate their hedges?

No.

The companies can immediately lock into new forward contracts at the prevailing forward price. The companies are simply realizing past gains on their outstanding contracts in order to plough the money back into their businesses. Unrealized gains are a wasted resource. The companies are free to establish new hedges. Analysts who claim that companies are taking on more risk to avoid cutting back on investment are just wrong.  There is not a conflict between cashing in on unrealized gains from past hedges and being hedged going forward.

Can Hedging Save Greece?

As a part of its restructuring of debt, the Greek government has decided to issue GDP-linked securities:

Each participating holder will also receive detachable GDP-linked Securities of the Republic with a notional amount equal to the face amount of the New Bonds of the Republic issued to that participating holder. The GDP-linked Securities will provide for annual payments beginning in 2015 of an amount of up to 1% of their notional amount in the event the Republic’s nominal GDP exceeds a defined threshold and the Republic has positive GDP growth in real terms in excess of specified targets.

The payout on these securities goes up and down with the country’s ability to pay. Yale professor Robert Shiller has been advocating this type of financing for a while, including in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. A small number of countries have tried this before. The recent case of Argentina is notable since its GDP-linked bonds have paid off handsomely.

What about the U.S.? Could GDP-linked bonds be helpful in managing this country’s debt burden? That’s the case the advocates are making. Although the idea isn’t yet mainstream, it has at least made an appearance deep in the slide deck delivered by the Treasury’s Office of Debt Management to the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee last year.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea.

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