Minsky and the Junk Bond Era

King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone discusses the early days of the leveraged buyouts(LBOs) and junk bonds from the vantage point of Blackstone’s founders.

In 1978, KKR did an LBO of an industrial pumps make (Houdaille Industries). There had been many small LBOS of private businesses, but no one had gone that big,  done a public company. A young investment banker named Steve Schwartzman heard about the deal and realized he had to get his hands on that prospectus. “He sensed something new was afoot — a way to make fantastic profits and a new outlet for his talents, a new calling.

“I read that prospectus, looked at the capital structure, and realized the returns that could be achieved.” he recalled years later. “I said to myself, ‘This is a gold mine.’ It was like a Rosetta stone for how to do leveraged buyouts. “

Speculative Bridge Financing

It quickly became apparent how lucrative leveraged buyouts could be.

LBOs were financed with Junk Bonds. The process of issuing junk bonds was messy and cumbersome. It took most banks an extremely long time to issue bonds. Drexel was so adept at hawking junks, that companies and other banks in a deal would go forward on an LBO based solely on Drexel’s assurance that it was “highly confident” it could issue bonds. Other banks that couldn’t do that would offer short term financing, aka bridge loans, so a buyer could close a deal quickly, and then issue bonds later to repay bridge loans This alowed DLK, Merril Lynch, and First Boston to compete with Drexel in the LBO financing space.

But what if the bonds couldn’t issued? How would the bridge loan be paid for?

… bridge lending was risky for banks because they could end up stuck with inventories of large and wobbly loans if the market changed direction or the company stumbled between the time the deal was signed up and the marketing of the bonds. The peril was magnified because bridge loans bre high, junk bond-like interest rates, which ratcheted up to punishing levels if borrowers failed to retire the loans on schedule. The ratchets were meant to prod bridge borrowers to refinance quickly with junk, and up until the fall of 1989, every bridge loan issued by a major investment bank had been paid. But the ratchets began to work against the banks when the credit markets turned that fall. The rates shot so high that the borrowers couldn’t afford them, an the banks found themselves stuck with loans that were headed towards default.

In the late 80s/early 90s. several junk bond deals fell through with disastrous consequences. The $6.8 billion United airlines buyout turned out poorly. Several stores ended up going bankrupt due to a failed junk bond deal: Federated Department stores , the parent of Bloomingdale’s, Abraham & Strauss, Filene’s and Lazarus, etc. etc. First Boston nearly failed due to its exposure to junk bond deals. Blackstone mostly sidestepped the worst problems of the era, but fought hard to get refinancing in some cases, and had a couple deals jeopardized.

The Minsky view of junk bonds and LBOs

The collapse of the bridge financing market in the junk bond era illustrates a key idea in Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis: the idea of three types of leverage.

Three distinct income-debt relations for economic units, which are labeled as hedge, speculative, and Ponzi finance, can be identified

Hedge financing units are those which can fulfill all of their contractual payment obligations by their cash flows: the greater the weight of equity financing in the liability structure, the greater the likelihood that the unit is a hedge financing unit.

Speculative finance units are units that can meet their payment commitments on “income account” on their liabilities, even as they cannot repay the principle out of income cash flows. Such units need to “roll over” their liabilities: (e.g. issue new debt to meet commitments on maturing debt). Governments with floating debts, corporations with floating issues of commercial paper, and banks are typically hedge units.

For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principle or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes. A unit that Ponzi finances lowers the margin of safety that it offers the holders of its debts.

According to Minsky the shift from hedge to Ponzi financing makes a economic system unstable, ultimately leading to a crash.

In particular, over a protracted period of good times, capitalist economies tend to move from a financial structure dominated by hedge finance units to a structure in which there is large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance. Furthermore, if an economy with a sizeable body of speculative financial units is in an inflationary state, and the authorities attempt to exorcise inflation by monetary constraint, then speculative units will become Ponzi units and the net worth of previously Ponzi units will quickly evaporate. Consequently, units with cash flow shortfalls will be forced to try to make position by selling out position. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values.

Speculative and Ponzi financing can lead to assets becoming overvalued. A frothy LBO market depends on the availability of cheap junk bond financing.  Seth Klarman noted how this influenced this influenced stock market valutions leading to the 2009 financial crisis:

Pre-2008, nearly all stocks had come to be valued, in a sense, on an invisible template of an LBO model. LBOs were so easy to do. Stocks were never allowed to get really cheap, because people would bid them up, thinking they could always sell them for 20 percent higher. It was, of course, not realistic that every business would find itself in an LBO situation, but nobody really thought much about that. Certainly, many of the companies had some element of value to them, such as consumer brands or stable businesses, attributes that value investors might be attracted to. But when the model blew up and LBOs couldn’t be effected, the invisible template no longer made sense and stocks fell to their own level.

Will this repeat? The high yield credit market does look a bit frothy, with low junk bond yields, overlevered buyouts, and weak debt covenants.

As other areas of finance have shown, history does have funny way of repeating.  

 

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