Opinion: Distressed-debt vultures might already be too late

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“Investing in distressed debt is a struggle today. … The economy is too good, the capital markets are too generous. It’s hard for a company to get into trouble.”

Howard Marks, the co-founder of Oaktree Capital Group and a legendary distressed-debt buyer, said this in mid-September. He was very much speaking to the widespread frustration among his peers in the industry at the time. The Federal Reserve had swooped in and starting cutting interest rates to offset any damage from the U.S.-China trade war. Stocks shrugged off a brief decline in August. The yield pickup on speculative-grade corporate bonds had again retreated toward post-2008 lows. Indeed, distress was virtually nowhere to be found.

It’s remarkable to consider just how much has changed. Junk-bond spreads have more than tripled since Marks’s interview, hitting as high as 1,100 basis points last week compared with about 350 basis points in September. The amount of debt trading at a distressed level reached almost $1 trillion. Suddenly, the economy is not “too good” but rather headed into a short recession at best and a depression at worst. Capital markets have been frozen for weeks for all but the highest-quality companies. Credit-rating firms are contemplating default scenarios more severe than the last downturn.

Given this shift, it comes as little surprise that hedge funds are making headlines daily with plans to capitalize on this rapid shift in the outlook, contending the market presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just to name a few in the past week (credit to Bloomberg’s Katherine Doherty for the reporting):

· Highbridge Capital Management is preparing to launch two credit-dislocation funds totaling $2.5 billion, expecting to complete fundraising in mid-April.

· Knighthead Capital Management wants up to $450 million in additional cash for its distressed-debt fund.

· Silverback Asset Management is preparing to start a $200 million credit fund, aiming to wrap up fundraising sometime in April.

Make no mistake, it’s still relatively early days in the coronavirus outbreak, particularly in the U.S. The lasting damage to the world’s largest economy remains very much a guessing game at this point.

And yet, despite all of that, it’s starting to feel as if even waiting a few weeks to round up cash might cause some opportunistic funds to miss out on the biggest bargains.

For one, the ICE Bank of America Merrill Lynch distressed-debt index gained for four consecutive days through the end of last week, the longest rally since the start of the year. It’s still down more than 40% in just three months, so the market is hardly back to the halcyon days of the recent past, but the semblance of a floor provides at least some optimism that the precipitous drops are winding down. High-yield spreads broadly have tightened to 921 basis points from the aforementioned 1,100.

The steep March sell-off has been enough to excite some large traditional fixed-income managers. Ashish Shah, co-chief investment officer of fixed income at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, told Bloomberg’s Gowri Gurumurthy that speculative-grade bonds will gain 20% in 2020 and potentially 30% in the next 18 months. Scott Roberts at Invesco Ltd. declared the chance to scoop up cheap debt will be “gone way before the fear subsides.”

Meanwhile, distressed-debt funds have been sitting on cash for years waiting for a moment like this. Preqin collects data on this so-called dry powder, and when I checked in on Monday, the firm estimated that the funds had $63.6 billion to invest as of this month. That might not be enough to buy all debt now trading at a distressed level — but it’s certainly enough to pick through the wreckage for companies with the best chance of survival.

Centerbridge Partners LP, for instance, last week activated $3 billion of capital it raised way back in 2016, while Sixth Street Partners plans to activate a $3.1 billion contingency fund raised mostly in 2018, Bloomberg’s Gillian Tan reported. Centerbridge’s cash reserve is tied to two funds focused on opportunistic investments in senior loans and high-yield bonds. Sixth Street will have more than $10 billion of dry powder to invest once the TAO Contingent Fund is activated on Wednesday.

Then there’s Marathon Asset Management, which managed to draw $500 million into its opportunistic and distressed credit funds in just a week. Bruce Richards, co-founder and chief investment officer of the firm, called this the “greatest dislocation in credit we’ve seen since 2008” and said last week that he was first looking for bonds with coupons between 5% to 7% that were trading at full value earlier this year but have since fallen to about 70 cents. That might sound picky, but with money to invest right now, Richards can afford to be selective.

“Historically speaking, when you get to these spread levels, it’s never been a bad place to enter and in a two-year window of time it’s a good buying opportunity,” Jim Schaeffer, global head of leveraged finance at Aegon Asset Management, which manages $390 billion of assets, told me in an interview. And firms that can call capital on funds have “got to start calling them now — if not now, when? What are you waiting for?”

It still feels like a tough market for risky credit, but the tide may be turning. Notably, Yum! Brands Inc. brought the first U.S. high-yield offering since March 4 and the deal was upsized to $600 million from $500 million after receiving $3 billion of orders. Yum is far from a distressed company, of course, with double-B credit ratings from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings. But last week, bonds in that rating tier yielded on average 865 basis points more than U.S. Treasuries, compared with 162 basis points in December. That’s not quite distressed, but it’s certainly dislocated.

By no means does one deal indicate that credit has bounced back from rock-bottom. But it’s another box checked on the road to recovery, along with tightening spreads in the secondary market and big-name investors getting more vocal about wading back into risky assets (which could be a tell that they’ve already placed their bets).

If we’ve learned one thing about financial markets in the age of coronavirus, it’s that they can move at breakneck speed and that those with cash on hand at a moment’s notice are in the driver’s seat. Investors looking to seize on the distressed-debt opportunities of today may want to turbocharge their fundraising efforts accordingly. - Brian Chappatta

Bloomberg News