This is an email, all from him, I won’t add in any other formatting:
“Like you, I have an extraordinarily deep concern about the capacity for businesses – not only SMBs, but also larger, capital-intensive firms – to weather this path of suppression. I was quite surprised to hear Russ take a lighter note.
…I am deeply sceptical of the efficacy of bridge loans that you spoke about early this morning. While Brunnermeier, Landau, Pagano, and Reis have laid out the best transmission mechanism, I can not possibly envision it will move the needle enough for the majority of those businesses while also not leaving a wake of loss provisions for future generations. I suppose you could say I am partial to point two in your piece.
I also simply can’t understand the legal logistics of bridge loans in this scenario. Most companies will have a capital structure of some kind (perhaps without the most sophisticated lenders). How are you cramming down those who you are priming in the capital structure? You need consent. Who will be managing this incredibly laborious process of gaining consent and creating the terms? Cash grants are one thing, but bridge loans that aren’t unsecured at the bottom of the capital structure are an entirely different matter.”
“While the benefit of hindsight can be a hindrance to pontificating on novel circumstances, it strikes me as unequivocally true that the GFC had a much simpler – intellectually, if not politically – solution. Namely a solution that at its core involved taking known, marketable securities out of the system at haircuts or depressed valuations to abate panic, settle markets, and of course eventually sell at a profit.
In short, I’m partial to the view that mark-to-market accounting was both a central impetus for why the crisis was so severe and why action could be taken so decisively without burdening tax payers for generations to come (see Ball’s very good book here and Fragile by Design, both of which you’re likely familiar with). This crisis provides no such “simple” solutions that can be concentrated against a singular sector of the economy by taking decisive action.
I, of course, have no grand unified theory to share with you. However, I did want to pass along some thoughts I had upon reading your bridge loan piece that came to mind.
Like you, I am also worried about how broad the demand shock is currently and will be moving forward. Affecting not only every industry severely, but also every locality in the economy (e.g. leaving no state or municipality without deep, painful bruises). This raises the question of how the economy – when this is all said and done – reconstitutes itself in an orderly, efficient fashion.
While I’m partial…I believe one of the incredible strengths of the United States is its bankruptcy code. In particular, the out-of-court and Chapter 11 processes.
I would perhaps mull over how the United States can leverage the bankruptcy code to provide support, both out-of-court (e.g. before filing) and to expedite the process while in-court (e.g. by utilizing pre-packs, which are very popular, very quick, and incredibly effective at providing sustainable balance sheets).
The United States could explore offering – or backstopping – DIP Financing for firms that file Chapter 11 (see explainer on DIP financing from Davis Polk here). DIP Financing has been around for many decades, is incredibly safe, and deeply effective.
- The US could offer DIP Financing at favourable terms directly and automatically under preset conditions (e.g. a firm that was FCF positive in 2018 with EBITDA +$mln, but needing to file Chapter 11 in 2020, would immediately get a facility at L+). This would also give the US the highest seniority in the cap stack with very favourable terms upon a potential future Chapter 11 (Chapter 22) or a future Chapter 7 (liquidation). For firms that have not been in distress prior to the crisis, this would have the US assuming very little real credit risk.
- The US could backstop private DIP providers – to get credit rolling again – by guaranteeing  cents on the dollar for any facility extended within the next [X] months. Historically, DIPs have returned much more than this so this is reasonably safe from a credit perspective. Note: this could also be done for TL1s or revolvers out-of-court. Same principle applies regarding seniority, lessened credit risk, etc. although you’d need consent down the capital structure.
- The United States could explore offering participation in pre-packs whereby:
- The US would inject $[X]mln in senior secured notes if;
- Existing Senior Secured take a % haircut
- Unsecured take a % haircut
- Equity take a % haircut
- Again, the idea would be for pre-packs to be, well, pre-done. The idea would be that if your business is hurling towards bankruptcy, it may be best to bite the bullet and recapitalize (via the US notes) while re-working your balance sheet right now. If your firm meets the FCF, EBITDA, or whatever criteria is determined then the US would offer this package automatically. Contingent only on those within the capital structure consenting to taking at least [X]% haircuts (as consent is required by law). Note: you may want to say that any financing put in – or backstopped by – the US will not be additive to the covenant ratios underpinning the rest of the capital structure (or these covenants can just be amended, if necessary, to allow for this new capital injection as is commonplace anyway).
- The United States could explore offering participation in pre-packs whereby:
One would hope that if The United States does something like this it could serve three useful functions:
- Providing confidence to market participants that there will be a financing backstop – for otherwise healthy firms blindsided by COVID-19 – by the United States, which will likely have the paradoxical affect of freeing up credit from private participants and stopping the explosion in credit spreads and the halting of credit extension we’re currently seeing.
- Allowing firms, without much relative credit risk to the United States, to obtain a runway through the fresh injection of capital along with a modest restructuring that will help them weather the storm if it is to be prolonged.
- Providing an automatic, guaranteed solution that is widely accessible to firms as all qualifications and terms would be preset and thus remove any uncertainty as to what firms would be able to qualify for or ultimately obtain.
Using the bankruptcy code in this way would allow the United States to help firms (albeit, likely slightly larger ones than mom-and-pops) in a predictable, known, guaranteed way while also protecting tax payers from taking significant downside risk positions in an ad-hoc and convoluted matter via bridge loans (if they are feasible at all, which I doubt). In short, the United States would leverage the incredibly strong institutional and intellectual framework of its existing bankruptcy code.
I believe – as I believe you do as well – that we are in for a much lengthier protraction than many anticipate…I do not believe Goldman’s forecast…that we’ll see 13% GDP growth in Q3. I do not believe demand will return so quickly or in such force, because I do not believe we will return to normalcy as quickly as we have just departed it.
As I said previously, I have no grand unified theory to get American business through this crisis. However, we both agree in the general goodness of Big Business as a driver of America. What I’ve just laid out is perhaps the most politically palpable solution (because it involves bankruptcy, even if only in name only) that can give a strong life line to those currently in need while not exposing taxpayers to absurd (albeit still large) credit risk. This solution also can be worked to protect pension liabilities and other essential worker benefits.
I think it’s inevitable that we have mass insolvencies, dislocations, and mismatches moving forward. For small businesses, there are solutions around the edges, but I simply cannot comprehend how the United States would be able to figure out and then extend the appropriate levels of credit via bridge loans en masse to these folks. It is surreal to imagine it possibly working and I worry deeply about what such a program – if tried, almost certainly with less dollars than would be required – would do to the social fabric and psyche of the American people when firms inevitably still buckle and break.
I haven’t given much thought to how to leverage the institutional framework of America to best ameliorate this crisis, but I’ve seen no one speak much about how out-of-court or in-court restructuring could be a partial solution. So I figured I’d pass this along as something to keep in the back of your mind and mull over.”
Zachary tells me you can reach him at Zachary.Booker@mail.McGill.ca.