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Tuesday
Jun302009

Neither Ponzi nor Pyramid, but an End Game Nonetheless?

Liquidations and/or Use of the Failing Carrier Doctrine?

On the day when Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to 150 years for orchestrating the financial fleecing scheme that put its namesake, Charles Ponzi, to shame, I am pondering the balance sheets of airlines. And it comes down to this: some carriers have little room to maneuver. Investors (read: credit) are not lining up to provide new capital without demanding ransom in terms of collateral or sky-high coupon rates well above those paid in other industries.

Ponzi and pyramid schemes work by gathering proceeds from one group of investors to pay off earlier investors. It is no small irony, then, that much the same has been happening in the airline industry for years. The financial scams fall apart when they run out of money to pay new investors. In airlines, the end result is pretty much the same. Airlines continue to seek new capital even as previous investors fail to earn a respectable return on their investment. It’s not illegal, but neither is it sustainable. Indeed, it is fast becoming apparent that capital is quickly tiring of this industry and its inability to sustain profits, return its cost of capital and thus reinvest in itself at market rates.

In an industry that has succeeded mainly in destroying decades of capital, the end game for some airlines may be near. To inject new funds into its operation, United Airlines’ required collateral was reportedly three times the $175 million in cash it raised. More troubling yet -- the coupon rate on the new debt was 12.75 percent. Even with exorbitant collateral demands and above-market interest rates, new investors were willing to pay only 90 cents on the dollar for the security, which equates to an effective return to the investor closer to 17 percent.

At the same time, American announced it will sell $520.1 million in debt . American’s collateral requirements will be hefty, but slightly less than twice the amount it plans to raise. According to the Associated Press, American’s debt is investment grade based in part on the assets pledged as collateral. Therefore, American will pay significantly less for its capital than will United, even if the investor interest level is on par. But with corporations of this size, and of this importance to the US economy, “investment grade” ought to be the baseline, not the high bar. That’s not the case today. Earlier in the year, Southwest -- the industry’s only capital-worthy airline -- was forced to pay in excess of 10 percent on its loans. Wow. In other circumstances, that might be considered usury.

 

Data Points

Market perceptions, and cold, hard cash, demonstrate a new industry pecking order is emerging. Allegiant, AirTran, Alaska and SkyWest – airlines many Americans have never flown -- each today have a market capitalization greater than that of either United or US Airways.

In Spring 2009, Fitch’s Airline Credit Navigator outlined current liquidity and expected debt maturities for airlines over the next three years. It found “most of the biggest U.S. airlines ended the first quarter in "unfavorable liquidity positions.”

For three of the top seven carriers (US Airways, American and United), this liquidity ratio fell below 15 percent of trailing twelve month revenues - a benchmark commonly used to target an optimal amount of cash to be held on the balance sheet.

According to Fitch’s data, American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways, Southwest and jetBlue held nearly $17 billion in liquidity at the end of the first quarter of 2009 (and with a market capitalization of $13.7 billion for the same group of carriers, the market says that a dollar today is not a dollar tomorrow). Southwest and Delta constitute two-thirds of the group’s market capitalization.

Assets are only one part of the disturbing picture the Fitch data paints. The other half is liabilities. Together, the carriers have debt obligations of nearly $12 billion due by the end of 2010. And these obligations come at a time where negative free cash flows are anticipated for the foreseeable future.

Take as one example Delta, which claimed title as the world’s largest airline following its merger with Northwest. While in the first quarter of this year Delta did not fall below Fitch’s relatively arbitrary liquidity rating. Fitch nonetheless downgraded the debt ratings of Delta and Northwest on June 25 to reflect “intense revenue pressure” and expected negative cash flows. As a result of its combined balance sheet with Northwest, Delta has a stronger absolute cash balance relative to the industry, but still faces nearly $5 billion of fixed debt obligations through 2011.

The shift of capacity by the U.S .legacy carriers to international markets has suffered from poor timing. For United, its exposure to once lucrative trans-Pacific markets is even more painful as the geographic region is closest to intensive care. By comparison, American and US Airways are fortunate to have little relative exposure in the Pacific. But the winner is likely the new Delta which, with lots of eggs in all international baskets. This diversification will certainly produce better results than either Northwest or Delta would have achieved individually.

 

Renewed Consolidation Focus Based on an Old Tool?

In prior eras, the airline industry has relied on the “failing carrier doctrine” to combine companies on the verge of collapse or unable to meet debt obligations. That doctrine might be dusted off and used again during the next 12 months. Precedent shows mergers and acquisitions are viewed more favorably – with fewer concerns about competition – when the economy is in a swoon and airlines are at greater risk of going under.

US Airways chief Doug Parker is not alone in making a case for consolidation. United’s Glenn Tilton is also in the chorus. Both carriers are on Fitch’s list of those in the “liquidity danger zone.” United and US Airways still have some room to maneuver, but recent attempts to raise capital have proven, in the airline industry particularly, money is getting increasingly expensive.

We may be entering a new era in which the “failing carrier doctrine” no longer applies. Instead, we are now facing the “failing industry doctrine.”

On Second Thought

One of the big issues related to mergers not discussed enough is the preservation of the tax loss carry forwards that each airline has accrued (accrued losses can be used to offset profits in future years). So in the short to medium term, the industry may resist the urge to merge because a change of control could or would have significant tax ramifications. If this is the case, why not apply the failing carrier doctrine to anti-trust immunity?

First, there is no doubt we will see additional capacity cuts, with the next round showing up in the schedules for fall of 2009. This industry is not shrinking because it wants to, but rather because it has to. By the time airlines cut further at the end of the summer travel season, the industry’s two decades of economics-be-damned growth may be nothing but a memory of bad decisions gone by. Then the U.S. airline industry can finally get down to the business of being a business. Or be resigned to failure.

As I have written time and again, in this economy, capital will determine the survivors. Access to capital is the lifeline airlines need now. Those who control that capital are sending a message to legacy carriers, and that is they will pay dearly for funding until they can demonstrate a sufficient return for investors.

 

Republic Airways Holdings, Inc.

Recognizing the importance of that lifeline might shape the airline industry of the future. Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford seems to already be moving that way. As a result of his purchase of Midwest, Bedford now has investment firm TPG on his board - - basically, capital now in is the role of decision maker.

Whether other carriers can accept that kind of change might very well decide the future of the industry and whether some airlines even survive. Right now, that future for many airlines and the hundreds of thousands of people they employ is anything but bright.

Keep in mind, the next industry shakeout is not reserved for the big players alone. Look for entities other than the five legacy carriers (American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways) to have input into any new architectural renderings of network structure. And input will not only come from Alaska and from the so-called low cost carriers, (Southwest, jetBlue and AirTran) but also some regional carriers like SkyWest.

And I keep coming back to Republic.