Going For The Kill: Is Carl Icahn Trying To Bankrupt Bill Ackman's J.C. Penney?

Tyler Durden's picture

By now everyone is familiar with slow-motion trainwreck from the afternoon of January 25 (keep that date in mind), when America's premier financial Jerry Springer channel pitted one against another hedge fund moguls Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman (for those three people who missed it, here it is again). Which is why we won't waste time recapping it, suffice to say that as a result of the hour-long spat, both Ackman and Icahn left the screamathon hating each other more than ever.

In what may or may not be a totally separate event, we fast forward to January 29, or the following Tuesday, when JC Penney received a Notice of Default from the law firm of Brown Rudnick, representing an ad hoc group of bondholders of JC Penney's 7.4% of Debentures due 2037 and who supposedly hold more than 50% of the issue, which according to Bloomberg amounted to some $325.6 million outstanding ($400 million at issue), or about 11% of the firm's gross debt of $2.97 billion.

What happened is that one or more bondholders accumulated a sufficiently large stake in one of JCP's bonds to where they could throw the company into involuntary bankruptcy which would then accelerate payment on all bonds if a court found the bondholder claim to be valid, and which would destroy the firm's equity due to cross-default provisions between the various bond classes, if only bondholders had a sufficiently real pretext. Which they did.

Specifically, Brown Rudnick alleges that the company defaulted on the bond indenture when in January 2012 it signed a credit agreement secured by the company's inventory "without providing for equal and ratable security for the Debenture holders." JCP only disclosed this letter after the close today, when it concurrently filed a lawsuit in Delaware Chancery Court seeking to block the bondholders' efforts to declare a default, saying the Notice of Default was without merit. To wit:

the granting of a security interest in inventory pursuant to the Credit Agreement does not constitute an event of default under the Indenture.  Pursuant to the Indenture, the negative covenant extends only to "principal property" -- which does not include inventory.  Furthermore, the Company has never had any loans outstanding under the Credit Agreement, and because the Indenture only covers "indebtedness for money borrowed," the Company`s entry into the Credit Agreement would not have triggered the Indenture provision in any case.  The Company has publicly disclosed for some 10 years that it has had various undrawn credit facilities secured by inventory with no bondholder allegations of violation of the Indenture.

A cursory read of the explanation provided by JCP's lawyers in response to the Notice of Default should make the JCP shareholders, all of whom would be immediately and massively impaired in the event the Involuntary Bankruptcy resulted in an official Chapter 11 filing, very nervous, since neither the "principal property" justification, nor the ridiculous excuse that the security stripping credit facility doesn't really count as it was never drawn on it, would withstand much scrutiny on cross before any but the most inexperienced of bankruptcy judges.

But what should make JCP stakeholders most nervous is that the man behind the ad hoc group may well be none other than the abovementioned corporate raider (and legendary Involuntary Bankruptcy mastermind) Carl Icahn, who is now hell-bent on making Ackman's life a living hell in the aftermath of the January 25 televized fiasco, and who will stop at nothing to crush and humiliate Ackman's hedge fund Pershing Square, which also happens to be the largest holder of JCP common stock with some 17.8% percent of the outstanding, or about $800 million worth of stock.

Note: we said may. Not is. Because we won't know for sure until Icahn confirm or denies.

Yet some things stand out.

First: the credit agreement was signed on January 2012: in other words, it had been in place for over a year. The fact that it was used as the reason for an involuntary bankruptcy filing only after the January 25 screamfest is very suspicious, especially since the defaulted indenture in question had been around since 1994. In other words, someone knew very well the leverage they would have by organizing an ad hoc group of debenture holders for a long time, and were merely biding their time for just the right moment.

Next: a quick glance at the TRACE activity in the 7.4% of 2037 shows that the biggest one day trading activity in the recent past was on none other than the abovementioned January 25. We would not be surprised at all if the bulk of said trading took the form of "wave it in" on the 47th floor of 767 Fifth Avenue.

But surely not even Icahn could promptly accumulate over $163 million bonds in a day (unless he had already been building up a stake), which is why he may have simply decided to collaborate with like-minded holders of the Debentures: either individuals who are seeking a prompt 20% take out (the bonds are trading at 84 cent of par), or simply to push the company into bankruptcy and use existing cash of some $500 million to satisfy bondholder claims, as well as to possibly take control of the company in a debt for equity. In both cases needing individuals who are not too fond of JCP, and certainly not fond at all of the Company's largest shareholder: one William Ackman.

A cursory look on Wall Street reveals quite a few funds who satisfy both criteria.

And finally, let's not forget that Icahn is one of Brown Rudnick's core clients, most recently representing the 76 year old billionaire in the case of Icahn against Trump Entertainment.

All of the above is, for now, conjecture, but it just fits too perfectly: the timing, the approach (so typical of the old school Icahn), and the target: because nothing would crush "retail expert" Ackman, who is openly feuding with Icahn over Herbalife, as a JC Penney bankruptcy. And nothing would bring greater validation to Icahn's claim that he "does not respect Ackman as an investor", uttered during the infamous January 25 debate.

We look forward to Mr. Icahn rejecting or confirming this hypothesis: the former case likely revealing who else is not a fan of Mr. Ackman's, while the latter pushing the Ackman vs Icahn soap opera to unprecedented and unseen before levels of inter-hedgefunder animosity, and shine even more light on the strange and confusing world where billionaires have so much money all they care about is destroying the reputation of those they perceive as their competition: a world in which ego is everything.

Of course, if we are right, and if indeed Icahn is behind this latest "Involuntary Bankruptcy" corporate raid, our sincerest condolences and best wishes to the JCP shareholders.

They will need it.