The Next "Big Short" Tumbles To 13-Month Lows As Dept Store Sales Crash

This arcane financial instrument appears to be quickly becoming 'ground zero' for the "next big short" of this bull cycle.

Last week we introduced the CMBX Series 6 as potentially the next 'big short' - a credit derivative contract that allows betting against securities backed by malls in weaker locations where stores could close in quick succession, triggering debt defaults. Based on fundamentals, the trade indeed appears justified: "Sold in 2012, the mortgage bonds have a higher concentration of loans to regional malls and shopping centers than similar securities issued since the financial crisis. And because of the way CMBS are structured, the BBB- and BB rated notes are the first to suffer losses when underlying loans go belly up."

“These malls are dying, and we see very limited prospect of a turnaround in performance,” according to a January report from Alder Hill, which began shorting the securities. “We expect 2017 to be a tipping point.”

 

Cracks have started to appear. Prices on the BBB- pool of CMBS have slumped from roughly 96 cents on the dollar in late January to 87.08 cents last week, index data compiled by Markit show.

And now a few days later, we see Department Store sales crashing by the most on record. One particular chart revealed in the latest monthly Bank of America debit and credit card spending report shows that things may be about to get a whole lot worse for America's department stores, as well as malls where they are for the most part the anchor tenants. 

And today's official retail sales data confirms the collapse - department store sales down 5.6% YoY.

And, as we would expect, CMBX S6 BBB- tranche prices have tumbled further - to their lowest since February 2016...

Bloomberg followed up our post with a not-so-subtly-titled "Wall Street Has Found Its Next Big Short" in which it writes that "Wall Street speculators are zeroing in on the next U.S. credit crisis: the mall.... It’s no secret many mall complexes have been struggling for years as Americans do more of their shopping online. But now, they’re catching the eye of hedge-fund types who think some may soon buckle under their debts, much the way many homeowners did nearly a decade ago."

The trade, as we discussed before, is not so much shorting the equities where a persistent threat of a short squeeze has burned the bears on more than one occasion, but going long default risk via CMBX or otherwise shorting the CMBS complex.

Like the run-up to the housing debacle, a small but growing group of firms are positioning to profit from a collapse that could spur a wave of defaults. Their target: securities backed not by subprime mortgages, but by loans taken out by beleaguered mall and shopping center operators. With bad news piling up for anchor chains like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, bearish bets against commercial mortgage-backed securities are growing.

To be sure, as we first noted last week and as Bloomberg confirms, the activity surrounding CMBS shorting has soared:

In recent weeks, firms such as Alder Hill Management -- an outfit started by protégés of hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper -- have ramped up wagers against the bonds, which have held up far better than the shares of beaten-down retailers. By one measure, short positions on two of the riskiest slices of CMBS surged to $5.3 billion last month -- a 50 percent jump from a year ago.

 

The trade itself is similar to those that Michael Burry and Steve Eisman made against the housing market before the financial crisis, made famous by the book and movie “The Big Short.” Often called credit protection, buyers of the contracts are paid for CMBS losses that occur when malls and shopping centers fall behind on their loans. In return, they pay monthly premiums to the seller (usually a bank) as long as they hold the position.

 

This year, traders bought a net $985 million contracts that target the two riskiest types of CMBS, according to the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. That’s more than five times the purchases in the prior three months.

Whatever the case, here’s what the endgame might look like. About two hours north of Manhattan, in Kingston, New York, stands the Hudson Valley Mall. It used to house J.C. Penney and Macy’s. But both then left, gutting the complex. In January, the mall was sold for less than 20 percent of the original $50 million loan. Mortgage-bond holders exposed to the loan were partly wiped out.

“When a mall starts to falter, the end result is typically binary in nature,” said Matt Tortorello, a senior analyst at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. “It’s either the mall is going to survive or it’s going take a substantial loss."

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