Grant's Almost Daily: "Dear Mr. Fantasy"

Submitted by Philip Grant of Grant's Interest Rate Observer

Who’s up for some reward-free risk? In recent years, investors with a high risk tolerance have gravitated to shares in fast growing but cash-hungry Silicon Valley concerns Netflix, Inc. and Tesla, Inc., with terrific results: The pair has delivered exponential returns over the past five years, as popular products and cultural cachet have trumped financial statements that could be described as less than stellar. The potential for further such reward colors the evident risks. 

The bond market, of course, features a different calculus. Instead of the potential for outsize returns available to stockholders, the measure of success for corporate creditors is the return of their capital, along with contractual interest payments.  Necessarily limited upside trains the investor mind on what can go wrong. For par value bond investors, risk aversion is the name of the game.

The dual cases of Netflix and Tesla put those logical truisms to the test.  In October, Netflix issued $1.6 billion of senior unsecured notes maturing in 2028 with a 4 7/8% coupon, a spread of 256 basis points over Treasurys. Rated single-B-plus at S&P (“the obligor currently has the capacity to meet its financial commitments on the obligation”), Netflix has achieved rapid growth and stock market riches via the incineration of cash: Free cash flow registered negative $2.02 billion in 2017, while management pegged its 2018 FCF estimate at negative $3 to $4 billion, well above the Street consensus of $2.5 billion. As the company’s borrowing needs will likely increase, CEO Reed Hastings has struck a sanguine tone, writing in the fourth quarter investor letter that: “High yield has rarely seen an equity cushion so thick.” 

The Jan. 26, 2018 edition of Grant’s (“Like no business”) condensed the separate propositions implicit across Netflix’s capital structure: “It’s a speculative business, the content business, but if it works out, you, the creditors will get your money back. The stockholders get rich. Everybody’s happy.”  Those 4 7/8 notes have trended the wrong way of late, breaking lower to currently fetch 96.5 cents on the dollar from 99.9 in January. 

Then there’s Tesla, which burned through $3.5 billion in cash last year on just under $12 billion in revenue yet enjoys a massive valuation premium to other automakers. It issued $1.8 billion (upsized from $1.5 billion) in senior unsecured notes due in 2025 at a 5.30% coupon (a 320 basis point spread over Treasurys) in August. That was up from an indicated yield of 5.25%. Reuters quoted an anonymous banker who said that the five basis point bump “was a company decision to ‘sweeten the deal’ for investors who supported the transaction.”

The bond issue, which made its first coupon payment in February, has seen its price fall sharply in recent weeks amid product recalls, another highway death of a driver who was using the “Autopilot” feature, and CEO Elon Musk’s odd April Fool’s Day jokes declaring corporate bankruptcy on Twitter.  Last week, Moody’s downgraded Tesla’s rating to B3 from B2 and the rating on the 5.3% senior notes to Caa1 (“judged to be of poor standing and are subject to very high credit risk”) from B3, while the notes have fallen to 86.5 cents on the dollar for a yield to worst of 7.73%..

The Aug. 11 publication of Grant’s (“’A masterly manipulation’”) took inventory of the bond market’s accommodative stance to the offering while Tesla was conducting its investor road show, drawing a parallel with UK Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George’s exertions in support of the 3.5% War Loan of 1924.  The analysis noted that operating and financial problems aside, Tesla was an issuer in the right place at the right time. 

With $9 billion in high-yield sales, July was the weakest month of issuance since January 2016. “There hasn’t been much new supply and investors have cash they need to spend,” a resigned Tom O’Reilly, Neuberger Berman Group, LLC’s head of non-investment grade credit, tells the Wall Street Journal.

Time flies when you’re having fun. We can surmise the corollary: For Tesla and Netflix’s creditors, 2025 and 2028 may seem far away indeed. 

Recap April 2

The second quarter got off to an unpleasant start for the bulls, as the S&P 500 sank by more than 2% to close near the interim lows logged on Feb. 8, setting up an important session tomorrow with either a bounce or fresh lows seemingly in the cards.  Treasurys continued their strong rally, with the 10-year yield falling to 2.73% from 2.91% on March 21.  The VIX rose by a relatively modest (compared to the stock market move) 15%, and remains in a trading range between 20 and 25.