When a businessman owes money, he skulks into the bank manager's office and closes the door behind him. Then he brandishes his bravado, wilts, and reaches some kind of arrangement with the bank manager. It's the best way, the simplest way, moans Y.
Whence Y.'s angst? Because in the current situation he can't do what's described above. This businessman, like many of his peers, doesn't owe money to the bank (or rather he does, but that's not the issue here). Y. owes money to you. To the general public.
During the boom years his company issued bonds to the public, selling hundreds of millions of shekels worth of debt to institutional investors - mutual funds, provident funds, pension funds, insurance companies - and now that debt is coming due. He's desperate to raise fresh money to repay that debt and he can't just negotiate with his bank manager. He's up against the institutional investors.
The need of Y. and many like him is acute. But the assets of all too many of these companies - mainly in the real estate sector - have shrunk badly, while their debts haven't. And the managers of these borrowers are scratching their heads and wondering how to service the debts. The capital market has dried up; investors don't want to lend to them anymore. The banks are being tightfisted, afraid of making loans that turn sour and ruin their balance sheets.
What's left? Some try to reach all sorts of arrangements with their bondholders. But while it was a cinch to raise money in the good times, now debt management is proving tricky, especially given the need to operate transparently.
To put it delicately, that transparency is sticking in the managers' craws.
Throughout the five-year boom many came to believe they had the Midas touch. Now they find themselves with feet of clay. Instead of sexy presentations about glitzy projects in their briefcases offering the potential of phenomenal yields, they're stuttering: "It isn't us it's the crisis," or, "The market doesn't understand me or the project." Or even: "Inevitably, the project value will rebound."
Maybe. But meanwhile they have to reduce their debt somehow, reschedule it, defer it, replace it with other debt - as they say here, swap two cats for a dog.
In the absence of a bank manager conveniently willing to reschedule and postpone, we find that when it comes to honoring commitments to investors, the business owners can be divided into a few types.
1. That's how business goes. Feelings have nothing to do with it.
These are the worst ones. They knew how to ignite fires of enthusiasm among institutional investors to get their hands on other people's money, and now they're turning their back on the mess. Suddenly, when their financial survival is at stake, their vocabulary turns icy cold. Let the institutional investors and savers go hang - we supplied a terrific project, raised money, and the crisis screwed us over. Can't pay. Bye-bye. That's how the market goes.
It would be nice never to see this type again, but we will. That's how the market goes.
2. Write off my debt or I'll take the company down.
That isn't what they say, but when a company offers bondholders to settle for a fraction of their money, that's what they're saying. They're saying that the low market valuation is the real value, accurately representing the company's condition. They're saying it actually is in real trouble. They're saying take what you can now and go while the going's good.
They're saying that by tomorrow there may be nothing left, and they're saying, true the bonds are trading at half their price, but that doesn't mean I'm about to buy them - what do you think, my money grows on trees?
Company owners of this type are playing poker with investors. It's a game born of need, but investors should sit down at the table only after the company owner has brought money from home and sells assets. If he hasn't, don't blink.
3. I can buy the bonds on the market.
So do it. Buy back your bonds for half price. That will show us that you have money and believe in your company, and that you think the price of your bonds will rally.
It might seem like grasping at opportunity as investors panic, but that's okay. Go for it.
4. Here's my own money.
Some toss in a pittance and some do the real thing. Both will try to give the message that they aren't throwing investors to the dogs, but there's a big difference between the two types. A company owner who offers NIS 50 of his own money and tosses in a lien on some abandoned storage shed in Beirut's industrial zone, then asks that investors waive repayment of NIS 70 million in exchange ... well, he isn't the same as somebody who sells assets, gives personal guarantees and mortgages his home.
5. Nobody's going to write off a penny of my debt.
Ah. If only there were more of these. These are people who understand that irresponsible behavior will ruin the capital market and leave them at the mercy of the banks forever more. However, this time around, we have yet to meet any of these.
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