A different kind of debt crisis
First, corporate America was hit hard by a wave of layoffs. Now come the bankruptcies.
New data shows that 2023 is shaping up to be the biggest year for Chapter 11 filings in over a decade, as a potent brew of economic troubles hit financially weakened companies. Though many companies survive bankruptcy, the uptick in cases is a stark reflection of the greater stress that businesses now face.
More than 230 American companies have filed for bankruptcy through April, according to S&P Global, the highest level over the first four months of any year since 2010. That number — which counts public companies with at least $2 million in assets or liabilities and private companies with $10 million in publicly traded debt — doesn’t include more recent cases, like Vice Media, Cox Operating and the K.K.R.-backed Envision Healthcare. (On a slightly rosier note: Researchers at Jefferies, the investment bank, have tracked 1,440 bankruptcies of all sizes during the same period, which is below its trend line dating back to 2013.)
Blame a slowing economy, fast-rising interest rates and persistent inflation, all of which have whacked companies struggling under heavy debt burdens and challenged business strategies. (Among the more vulnerable? Companies taken over by private equity firms and loaded up with debt.) Lifelines like rock-bottom interest rates and pandemic-related government aid have also largely disappeared.
Struggling companies began laying off workers a year ago in an effort to reduce costs. But they are now “running out of time,” S&P analysts wrote in a research note on Wednesday. “Firms that were struggling well before the pandemic and the end of ultralow interest rates have now gone to their breaking point.”
Consumer discretionary companies have been the busiest filers, according to S&P. That sector includes retailers and restaurants, typically among the most sensitive businesses to challenging economic conditions. Among the most notable Chapter 11 cases in that area: Bed Bath & Beyond and David’s Bridal.
Close behind are financial institutions — which saw an uptick in cases amid the regional banking crisis set off by Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse — health care companies and industrial producers.
Expect more filings later this year as banks cut back on lending, Joe Davis, the chief global economist at Vanguard, warned investors this week. Tighter financial conditions — driven in part by the Fed’s extended campaign of rate increases — are expected to persist, potentially forcing companies to pursue more cost cuts, layoffs and, failing that, Chapter 11.
Analysts also warn that failure to reach a swift compromise on the debt ceiling could push even more companies to the brink.
In perhaps the worst-case economic scenario, credit strategists at Bank of America predicted last week, the corporate debt default rate could zoom up to around 15 percent. However, they predicted that a lower peak of 8 percent was more likely — which would still translate into nearly $1 trillion worth of debt defaulting.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Montana bans TikTok. The state became the first to issue such an extreme prohibition of the Chinese-owned video app, saying it aimed “to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information” from China. Montana’s move, which is likely to be challenged in court and which experts say would be difficult to enforce, comes as state and federal officials weigh how to handle TikTok.
Deutsche Bank will pay $75 million to victims of Jeffrey Epstein. If approved by a federal judge, the payout would settle a proposed class-action lawsuit accusing the German lender of facilitating the disgraced financier’s sex trafficking of young women. Victims have also sued JPMorgan Chase, claiming that the bank also ignored warning signs about Mr. Epstein’s wrongdoing.
Elizabeth Holmes must report to prison by May 30. A federal appeals court denied the Theranos founder’s efforts to stay out pending her appeal of her fraud convictions. Meanwhile, a lower court ordered Ms. Holmes and her former second-in-command, Sunny Balwani, to pay back $452 million to Theranos investors, including $125 million to the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Global temperatures will probably set a record in the next five years, forecasters say. Human-caused warming and the El Niño weather phenomenon could push worldwide temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the 19th-century average, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Scientists say that will have repercussions for health, food security and more, as governments repeatedly delay efforts to slow global warming.
Meta reportedly faces a record fine over mishandling European consumer data. Ireland’s data regulator is expected to announce the penalty next week over how the company transferred customer information to the United States. The fine will most likely exceed the 746 million euros Amazon paid in 2021.
Meta opens up its A.I.
Google and OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed creator of ChatGPT, have received almost all of the attention in the race to dominate artificial intelligence. But don’t overlook the A.I. ecosystem that Meta is building.
The social media giant, which has been investing in the technology for nearly a decade, is taking a starkly different — and more contentious — approach, write The Times’s Cade Metz and Mike Isaac.
Meta is doubling down on open source. The tech company wants third parties to use its technology to develop their own A.I.-powered platforms, betting that wider access will accelerate development and spread its influence. “The platform that will win will be the open one,” said Yann LeCun, Meta’s chief A.I. scientist.
Critics, including Google and OpenAI, say the approach is dangerous. The rapid rise of A.I. has raised worries about the economic and political consequences of giving the public access to a powerful technology still in its infancy. Within days of Meta’s A.I. release, the system leaked onto 4chan, the online message board known for spreading false and misleading information.
Consumers and governments will not adopt A.I. unless it is disseminated more widely, Mr. LeCun contends. Disinformation, he added, can be managed.
In other A.I. news:
More than a dozen tech companies see a potential booming market in developing A.I. tools that can spot A.I.-generated fakes — and plagiarism.
The Group of 7 summit that begins in Hiroshima, Japan on Saturday is expected to include discussions on how to regulate A.I.
A clash of private equity titans
In most years, the $2.7 billion takeover of a German software company wouldn’t attract much attention. But an effort by Software AG, which makes business analytics software, to sell itself has led to an unusual battle between two investment giants and an uproar among some shareholders.
Silver Lake on Wednesday kicked off a tender offer for Software AG shares, at 32 euros ($34.60) a share. The tech-focused private equity firm has the backing of Software AG’s executive leadership and its largest shareholder, which agreed to sell a 25 percent stake in the company to Silver Lake.
Together with a 5 percent stake that the firm acquired in the open market, Silver Lake owns about 30 percent of the German company. For its offer to succeed, the firm needs to acquire at least 50 percent plus one share of Software AG’s outstanding stock.
Bain Capital is challenging the deal. The private equity giant — through the portfolio company Rocket Software that it hopes to combine with Software AG — has made a series of unsolicited takeover bids that it says are better for the German firm’s shareholders. (That campaign led Silver Lake to increase its takeover bid from €30 a share.) Bain is offering €34 a share, with the possibility of going higher.
It is rare to see private equity firms, which generally seek friendly deals, pursuing an unsolicited takeover offer that management has opposed. A representative for Rocket told DealBook: “We believe that this proposal is a very good proposal for both companies, and we look forward to engaging with management.”
Other investors are pushing back against Silver Lake’s offer, which they say undervalues Software AG. At the German company’s annual investor meeting on Wednesday, some spoke out against the bid. “Cooperation with Silver Lake must not lead to competing takeover bids being nipped in the bud to the detriment of all other shareholders,” said a representative for investors who collectively own about 5 percent of Software AG.
Still, Bain faces its own challenges: Its offer is nonbinding, subject to due diligence that management opposes, and it’s unclear whether Rocket could secure the necessary financing. Bain has also said that the minimum acceptance rate for any offer it makes would be 40 percent, a potentially difficult level to achieve given Silver Lake’s stake.
But pressure from shareholders for a better offer — Software AG’s stock was trading above €34 on Thursday — may yet lead to a shake-up in the contest, ahead of a June 14 deadline for Silver Lake’s offer.
The PGA Tour hits the rough
The scope of the American authorities’ investigation into the PGA Tour for potential antitrust violations is becoming clearer. Major tournament winners — including Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio García — have been interviewed as the officials look into possible collusion and labor market manipulation in America’s top golfing tournaments.
The relationships between organizers of top golf competitions are a big focus. While the PGA Tour runs competitions that make up a majority of golfers’ schedules, it doesn’t run the most prestigious ones: the U.S. Open, overseen by the United States Golf Association; the Masters, administered by Augusta National Golf Club; and the P.G.A. Championships, run by the P.G.A. of America.
Executives of those organizers have seats on the governing board behind golf’s ranking system, as does the PGA Tour.
Prosecutors may argue that setup hurts consumers. The Justice Department would have to prove that the PGA Tour competes with the tournament organizers, something golf officials privately scoff at. (They do jockey for television rights and sponsorships.) Prosecutors could also argue that the ranking system can be used to exclude certain players, meaning that fans miss out on action.
The PGA Tour declined to comment to The Times but has previously denied wrongdoing.
The inquiry comes as pro golf grapples with the rise of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has offered huge prize money to lure top players like Mickelson and García. The PGA Tour has taken a hard line, suspending defectors to the rival competition.
THE SPEED READ
A top Pfizer executive warned that a growing U.S. crackdown on mergers could be a “disaster” for the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to develop new drugs. (FT)
Shein, the fast-fashion giant, has reportedly raised $2 billion in new financing, but cut its valuation by about a third, to $66 billion. (WSJ)
Banks are reportedly weighing a plan to refill the government’s federal deposit insurance fund using Treasuries instead of cash, shifting paper losses on those securities to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (WSJ)
The publisher Penguin Random House sued a Florida school district for banning several of its books, the latest instance of a company pushing back against measures described by supporters as “anti-woke.” (FT)
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