Herbalife Nutrition Ltd. managed to convince investors to lend it $600 million so it could buy back shares, an unusual move at a time when companies are borrowing billions of dollars to shore up liquidity during the coronavirus pandemic.
The maker of weight-loss shakes and supplements that counts Carl Icahn as its largest shareholder sold the unsecured debt Wednesday at a yield of 7.875%, down slightly from early unofficial pricing discussions of 8%, according to people familiar with the matter.
Proceeds from the offering will be used for general corporate purposes, which could include the purchase of stock or capital investment, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing a private transaction.
Herbalife products are distributed by a network of direct sellers, rather than through stores, and the company has garnered controversy for its multi-level marketing structure that encourages sellers to recruit others to hawk the products. But the business has fared well during the pandemic.
Net sales increased 7.7% on a year-over-year basis in the first quarter ended March 31, and the company expects only a small dip in preliminary April volumes as a result of the virus, according to an earnings release earlier this month.
“The demand for our products and for our services has gone up around the world,” Chief Executive Officer John Agwunobi said on a recent earnings call.
A representative for Bank of America Corp., which is leading the deal, declined to comment. A representative for the company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Debt-financed share buybacks haven’t been the priority for companies suffering from sliding revenues during the outbreak. But Herbalife has a history of doing so with its last buyback for $600 million in May 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It also authorized an ongoing five-year $1.5 billion buyback program in October 2018.
The new 5.25-year bond yields slightly more than the company’s existing $400 million of 7.25% unsecured notes due in 2026 that last traded at 99.75 cents on the dollar, according to Trace data.
Moody’s Investors Service rated the bonds B1, or four levels below investment grade. While the company has good profitability, cash flow and geographic diversity, there are parts of its business model that are fragile, Moody’s analyst Chedly Louis wrote. S&P Global Ratings graded the notes BB-, or one step higher.
Herbalife’s global multi-level marketing structure has been under scrutiny for years by a number of regulatory agencies, and its business model is highly reliant upon its ability to recruit and retain sales representatives around the world, Louis wrote.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice are currently investigating whether Herbalife violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act over the time period of 2006 through 2016. The company has reached an “understanding in principle” with both agencies and is expected to resolve the investigations soon, according to a May 7 filing.
Herbalife shares gained 1.8% Wednesday, closing at $44.03.
Last week, the Fed added new programs and upsized many of the loan and bond buying programs it had already announced over the past several weeks. It is now traveling on a road without an exit in sight. It’s almost certain that withdrawal of this new support will be slow. In the near-term, it has already significantly dislocated (tightened) both investment grade and (to a lesser extent) high yield (HY) prices relative to their fundamental cash flow profiles.
Let’s call out these new “liquidity programs” for what they really are. The PMCCF and SMCCF (Primary and Secondary Corporate Credit Facilities) are targeted to help large, low-investment grade companies like Ford, whose bonds popped from 70 to 83 on the news of an upsize to the facility. The program extends support without the political fallout a new TARP (Troubled Asset relief Program) might cause.
PMCCF and SMCCF are TARP in disguise.
While extensive, I believe these varied programs will not prevent the default cycle that is coming in the BB+ and below universe. Default rates will be lower than without these programs, but not low enough to support current risk-asset values. The “exigent circumstances” to which the Fed is responding are unlikely to be short-lived, especially because corporate leverage was already so high before the pandemic began and earnings were already so weak. After today’s tightening in high yield spreads (CDX to ~500bps and HYG YAS ~600bps), we continue to believe there is little upside to ownership of U.S. high yield – even after the announcement of these expanded programs (likely to expand even more).
We believe risk-reward to U.S. equities in particular is still skewed massively to the downside, and for the Fed to take the action it took today, it must see circumstances as being dire indeed.
We wrote on March 29th that a rally to 2700 to 2,800 could occur and that it would be a fade. We expected short squeezes in credit and equities on program announcements – those program announcements came faster than expected. We maintain that view. For the S&P to trade at 2,800, it requires a 19.5x forward earnings-per-share multiple on $145 in EPS (down a mere 10% YoY). That EPS estimate is probably far too conservative and earnings could easily fall 20% (with average recession EPS down between 20% to 30%). At S&P EPS down 20% ($130), 2,800 on the S&P requires a 21.5x forward multiple. Can large cap equities really sustain that multiple given the risks to cash flows? Can small cap stocks (Russell 2000) sustain a forward multiple of almost 40x given the inevitable defaults that will occur in BB+ credits and below? We don’t think so. Recall that equity is the residual in every capital structure and is first loss.
While the buying is currently occurring across the universe of high yield bonds, we believe worsening fundamentals will drive dispersion amongst high yield credits over time. The sub-BB+ universe will become an orphan… at least until the Fed buys it, too. Moreover, the speculative grade loan market was already strained before the pandemic began; loan volumes are likely to continue to fall – albeit even faster now. Fed programs will prevent disaster, but they won’t continue to support current equity and credit valuations as fundamentals deteriorate. HY spreads have fallen from just under 900 (CDX HY) to 530bps (as low as 475bps) on Fed euphoria. So, lets query something. Even with Fed support, do HY spreads at 500bps make sense on the cusp of the most severe recession since 1929? We think not.
Since 2008, in order to justify extraordinary policy actions (including company bailouts), the Fed has been using the Section 13(3)’s exigent circumstances exception to the specific direction provided for open market operations under Section 14 of the Federal Reserve Act (FRA). The Fed began again on March 15th by establishing numerous Treasury-funded SPVs (Special Purpose Vehicles) that it will lever to provide financing under TALF, two investment grade buying programs, and CPFF amongst others, which we summarize below. Today, it upsized many of those programs. These corporate bond buying programs will be extended through September of 2020. There are nine programs in total.
For years, the conversation around the prospect for “Japanification” of U.S. monetary policy was almost universally met with extreme skepticism. The use of Section 13(3) now places the U.S. almost side-by-side with Japanese policymakers, and it is incumbent upon us to understand the implications of this progression. Where will it eventually lead U.S. monetary policy? Certainly, there is no policy space left. Monetary policy has been come completely palliative rather than stimulative. Will continued intervention destroy the very free market system it is attempting to save? We would argue that now is precisely the right time to ask this question. Japan serves as a vision of one possible future self for the US.
We investigate both the Fed’s authority to implement BoJ-style policy as well as the practical near and long-term implications. We’ll review each of the policies the Fed has undertaken or is likely to undertake (alongside and in coordination with fiscal policy). On March 20th and just prior its re-implementation, we had already suggested that the 2008 playbook would reemerge. Next, we’ll touch on the next stop on the slippery slope – the Fed buying equities and a broader swath of high yield corporate bonds. It can presumably continue to justify such actions as the next extension of its Section 13(3) powers.
We conclude that, while monetization of deficits serves a legitimate purpose of helps prevent unintended consequences in rates markets, buying equities would do little but further distort asset prices. This already extant distortion (due largely to quantitative easing) helped to create the fragility and lack of policy space that makes the current Covid-19 Tsunami so hard to combat. At this point, monetary policy alone can’t combat the 100-year disaster. It must work as the mechanism to monetize the debt required to fund the fiscal policy response. Importantly, this means Fed action should receive additional checks and balances from the legislature. In our view, Treasury-only supervision just doesn’t cut it. Our system is one of checks and balances… yet, there are none in this instance. Should there not be?
Throughout history, liberty is almost always denied when governments assert that exigent circumstances require it. Let’s look at a constitutional analogue. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits ‘unreasonable’ searches and seizures. Said differently, the Fourth Amendment prevents the government from unreasonably taking or infringing upon an individual’s property or privacy rights. To that end, it sets requirements for issuing warrants: warrants must be issued by a judge or magistrate, justified by probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and must specify the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.
Exigent circumstances may provide an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protections when circumstances are dangerous or obviously indicate probable cause. The application of exigent circumstances has been highly adjudicated – meaning, the courts found it necessary to rule often on its application to assure the government’s propensity to overreach was checked. One such permissible example of justifiable exigent circumstance is the Terry stop, which allows police to frisk suspects for weapons. The Court also allowed a search of arrested persons in Weeks v. United States (1914) to preserve evidence that might otherwise be destroyed and to ensure suspects were disarmed.
The health of the public and of the police officers justified the infringement on privacy. Other circumstances might justify police to enter private property without a warrant if they have plain sight evidence that a violent crime is taking place. Importantly, there are many examples of situations in which exigent circumstances were ruled insufficient to justify the infringement on personal or property rights. For example, even if a suspect was carrying a gun (an exigent circumstance), while reasonable to ‘stop and frisk,’ it would not necessarily justify the extreme action of locking him/her up indefinitely until a search of his home could be conducted.
We think this 4th Amendment construct is an incredibly useful analogy for understanding the danger in the Fed’s actions now; there’s a reason the very same phase – exigent circumstances – is used in 4th Amendment cases as well as in the Federal Reserve Act. We are not arguing that the present economic circumstances are not exigent, but we are arguing that there must be due process to assure that a valid justification does not lead to overreach. That overreach arguably started today as the Fed expanded its program into HY. Unlike legal challenge under the Fourth Amendment, Section 13(3) is not subject to a well-defined process by which it may be challenged and by which ‘lines may be drawn.’ Lack of due process almost invariably leads to government overreach.
The current Japanification of policy – if gone unchecked by Congress – is the beginning of the socialization and consequent destruction of free capital markets.
In our piece Monetize It – Monetize All of It, we suggested it would be necessary for the Fed to monetize all the upcoming deficits that would be needed to fund coronavirus relief programs. We were clear to suggest that the coordination should be explicit and with the appropriating authority – i.e. – Congress. Dodd Frank amendments to the Federal Reserve Act did not have the foresight to modify 13(3) checks and balances beyond Treasury approval. The Fed is now using this loophole to skirt the explicit mandate provided for in Section 14 – without due process to ascertain where the line ought to be drawn.
In the case of Japan, we can see what we’d consider an undesirable monetary policy outcome orchestrated by a stealthy government takeover of large swaths of private industry. Last year, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) bought just over ¥6 trillion ($55 billion) of ETFs and now holds close to 80% of outstanding Japanese ETF equity assets. Total purchases to date represent around 5% of the Topix’s total market capitalization. According to the latest Nikkei calculations, not only has the BOJ also become the top shareholder in 23 companies, including Nidec, Fanuc and Omron, through its ETF holdings, it was among the top 10 holders for 49.7% of all Tokyo-listed enterprises. In other words, the BOJ has gone from being a top-10 holder in 40% of Japanese stocks last March to 50% just one year later.
The BoJ is not an independent central bank, so it receives explicit legislative authority to act when it buys non-governmental assets. We doubt Congress would allow that here – as Congress might actually recognize the Constitutional implications. Surely, the courts would.
Monetary policy in its Japanified form has mutated into an incredibly stealthy ‘taking’ of Japanese citizens’ private property under the auspices of the public good.
Arguably, if unchecked, the BoJ could end up owning all private assets under the auspices of supporting the economy. Is this something we should tolerate here in the US, the greatest capitalist democracy the world has ever seen? We say no.
The Fed Facilities
So, thus far, what has the Fed done? We predicted much of it. On March 20th in Monetize It – Monetize All of It, we wrote:
“To state the obvious, today’s crisis differs from 2008. Thus, the policy response should also differ. As we know, many of the Fed-provided credit facilities from 2008-era were designed to bail out banks, but the powers of section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act were also extended to companies. Banks remain key as that’s how all policy is transmitted (at least in part), so we’ve suggested clients expect facilities like CPFF (Commercial Paper Funding Facility – already done), TLGP (Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program) and others. We might also expect an expansion of the PDCF (Primary Dealer Funding Facility) collateral or a modification to haircuts. Under 13(3) we might also expect a TALF-like facility (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility) and a TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program).”
If the Fed extends it logic under Section 13(3), all high yield bonds (not just fallen angels and the HYG ETF) and equities will be next. This would be pure folly with the drastic unintended consequences that Japan has already begun to face.
Let’s get granular around what facilities the Fed has established, how much liquidity they provide, and what authority allows the. We will include a discussion of the collaboration between the Fed and Treasury through the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF) and how the Treasury funds the ESF through special purpose vehicles (SPVs) which it may then leverage based on collateral provided.
Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF) – March 17th.
The CPFF facility is structured as a credit facility to a SPV authorized under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve act. The SPV serves as a funding backstop to facilitate issuance of commercial paper. The Fed will commit to lending to the SPV on a recourse basis. The US Treasury Dept., using the ESF (Exchange Stabilization Fund) will provide $10 billion of credit protection to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in connection to the CPFF. The SPV will purchase 3-month commercial paper through the New York Fed’s primary dealers. The SPV will cease purchases on March 17th, 2021 unless the facility is extended.
Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF) – March 17th.
The PDCF offers overnight and term funding for maturities up to 90 days. Credit extended to primary dealers can be collateralized by a range of commercial paper and muni bonds, and a range of equity securities. The PDCF will remain available to primary dealers for at least six months, and longer if conditions warrant an extension.
Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (MMLF) – March 18th.
The MMLF program was established to provide support and liquidity of crucial money markets. Through the program, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston will lend to eligible financial institutions secured by high-quality assets purchased by financial institutions from money market mutual funds. Eligible borrowers include all U.S. depository institutions, U.S. bank holding companies, and U.S. branches and agencies of foreign banks.No new credit extensions will be made after September 30th, 2020 unless the program is extended by the Fed.
Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) – March 23rd as amended April 9th.
The PMCCF will serve as a funding backstop for corporate debt issued by eligible parties. The Federal Reserve Bank will lend to a SPV on a recourse basis. The SPV will purchase the qualifying bonds as the sole investor in a bond issuance. The Reserve Bank will be secured by all the assets of the SPV. The Treasury will make a $75 (up from $10) billion equity investment in the SPV to fund the facility and the SMCCF (below), allocated as $50 billion to the facility and $25 billion to the SMCCF. The combined size of the facility and the SMCCF will be up to $750 billion (the facility leverages the Treasury equity at 10 to 1 when acquiring corporate bonds or syndicated loans that are IG at the time of purchase. The facility leverages its equity at 7 to 1 when acquiring any other type of asset).Eligible issuers must be rated at least BBB-/Baa3 as of March 22nd by a major NRSRO (nationally recognized statistical rating org). If it is rated by multiple organizations, the issuer must be rated BBB-/Baa3 by two or more as of March 22nd.The program will end on September 30th, 2020 unless there is an extension by the Fed and the Treasury.
Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF) – April 9th.
Under SMCCF, the Fed will lend to a SPV that will purchase corporate debt in the secondary market from eligible issuers. The SPV will purchase eligible corporate bonds (must be rated BBB-/Baa3, see above for full criteria) as well as ETF’s that provide exposure to the market for U.S. investment grade corporate bonds. Today, the Fed also indicated that purchases will also be made in ETF’s whose primary investment objective is exposure to U.S. high-yield corporate bonds. The Treasury will make a $75 (up from $10) billion equity investment in the SPV to fund the facility and the PMCCF (above), initially allocated as $50 billion to the PMCCF and $25 billion to the SMCCF. The combined size of the facility will be up to $750 billion (the facility leverages the Treasury equity at 10 to 1 when acquiring corporate bonds or syndicated loans that are IG at the time of purchase. The facility leverages its equity at 7 to 1 when acquiring corporate bonds that are below IG, and in a range between 3 to 1 and 7 to 1 depending on the risk in any other type of eligible asset).The program will end on September 30th, 2020 unless there is an extension by the Fed and the Treasury.
Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) – April 9th.
The MLF, authorized under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act will support lending to U.S. states and cities (with population over 1 million residents) and counties (with population over 2 million residents). The Federal Reserve Bank will commit to lend to a SPV on a recourse basis, and the SPV will purchase eligible notes from issuers at time of issuance. The Treasury, using funds appropriated to the ESF, will make an initial equity investment of $35 billion in the SPV in connection with the facility. The SPV will have the ability to purchase up to $500 billion of eligible notes (which include TANs, TRANs, and BANs). The SPV will stop making these purchases on September 30th, 2020 unless the program is extended by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.
Paycheck Protection Program Lending Facility (PPP) – April 6th.
The PPP facility is intended to facilitate lending by all eligible borrowers to small businesses. Under the facility, Federal Reserve Banks will lend to eligible borrowers on a non-recourse basis, and take PPP loans as collateral. Eligible borrowers include all depository institutions that originate PPP Loans. The new credit extensions will be made under the facility after September 30th, 2020.
Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) – March 23rd.
The TALF is a credit facility that intends to help facilitate the issuance of asset-backed securities and improve asset-backed market conditions generally. TALF will serve as a funding backstop to facilitate the issuance of eligible ABS on or after March 23rd. Under TALF, the Federal Reserve Bank of NY will commit to lend to a SPV on a recourse basis. The Treasury will make an equity investment of $10 billion in the SPV. The SPV initially will make up to $100 billion of loans available. Eligible collateral includes ABS that have credit rating in the long-term, or in case of non-mortgage backed ABS, short-term investment grade rating category by two NRSROs.No new credit extensions will be made after September 30th, 2020, unless there is an extension.
The Main Street New Loan Facility (MSNLF) and Expanded Loan Facility (MSELF) – April 9th.
The MSNLF and MSELF are intended to facilitate lending to small and medium-sized businesses by eligible lenders. Under the facilities, a Federal Reserve Bank will commit to lend to a single common SPV on a recourse basis. The SPV will buy 95% participations in the upsized tranche of eligible loans from eligible lenders. The Treasury will make a $75 billion equity investment in the single common SPV that is connected to the facilities. The combined size of the facilities will be up to $600 billion. Eligible borrowers are businesses up to 10,000 employees or up to $2.5 billion in 2019 annual revenues. The SPV will cease purchasing participations in eligible loans on September 30th, 2020 unless there is an extension by the Fed and Treasury.
The $2.3 trillion in loans announced this morning is made up of the Fed’s nine programs, including leverage on the Treasury’s equity contribution to SPVs under the ESF. Specifically, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility accounts for $100 billion of loans, while the Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities account for $500 billion and $250 billion respectively. The Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) adds another $500 billion, while TALF makes up another $100 billion. Finally, the Main Street New Loan Facility (MSNLF) amounts to approximately $600 billion. Together, these specified facilities account for ~$2.05 trillion of the announced $2.3 trillion. As we understand it, the remainder of the contribution flows to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Money Market Mutual Fund Facility (MMLF), and the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF).