simonIt’s been a while since I posted about the current state of our economy, its prospects for recovery and how that is impacting the transaction environment.   It hasn’t been for lack of interest, but rather the pace of play with the dynamics changing at an alarmingly fast rate.   Further, with the recent market up tick, I have been enjoying the sound of silence.

As the market was shedding hundreds of basis points daily between late January and early March, a number of educated parties with whom I have regular contact were search for flavor of the moment remedies to advocate on behalf of, sometimes with true relentless vigor.  The most consistent was the call to nationalize the banking system, based on the Swedish model for de-levering financial institutions.    Never mind that that the parallels between the two systems don’t match up well — at all (let alone that neither political party wants to be responsible for wiping out shareholders completely, a symptom of the myopia brought on by our political system), it was sensible that people wanted to see a quick shift in the paradigm in order to stem the flow of red on their brokerage statements.  Unfortunately, it is just not that simple given the gravity and scope of what we are facing.

While I do not believe the fundamentals of our situation have changed more than at the margins, I do see signs that things are beginning to improve, maybe only for the interim.  Most significantly is that we have broken the negative media cycle that the sky is falling and we are all going to be crushed under its weight.   News stories from sources who stood to benefit from undermining the stability of our financial system appear to have tapered off, or at the very least people have begun to tune enough of it out to limits its implications.   The sad part is that what turned the tide was a leaked memo from Citibank with really no corroborative substance.   In place of constant negativity we have begun the fine art of finger pointing, pouncing on issues of fairness as opposed to issues of fundamentals.   The stupidity of AIG paying bonuses and people taking them is just that — stupidity.  If we were facing certain demise I don’t think it would dominant the headlines and be the source of job security questions around the Secretary of the Treasury.

Beyond our changing media pH, there are most tangible signs of life.  Most significantly, in my view, and largely unnoticed by most is that a number of second-lien deals are drawing interest from buyers.   While the tranches are small, relatively speaking (hundreds of millions of dollars), the willingness of lenders to stand behind the asset based lenders/senior secured is significant.   Second lien deals tend to have longer maturities and lighter covenant packages  in return for healthy economics.   The ability of a company to trade out of expiring term debt and in to a longer maturity instrument is favorable under these conditions.   Combined with continuing robust high yield issuances and you have yourself the makes of the base of a debt market in absence of air ball or cash flow loans.

Assuming you don’t read the Gold Sheets or have access to a GE finance professional to feed you all the latest loan data, there were other, more overt signposts that one might view as favorable.    Unexpectedly, February new home sales rose (4.7%), the first uptick since July 2008, as did durable goods orders (3.4%).   I take less comfort from the former, as it likely reflects the builder community liquidating inventory to free up cash to enable them to start projects whose permit limits would otherwise be lost.   These are distressed or quasi-distressed sales, based on the percentage decline in price (-18%).  Further, favorable evidence of improvement can be seen in the narrowing spread to LIBOR, the taming of the VIX index and the stability of energy prices.  It is worth noting that, you can pin some of the tail on the donkey due to overly cautious economic forecasting on behalf of a community which has been much maligned recently for its overly optimistic viewpoint.

Lastly, we continue to see a solid flow of opportunity from our little slice of investment banking.   While deals that would be characterized as “b” or “c” deals are not getting done,  many very well situated companies are looking to see how they may in fact get ahead by using this down cycle as a buying opportunity.  Equity players are eager to see good deal flow and multiples have not fallen significantly due to the flight to quality.

Dead cat bounce?  I don’t think so.  More like a bear market rally which will fizzle around 8,000.  The gains made from 6,600 back to the 7,500 level were not based on any tangible data, but rather hope.   The market had become way oversold and therefore the slightest bit of favorable sentiment sent the market soaring.   What a difference a few months makes.   The last time we saw Tim Geithner make a major policy announcement, the market sank like a stone.  Upon the unveiling on the Toxic-Asset Plan it soared.   Expect the market to tread water here until we get more consistent solid economic news as opposed to mere drops in the bucket.   Weak GDP data and corporate earnings should keep a ceiling on any rally.   A spike in energy prices would also be  a very big deterrent.  Then again, the leading edge is always the most hard to call.

/bryan