The HP capital-structure arbitrage

By Felix Salmon
August 1, 2012
Arik Hesseldahl -- a tech writer who's the first to admit he's no expert on finance -- discovered the wonderful world of credit default swaps in general, and single-name CDS on Hewlett-Packard, in particular.

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Last week, Arik Hesseldahl — a tech writer who’s the first to admit he’s no expert on finance — discovered the wonderful world of credit default swaps in general, and single-name CDS on Hewlett-Packard, in particular. The cost of single-name protection on HP has been going up, and that can only mean one thing: it’s “mainly a barometer of the state of anxiety over its finances and its balance sheet”, he wrote.

Hesseldahl’s corporate cousins Rolfe Winkler and Matt Wirz followed up a couple of days ago:

A $10 million five-year insurance policy on H-P debt costs $260,000 according to data provider Markit. That price has doubled since April and quadrupled since a year ago. While there is no prospect of H-P going under any time soon, bond investors are clearly unhappy about the company’s deteriorating prospects and balance sheet.

But I don’t buy it. For one thing, as David Merkel points out in a comment on on Hesseldahl’s latest post, the HP bond market is not panicking at all: its bond prices remain perfectly healthy. He continues:

The markets for single name CDS are thin because there are no natural counterparties that want to nakedly go long credit risk. Those wanting to nakedly short credit risk therefore have to pay a premium to do so, usually higher than the credit spread inherent on a corporate bond of the same maturity.

And if one or two hedge funds want to do it “in size,” guess what? The CDS market will back off considerably, and make them pay through the nose.

It’s hard to spook the bond market for a liquid bond issuer; it is easy to spook the CDS market.

Why might one or two hedge funds suddenly want to buy protection on HP (and Dell, and Lexmark)? There’s an easy and obvious explanation: their share prices. HP, Dell, and Lexmark are all trading at less than 7 times earnings, at the lowest prices they’ve seen in a decade. They’re all in the fast-changing and volatile technology business. The only certainty here is uncertainty: it’s reasonable to assume that in five years’ time, each of these companies is going to be in a very different place to where it is now.

Which sets up an easy and obvious capital-structure arbitrage. You go long the stock, and then you hedge with single-name credit protection — the only way you can effectively go short the debt. The stock market is deep and liquid enough that you can buy your shares without moving the market; the single-name CDS market isn’t, but no mind. Even if you overpay a bit for the CDS, the trade still looks attractive, on a five-year time horizon.

In five years’ time, it’s entirely possible that at least one of these companies will be toast — in which case anybody who bought the CDS today will have scored a home run. On the other hand, if they’re not toast, the stocks are likely to be significantly higher than they are right now. Basically, the stock price is incorporating a significant probability of collapse, and if you take that probability away, then it should be much higher. And buying protection in the CDS market is one way of effectively taking that probability away.

This kind of trade only works for companies in unpredictable sectors that have low stock prices and relatively low borrowing costs; such opportunities don’t come along very often. But when they do come along, it’s entirely predictable that a hedge fund or two will put on this kind of trade. In no way are such trades a sign that bond investors are worried about the company’s future: in fact, bond investors are not the kind of investors who put on this trade at all.

And so, as Merkel says, reporters should be very wary indeed of drawing too many conclusions from movements in the illiquid CDS market. Sometimes, they really don’t mean anything at all.

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