The markets may have a better solution than ‘extend & pretend’ for troubled oil loans

    oil well_medium

    Some bankers would have you believe that as they contend with souring credits from oil and gas issuers, the regulators are putting them in an unnecessary straightjacket.

    As some bankers have done before, these bankers are taking aim at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the overseer of many of the biggest banks. The OCC appears to be pushing the banks to classify some oil loans as troubled assets. Perhaps some bankers think the OCC shouldn’t remember ‘extend and pretend’, a practice whereby at times of stress in the past, bankers have extended loans in order to prevent them from appearing to require classification or workout. Classification pretty much puts the kibosh on extension without some kind of significant quid pro quo from the borrower.

    The OCC is just too rigid, some of these bankers say, and isn’t taking into account the possibility (if not, in their view, probability) that oil prices will rally and borrowers will make good on their promises.

    As oil prices yee and yaw, every day there is a new reason for optimism or pessimism. All that should, of course, be reflected in the futures market. Any banker that thinks he is smarter than the futures market deserves the question “Why aren’t you rich beyond avarice?”

    The complaining bankers are not wrong about the OCC. But the OCC is not wrong about bankers in general, either. Lenders resist classifying loans as troubled. And they almost always are more optimistic about the chances of recovery than the market is. In the case of oil loans, just look at what has happened to the prices of publicly issued bonds. Large company bonds are okay, but smaller company bonds are selling at prices that indicate default is a material possibility.

    What should happen in this situation? In my opinion, the market should work to sort the realistic recovery chances from the fairy tales. These situations are perfect for new debt or equity that the capital markets can create.  The new money can take many forms, of course. It could be subordinated debt of the debtor or convertible debt or preferred stock; it could take out part of the bank’s debt, it could provide breathing room to service the debt. Or in some cases, it could be super-senior debt and in other cases, the bank debt might have to take a haircut to induce the new money to come in. Many structures are possible. In a bankruptcy, the full panoply of structures would be on the table. The same should be true when seeking to restructure downgraded credits.

    Often it is better to face reality and to restructure something early. The new money may have to come ahead of the bank debt (old money), but if there is value in the debtor, the parties can figure out how to enhance that value rather than allowing it to diminish further.

    Sometimes, of course, the market will, in effect, tell the bank and the debtor that bankruptcy is the most likely future course—the comeback is too improbable.

    Neither bankers nor debtors like having to listen to the bottom fishing market. But if investment bankers are earning their money, they will be working hard to create competitive alternatives. And they just might do a lot of good in the process. Please ride to the rescue.

    In my opinion, the best investment bankers will work to set up competitive bidding situations so that debtors and banks have options to choose from. Different investment bankers and different types of investors often see these situations differently from each other. Bringing together disparate views of the market to create the best transaction for the parties is what should get the kudos.

    Photo: Tim Evanson