Monday 30 July 2012

The Red Issue Forum letter to Sir Alex Ferguson

This letter was written by long standing United fans who post on the Red Issue Main Forum, I didn't have any part in writing it but would be happy to sign it.

I post it here in the hope that it receives a wider audience, especially today of all days when the Glazers again show their true colours with an IPO that enriches themselves and leaves the club in debt.
Dear Sir Alex,  
As lifelong Manchester United fans, we are disappointed and concerned by quotes attributed to you in a recent interview. Many of us are the same fans who protested to denounce Cubic Expression back in 2005. These are the same fans who had previously offered you their unwavering support during your private dispute over Rock of Gibraltar's breeding rights, despite Cubic Expression raising some very pertinent questions. In the spirit of fairness, we would like to invite you to clarify these comments by responding to a brief summary of our concerns:
1. You suggested that ‘the majority of real fans will look at it [Glazer ownership] and see that it’s not affecting the team’. Can you clarify what constitutes a real fan? 
2. With thousands of fans leaving the club in protest over the Glazer regime, do you consider these time-served reds to be less than real fans? 
3. Have you personally met with any of the dissenters to determine how deep their commitment and affection for United may be?
4. What are your thoughts on an atmosphere which gets markedly worse each season as more and more local, traditional fans are marginalised and alienated from the club? 
5. You are also quoted in the interview as claiming ‘I’m absolutely comfortable with the Glazers situation. They’ve been great’. You are clearly aware of the opposition from the United fan base - does that not make you uncomfortable in any way?
6. What, in your view, would constitute poor owners?
7. You have repeatedly claimed to have been backed financially whenever you have requested transfer funds. Is this your only consideration when determining what represents great ownership?
8. You continued the interview by saying that, ‘the salaries, agent fees – is just getting ridiculous now’. Whilst we agree in tone, it does represent a sea change in attitude from pre Glazer transfers. Agent fees in both the Ferdinand and Rooney transfers were criticised at the time for being excessive, so why does the club now refuse to meet market conditions for the top players? 
9. Do you believe Jorge Mendes’s £2.6m cut of the Bébé transfer, a full 35% of the total fee paid, represented good value?
10. With more than £250k leaving the club each day to service the Glazer debt, totalling over £500m since the takeover, is it so reprehensible for us to question your constant references to ‘value’?
Given your personal background and previous support for fan involvement we hope you take the trouble to respond to our deep concerns about both the club’s situation and the wording of the interview quoted. 
Concerned Manchester United Fans

Thursday 12 July 2012

Why have the Glazers changed their strategy on the debt? A theory....

The big news in United's "preliminary prospectus" (the Form F-1 SEC filing) was 1) that the proceeds from the IPO will be used to repay some of the club's enormous debt and 2) that no dividends will be paid "in the foreseeable future".

The big question that stems from this, is "why?". Why after seven years of running a highly leveraged balance sheet and only two and a half years after the bond issue have the Glazers executed a huge u-turn? Why suddenly decide to reduce the club's debt?

I believe it is highly unlikely that the change is due to a sudden realisation that cash wasted on interest should be available for investment, although that may be a positive knock-on effect, but because of the financial pressures the family is under.

What follows is only my theory (and apologies if you don't like speculative articles like this), but one that I think is near the truth....

The amazing disappearing PIKs
Followers of the United financial story will know that out of the blue in November 2010, the Glazer family found £249.1m (around $400m) which they injected into the club as equity and used to repay the infamous "payment in kind securities" (PIKs). These short-term debt instruments had festered on the balance sheet of Red Football Joint Venture Limited for more than four years and had accrued £111m of rolled up interest on top of the original £138m loan.

In August 2010, the PIKs had become even more expensive as the Red Football companies breached a key debt covenant (section 8.2 of this document). The covenant stipulated that total debt in the group (from Red Football Shareholder Limited downwards) should not be more than 5x EBITDA (essentially cash profits before transfers). If debt exceeded this limit (set when the PIKs were issued in 2006), the PIK interest rate would rise from 14.25% pa to 16.25% pa. With debts in August 2010 totalling £773m and EBITDA of £102m the rate duely rose, making the PIKs even more toxic and in need of repayment.

The bond issue of February 2010 had created a "carve out" which allowed the Glazers to take £95m of the club's cash out and it was widely assumed (and mentioned in the bond prospectus as a possibility) that this money would be used to pay off a chunk of the PIKs. But the Glazers didn't use the carve out to repay them in November 2010. The exact source of funds is unknown.

What I do know, from impeccable sources, is that the money was borrowed by the Glazer family. They didn't have £249m in cash, few people do (and the other bits of the family empire are leveraged up already). The money was borrowed by one of their US companies from a single US financial firm.

Throughout the summer of 2010, the family and their advisers were hawking the deal around the market. Amusingly an old college friend working for a private "intelligence company" was retained by an American debt investor (I won't embarrass him by naming the investor) to look at the deal and initially asked me for help. The invitation to meet the potential investor was quickly dropped after they did some due diligence on who I was.

So that's what we know. Since November 2010, the club has been carrying the bond debt, and the Glazers have been stuck with what you might call "PIK2", expensive personal debt secured on their equity in United, presumably costing less than the eye watering 16.25% of the PIKs, but more than the senior bond debt's c. 8.7%.

Could there be another total debt covenant attached to "PIK2"?
Stories about a potential IPO (in Asia) first started to circulate in mid 2011 as the first anniversary of the PIK repayment approached. As we now know, nothing came of the attempts to list in either Hong Kong or Singapore, but the Glazers kept going. Despite terrible market conditions, a moribund IPO market, weak results due to the Champions League etc, they have persisted.

The explanation for this burning desire to IPO the club must be to do with their personal circumstaces, and yet they are not seeking to cash out but to repay debt. I believe that it is highly likely that the PIK2 debt has "total debt to EBITDA" covenants attached to it of a similar sort to those in the original PIKs. Such covenants would be very common for quasi-equity financing of this sort. Breaching these covenants could be very costly for the Glazer family and the existence of such would go a long way in explaining their apparent change of heart on the debt. Under such a scenario there would be a very strong incentive to try to reduce the debt across the Red Football group of companies, and the easiest method is an IPO.

The change of strategy actually dates back to Q4 2010 and PIK repayment
It is worth noting that although the prospectus sets the new strategy down in black and white for the first time, the Glazers have been pursuing deleveraging for a while, using bond buy backs, and that this new approach began as soon as the PIKs were repaid.

The club first bought back bonds in the final quarter of 2010 (when £24m were repurchased) and has now spent a total of £92.3m. No less than two-thirds of the cash the club had at the time of the bond issue (all that Ronaldo and Aon windfall) has been used on bond buy backs. The peculiarity of holding almost £150m of cash when issuing £520m of bonds and then, just a few months later, using that cash to buy back those bonds is striking.

Something has definitely changed...
So since the repayment of the PIKs and their replacement with "PIK2" we have seen a completely new financial strategy. The best part of £100m has been whipped to buy bonds and now we have an IPO being launched into terrible markets to reduce the debt further. None of this proves they are under pressure from debt covenants in PIK2, but it all fits with the theory.

Even fellow "lineal descendants" can fall out
The other chat coming out of the US about the Glazers is that Darcie, Edward and Kevin don't like having wealth tied up in this pesky soccer club that Joel, Avram and Bryan are so fixated with. If the six of them are personally on the hook for $400m of "PIK2" and covenants are in danger of being breached, you can sort of see their point.

Theories and facts
Apologies again for such a speculative post. My theory may ring true to you or may sound like laughable rubbish. It would be lovely to think the Glazers have had a damascene conversion to prudent financial management and eschewed the crippling debts of the last seven years, but you'll forgive me for seeking a baser motive.

Perhaps there are multiple reasons for the change in tack, including fears that becoming uncompetitive on the pitch will hurt the club's value, as well as the sort of direct pressure on the family I have described above, and perhaps the reasons are less important than the fact the burden on the club is being reduced. That won't stop this blog trying to identify the "whys" not just the "whats" of the whole sorry saga.


Thursday 5 July 2012

The Manchester United IPO some initial observations

There’s been a lot written about Manchester United’s proposed listing on the New York Stock Exchange (“NYSE”) since it was announced on Tuesday night by the filing of an SEC Form F-1 (the document is available here), this post is designed as a brief summary of my thoughts on the subject.

This is a massive change in strategy by the Glazers and a positive one financially
Since the takeover, the club have insisted that the debt loaded onto United is not in any way a problem. As recently as last March, David Gill was reiterating this to the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.

Suddenly, the attitude to debt has changed. The SEC filing clearly states:
We intend to use all of our net proceeds from this offering to reduce our indebtedness
The Glazers do not need to take this approach, they could float United and retain the proceeds themselves. The fact they have chosen not to do so is very telling and has the potential to transform the financial position of the club. As I have mentioned again and again on this blog, over £500m has been spent on interest, debt repayments, fees and derivative costs since 2005. In the first nine months of the 2011/12 financial year alone the club spent £71m on interest and bond buybacks. The elimination or significant reduction of these costs is huge news.

The other key aspect of this debt reduction is that the prospectus makes it clear that there is no intention to pay dividends in the forseeable future. Interest payments will not simply be replaced with dividend payments.

The 2010 bond issue was supposed to lock in long-term (seven year) funding, and yet only two years later, that entire costly structure is being ripped up.  A major change of heart has taken place.

The family can still cash in some shares under the "over allotment" mechanism
Although the prospectus says all the net proceeds will be used to reduce debt, the family can still sell some of their shares (as opposed to the new shares in the main offer) under the "over allotment" option. This is a feature of many IPOs, whereby the owners make additional shares available for sale if demand is higher than expected. Over allotment is not normally for more than 10-15% of the shares being offered.

At this early stage we are missing some very key details
The SEC filing is a “preliminary prospectus”. It contains no details on the number of shares being issued or the price of these shares. It is subject to revision.

The success or failure of the offer will have a lot to do with the valuation the offer puts on United. In the past, the Glazers have appeared to have placed a higher value on the club than most analysts or potential buyers. The FT recently reported that Morgan Stanley had left the IPO syndicate (of underwriters) because of disagreement over the valuation.

It is not too late for this offer to collapse spectacularly if the Glazers attempt to sell shares on too high a valuation or if financial markets weaken further. This is not a “done deal”.

The share offer will be significantly greater than $100m
The much quoted “$100m” issue is a red herring. There is a requirement in a preliminary prospectus to estimate the cost of registration fees and as these are dependent on the size of the share offer, a “placeholding” assumption has to be made. That is where the $100m figure comes from. It is not a guide to the size of the eventual offer. There is little or no point raising $100m (£64m). The exact amount raised will depend on the valuation placed on the company and the state of the markets in the next few weeks but I would expect at least $300m.

This is not a change of ownership
Sadly for those of us who want supporters to have a meaningful stake in Manchester United, this IPO is of virtually no use at all. The “A shares” on offer will only have very limited voting rights. Even if the Glazers sold 90% of the club in the IPO (which they won’t), the “B shares” the family will hold would still have a majority of the votes as each B share has 10x the votes of an A share.

Non-Glazer shareholders will therefore have virtually no influence over the club.

This remains a very short-sighted and depressing approach to governance. The experience from Spain and Germany shows that supporter participation in ownership is a huge plus for football clubs. United’s unwillingness to engage with supporters as anything other than potential customers remains an enormous problem that can probably only be solved by intervention by government.

They’ve chosen New York rather than London because they want to maintain control
The principal advantage to the Glazers from listing in New York rather than London is that the A/B dual share structure is acceptable in the US and not in the UK. Well known companies such as Google, Ford, Facebook and (infamously) News Corporation all have dual voting structures. It would be very hard to float a company with such diminished voting rights for outside shareholders in London.

The downside of US listing is the higher tax that the club will have to pay. United has been UK tax registered for all of its existence but will now be subject to US Federal Income tax on profits at the high rate of 35% (the UK rate is 28%). The fact that the Glazers are happy for the club to pay a higher tax rate tells us a lot about the importance of the A/B share structure to them.

Is this all about a post Fergie world?
Why is this all happening now? We can only speculate, but it seems to me that the Glazers are preparing for a Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. As we know, the club has achieved great success on the pitch on a pretty low transfer spending since 2005. Would another “big name” manager come on board with this limited budget, especially as City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to flex their financial muscles?

What happens next?
The underwriting banks and the company will now undertake a road show for potential investors. United have ninety days from the date of the preliminary prospectus to file their “final prospectus”, which includes the price and number of shares being offered. The IPO can still be cancelled at any time prior to this….

Watch this space.