Frontier Communications: Debt Recovery In Bankruptcy Estimate

We’ve been tracking the credit decline of Frontier Communications through most of 2019, in multiple posts. The communications giant has been moved from a CCR 3 rating to CCR 4. In October, we added Frontier to our Bankruptcy Imminent list. In fact, there was no Chapter 11 or restructuring in the fourth quarter of 2019 and – given decent liquidity – there might not be any move in that direction in the IQ 2020 either. However, we’re confident enough to project that a bankruptcy in the IQ 2020 is highly likely.

BDC exposure to the company remains high with $67.5mn outstanding at cost, spread over 8 different BDCs, and three asset management organizations (FS Investment-KKR; Oaktree and Business Development Corporation of America). To date, though, all outstandings – despite ever worsening financing performance and multiple downgrades by both Moody’s and S&P – have been valued at or above par. That suggests debt investors are not worried about taking any kind of haircut should a Chapter 11 occur.

We analyzed the debt held by the BDCs against Frontier’s latest 10-Q. Broadly speaking, one third of the company’s huge debt load is secured and two-thirds unsecured. All BDC exposure is in first lien and second lien secured debt, which explains debt holder sanguinity. Valuations did not materially change at the top of the capital structure even after Frontier’s CEO left his post in early December, and replaced by a former DISH executive first brought in as a financial adviser and then appointed to the top job.

Nor were senior debt holders fazed – if prices reflect their views – by the never ending drop in the company’s stock price – now being de-listed from the NYSE and trading under $1.0. Since we wrote our first post, Frontier has lost two-thirds of its market capitalization.

We’re not so sure that Frontier’s senior lenders – including those 8 BDCs – should be so complacent about the value of their loans – which mature between 2024 and 2027, according to Advantage Data’s summary records. Our suspicions are confirmed by an article in Seeking Alpha on December 31, 2019 by Gary Chodes, which seeks to evaluate what the recovery rate on Frontier’s secured and unsecured debt might be if worst came to worst. The conclusion of interest to senior lenders: an estimated 24% recovery rate. That would imply over ($50mn) in ultimate Realized Losses for the BDC group, not including interest forgone. Readers can make up their own mind about the validity of Mr Chodes calculations. We don’t have a deep enough understanding of the company’s financial situation and business prospects to offer up a competing view. Instead, we offer up this warning on a take it or leave it basis. In any case, we expect to be returning to the Frontier Communications imbroglio repeatedly in 2020.