a free Wall Street Journal
I’m not a particular fan of News Corp, even though I will admit I was one of the first US-based holders of the stock–and a large one at that–in the mid-Eighties. The Wall Street Journal is being delivered to my door every day this week as part of a campaign to gain new subscribers, however. Yes, there’s a lot of fluff and it’s very US-centric. But the paper is better than I remember. To my surprise, I may end up subscribing.
That’s not my point today, though.
the underbelly of finance
The “Greater New York” section of yesterday’s paper has an interesting article in it that gives a glimpse at a part of the usually-hidden underbelly of finance. It also shows some of the obstacles that investors in “deep value” or “distressed” assets routinely face.
Titled “Hotel Developer Must Check Out,” the article describes a recent foreclosure action in which a New York judge put two Manhattan hotels, the Flatotel and the Alex, into receivership.
The back story is about a former gold trader and a hotel developer who met in the gym and formed a hotel management company, Alexico. Borrowing heavily from Anglo Irish Bank (the institution, incidentally, that played the pivotal role in crashing the entire Irish economy), the two started a number of high-end hotel and condominium projects. Then the great recession came.
Anglo Irish has since been nationalized. As part of its restructuring, it sold the loans it made Flatotel and Alex–a face value of $258 million–to a consortium of US real estate management groups for maybe half that. They went to court to force Alexico to turn over control of the two hotels.
That’s not the interesting part.
the interesting part
–the two hotels are losing money They haven’t made payments on their debt, nor have they paid real estate taxes, for two years. But they did manage to pay Alexico $570,000 in management fees during that period.
–in addition, the ailing hotels scraped together enough cash to lend $5.3 million to other parts of the (now crumbling) Alexico empire.
–why didn’t Alexico extract even more money from the two failing hotels, you may ask? A cynic, meaning someone who’s seen this movie before, would say that what Alexico took was all the cash the hotels were generating.
–besides this, the plaintiffs in the case say the hotels’ financial records are a mess (what a surprise!). No elaboration, but I don’t think the issue is that the accountants spilled coffee on the books or that the entries are all mixed up and in the wrong places. I interpret this as meaning there’s no way of knowing how much money came in the hotels’ doors or tracing where it went. If so, there may be more money missing than the loans.
All of this is pretty standard fare. But there’s typically more:
–were the hotels larger, we’d probably also be talking about their employee pension plan–who manages it? did it too lend money to other parts of Alexico?
–if Alexico built the hotels instead of buying them, we’d likely also be asking about whether the structures are up to code, or if the construction company used lower-quality materials than specified in the contracts.
when the burden of proof shifts…
As a general rule, it’s a mistake in a situation like this to think either 1) that this is the first time the people involved have done something like this, or 2) that what you’ve discovered to date is everything they’ve done to the asset in question.
This is why it takes a certain mindset to navigate through the potential minefield of a distressed asset. All in all, I’m happier being a growth stock investor and leaving this sort of analysis to someone else.