a Chapter 11 filing
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. According to the radio reports I heard yesterday, this is the second time in three years and the fifth overall bankruptcy filing for the venerable supermarket chain.
A&P said it did so in order to preserve the flow of fresh produce and other perishables into its stores.
In one sense, it’s not surprising that supermarket chains might be in trouble, given the relentless expansion of Wal-Mart into grocery over the past couple of decades, the rise of Whole Foods et al, and the change in lifestyle and consumption habits being spearheaded by Millennials.
A&P as a useful template for investors
A&P, however, is also an important illustration of how creditworthiness can deteriorate in ways investors seldom suspect.
the key: trade creditors’ bankruptcy standing
The key to understanding what is going on is to realize that in Chapter 11, trade creditors go to the bottom of the list of who gets repaid. They rank ahead only of equity holders, who as a general rule are wiped out completely. Trade creditors usually fare little better, if at all.The amounts involved can be substantial. In the A&P case, for example, McKesson is listed as a major unsecured creditor, owed $39+ million.
trade creditors defending themselves
Knowing that any outstanding bills will likely be voided by a bankruptcy court, suppliers of inventory and services watch the creditworthiness of their customers very carefully. They hire third-party credit services to provide periodic reports, and they monitor any differences in customer payment patterns very carefully.
If a customer shows A&P-like symptoms (according to Bloomberg, A&P had been having net cash outflows of $14.5 million monthly during fiscal 2015), a vendor can take several related actions to lower its risk:
–it can send less merchandise on credit to the worrisome customer
–it can send lower-value or lower-quality merchandise, or only items that have an extremely short sales cycle
–it can refuse to extend credit; it will demand payment in advance. This is a lot more serious than it sounds, since the customer may be depending on being able to use the cash from a sale for a week before paying the vendor.
(An aside: I’ve even seen instances where a trade creditor has sued the customer for payment, knowing that a favorable judgment will force bankruptcy. The idea is that some third party who doesn’t want a Chapter 11 filing–a bank or other long-term debt holder, or an equity holder–will settle the debt while the case in court.)
Of course, none of this is good for the cash-strapped concern.
reversal of form
Once the firm is in bankruptcy, the situation reverses completely. Suppliers no longer have to worry about having unpaid bills nullified. And the bankruptcy judge will ensure that trade creditors are put at the front of the line to be repaid. So just as the flow of new merchandise into a cash-short enterprise slows down as Chapter 11 becomes a realistic possibility, it speeds up again once the company has filed.