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Private equity eyes coronavirus-hit industries: They’ve been waiting

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Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down entire sectors of the economy and putting millions of Americans out of work, but one corner of Wall Street may find opportunity amid the carnage: private equity.

The group, which includes investment giants Blackstone, Carlyle and KKR, has a record $1.5 trillion in cash ready to deploy and has been actively seeking deals across the struggling travel, entertainment and energy industries, according to a half-dozen investment bankers who declined to be identified to speak candidly about potential clients.

“They have been waiting for this type of market dislocation,” the head of mergers at a major Wall Street firm told CNBC. “I don’t think they wanted something quite this bad, but they did want a pullback in valuation.”

Private equity firms have been stockpiling cash in recent years as rising markets made it harder for them to invest, accumulating a record pile of “dry powder” for deals. The industry typically buys undervalued companies with borrowed money, taking them private to spruce up operations for an eventual sale. The high company valuations that kept them at bay collapsed this month amid widespread business closures and quarantines of some of the world’s largest cities.

But the confluence of forces at play — an oft-maligned section of Wall Street seeking money-making opportunities in an election year and amid an unprecedented global crisis that has caused thousands of deaths — could invite greater scrutiny on the industry. Critics including Sen. Elizabeth Warren have said private equity firms enrich themselves at the expense of workers and the companies themselves, which sometimes end up in bankruptcy.

“Vulture investors, especially in private equity, are waiting in the wings to scoop up scores of struggling businesses on the cheap,” tweeted Rohit Chopra, an FTC commissioner.

The first deals are likely to be investments rather than full-on takeovers, the bankers said. Transactions known as PIPEs, or private investments in public equity, are one way companies under distress can quickly raise cash. The buyer gets shares at a discount, and the new stock typically dilutes the holdings of existing shareholders.

“Private equity is trying to do PIPEs all over the place right now,” said a senior investment banker at another top Wall Street firm. The targets are “every industry where stock prices” have collapsed, this person said.

One example of a PIPE made during the last crisis: In 2008, Leonard Green & Partners bought a 17% stake in Whole Foods for $425 million, an investment that yielded more than $1 billion in profit when shares recovered a few years later.

While travel, entertainment and energy companies are in obvious need for cash infusion as demand has evaporated, over the longer term, the coronavirus pandemic could favor industries including health care and home security, according to a presentation from management consultant Bain. 

Don’t take the money

For now, bank advisors are mostly telling corporations to ignore private equity money as lawmakers close in on a massive stimulus bill. The details of the $2 trillion bill, including the forms of relief struggling companies will get and at what terms, needs to be known first.

Another reason for a delay in deals: One banker said that private equity investors “only want to invest in the strongest companies” like makers of consumer staples, or top restaurant chains, and these companies aren’t yet willing to take on expensive forms of capital.

Still, even with anticipated federal aid like potential bridge loans, for many businesses, the crisis and its aftermath will take months, if not years, to play out, and collapsing revenue and share prices make them vulnerable to takeovers.

Last week, Goldman Sachs warned its clients to expect a rise in hostile takeovers and shareholder activism, according to a presentation sent to clients. The bank told clients that a shareholder rights plan, known as a poison pill, “is the single most effective takeover protection device” the companies can use, according to Vox, which obtained the memo. A Goldman spokeswoman confirmed its authenticity.

To be sure, private equity firms are also exposed to the coronavirus-induced downturn because they already own wide swaths of corporate America, including struggling retail shopping and entertainment properties. Even before the pandemic struck, lenders were increasingly concerned about defaults from companies owned by the PE industry.

As a result, many private equity firms are in “defense mode” across their portfolios, said one investment banking head.

Barbarians at the Gate

Still, because the industry’s management fees are based on investments that are locked up for years, private equity firms “should be quite resilient in the current market backdrop,” JMP Securities analyst Devin Ryan said Tuesday in a research note.

Private equity became widely known in the 1980s as a generation of corporate raiders including Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens sought bigger and bigger deals, culminating in the $31 billion takeover of RJR Nabisco in 1989.

The industry has swollen in size since the financial crisis, adding $4 trillion in assets in the last decade, as institutional investors including pensions and insurance companies seek out higher returns in a low-yield world. Last year, shares of PE firms Apollo and Blackstone soared roughly 90% after they changed their corporate structure to take advantage of the 2017 corporate tax overhaul.

While the market for leveraged loans has fallen off in recent weeks, leverage of roughly six times a target’s earnings is still available for private equity deals, according to the head of mergers quoted at the beginning of this article. Parties are having conversations about investments in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and casinos, among other companies.

“These are fundamentally good businesses that are going to have a terrible year,” the banker said. “There’s an opportunity for private equity to go in there and take a meaningful stake or buy the company at a valuation they could not have gotten before.”

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China reports March manufacturing PMI amid coronavirus outbreak

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China on Tuesday said the official Purchasing Manager’s Index for March was 52.0, beating expectations for an economy hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected the official PMI to come in at 45 for the month of March.

In February, the official PMI hit a record low of 35.7.

PMI readings above 50 indicate expansion, while those below that level signal contraction.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics said in its announcement of the PMI reading that there was continued improvement in the prevention and control of the outbreak in March, with a significant acceleration in the resumption of production.

Sub-indices for production, new orders and employment expanded, the bureau said.

In March, the situation of epidemic prevention and control in China continued to improve, the order of production and living was steadily restored, and the resumption of production and production of enterprises accelerated significantly.

Earlier this year, manufacturing activity slowed dramatically in China as the government instituted large-scale lockdowns and quarantines to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, formally known as COVID-19.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said that as of March 28, the resumption of work rate for industrial enterprises was 98.6%, and the return of workers stood at 89.9%.

A private PMI survey by Caixin and IHS Markit will be released on Wednesday.

The Caixin/Markit survey features a bigger mix of small- and medium-sized firms. In comparison, the official PMI survey typically polls a large proportion of big businesses and state-owned companies.

— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Amazon fires Staten Island coronavirus strike leader Chris Smalls

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Amazon has fired a Staten Island warehouse worker who organized a strike to demand greater protections for employees amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the facility, known as JFK8, said he was fired Monday afternoon following the strike. Smalls and other employees walked out to call attention to the lack of protections for warehouse workers. The workers are also urging Amazon to close the facility after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus last week. The organizers said that at least 50 people joined the walkout.

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said in a statement. “I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.” 

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that Smalls was fired, saying he received “multiple warnings” for violating social distancing guidelines and refusing to remain quarantined after coming into close contact with an associate who tested positive for the virus. 

“Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk,” the spokesperson said. “This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”

Amazon also disputed the number of employees that participated in the strike, saying 15 people walked out at the facility. The company called the workers’ accusations “unfounded” and said it has taken “extreme measures” to make sure employees are safe while on the job.

“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” the company said in a statement. “The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”

Still, Amazon employees at multiple facilities who spoke to CNBC argue that the company’s efforts aren’t enough to keep them safe. They say uneven safety precautions at facilities across the country have sown feelings of distrust between workers and their managers. Workers say they’ve become worried that managers aren’t being honest about whether employees are sick with the virus, so that they can keep the facilities open. 

At some facilities, workers say essential supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are rationed or there’s none available, putting them at risk of catching the virus. Warehouse workers say they’re forced to choose between going to work and risking their health or staying home and not being able to pay their bills. 

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Australia stocks jump 3%; China to release manufacturing PMI numbers

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Stocks in Asia Pacific traded higher on Tuesday morning ahead of the release of China’s official manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index for March, expected at 9:00 a.m. HK/SIN.

Australian shares led gains in the region’s major markets, with the S&P/ASX 200 up 3.17%. The moves came after the index got off to a flying start to the week and surged by 7% on Monday.

Over in South Korea, the Kospi also rose 1.63% while the Kosdaq index gained 2.58%. Japan’s Nikkei 225 saw more muted gains as it added 0.51%, while the Topix index advanced 0.13%.

Overall, the MSCI Asia ex-Japan index traded 0.76% higher.

Investors will be watching for the release of China’s official manufacturing PMI for March on Tuesday morning. The data could offer clues to the scale of economic impact from the coronavirus outbreak in China, where the disease was first reported.

“We expect the official manufacturing PMI to rebound from 35.7pt in February to 45pt in March,” Joseph Capurso, senior currency strategist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, wrote in a note. “That would be above the GFC‑low of 38.8pt reached in November 2008,” he said referring to the Global Financial Crisis.

PMI readings below 50 signify a contraction, while figures above that level indicate an expansion.

Overnight on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 690.70 points to close at 22,327.48 while the S&P 500 added 3.4% to end its trading day at 2,626.65. The Nasdaq Composite also closed 3.6% higher at 7,774.15.

Oil prices attempted to rebound from the previous day’s plunge in the morning of Asian trading hours on Tuesday. International benchmark Brent crude futures gained 1.19% to $23.03 per barrel. U.S. crude futures were also up 2.84% to $20.66 per barrel.

The moves came after oil prices plummeted Monday to levels not seen in almost two decades — Brent fell 8.7% to settle at $22.76 per barrel, a price last seen in 2002. U.S. crude fell 6.6%, or $1.42, to settle at $20.09, its lowest level since February 2002.

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was last at 99.221, below levels above 100 seen last week.

The Japanese yen traded at 108.04 per dollar after touching an earlier high of 107.72. The Australian dollar changed hands at $0.6167, still above levels below $0.6 seen last week.

Here’s a look at what’s on tap in the trading day ahead:

  • China: Official manufacturing PMI and non-manufacturing PMI for March at 9:00 a.m. HK/SIN

⁠— CNBC’s Pippa Stevens contributed to this report.

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