Such a pre-nup! What Verso and NewPage have worked out is far more complex than described in the companies’ announcements or even in stock analysts’ reports. Included are some odd provisions that have gone mostly unnoticed.
Here is Dead Tree Edition’s attempt to explain the structure and implications of the impending union, which was announced a week ago after a stormy, three-year courtship:
Why is the proposed deal important?: The two companies control roughly half of the North American market for glossy papers (coated freesheet, coated groundwood, and high-quality supercalendered papers). In theory, a company with that much market share has the power to drive up prices, or at least to keep them stable by preventing gluts in the market. NewVerso (my name for the new company) could also throw its weight around among suppliers and merchants, creating both winners and losers.
Will the marriage be consummated? There seem to be two main hurdles:
1) Anti-trust approval: The Justice Department, goaded perhaps by major paper buyers, may block the deal on grounds that NewVerso’s huge market share would be monopolistic. A more likely scenario is that the company would be forced to sell (or close) a mill, as Abitibi and Bowater were required to do when the two newsprint giants merged.
2) Verso noteholders: For the deal to be consummated, holders of $538 million in Verso debt must agree to exchange their notes for ones worth only $267 million. “This implies debt forgiveness of $271.1 million,” wrote Paulo Santos for Seeking Alpha. “Debt forgiveness is usually attained through a pre-packaged bankruptcy or regular bankruptcy.” Bondholders may chafe at taking such a huge haircut without the stockholders taking a hit. But many had paid less than 50 cents on the dollar for Verso’s distressed debt, and they may decide the NewVerso deal is better than the most likely alternative, a Verso bankruptcy.
Who will the winners be if the deal goes through? Lawyers and investment bankers, of course. Perhaps Verso stockholders, who have seen the price spike six-fold in just a week. And probably competitors like Resolute, UPM, and SAPPI, who would benefit from NewVerso using market discipline to keep prices high.
And the losers? Customers. Either Memphis (Verso’s home) or Dayton (NewPage’s headquarters), at least one of which will lose a corporate headquarters. Probably some supplier and paper merchants. The big losers would be employees and towns of the mill or mills that will be closed.
But didn’t Verso promise it wouldn’t close any mills? No, it said it had no plans to close any mills. Translation: “Nothing in the legal documents requires us to close any specific mills.” Analysts seem to be unanimous in their view that the merger would lead to capacity reductions.
In fact, one of the deal documents even provides incentives for NewPage or Verso to reduce their production capacity by more than 10%. (See the discussion of “triggering events” in the Services Agreement Term Sheet. I’m not aware of any analyst or journalist who has addressed the meaning or significance of the Shared Services Agreement, but I find it intriguing – and confusing.)
That doesn’t sound like a straightforward purchase of NewPage by Verso. What gives? Technically speaking, a Verso subsidiary will merge with a NewPage entity. But each company has several subsidiaries that are involved in related transactions with the others’ subsidiaries, making the NewPage takeover anything but straightforward.
For example, the Shared Services Agreement indicates that Verso will be supplying administrative and marketing services either to NewPage before the takeover occurs or to a separate NewPage entity that will continue to exist after the takeover occurs. (Update: As explained in Odd Verso-NewPage Structure Eyed Warily by Wall Street, NewPage would continue as a separate operating company after the merger.) That agreement addresses how certain costs of the merger, such as severance payments, will be allocated between NewPage and Verso. It also calls for Verso to invoice NewPage each quarter for “realized synergies” resulting from the services that Verso provides to NewPage.
How did nearly bankrupt Verso, whose stock-market value was barely $30 million a week ago, pull off a deal that’s been valued at $1.4 billion? Short answer: OPM (Other People’s Money). Longer answer: Good question.
The Verso-NewPage deal is “sort of like two very weak companies holding each other up,” Vertical Research Partners analyst Chip Dillon told Reuters. “Essentially the deal is all debt, there is no real equity involved here.”
The $1.4 billion figure is based on NewVerso giving NewPage stockholders $250 million in cash and $650 in NewVerso first-lien notes, plus taking on $500 million in existing NewPage debt. NewPage stockholders would also end up with 20% to 25% ownership of the merged company.
But how did a financially troubled company like Verso find backers for such a deal? The deal would create value in two ways: 1) Debt reduction: The proposed debt exchange with Verso noteholders would eliminate $271 million of the company’s debt. 2) Synergies: Verso says the deal will yield at least $175 million in pre-tax cost savings during the first 18 months. Besides economies of scale in administration, marketing, and purchasing, having more machines means each can operate more efficiently by making a narrower range of products.
How did Verso go from being worth $35 million to $200 million in barely a day? That’s the subject of some debate in the markets. Until last week, a Verso shares was basically a cheap (as in 65 cents) lottery ticket, apparently destined to be worthless but potentially valuable if the company could avoid bankruptcy. When news of the NewPage deal broke, some traders figured Verso now had a future and jumped in with both feet. There are somewhat disputed reports that Verso short sellers were scrambling to cover their shorts, driving share prices up even further. And the proposed debt forgiveness was viewed by some as “free money” that added to Verso’s stock value.
Whatever the reason, share volume jumped more than 14,000% on Jan. 6 and nearly doubled again the next day.
Is Verso stock a good investment? It's still more like a lotto ticket than an investment. If the deal doesn’t go through, bankruptcy seems likely. And even if the marriage is consummated, NewVerso could end up like the old Verso – too saddled with debt to have much value when demand for its products is in long-term decline. Then again, if NewVerso emerges as even a moderately healthy company, the Verso stock could see huge gains.
Would NewVerso be a successful company? The precedents are mixed. The widely cited model is the North American uncoated freesheet market, where consolidation has yielded two giants that can keep prices stable in the face of declining demand by judiciously reducing their output. But there’s also the case of Abitibi and Bowater, the two largest makers of newsprint in North America when they combined in 2007. High debt and rapidly declining demand pushed them into bankruptcy reorganization only 18 months later.
- NewPage-Verso Merger Unlikely, 2 Experts Say
- Verso Changes Course -- Why?
- Are NewPage and Verso Headed to the Altar?
- How About a NewPage-Quad/Graphics Merger?
- Did Verso Come To Purchase NewPage Or To Bury It?
- NewPage, Verso Owners Reportedly Discussing a Deal