Yesterday, LightSquared held an investor call to provide an update on regulatory progress, including Mr. Falcone’s meeting last week at the FCC (which failed to gain the attention of the FCC Chairman, unlike Mr. Ergen’s visit to the FCC the same day). LightSquared’s investors clearly want to know whether there is any prospect of approval being granted, and a Debtwire story on Jan 3 reported that some of the previous investors have lost confidence in a successful resolution of the issue:
Farallon Capital Management dumped its stake in LightSquared’s USD 1.6bn first lien loan last month as the telecom company and sponsor Harbinger Capital battle regulatory controversies, according to two buyside sources and a source familiar with the matter. Displaying a greater taste for potential distress, Icahn Enterprises has emerged as a recent buyer of LightSquared’s bank debt in the low 40s, the two buyside sources said.
The exit of Farallon signals the loss of one of LightSquared’s former anchor investors. The California hedge fund was one of the biggest par holders in LightSquared’s capital structure, owning more than USD 150m of the Libor+ 1,200 bps term loans the company raised to finance the build out of the its 4G long term evolution (LTE) network, the sources said.
The loans were recently quoted at 43-45 from 90-92 at the beginning of August, according to Markit.
However, I understand that the new investors, including Icahn, haven’t stopped believing that they will be able to overcome the opposition of the GPS community, and ultimately gain approval on the back of (what was described to me as) their greater “sophistication” and financial resources compared to Harbinger. Indeed, part of Mr. Falcone’s objective in his FCC meeting may have been to suggest that the FCC would have to deal with less cooperative owners of the assets in the future, if they delay approval and allow LightSquared to fall into bankruptcy.
Its suprising that anyone could believe that they will succeed where Harbinger has failed, especially as the NTIA now appears determined to spin out the testing process for as long as possible (and almost certainly to beyond the November 2012 election). In addition, it would be easy for the FCC to initiate a (multi-year) rulemaking proceeding on receiver standards for GPS receivers, if they want to kick this issue even further into the long grass. Nevertheless, the implications are that LightSquared’s debt investors are likely to allow the company to keep pushing for approval, rather than trying to force it into bankruptcy more quickly in order to liquidate the assets before all the cash is gone. That would suggest a bankruptcy filing later in the second quarter rather than in the next couple of months.
Ultimately, I think this will look a lot like the Iridium bankruptcy in 1999, where investors thought there was something worth billions of dollars that could be rescued with a bit more money and better execution, and spent nine fruitless months before they finally conceded that $5B of investment needed to be completely written off. The fundamental reason why I think their efforts will fail is that the continuing lease payments to Inmarsat ($115M per year) very likely outweigh the value of 20MHz of L-band spectrum, which at best might be usable terrestrially in 5-10 years time (if approval was even granted).
At this point there is no way that Inmarsat is going to compromise on these lease payments, because the whole LightSquared affair (which Inmarsat enabled through the 2007 Cooperation Agreement) has deeply upset the DoD, which accounts for ~20% of Inmarsat’s total revenues (and probably an even higher proportion of the Global Xpress business plan). Indeed, some within Inmarsat might feel they would give back the money paid to date, if only the whole LightSquared mess could be made to go away. Inmarsat already appears to be telling the DoD that it was not their fault, because they were ordered by the FCC (under a Republican administration) to enter into the Cooperation Agreement, against their better judgment. In that context, Inmarsat’s protests in January 2005 that approval of the ATC plans proposed by LightSquared (then MSV) would lead to substantial degradation of MSS services due to overload interference, now appear very prophetic.
As a result, I expect the end game (which is now unlikely to be reached before 2013) to involve a combination of trying to recover the money paid to Sprint and not spent on deployment, selling the ground spare to Boeing, and agreeing to sell Inmarsat the in-orbit satellite and spectrum assets in exchange for a return of a sizeable proportion of the ~$500M paid to date. Whether that will be sufficient to provide downside protection to buyers of LightSquared’s first lien debt (totalling ~$1.6B) “in the low 40s” remains to be seen.