As regular readers would know, I stopped blogging for a year. I did not just stopped blogging; I also stopped monitoring performance of my portfolio and analysing shares and bonds in detail. So when SIA launched its retail 3.03% bond in Mar this year, I did not analyse it in detail as I would typically do using Benjamin Graham's method (see The Lost Art of Bond Investment for details) and simply bought it. I took a glance at its financial statements, carried out a simple Debt-to-Equity check and concluded that its debt obligations were not too excessive. Most importantly, I relied upon the assumption that SIA's parent, Temasek, would bail out bondholders in full in event of a default. This was not the only time that I relied on similar assumptions when buying bonds. I did the same when I bought Fraser Property's 3.65% bond (see Does FCL's 3.65% Bond Have Sufficient Margin of Safety? for more info).
Now that I am back to blogging (and thinking about financial issues), it is worth diving deeper to examine whether the assumption is rock solid and could be relied upon. Do note that this is not entirely a hypothetical question, as the airlines industry is a highly competitive one. Bankruptcies are not uncommon. Past examples include American Airlines, Delta Airways, Northwest Airlines, etc. going into Chapter 11 protection.
So, will Temasek come to the rescue of bondholders in the event SIA defaults on the bond? To answer this question, we need to first understand the background of SIA and Temasek. So, the first question is: will Temasek rescue SIA? The answer must be a resounding yes. SIA is the national airline and the pride of the nation. When our political leaders go overseas for conferences, they fly with SIA. It is difficult to imagine our political leaders flying on some other countries' national airlines. Thus, yes, Temasek will come to the rescue of SIA.
However, rescuing SIA the company is not the same as rescuing SIA bondholders. While SIA the company is a strategic national asset, SIA bondholders (and shareholders) are not. Furthermore, the ultimate shareholders of Temasek are Singaporeans. Bailing out SIA and its bondholders with Temasek's money is akin to using taxpayers' money to do so. It will be politically difficult to use taxpayers' money to bail out bondholders in full. The most likely scenario is that the settlement with bondholders will be at arm's length basis on normal commercial terms, i.e. the outcome would be similar to another company that is not owned by Temasek. In other words, bondholders will suffer some capital losses. This is not unlike the case of Hyflux preference shares and perpetual capital securities. Thus, from this perspective, SIA bondholders should not expect Temasek to bail them out in full.
On the other hand, SIA is not the only company that Temasek owns. Temasek owns a lot of companies in its portfolio. Temasek has triple-A ratings from both Moody's and S&P. Not all the companies in its portfolio has similar ratings based on their own merits. When companies with lower ratings borrow money, lenders take into consideration the fact that the company is majority owned by Temasek and offer a lower interest rate compared to a company that does not have Temasek as its backing. In the event that Temasek does not step in to bail out bondholders in full, credit markets will take note and will not offer lower interest rates to Temasek-owned companies in future. Each company has to pay an interest rate that is commensurate with its own credit rating. In other words, Temasek will have to bear higher interest payments across most of its subsidiaries. This long-term economic cost might outweigh the short-term political cost and prompt Temasek to bail out bondholders in its subsidiaries in full.
Finally, we should also note that Temasek, although it does not play an active role in day-to-day management of the subsidiaries' operations, is not a sleeping partner either. Long before trouble happens and hits the headlines, Temasek would have done something to avert it. For example, Tiger Airways, SIA's budget airline, had been losing money for 4 out of 6 years since its listing on SGX in Jan 2010. It carried out 3 rights issues over the same period. It also issued a 2% perpetual capital convertible securities (PCCS) in Apr 2013. If the trend were to continue, Tiger Airways would probably have failed and defaulted on the PCCS. In Nov 2015, SIA announced that it would take over Tiger Airways. It also redeemed all outstanding PCCS upon successful takeover of the company.
In conclusion, I had been lazy in analysing the SIA 3.03% bond when I bought it. But I guess I still can rely on the assumption that Temasek would step in and bail bondholders out in the event of default by SIA. Nevertheless, I should do my homework and analyse whether the SIA bond has sufficient margin of safety according to Benjamin Graham's method.
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