In the latest instalment of the ongoing debacle that is BrisConnections, Nicholas Bolton shrugged off the mantle of hero to mum and dad shareholders in exchange for a secretly arranged $4.5 million dollars. I have to admit I would have enjoyed the Schadenfreude of seeing Bolton continue to stick it to Macquarie Bank, but whatever his shortcomings (which include a striking resemblance to the One.Tel dude—thanks to the friend who pointed this out to me and to Crikey!), and however tempting it is to blame him for not finishing the job, it was never his job to protect shareholders.
When it comes to assigning blame, it should fall fair and square on the ASX. If they were doing their job properly, they should never have allowed BrisConnections to be listed in the first place.
To explain why requires a (relatively) brief explanation of instalment receipts. Also known as partly paid shares, they are a means a of issuing shares in a company in stages. If a company was estimated to be worth around $200 million, rather than issuing 100 million shares at $2 each, this approach involves selling 100 million “instalment receipts” (rather than fully paid shares) at $1 each. At some point in the future, holders of these receipts would pay a further $1 and their receipts convert into ordinary shares. This means of raising capital is very well suited to construction projects where the company does not require all of the capital upfront and was, for example, used to finance the construction of the Sydney Olypmic Stadium prior to the 2000 Olympics.
So, using instalment receipts was a natural approach to raising capital for the construction of Brisbane’s Airport Link. However, there is a crucial difference between the approach Macquarie Bank used with BrisConnections and most previous projects such as the Olympic Stadium and the Telstra privatisation. In the earlier examples, payment of later instalments was optional. Holders of instalment receipts had the choice of paying the next instalment and converting their holdings to fully paid shares or simply walking away with nothing. However, in the case of BrisConnections, paying the instalment is not optional and this makes a big difference.
To see why, I’ll go back to the hypothetical example of the $200 million company. Imagine that, for some reason (project problems, global financial crisis, or whatever), the value of the company fell to $150 million and then to $100 million and finally to $60 million. If they had originally raised capital by issuing 100 million $2 shares, then the share price would fall to $1.50, then to $1 and finally to $0.60. Obviously investors would be disappointed to see their investment fall in value, but these things happen on the share market.
Now imagine that they had issued 100 million $1 instalment receipts with a compulsory instalment payment of $1 in the future. So, even though the original investors had only invested $1, they had effectively committed $2. Initially worth $1, these instalment receipts would fall in value to around $0.50 when the company fell to $150 million. This is because the overall value of a fully paid share is $1.50 and instalment receipt holders have committed to paying the final $1, so the balance is $0.50. It gets messier as the value of the company continues to fall. When the company is worth $100 million, the instalment receipts are essentially worth $0 and with the company worth $60 million they should be worth negative $0.40! What this means is that a holder of one of these receipts should be prepared to pay someone $0.40 per receipt to take them off their hands. Since a “buyer” of the receipts considers the company to be worth $0.60 per share but knows there is a commitment to pay $1, they would want to be compensated $0.40 per share to take on the commitment of paying the instalment.
This is where is gets problematic for the ASX. The way the stock exchange system is set up, it is impossible to trade on the exchange with negative prices. So, even though these hypothetical receipts have a negative value, they would have to trade at a positive price. And they are not worth that! This is exactly what happened with BrisConnections. It got to the point where it was trading at price of a fraction of a cent when the value of the instalments were in fact negative. As a result, investors unaware of the future instalment obligation thought they were snapping up large numbers of shares at a bargain price and instead are now faced with enormous liabilities that many will simply be unable to pay.
The ASX has responded by announcing new rules requiring better disclosure from brokers. This misses the point. No amount of disclosure will change the fact that BrisConnections instalments could not be traded at real, negative prices. Even if everyone had full disclosure and (assuming no-one was trying anything tricky like Bolton) so no-one bought any units at near zero prices, this would leave the problem that existing investors would be unable to sell their holdings at all.
When the BrisConnections receipts were first listed, everyone might have expected the value of the company to go up not down, but the possibility that it could have gone down was always there and this should have raised alarm bells with the ASX right from the start.
Put simply, if the ASX cannot cope with negative prices, they should never allow anything to be listed on the exchange that has the slightest chance of having a negative value.
Since instalment receipts are hardly new, why has this only come up now? The secret lies in the fact that the instalments for Telstra, the Olympic Stadium and so many others were optional. Since there would never be a committed liability for instalment holders, the prices of the receipts could certainly go down to very close to zero, but they could never be negative. Of course, if no-one paid the instalment this would create some difficulties for the company and they would have to raise fresh capital, but a debacle like BrisConnections could never happen. Why was BrisConnections structured with a committed instalment? I can only guess the certainty of future cashflows for BrisConnections made it much easier for Macquarie Bank to pull out fatter fees for structuring the deal in the first place, which is why I would not have been sorry to see it all collapse for them (and it still might). Even if I am right in my suspicions, this would hardly be surprising news about Macquarie. So, I don’t really blame them, I blame the ASX.