James Moore: It's time for Punch Taverns to put up, shut up or blow-up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Outlook Punch Taverns' heavyweight bout with its bondholders is rapidly drawing to a conclusion. After four rounds and 14 months, the company has basically told them that they either back down and allow it to fight another day or have management throw in the towel by calling in the receivers.

This can be a dangerous game to play because there's always a risk that the bondholders decide to call your bluff, leading to a very ugly situation indeed.

Either that, or you end up getting embarrassed if there actually is wriggle room, as there was with the Co-operative Bank. It told bondholders that if they didn't accept equity amounting to a third of the company, it would embark on the banking equivalent of receivership... until it emerged that there was another way.

This, however, is a very different situation and the proposals on the table have already been tweaked and then tweaked again. Eventually you get to the point where it really is time to put up, shut up, or watch what happens when you push the button marked "blow up".

There are many involved with this company who might favour the latter option. The Punch saga has been a long-running and ugly one, with myopic shareholders allowing a chief executive to go on a deal binge, fuelled by borrowing provided by credulous lenders. They all allowed themselves to be suckered by pretty PowerPoints and hopelessly optimistic projections.

"Well, you see the market changed," is the cry you'll often hear when these things go wrong. But here's the thing: markets do change. Economies wobble, supermarkets offer cheap booze as a loss leader, Governments find excuses to hit you with duties, and regulation, and business rates that lead to your tenants going pop because they just can't take any more squeezing.

The only companies that can really manage with mountains of debt are utilities, where the revenues are guaranteed – although the market has changed for them too, because the public is understandably restive at being asked to pay for shareholders to enjoy guaranteed inflation-busting dividend hikes.

But let's look forward. Today's Punch shows signs that it might have a future if it can get this deal to fly. The pub sector has been reviving itself and so has the economy. By improving food offerings, making themselves more attractive to a wider range of customers, even serving espresso coffee in the morning, some pubs have even found ways to thrive. The evidence can be seen in recent trading statements.

All that might tempt bondholders, facing a nasty haircut and stung because the company hasn't been as deferential as they'd like, to dig in their heels.

They need to have a care. Even after this deal is done it won't be plain sailing. It's worth noting that in most cases managed pubs – where publicans are salaried employees and the operating company has more control – have significantly outperformed tenanted outlets, on which Punch is now focused.

It may also require wages to show real terms increases for the sector to really fly. Too many drinkers still favour the sofa and a six pack from the supermarket.

Moreover, if Punch ultimately wins through it will still have to operate under a burden of debt. The only certainty here is that this fight has gone on for long enough. It's decision time, and even those lenders who face losing on points might like to reflect that receivership may knock them out.