It’s a make-or-break year for these battered companies

It’s a make-or-break year for these battered companies

These five U.S. companies should be watched closely

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Companies in the United States had a lot to overcome in the latter half of 2022 with rising interest rates, more budget-conscious consumers and a sagging stock market. That’s left some of them in very tough spots at the start of the new year. These five should be watched closely:

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Carnival Corp.

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Carnival entered 2020 with a full head of steam, having reported record sales and profit the year before. Three years into the pandemic, it’s a different company.

The cruise line giant, like other ship operators, shut down for more than a year due to COVID-19. It sold new shares and borrowed heavily, tripling its long-term debt to US$32 billion over the past three years. Rising interest rates will make that sum even tougher to pay down.

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Meanwhile, Carnival’s fleet has shrunk by 11 per cent as older and less fuel-efficient ships were sold or retired. Passenger capacity is about the same, as newly added ships are larger.

The challenge for new chief executive Josh Weinstein, who took over in August, will be filling the remaining vessels at prices that allow the company to return to profitability. That’s been difficult in the wake of weakening economies in Europe and COVID-19 outbreaks in China.

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The company last week said Europe and Asia bookings for 2023 have trailed pre-pandemic levels, while North America and Australia are tracking ahead.

Weinstein hopes to entice people back to cruising next year with a significant step in advertising, and he’s working with each of Carnival’s brands to hone their position in the marketplace. On a recent earnings call he likened the company’s relaunch over the last 18 months to being “the world’s largest startup.”

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Carnival shares trade as if more trouble lies ahead. The stock is down more than 80 per cent since December 2019 — the worst performer among the three big cruise companies — and recently touched a 30-year bottom.

“At the end of the day, we think expectations are low,” Credit Suisse Securities analyst Benjamin Chaiken said.

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Beyond Meat Inc.

It’s also been a rough year for Beyond Meat. Sales of fake meat have fallen at grocery stores and product tests with fast-food partners didn’t result in any Beyond products becoming permanent menu items in the U.S.

Two separate rounds of layoffs eliminated more than 20 per cent of employees, or about 240 roles. The company also endured its share of scandals, ranging from its chief operating officer being arrested in an alleged road-rage incident after a football game to a plant in Pennsylvania being linked to Listeria contamination and other safety issues. The COO, finance chief, head of supply chain and chief growth officer have all departed in recent months.

Beyond Meat said it will finally be cash-flow positive in the second half of 2023, but analysts are skeptical that can happen until sales stabilize. Quarterly spending has come down, but the company had just US$390 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter and more than US$1 billion in debt.

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Chief executive Ethan Brown maintains that plant-based meat will eventually replace the real thing. Investors are far from convinced; the stock has fallen about 95 per cent from its peak in 2019 and short interest accounts for around 40 per cent of the available shares.

It’s unclear how long Brown — or his company — will survive without a meaningful turnaround.

Carvana Co.

March could offer a tell-tale moment for debt-strapped online used-car retailer Carvana. That’s when an interest payment is due on its 2029 bonds.

If the company makes the payment, it could be a sign that it has a plan to restructure debt with creditors and carry on. If not, then bankruptcy “has to clearly be thought of as a possible outcome,” according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Joel Levington.

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Carvana is in a real bind. The company aggressively bought used-car inventory when demand was high and sticker prices were soaring early in the year, relying on credit agreements and share sales to raise cash. Then prices tumbled as automakers found more semiconductors and boosted new-vehicle production, shifting buyers’ focus.

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The once-hot used-car market sank even more as inflation and rising interest rates made purchases less affordable for lower-income consumers.

In the past 12 months, used-vehicle prices have tumbled 14 per cent, according to Manheim, the U.S.’s largest wholesale car auction. Manheim owner Cox Automotive Inc. expects pre-owned sales and prices to fall even more in 2023.

After earnings from larger rival CarMax Inc. came in well below expectations last week, Levington suggested Carvana may be facing a “devastating setback for its turnaround plans.”

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The company’s largest creditors have agreed to jointly work to get a deal with management to refinance its debt. Carvana bonds have traded below 50 cents on the dollar, indicating a high chance of default.

Verve Therapeutics Inc.

Next year will be crucial for Verve Therapeutics, a biotech company developing a gene-editing treatment for heart disease.

Verve wants to edit human DNA to reduce the risk of heart attack, an idea that captivated investors when the company went public in mid-2021. The plan is to first focus on people with an inherited form of high cholesterol, which affects 31 million people globally, before expanding to broader uses. But the regulatory path is turning out to be much tougher than previously thought.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November halted studies of the company’s lead drug in order to get more information about potency, unintended changes in DNA and the risk that those alterations could be passed down to offspring. While Verve works to answer those questions and get back on track, the stock price has plummeted amid mounting uncertainty.

Clinical trials are still moving forward overseas, and Verve plans to share data from them next year. That should give investors a better sense of how well the drug might work and how safe it could be.

But even if everything looks good, Verve will still need years yet to prove the drug’s promise and assure investors there’s enough appetite for it. The company said it has enough cash to last through 2025.

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Electric vehicle startups

Electric-vehicle (EV) startups raised more than US$10 billion in 2020 and 2021 by capitalizing on the fad of going public through mergers with special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs).

Despite that influx of cash, many companies struggled to stay afloat in 2022 after running into the hard reality of just how much money is required to put a car on the road. Rising interest rates and less-friendly capital markets haven’t helped.

In June, Electric Last Mile Solutions Inc. became the first of the EV startups to go out of business, liquidating its assets through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. Chinese startup Niutron folded earlier this month without delivering a single car to the approximately 24,000 customers who had paid deposits.

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It looks increasingly possible that the trend will continue. Canoo Inc. and Faraday Future Intelligent Electric Inc. have already warned about their cash balances, and it will be difficult for them to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars required to ramp up volume.

Even companies that are more flush, such as Saudi Arabia-controlled Lucid Group Inc., have scaled back their output goals amid supply-chain and production hurdles.

With funding options scarce, some EV startups may look to consolidation as a means of survival. As Tesla Inc. chief executive Elon Musk noted earlier this year, starting a car company “is mega pain.”

— With assistance from Christopher Palmeri, Deena Shanker, David Welch, Angelica Peebles and Sean O’Kane.

Bloomberg.com

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