Short Sellers See Golf Company's Outlook Improve
By ANTHONY PALAZZO
There's a war brewing between holders of National Golf Properties Inc. stock and short-sellers who have targeted the ailing golf course landlord as a potential bankruptcy candidate.
Since late last year, short interest in National Golf stock has risen to about 1.8 million shares, or 13.5 percent of all shares outstanding, from minimal levels before late summer, when the company began to show signs of distress.
Most of the short selling took place between February and April, when National Golf's stock hovered between $5 and $10.
While the shorts were selling, other investors were coming to a different conclusion: that the company's assets were undervalued. These new buyers, hard-nosed professionals who have taken an activist stance toward National Golf's management, have replaced the traditional shareholder base that favored the steady returns of a Real Estate Investment Trust.
These buyers purchased at around the same times and at the same prices as the shorts were selling. Recently, National Golf's stock has traded about midway through the range, at $8.24.
Sooner or later, one of these groups is going to get creamed. But who?
The momentum lately has been on the side of the buyers, or the "longs." National Golf's stock has crept up recently amid signs of an improving relationship between National Golf's interim chief executive, outside director Charles "Skip" Paul, and the institutional investors that have opposed his proposal to merge National Golf with its heavily indebted operating affiliate, American Golf Corp. Paul has been visiting some of National Golf's major shareholders, and has had some success in convincing them that he's trying to preserve shareholder value.
While to varying degrees these large shareholders still oppose the merger plan, they're willing to acknowledge other steps Paul's taken to increase the value of the combined companies, including raising cash through golf course sales and ousting several top American Golf executives.
Said one shareholder: "We've said our piece, now it's time to see what (Paul) does."
Also at play is a market dynamic that could work against the sellers. While short sales initially help push a stock's price down, they also represent a commitment to buy replacement shares sometime in the future. (Short sellers hope to profit from declines in a stock's price by selling borrowed stock and buying it back later at lower prices.)
In the case of National Golf, with 13.1 million shares outstanding, the 1.8 million in short interest represents a significant guarantee of future buying volume.
Any positive event say the announcement of a deal to sell National Golf at a price that's higher than it is trading for now could send short sellers scrambling to "cover" their positions by buying stock. When this pressure gets overheated, it is called a "short squeeze," and it can propel a stock to unusually high levels very quickly.
In National Golf's case, nearly half of the company's shares are in the hands of long-term shareholders who aren't likely to sell on a short-term price swing. Chairman David Price, other insiders and most of the institutional shareholders all are said to believe the stock is worth somewhere in the teens, based on its asset value. Price isn't likely to sell unless forced to; in fact, any transaction will probably be structured to minimize his tax burden.
The implication is that if and when a deal is announced, short sellers will find few shares available for purchase when they try to cover.
"I don't know where they're going to find the shares to cover," said one institutional owner who said he's gone down National Golf's shareholder roster.
To appreciate the sensitivity of these events, take a look at the trading that occurred on May 30, the day rumors swept the market that a deal was imminent that would take National Golf private.
The stock jumped 72 cents, or 9.1 percent, on trading volume of 385,000 shares. Trading volume in the weeks before the rumors was generally well below 100,000 shares daily.
Extensions on debt
Supporters say National Golf has received interest from high-quality investors on its plan to merge with American and simultaneously seek an infusion of outside equity into the combined company. Though it's unclear what form a final deal might take, sources said the company is working its way toward an announcement soon.
(National Golf officials declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, the banks are cooperating by giving National Golf numerous extensions on its debt agreements. While business is still down, the company is benefiting from better weather, said people whose sympathies are squarely on the side of the "longs."
On the other hand, National Golf still hasn't published enough information about course-level results, cash flow from third-party courses operated by American Golf, or terms of any proposed transaction to arrive at a conclusion about the company's worth, said Steve Sakwa, first vice president at Merrill Lynch.
"I'm not sure why this is taking so long, this mess has been going on since November," said Sakwa, who rates National Golf shares a "sell." Based on the incomplete information Sakwa has, National Golf's asset value is less than $4 a share.
In similar situations, things have ended badly, Sakwa said. "Until we get definition of who's paying what, who owns what and what the lease structure is, we don't want to be invested in the stock."
Sakwa acknowledged conditions exist that could allow a short squeeze to develop, but he's not convinced that it will. "Based on information that we have, we're concerned that there could be a downside," he said. "But we realize that we're not playing with a full deck of cards here."
Financial Editor Anthony Palazzo can be reached at 323-549-5225, ext. 224, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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