Wall Street is winning big from a rebound in a grim business

LEGO Grim Reaper Death

Energy companies are feeling the pinch. Wall Street is getting ready to gorge.

A precipitous decline in commodity prices, including the price of oil, in recent months means that flailing companies need to restructure their businesses.

Lazard CEO Kenneth Jacobs on Friday said on a conference call Friday that his firm’s restructuring advisory business was a particularly strong point in the first quarter.

“Restructuring had a strong first quarter,” Jacobs said following the release of Lazard’s first-quarter earnings.

“The majority of restructuring activity remained centered around energy and commodity-related sectors, and Lazard is advising on a substantial share of these assignments.”

That comes amid a quarter when total financial advisory revenues were down 12%, driven primarily by a lower mergers-and-acquisitions activity, which is typically a revenue-driver for the firm.

The stronger-than-usual restructuring revenue “reflected the closing of several large transactions, as well as the generally active market in the US energy sector,” according to Jacobs.

He continued (emphasis ours):

The restructuring activity really started to pick up… last fall with the significant drop in the oil price. It tends to have a kind of a soft start, because people, generally speaking, are always kind of reluctant to take the first steps around restructuring until they have a more certain view of the longer-term environment. So, it tends to take a little while to kick-in.

I think we are seeing now in the first quarter, the beginnings of the revenue ramp-up from this new activity. It feels more like the dotcom bubble that it goes, the 2008-2009 period. The 2008-2009 period spread across the entire economy, starting with financial sector, but was much broader. The cycle around dotcom since the turn of last decade in 2001, 2002, 2003 was more concentrated in the TMT sector like this cycle is, which is likely to be heavily concentrated in the energy commodity sector. So I think, I’d probably look back at that cycle. The only difference being, that cycle was also complemented by a bunch of the big fraud cases, so that probably let it to be a little bit higher than perhaps this one we will get to, but that’s probably our sense.

It isn’t just restructuring advisers who stand to benefit from the descent in to distress. Investors who specialize in distressed investing are also licking their lips.

Steve Schwarzman, CEO of mega-investor Blackstone, said that the distressed debt segment of the market — debt from companies nearing or in bankruptcy — is looking more and more attractive.

“On the flip side, a new distress cycle is clearly underway in the energy credit area and other needs for credit which create significant opportunities for our business,” said Schwarzman in the company’s quarterly earnings call Thursday.

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