Riding the bus to work in Santiago takes so long that Andrea Gomez, a 32-year-old lawyer, spends almost seven times as much money a day on taxis to avoid delays.
“It takes forever to get to work, and you arrive in a bad mood” when you ride the bus, Gomez said by telephone from the Chilean capital. “Then it takes two hours to get home.”
Commuters are spurning buses for cars and trains as Chile eliminates routes and lengthens wait times between buses to reduce the debt it takes on to subsidize the transportation system. Cab rides like Gomez’s are also helping to fuel a record jump in borrowing costs at Inversiones Alsacia SA, the only bus operator in Santiago to rely on overseas debt financing.
Yields on the company’s $405 million of dollar-denominated bonds surged 2.16 percentage points this month to 9.9 percent, the biggest jump since it sold the notes in February 2011. Debt yields for transportation companies in Latin America fell 0.2 percentage point in the same span, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. recommended on Feb. 12 that investors sell the bonds on concern falling ridership is causing cash to drop to levels that may force Alsacia to offer more guarantees to debt holders, while Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service said last week they may lower Alsacia’s debt rating.
“They are going a little short of cash in terms of the debt-service account,” Raymond Zucaro, a managing principal who holds Alsacia bonds as part of a $280 million portfolio at SW Asset Management LLC in Newport Beach, California, said in a telephone interview. “Now that people see balances are a little low, there is a re-pricing of the risk.”
Alsacia’s borrowing costs are now almost twice as high as the average of 5.40 percent for Latin American debt with similar credit ratings, according to Credit Suisse’s LABI index.
JPMorgan lowered its recommendation for Alsacia’s bonds to underweight, the equivalent of sell, from market-weight. Fitch said it will study whether to cut the company’s BB rating, which is two levels below investment grade, as demand missed expectations in the past two years. Moody’s may downgrade the Ba2 rating after revenue fell short of estimates.
Alsacia’s ratio of cash flow to total debt including interest has fallen to 1.12 times, approaching the 1.1 times threshold that may force the company to shift money currently used for administrative and repair expenses to a fund that will be used to pay investors, according to JPMorgan’s Daniel Sensel and Daniela Savoia.
The debt service coverage ratio was 1.4 in February 2012, according to Moody’s.
While such an event would limit Alsacia’s ability to use cash as it sees fit, it wouldn’t hurt investors, Jose Ramon Aboitiz, the company’s investor relations director, said by telephone. It’s impossible to speculate whether Alsacia will remain above the threshold of 1.1 because there are factors such as fuel prices that are out of its hands, he said.
JPMorgan says the ratio may fall below 1.1 by the end of April as a government payment to compensate Alsacia for a decline in demand won’t arrive until May.
Alsacia held $92 million in cash at the end of January, according to JPMorgan.
“They’re very likely going to breach the ratio in the short term, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be in a default state,” Dorothea Froehlich, a money manager at MainFirst Bank AG in Zurich who holds Alsacia bonds, said in a telephone interview. The increase in yields “will calm down once the quarter has passed and the payment from the government has been made.”
Alsacia on Feb. 19 made a scheduled debt payment of $47 million on the bonds, Chief Financial Officer Guillermo Sarmiento said by telephone.
Yields on Chile’s 10-year inflation-linked bond fell one basis point, or 0.01 percentage point, to 2.63 percent from yesterday, and have declined 10 basis points from a 14-month high of 2.73 percent on Feb. 7.
The cost of protecting Chilean bonds against default for five years was little changed at 69 basis points in New York. Credit-default swaps pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent if a borrower fails to adhere to its debt agreements.
Bus demand has fallen about 3 percent a year since the government in 2007 tried to make Santiago’s transportation system more efficient by introducing different routes and bus lanes, according to Oscar Figueroa, an urban studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The government has been forced to cut back on routes and reduce the frequency of some buses as costs of the new system rose, Figueroa said.
An increasing number of Chileans can also choose more expensive means of transportation after the economy expanded 55 percent since 2007, giving the Andean nation the highest per- capita gross domestic product among major Latin American nations tracked by Bloomberg.
The number of new cars sold in Chile surged 23 percent last year from 2010, according to the national car association.
For Andrea Gomez, paying the 4,000 pesos ($8.47) for a 15- minute cab ride to work in Santiago’s business district of Huechuraba -- rather than the 590 pesos to spend an hour on the bus -- is worth it.
“I’m taking a taxi until I can buy a car,” she said.
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