Take one well-intentioned social policy with loopholes attached. Add one sharp operator. Fold in a pinch less than a quarter of a billion dollars. Garnish with financial excess. Let simmer until banks overheat.
Yield: One bankruptcy. And a classic example of how some of the biggest financial institutions in the country can do incredibly foolish things.
This recipe, as it were, was cooked up by a fellow named Sharad Tak. Never heard of Tak, you say? The poor souls who lent some $240 million to his Tak Communications Corp. wish they could say the same.
Tak's overextended, money-losing company filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code last month in Madison, Wis., issuing a news release that blamed the filing on "a consortium of East Coast-based banks." The fact that the banks include institutions based in Chicago, Minneapolis and Cleveland and that Tak's own company is based in Vienna, Va., were conveniently omitted. But I digress.
The Tak bankruptcy isn't just another debt-bites-man story. It's a story of how Sharad Tak, to his own grief, squeezed through a loophole only to do himself in. And how the public will pick up the tab.
Before we go any further, two disclosures. First: None of the parties involved would talk on the record, so I've had to rely on my interpretations of Tak documents, some of which were given to me by people with axes to grind. Second: While I think that Tak's actions show him to be a sharpie, I'm not saying or implying that he has done anything illegal.
On the surface, Tak Communications is pretty impressive. It owns network-affiliated TV stations in Buffalo, Honolulu and the Wisconsin cities of Madison, Wausau, La Crosse and Eau Claire. It also owns WUSL-FM, which is one of Philadelphia's top-rated radio stations, and radio stations in Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Champaign-Urbana, Ill. Even in today's depressed markets for media properties, these stations are probably worth $160 million to $200 million.
So why is Tak Communications in bankruptcy court? Because its stations couldn't produce enough cash to pay interest on its debts, which total about $250 million.
Tak came to the United States from India in 1968 as a graduate student who was far from poor. According to a biography provided to potential investors, Tak stayed in the United States rather than go back to India because he discovered the program "setting aside" business for members of certain minority groups, and he started a consulting business to fill this niche.
Along the way, he discovered that people who sell broadcast properties to members of certain minority groups can get big tax advantages and will share the tax savings with minority buyers by selling them properties for less than what a nonminority buyer would pay.
Neither of these policies was designed for well-off adult immigrants who became U.S. citizens, but Tak -- perfectly legally -- squeezed through the loophole.
Tak started in the broadcast business modestly, buying his Illinois radio station for $1.9 million in 1978 and the four Wisconsin stations for $22 million in 1985. Those seem to have worked out very well, financially.
But in 1987 and 1988, he bought two more TV stations and two more radio stations for $212 million, almost all of it borrowed. So what if the company's stations weren't generating enough cash to pay the interest bills? Thanks to the wonders of late 1980s finance, Tak could borrow some of his interest payments, too.
In September of 1988, a group of banks led by Boston's Bank of New England and New York's Chemical Bank gave Tak a $175 million credit line, some of which was designed to let him pay interest.
But the banks were a model of prudence compared with the buyers of junk bonds that Morgan, Stanley & Co. peddled on Tak's behalf. These little beauties, a $63 million package put together by Morgan's Steven Rattner (who's now at Lazard Freres & Co.), let Tak pay interest by giving holders more junk bonds.
It was not one of Rattner's better deals. The ink had barely dried before Tak ran into trouble. He couldn't meet his profit projections. Meanwhile, TV and radio station values throughout the country began dropping. Tak started having trouble meeting terms of his loans, and by early 1990 was missing interest payments. The fact that Bank of New England, one of Tak's original lead lenders, was a failing institution didn't help things any. The bank was under pressure to call in risky loans like Tak's. Chemical Bank, no slouch when it comes to making bad loans, is now the lead lender.
After typical squabbling -- the banks wanted Tak to put more money into the company and sell properties; Tak wanted the banks to lend him enough cash to make his interest payments -- the banks sued him in federal court in Alexandria to collect on their loans.
I think the banks went ballistic because Tak was paying interest to himself but not to them. Some $2 million of Tak's $14 million investment was a loan he made to the company, and that loan was supposed to be the last in line to get paid. After the banks sued, Tak went Chapter 11 to escape the suit.
Tak will lose some or all of his $14 million. The U.S. Treasury is out millions of tax dollars that were avoided by the people who sold properties to Tak to take advantage of the minority broadcasting provision. What's more, three of Tak's lenders -- Bank of New England, its Connecticut Bank & Trust Co. subsidiary and Columbia Savings & Loan of Beverly Hills, Calif. -- were taken over by the government last month. So taxpayers, who just wanted to help struggling entrepreneurs, are stuck with $82 million of Sharad Tak paper.
The program encouraging minorities to buy broadcasting properties turned out to be a high-minded policy gone bad in this case, a reminder of the wisdom of that ancient saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Allan Sloan is a columnist for Newsday in New York.