Iridium LLC, the global satellite company that is struggling to stay aloft in the face ofunhappy creditors and bondholders, has a new flying partner: vultures.
"Vulture" bond investors have been flocking to buy Iridium's bonds, amassing as much as $800 million of the company's $1.45 billion in public debt in recent weeks.
A "vulture" investor "seeks opportunities in value-distressed asset and special-situation investments," a partner in one such firm said. In plain English, it means the investors buy up the debt of companies in trouble from worried investors at a steep discount and hope to profit by selling the bonds later when the companies return to financial health.
Vulture investment could actually be a good sign for the Washington-based company, because it shows that investors believe Iridium can be turned around. Some observers, however, have seen bankruptcy protection as an option for the telecommunications pioneer.
The new bondholders, however, could demand an ownership stake in the company in return for their continued support.
The bond-trading activity was first reported in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.
Iridium, Motorola Inc. and other investors and bondholders are in the midst of intense negotiations to restructure the ailing satellite company's debt agreements. A pair of important deadlines arrive next week that could decide Iridium's fate.
On Aug. 11, an extension granted to the company by its creditors will expire--the third so far they have provided. And on Aug. 15, the company must pay $90 million in interest on its $1.45 billion outstanding senior notes, as a 30-day grace period invoked by Iridium expires.
One telecommunications industry analyst predicted yesterday that the company will do everything it can to get the restructuring in place before the Aug. 11 deadline; the company has scheduled a conference call with analysts for Aug. 10th, the analyst said.
Iridium spokeswoman Michelle Lyle said that she could not comment on the negotiations or financial moves concerning the company. "We don't want to negotiate this in the press," she said.
At the end of the first quarter of the year, Iridium announced that it had 10,294 customers paying from $2 to $7 a minute for service.
The company has delayed issuing second-quarter figures during the recent negotiations, but analysts believe that Iridium now has about 20,000 customers--far fewer than the 500,000 it pledged to have by the year's end. Iridium has slashed per-minute prices on calls and has reduced the cost of the bulky phones and pagers in an attempt to woo customers.
Earlier this week Iridium said that Chase Manhattan Corp. had accused it of being in default on an $800 million loan and was demanding a $300 million payment from Motorola. Iridium and Motorola, which owns 18 percent of Iridium, denied the situation constituted default.
Iridium was founded by Motorola and a consortium of other companies in a grand plan tocreate a telephone system that would work to the ends of the earth, relaying phone calls among a network of orbiting satellites. But in the years when Iridium was preparing its network, use of conventional cell phones expanded to many parts of the world, decreasing the potential market for Iridium.