LAS VEGAS The number of U.S. companies filing for bankruptcy has plunged and financing is easier to get, but restructuring experts see plenty of trouble ahead in corporate America.
Retailers, casual dining restaurant chains, health care and commercial real estate are among the businesses that likely will need overhauling in the coming year, according to lawyers, bankers and advisers who specialize in turning around companies.
Despite some of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history that wiped away hundreds of billions of dollars of debt from companies such as General Motors and CIT Group, many see trouble stemming from too much debt.
"There was no wave of restructuring," said Peter Hartheimer of NHB Capital Partners.
To Hartheimer and others attending the Turnaround Management Association Distressed Investing Conference in Las Vegas, particularly smaller companies with less than $500 million of annual revenue are in dire need of an overhaul to lessen their debt.
Through the recession, many smaller companies were kept on life support by their banks, which allowed them to adjust loan covenants or extend debt maturities, a fix disparaged as "amend and pretend."
These turnaround professionals see it as a problem for the U.S. economic recovery.
"It's going to impact employment," said James Shein, a professor at Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. He said the indebted smaller companies have no money for research and development, one of the first things they cut during the recession.
Craig Dean of AEG Partners in Chicago pointed to the trade show business. After nine straight quarters of decline because of shorter conferences and falling attendance, the business is drowning in too much capacity and falling prices.
He sees similar problems in consumer products companies and retailers such as Borders Group Inc. Borders, the No. 2 U.S. bookstore chain, said Thursday that it got a new financing commitment, but was also exploring options including a possible "in-court restructuring."
"Borders is a poster boy for that," Dean said.
The recovery is beginning to force long-ignored issues to be addressed.
Banks have repaired their finances, giving them the cushion needed to absorb a loss on their weaker loans. Financing is also becoming available.
"There is so much money in the hands of private equity and corporations," Shein said. "We're seeing fast deals being done."
Turnaround professionals also see some industries suffering from the recent spike in food prices.
Casual dining chains suffer from a glut of locations and many expect these chains to be forced to restructure their debt and overhaul operations due the squeeze of higher food prices which they are unlikely to pass along to customers.
Commercial real estate has long been considered a trouble spot, but many cite 2011 as the year to fix a business burdened by too much and complex financing.
Doug Mintz, a lawyer at law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, said a spike next year in debt maturities relating to commercial real estate will force lenders and investors to address the problem, rather than delaying a day of reckoning.
"It will finally be dealt with in a positive way," he said.
(Editing by Robert MacMillan)