Wall Street pulled its financing. Stocks have plummeted. But private prisons still thrive.

Via The Washington Post | Renae Merly and Tracey Jan

Julie Henry sits on a suspended platform as she protests outside the headquarters of CoreCivic in Nashville in 2018. The company is one of the nation's largest private prison operators and also runs immigration detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Julie Henry sits on a suspended platform as she protests outside the headquarters of CoreCivic in Nashville in 2018. The company is one of the nation’s largest private prison operators and also runs immigration detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Over the past year, private prison giants CoreCivic and GEO Group have been abandoned by Wall Street and seen their stock prices plummet.

Activists are rejoicing in the success of the campaigns they waged against the companies for profiting from President Trump’s immigration policies and are planning even more protests. “It’s been this amazing domino effect,” said Julio López Varona, co-director of Community Dignity Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, of the half-dozen banks that have begun to distance themselves from the private detention industry.

Now, analysts have begun to worry about a future financing crunch for the two companies that together account for 80 percent of the private prison industry. But it remains far from a death knell.

Moody’s recently listed among GEO Group’s challenges: “Reduced access to capital as lenders and investors stop financing private prison operators.” Fitch Ratings lowered CoreCivic’s debt rating and its outlook to “negative.”AD

As a real estate investment trust, CoreCivic must return most of its profits to shareholders and relies on its ability to borrow money to refinance existing debt, according to Fitch Ratings, which downgraded the company’s credit rating in July. That could become more difficult as the large banks that traditionally represent a key, stable source of funding refuse to lend to private prison companies, Fitch analysts Gabriel Foguel and Stephen Boyd said.

“Not having access to [these] stable sources of financing contributed to our negative outlook,” Foguel said in an interview this week.

Without the major banks, CoreCivic could seek out other sources of funding, including issuing new stock or finding a non-bank lender such as a private equity investor or hedge fund, the analysts said. But those sources are less stable than major bank funding, Foguel said, and it remains unclear whether those alternatives will be enough.AD

“We’re waiting to see if they will be able to reach some of those [alternative financing deals] in the next one to two years,” Boyd said.

Part of the concern is that investors’ focus on social issues is spreading and could close off more financing avenues for CoreCivic, the analysts said. Stockholders may decide this is an industry in which they don’t want to invest. “There are some signs that other capital markets providers are uninterested in lending to the sector,” Boyd said.

CoreCivic and GEO Group have already started to see interest from smaller regional banks that could fill in the gap or they could work with private equity, said Reed Valutas, lead analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. In a few years, when the companies need to secure new loans, the big banks that recently said they wouldn’t work with private detention centers in the future may have a different perspective, he said.AD

“We don’t really know the landscape or horizon of what is going to happen. Things are constantly evolving and changing in this industry,” said Valutas.

But if they have trouble securing loans in the future, “that could prevent them from growing,” said Valutas. The companies are stable, he said, “the issue is whether they can continue to grow if they can’t tap the capital markets in the same way.”

The stock price of both companies has fallen about 30 percent since June.

Company executives, too, have publicly acknowledged potential hurdles even as they sought to reassure shareholders.

During an August conference call with analysts, Damon Hininger, CoreCivic’s chief executive, called the banks’ decision to cease financing the industry “a result of politically motivated threats.” The banks had “clearly bowed down to a small group of activists,” he said. But he said that CoreCivic still has “plenty of financial partners” and that he remains “confident in our ability to cost-effectively manage our balance sheet and excess capital when necessary.”AD

But David M. Garfinkle, CoreCivic’s chief financial officer, said during the same call that “the price of our debt and equity have been affected” by the headlines.

More than half a dozen major banks have either divested or are in the process of divesting from the private detention sector. JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, announced that it would stop financing the industry profiting from immigrant detention in March, following similar moves by Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank.

In June, just weeks after extending a line of credit to a major private prison company, Bank of America became one of the last big Wall Street banks to say it would sever ties with the industry. SunTrust, BNP Paribas and Fifth Third soon followed.

According to a July report by public interest groups, the six major banks that have withdrawn from the industry represent an estimated $1.93 billion, or 72 percent of the total current financing available to private prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group. By August, two more banks — PNC and Barclays — said they would no longer finance the industry. Together, the eight banks account for 87 percent of the loans and credit available to these companies, according to a research update by the public interest groups.AD

“It’s unfortunate that misleading political activism has been allowed to impact decade-long banking relationships,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “The divestment efforts against our company are based on a false narrative and a deliberate mischaracterization of our role as a long-standing government services provider.”

GEO Group warned investors in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in July that if other banks stopped doing business with the company because of increased public resistance to the private detention industry, it “could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition, results of operations and the market price of our securities.”

In an SEC filing in August, CoreCivic said that it could not guarantee that other banks wouldn’t decide to stop financing the industry, which could have a “material adverse effect” on the company.

Activists say they are continuing to pressure five smaller regional banks that have not committed to pulling out of the private prison industry. They are: Regions, Birmingham; Citizens, Providence, R.I.; Pinnacle, Nashville; First Tennessee, Memphis; and Synovus, Columbus, Ga.

“We recognize that people have differing views about the private sector’s involvement in prisons,” said Evelyn Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Regions, in a statement. She would not comment on the banks’ investment in private prisons. “This is a complex issue that government officials and policymakers are in the best position to address directly.”

Peter Lucht, a Citizens spokesman, said the bank does not discuss specific clients or industry exposures. “We do maintain a commitment to lending to companies that conduct their business in a socially responsible manner,” he said in a statement. “If that is not the case we are prepared to exit those relationships.”AD

Lee Underwood, a Synovus spokesman, said the bank does not comment on plans with its customers.

Pinnacle and First Tennessee did not respond to a request for comment about their financing plans for the prison companies.

Despite the uncertain financial forecasts for GEO Group and CoreCivic, activist protests have not appeared to hit the prison companies’ bottom lines.

Nor have the banks’ withdrawals from financing detention center companies in the future affected CoreCivic’s day-to-day operations, said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for the company. The company’s “fiscal health has been unaffected by these bank announcements,” she said, “and we have seen a positive response from many other banks that are interested in working with us.”

During the first half of 2019, CoreCivic’s profits increased 27 percent, to $98 million, compared with the same period last year, and the Nashville-based company said it would bring in more profits than it initially expected this year.AD

GEO Group’s profit increased 14 percent, to $83 million, during the first half of the year, and the company anticipates bringing in $2.47 billion in revenue this year. The company, based in Boca Raton, Fla., is planning to have 5,700 more detention beds available by the end of the year, bringing in more than $100 million in additional annual revenue.

The companies continue to be buoyed by government contracts, which began to grow amid the Central American refugee crisis in President Barack Obama’s second term. In 2015, CoreCivic and GEO Group received a total of $884 million, according to an analysis of federal contracting records by Public Citizen, a liberal consumer rights advocacy group.

The windfall continued under Trump. Last year, CoreCivic and GEO Group — the largest beneficiaries — received $1 billion in federal contracts, the vast majority of which came from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the Public Citizen analysis.

“All this stuff is very much associated with Trump in the public imagination, but the trends were set during the Obama administration,” said Alan Zibel, a research director at Public Citizen who wrote a recent report on the federal contracts. “It’s not a death knell for the industry by any means.”

Activists, while hopeful that the loss of financing could hamper the prison companies’ growth and viability, say they have no doubt that the companies will find a way to stay afloat.

GEO Group is expected to reopen a private prison in Baldwin, Mich., in the coming days to incarcerate noncitizens as part of a 10-year contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to a recent news report.

“The Trump administration has a commitment to make private detention a thing,” López Varona said.

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