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Death Spiral Convertible Just Refuses to Die

The "death spiral convertible" might sound like your last car, but it's a bond -- and it's making an unlikely comeback on Wall Street.

These much-maligned securities, whose conversion into common shares can be triggered by precipitous drops in a company's stock, all but disappeared from the market three years ago. The near extinction occurred as investors got wise to the deleterious impact an endless flood of new shares can have on price.

Subsequent allegations of manipulative trading by some of the hedge funds that invested in these deals looked to be the death knell of the death spiral convertible. Those allegations ultimately spawned a regulatory investigation that led to a number of enforcement actions against hedge funds accused of illegally profiting from declines in stock.

Over the past year, however, there's been a surprising revival in the market for death spiral convertibles -- known officially on Wall Street as "floating convertibles.''

In particular, small, cash-strapped companies with market capitalizations often under $100 million are selling these bonds to hedge funds in deals covered by the Wall Street acronym PIPEs, or private investments in public equity. The resurgence in death spiral deals may be an indication that tiny, cash-strapped companies are finding fewer options for raising money.

This year, 10% of the 478 completed PIPE deals brought to market have been death spiral transactions. By comparison, just 1.9% of all PIPE deals in 2003 were categorized as death spirals, according to research firm PlacementTracker. (PlacementTracker officially calls them floating convertibles).

Last year, death spirals accounted for 6.4% of the $20 billion-a-year PIPEs market. Death spiral deals peaked in 1999, when they represented 20% of all PIPE transactions.

Some of the companies that have done death spiral PIPE deals with floating conversion prices this past year include Generex (GNBT) and Vasomedical (VASO), according to PlacementTracker.

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