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Capital Markets

Cov-Lites Will Help Some in a Downturn

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April 09, 2018

Fitch: covenant trend gives corporates flexibility during credit downturn

Mon Market - DowndraftThe leveraged debt market shows signs of approaching the later stages of the credit cycle, but the trend in recent years toward looser debt covenants should give those borrowers more flexibility and time to manage their debt obligations.

Looser terms combined with the surge in refinancing activity in 2016, which extended borrowers’ maturities at historically low rates, will soften the blow for leveraged borrowers during the next contraction of the credit cycle, according to a recent report by Fitch Ratings. The report, “Looser Documentation Marks Late-Stage Credit Cycle,” noted that 80% of leveraged loans today are “cov-lite,” which means they do not have maintenance covenants, a financial ratio that borrowers have traditionally had to meet on a quarterly basis. That compares to only 25% in 2007, although cov-lite loans had emerged only a few years before and so were a relatively new product.

In addition, loan terms such incremental debt, asset sales and step-downs, have become significantly more borrower friendly.

“The report is pointing out that there will be an extended period between the peak of the cycle and the next trough, because there is more of a cushion. Borrowers will be at a lower risk of default because they probably won’t be violating maintenance covenants and be more likely to make interest or principal payments,” said Lyuba Petrova, director at Fitch Ratings.

Credit agreements in recent years have also enabled borrowers to obtain additional debt, and specifically secured debt—generally the least expensive form of financing. The agreements have also permitted borrowers to shift excess cash flow and other forms of value away from secured lenders, often to lower parts of a company’s capital structure.

Ultimately, those trends could lead to a dilution of collateral for lenders. And especially distressed borrowers filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy may discover they have exhausted many of the work-out options that could’ve been available to them, and instead they’ll have to enter a credit situation with a significantly weaker credit profile.

“As a result, recoveries for secured lenders will probably be lower,” Ms. Petrova said.

In general, however, they will give corporate borrowers more flexibility to weather a downturn, and today, Ms. Petrova noted, corporate credit fundamentals remain strong. Nevertheless, while credit spreads today remain very low, and some borrowers have accessed the lending market a few times a year to capture 25 basis point and even 50 basis point spread reductions, the LIBOR benchmark is starting to rise.

“Something to keep in mind, especially for highly leveraged issuers, is that that at some point borrowing might become very expensive even if spreads remain low, because LIBOR has increased,” Ms. Petrova said.

She added that recent tax reform is another factor that leveraged borrowers must consider to calculate borrowing costs, since the interest-expense deduction no longer applies to an unlimited amount of debt but rather is capped at 30%. In a January report, Fitch noted that the loss of full interest-expense deductibility will negatively impact the cash flows of companies with higher leverage but be “credit neutral” for most mid- and higher-rated speculative-trade issuers.

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