One statement we still often hear in the market is that “covenant-lite is only applied to the best credits”. Yet when we put this to Mikael Huldt, head of alternative investments at Stockholm-based insurance firm AFA Insurance, he is not convinced by the merits of the argument.
“I would express a lot of caution about that,” he says. “What do you mean by ‘the best credits’? Credits should be priced to perfection. All you can say with confidence is that each covenant needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. If the business is tied to real estate, you want the covenants to be tied to real estate. It depends on the situation. The optics frequently differ from the metrics.” Huldt does not believe that covenants are always vital. It comes down, in his view, to an assessment of whether they are genuinely meaningful. It may sound obvious, but this is a debate that frequently seems to lapse into lazy ‘covenant good, covenant-lite bad’ assumptions.
“There are some examples of non-sponsored deals where covenants have been set so tight that reset fees are built into the underlying base case. That’s highly aggressive. It’s almost acting like loan sharks.”
“If it’s a large company with quite a diverse customer base then the chances are you can be a bit more relaxed with the covenants,” Huldt points out. “But when it comes to smaller companies with shorter trading periods, then you need to be focused on actionable covenants. The devil is always in the detail.”
Huldt points to the significance of EBITDA addbacks, something sister title Private Debt Investor explored in its June 2019 cover story, when weighing up the meaningfulness of covenants – given the headroom that can be granted to companies if they inflate future cashflows. He also argues that covenants are worth more in the case of a sole lender than when a deal is broadly syndicated.
“The covenants are only able to help you if you are able to act,” he says. “If you have a 20-strong credit committee, it’s hard to get actions agreed.”
Huldt concurs to an extent with one of the basic assumptions that has always provided a raison d’être for covenants: that breaches can act as an early-warning system and force equity sponsors to the table to discuss a turnaround plan. “You may have to commit more capital and that takes time,” he says. “So the sooner you can prepare, the better.”
However, he concedes that successful demands for transparency from limited partners have resulted in detailed and timely company performance updates becoming the norm. This, he believes, makes it more likely that looming problems can be identified, regardless of the presence or otherwise of covenants.
Counterintuitively, Huldt says he has seen some instances of covenants being too rigorously applied: “There are some examples of non-sponsored deals where covenants have been set so tight that reset fees are built into the underlying base case. That’s highly aggressive. It’s almost acting like loan sharks.”
However, this is the exception rather than rule in today’s environment. Huldt says one way of responding optimally to what is undoubtedly a borrower’s market is to, in effect, hedge covenants through diversification. An investor might build a varied loan portfolio across a broad range of company sizes and sectors. In such a portfolio, Huldt suggests, holding 20 or 30 percent of the loans on a covenant-lite basis would not ring too many alarm bells.
There may be some cause for alarm, however, if the manager has heavily marketed its restructuring expertise. Claiming you are ready to jump in and take control of a loan when trouble surfaces does not sit easily with the nature of covenant-lite facilities, which appear to deny you that opportunity. It is valid for LPs to raise questions about how the strategy can be effectively enforced.
Compensating for covenant loss
Abhik Das, head of private debt at Munich-based funds of funds manager Golding Capital Partners, believes the private debt market has been more disciplined than the leveraged loan market. In the latter, he says, nearly all deals are covenant-lite and “there is almost a competition among law firms as to who can get the best deal for the borrower or private equity firm and the worst deal for the lender”.
However, he sees competition for deals and the increasing involvement of debt advisory firms as factors that have led to indiscipline in a part of the market where covenants should never be eroded completely: “Most private debt-backed businesses are in the middle market and hence should have strict and tight documentation. There should be covenant backing in every credit document but, if not, then something needs to compensate – especially if you don’t have a financial maintenance covenant.”
Das says he has seen examples of this ‘compensation’, with sponsors excluding covenants in order to get deals past their own investment committees, but offering various incentives to lenders, such as better information rights through board seats or tighter documentation in other areas than they might otherwise expect.
“There is almost a competition among law firms as to who can get the best deal for the borrower or private equity firm and the worst deal for the lender”
Golding Capital Partners
Yet he warns against taking too much on trust, and stresses the need to get things in writing. “You hope that a sponsor will always be willing to sit down and have a frank discussion when trouble hits,” says Das. “But we have witnessed situations where the contact at the sponsor firm left and a junior came in and didn’t answer the lender’s calls. That is just one reason why documentation can be so important. You don’t want a new guy coming in and not getting back to you.”
Das expects the increasing lack of covenants to translate into a default spike when the benign conditions of recent years finally evaporate. “Default triggers are being pushed out and there’s little lenders can do. At best, they can either try to sell the paper or ride it out. When defaults come, it may be too late to fix a problem. In my view, default rates will stay low for a while and, when they go up, they will go up substantially and recoveries will be lower compared with the 2008-10 period.”
In the US, the default rate is widely forecast to reach 3 percent, compared with the 1.8 percent for the trailing 12 months ending in November 2019. According to a 2020 leveraged finance outlook from ratings agency Fitch, the US market remains “favourable”, even though the macroeconomic picture is “weakening” and central banks have decided to cut interest rates.
Fitch analysts wrote: “Lower rates do little to alter the fundamental [reach-for-yield] dynamic that has characterised the past decade and that has underpinned strong demand for senior corporate debt by [collateralised loan obligations] and other institutional investors.”
With these characteristics having prevailed for so long, how do debt investors view the default rate? “It’s one of many indicators that many in the distressed world look at to gauge what’s going on in the credit universe,” says Tuck Hardie, a managing director in Houlihan Lokey’s financial restructuring group. “What we pay attention to are liquidity, earnings misses, ratings downgrades and maturities. I would tell you it is a reactive statistic rather than a predictive statistic.”
Debts piling up
Despite the relatively benign conditions, the boom in leveraged lending has still led to a large amount of defaulted debt. “Today’s credit agreements contain an inordinate amount of escape hatches for companies that aren’t hitting their numbers,” says Hardie. “Even with a low default rate, there’s still a fair amount of defaulted debt. That’s a function of the amount in the denominator. The amount of leveraged loans out there has exploded [post-global financial crisis].”
Moody’s projected in August 2018 that recovery rates were likely to be much lower than historical levels, with first-lien term loan recoveries amounting to 61 cents on the dollar rather than the 77 cents creditors had typically received.
“If we look at the [global] financial crisis, the covenant-lite deals did better than the regular covenanted deals.”
Ares Management partner and head of credit Kipp deVeer says: “With fewer covenants you can’t work things out sooner. I think the industry has resolved itself around potentially lower recovery rates. In our underwriting, we work along that assumption as well.”
DeVeer anticipates a “pretty significant dispersion” of results among lenders once the cycle turns. He expects those private credit firms with the correct fund structures, additional capital resources and the ability to successfully work out troubled credits to outperform their peers.
If a borrower does encounter an issue, it might have the requisite levers to pull in order to pass muster in the near term. “Given EBITDA can be adjusted for projected cost savings that are not even required to actually materialise, I can’t imagine it’s particularly difficult to get in compliance with the covenant if you need to,” says Peter Washkowitz, a former attorney and head of Reorg Covenants. He explains that if, for example, a company is at risk of breaching its financial maintenance covenant, it could probably take the requisite steps in the near term to satisfy the covenant at the end of a quarter.
One analyst, speaking anonymously, cautions against reading too much into how covenant-lite loans will perform: “If we look at the [global] financial crisis, the covenant-lite deals did better than the regular covenanted deals. Because it was relatively short, some companies didn’t default.”
The source explains that the additional flexibility gave the borrowers “runway to weather the storm”.
“I think the mind immediately goes to weak covenant protections, and that equals risk,” says Derek Gluckman, senior vice-president at Moody’s. “But it’s not exactly risk. It gives the borrower flexibility.”
He says the latitude itself does not put lenders at risk; rather, it is how the borrower, often a private equity sponsor, uses it.
“If that suite of actions allows them to avoid a default, good for them,” Gluckman says. “If it allows them to delay or time a default, the timing factors into the recovery.”
Houlihan’s Hardie says private equity sponsors that do not use that extra room, if it exists, could face tough questions from their LPs. These investors might want to know why the firm did not pull every lever within its power to save the company before entering into a restructuring agreement – an outcome that would be likely to wipe out, or significantly impair, the equity holders.
Anecdotally, though, he notes that only a minority of the private equity firms that use the extra flexibility within looser credit agreements in order to execute turnaround plans succeed in doing so.
“Troubled credits aren’t like fine wines,” Hardie says. “They don’t get better with age. What happens more times than not is the company starts to struggle for reasons that are specific to that particular credit. Their customers, creditors and suppliers take measures to protect themselves and a stressed situation becomes distressed.”
Much has been made of asset transfers that strip value and collateral away from senior lenders, such as in the case of J. Crew. Much of the potential value destruction may simply stem from overly optimistic assumptions about a company’s EBITDA coming back to haunt private equity sponsors and their debt-providing brethren.
“At the end of the day, there may be five or six instances where companies have actually done [asset transfers],” says Reorg’s Washkowitz. “It’s not J. Crew-like transfers that will result in value destruction for the majority of distressed structures. They will lose value that just wasn’t there because the assumed EBITDA was masking the company’s realistic financial position.
“The addbacks are nothing new, but people may be focusing more on them given there’s so little that hasn’t already been watered down. If you blanked out the facility amount, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it’s large-cap, middle market or small-cap.”
Ted Goldthorpe, a partner and head of BC Partners Credit, says he has heard more anecdotes of private debt portfolio companies entering workouts. He also notes that the pool of distressed debt hedge funds with rescue capital is smaller than it was in 2008.
“You’re seeing a number of restructurings happening in the middle market now,” he says. “We’re just hearing about more and more credit issues in people’s portfolios.
“When you get the next wave of defaults, there’s not this massive pool of capital to step in and help fix these things. The problem with mid-market distress is BDCs [and private funds] aren’t wired to sell stuff. It’s rare a BDC that would sell to a distress fund. People are worried about their reputations.”
Delay is the new watchword in today’s market. Covenant-lite loans are likely to delay the point at which stakeholders get their heads together to resolve a potentially messy situation. Those same stakeholders, wary of reputational risk and in the absence of a flourishing secondaries market, may then simply hold on to problem positions rather than offload them. The bomb may explode one day, but the fuse is likely to go on burning for quite some time.
Devil in the documents
One professional at a European lender says the market will be asking itself how it allowed this to happen
“I’m not super worried by covenant-lite,” says Robin Doumar, managing partner of London-based private debt firm Park Square Capital. “The big issue is not whether there will be a default but what game theory around restructurings looks like.”
Doumar is not as concerned by the time it now takes to get to the negotiating table as he is by what happens once the interested parties get there. In the current market, he says, borrowers have been able to have things more or less their own way in the documentation.
“We will see negotiations with private equity firms becoming much tougher for lenders,” says Doumar. “I can foresee the kind of situation where you have a company struggling to meet interest payments and the sponsor will approach the lender and say ‘We’re dividending out half the business to ourselves.’ Lenders don’t have the security they think they have.”
He predicts that CLOs will be among the biggest losers. “We’re a high conviction investor and we negotiate hard on the documents and walk away if we have to,” he says. “Those who take market standard documents – that’s a bad place to be. The price will trade off dramatically in the secondary market.”
Doumar believes documents are so weighted in favour of sponsors that the only protection for lenders may come in the unlikely guise of those sitting on private equity boards not wanting to get into trouble for having skewed things so much in their favour – and therefore not enforcing things to the extent that the documents allow.
“I think we will look back and say, ‘How did we allow this to happen?’”
Private equity is sitting pretty
Cheap, borrower-friendly loans are proving a comfort to LPs and GPs, despite sentiment indicators ticking down this year
Although several market indicators have taken a negative turn, fears of a sharp correction remain muted. Speaking to sister title Private Equity International on the fringes of the SuperInvestor conference in Amsterdam towards the end of last year, several industry participants said that although high entry values and leverage multiples were as big a concern as ever, cheap, covenant-lite debt had given private equity firms the “whip hand” in dealing with creditors.
“Last time, the GPs that kept their companies alive made money,” said one senior Asia-based placement agent. “With covenants as they are, the onus is on credit funds to do what they can to stabilise these companies in the event of a downturn.”
According to the European head of a private pension fund with nearly $40 billion in assets under management, debt funds are “more sophisticated” in their risk management than many observers give them credit for. The number of private equity firms with strong institutional memories of the last crisis also makes the industry more resilient than before. “We do a lot of number crunching to see how GPs performed over several funds, especially through the crisis,” the source said. “A first-time fund would find it difficult to get on our books.”
As of August 2019, cov-lite loans accounted for 79 percent of outstanding loans in the US leveraged loan market, compared with 29 percent in 2007, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Ares Management chief executive Michael Arougheti tells PDI that covenant-lite loans are likely to prolong the benign environment. However, he adds that the interpretation of novel contractual features, such as restricted payment baskets or alternative definitions of EBITDA, would pose a challenge when the downturn comes. “When we do get to see distress, it will be liquidity-driven,” he says. “That’s when we’re really going to test both the mettle of the equity investors, to see which companies they will and are able to support, and how these documents perform. It could go either way.”
At its annual market overview in London in December, Hamilton Lane noted that purchase price multiples and leverage multiples were higher than they had been a year previously, and that coverage ratios were lower. The investment manager’s Worry Index, a composite of several sentiment indicators, is at 63 – up on 56 last year but still some way below the high of 81 in 2007.