A boom in M&A activity over the past three years has boosted the market, with the volume of leveraged buyouts (LBOs) reaching levels seen pre-crisis—alongside the debt needed to fund the deals.
Investors, far from eschewing the riskier end of the lending spectrum, have been tempted up the yield curve, seeking out higher returns than those on offer in safer markets where quantitative easing has depressed yields. Encouraged by investors' desire for yield, riskier issuers/borrowers have started to demand looser terms on loans, knowing that investors, needing to deploy capital in competitive markets for deal allocations, would be more likely to accept.
For the moment, leveraged loans are in the ascendancy over high yield bonds, but large M&A deals in 2018 needed both sets of instruments to get across the line, with high yield bonds often required for that extra layer of debt. In addition, the continued growth of direct lending helped to provide financing packages that may not have been available in the syndicated or high yield markets. All the while, a backdrop of infrequent corporate defaults—assisted by low base rates—has comforted markets. Some pushback on pricing by investors was met by issuers, then reversed as the need for yield rebounded. In particular this year, investors have welcomed the return of syndicated debt instruments—2018 was a record year for collateralised loan obligations (CLO), with CLO markets breaking new issuance records in both the United States and Europe.
But if the leveraged debt markets have thrived in the post-crisis era, there are tough obstacles ahead. Geopolitical issues such as Brexit; global trade wars; Italian sovereign debt; volatility in the stock market; and a concern that default rates, low for so long, might begin to trend upwards have given the market pause. Underpinning everything is the US Federal Reserve, which is already leading the way in raising interest rates. The impact of increased borrowing costs is set to echo further afield—and could push other central banks to keep pace or react to the impact it causes.
However, despite uncertainty about what lies ahead, the market remains resilient and deals are still getting done. Ten years on from the darkest days of the crisis, the leveraged debt market has proven surprisingly resilient, but bumps may lie on the road ahead.
Partner, Paris, London