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On the face of it, there's every reason to be optimistic about 2021. Leveraged loans and high yield bonds posted strong numbers in the first six months of the year, with both up year-on-year. There was an uptick in new money deals as companies pursued growth opportunities. CLO new issuance more than doubled year-on-year. And an anticipated wave of defaults, bankruptcies and full-blown restructurings failed to emerge, as companies were able to find the financing they needed to see them through the worst of the pandemic.
At the same time, it's clear that the market isn't quite back to business as usual. For example, while there was a flurry of leveraged loan issuance in February (US$159.3 billion), March (US$174.8 billion) and April (US$147.2 billion), activity was down by more than a third in May to US$86.5 billion.
This slight pause is likely to be temporary, as companies strive to find their footing in a post-COVID-19 recovery, but it also means that lenders and borrowers alike are keeping a close eye on where markets are heading.
At the halfway point in 2021, leveraged loan issuance was up more than 50% on the year before
One clear indicator of the state of the market has been the resurgence in financing earmarked for M&A and buyouts, with both leveraged loans and high yield bonds. For example, in Q2 2020, leveraged loan issuance was applied to just 47 M&A deals (excluding buyouts). By Q2 2021, that figure had more than doubled, reaching 97 deals.
It was a similar story for high yield bonds, with issuance for M&A (excluding buyouts) jumping from US$7.1 billion in Q1 2021 to US$22.9 billion in Q2 2021.
Even more notable are the jumbo LBO deals that have gone through in the first half of the year, including one of the largest on Debtwire Par record. Overall, LBOs have reached historical highs in the US—deal count for the first quarter of the year (709) set a record and deal value in the second quarter (US$236.7 billion) was the highest since the second quarter of 2007, according to Mergermarket data.
It seems private equity (PE) dry powder is finally being spent, as firms chase higher yield deals, spurred on by the threat of rising inflation as well as the availability of inexpensive financing. The fact that several PE houses closed sizable funds in Q2 2021 suggests that we can expect even more LBO activity in the months ahead, which will have a clear impact on issuance.
A more sustainable approach
Another high-profile factor that is likely to influence debt markets is the rise in environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria being applied to leveraged finance.
The Biden administration has brought climate change back into the spotlight and, while implementing policy changes may be an uphill battle for the president, more and more lenders and borrowers have already been adapting to this new world in their deals.
Green bonds and sustainability-linked bonds and loans have all attracted interest. ESG ratchets—which cause margins on loans to rise or fall depending on whether agreed ESG targets are met—are being added to leveraged loans and revolving credit facilities.
Major PE firms are launching ESG-linked subscription lines, which are used by PE to fund their deals. Standardization and regulation still must be addressed when it comes to ESG and leveraged finance, but all of this points to a more sustainable future in debt markets.
The road ahead
While it is impossible to say exactly where the current path will take leveraged finance markets for the rest of the year, there is no denying that companies are trying to thrive, not merely survive, and lenders are happy to finance those efforts, for the right price.
There is also a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, as the vaccination roll-out continues and lockdown measures are reduced, which is also encouraging borrowers to look beyond liquidity concerns.
But there are still unknowns on the horizon. Inflation and the threat of rising interest rates are already driving issuance to a degree, and the potential impact of the end of the COVID-19 federal relief package in the next few months may be cause for concern. At the same time, President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plans, with sweeping investment in everything from infrastructure to job creation, will no doubt influence the direction of travel for debt markets, as they encourage growth and support businesses hoping to move beyond the pandemic.
Time will tell how these various influences play out, but for now, it looks like the bends in the road ahead may be straightening out at last.
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