Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Risks Drive Debt Spreads

The return investors receive for owning a debt instrument, whether a loan or a bond, is driven by the various risks of owning debt.  This Job Aid from Financial Training Partners does a good job in explaining the major risks faced by debt investors.

Click on it to see a larger version.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Primary and Secondary Markets for Corporate Debt

In earlier posts, we compared the pricing of corporate loans and corporate bonds.  Here, we'll look at how these markets interact, both in primary issuance and secondary market trading.  First, some definitions:

  • The Primary Market is where financial instruments are sold from the issuer to investors.  This is often referred to at underwriting (in the bond and equity markets) or syndication (in the loan market).  As part of this process, securities often pass through an intermediary, such as an investment bank.
  • The Secondary Market is where financial instruments are sold from investor to investor.  The issuer is not involved, and there is no underwriter (although there are brokers, and many underwriters also trade securities in the secondary market).
The Investors
  • In the loan market, banks and institutions (such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and prime rate funds) are the most active investors.
  • In the bond market, institutions (such as mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies and CDOs) are the most active investors; banks rarely buy corporate bonds.
The key to rational pricing in these markets are the crossover investors - institutions, such as CDOs and certain other investment funds, that can buy loans and bonds in the primary and secondary markets.  By analyzing the relative value of loans and bonds, they decide which to buy.  For example, if the spread between loans and bonds is very large, investors may buy the bonds and shun the loans.  This increased demand for bonds will bring down their spreads in the secondary market, while the lack of demand for loans will increase their spreads in the secondary market.  Eventually, the spread between loans and bonds will narrow.  Thus, the secondary markets for loans and bonds are related.
Likewise, the primary and secondary markets are related.  The spread a company will pay on new bonds or loans should be about the spread at which its existing debt is trading in the secondary market (or, if the company has no debt outstanding, the spread at which the debt of companies with a similar risk profile are trading).

Risk Flows Through All Markets
Thus, if debt investors becomes more risk averse, as happens at the beginning of a recession or credit crunch, we would see it first in the most active market, say the secondary market for corporate bonds, where spreads would widen dramatically.  This would lead to a sharp rise in spreads in the secondary market for corporate loans, and finally to the primary markets for both loans and bonds.  Finally, investors will also be comparing loan and bond prices to the other market for corporate credit risk, credit default swaps (CDS).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Loan - Bond Relative Value

In our last post, we described how to compare the cost of a floating rate instrument, such as a loan, to the cost of a fixed rate instrument, such as a bond.  For one company, Jarden Corporation, we showed that the bond's cost is 50 basis points higher than the loan's cost.  Since both debt instruments were issued by the same borrower, shouldn't they cost the same?

Corporate Finance 101
Whenever there is a difference in the cost or return of two financing instruments, corporate finance theory tells us to look to the risk differences between the two.  This applies if you are looking at it from the perspective of the issuer or the investor.  For this post, we will continue the Jarden example, comparing a loan and a bond for a non-investment grade issuer (note that the product terms, pricing, and risk characteristics for investment grade issuers are dramatically different).

Investor: Risk vs. Return
As with Jarden, the yield on non-investment grade (i.e. "high yield") bonds is typically higher than the yield on non-investment grade (i.e. "leveraged") loans.  This is because high yield bonds are more risky to own than leveraged loans, for these reasons:

  1. Priority: Loans to non-investment grade companies are typically senior and secured, while bonds to these same companies are typically subordinated and unsecured.  Thus, in a bankruptcy, the loans should get repaid before the bonds.
  2. Maturity and Amortization:  Corporate loans rarely come due beyond 6-7 years from issuance, whereas high yield bonds often mature in 10 years.  In addition, bonds typically have "bullet" maturities (i.e. all the principal comes due at once), whereas loans often amortize (i.e. get repaid) over time.  This longer maturity and lack of amortization make bonds more risky to own than loans.
  3. Covenants:  Loans have more (and more restrictive) covenants than bonds.  Thus, as a company's operating performance begins to deteriorate, the loan will default long before the bond.  This early default gives the loan holders the opportunity to re-negotiate and improve their position before bond holders can do so.

Thus, in order to accept the greater risk of owning a high yield bond, investors demand a higher return than what they would receive on a leveraged loan from the same company.

Issuer: Risk vs. Cost
As with Jarden,  for non-investment grade issuers, bonds typically have a higher all-in-cost than loans.  This is because bonds are less risky for issuers and provide issuers additional flexibility.

  1. Refinancing Risk: Companies are constantly faced with the risk that they will not be able to borrow money when they need it.  If the need is for a new project or operations, we refer to it as funding risk; if the need is to repay maturing debt, we refer to it as refinancing risk.  Companies can reduce their refinancing risk by issuing debt with longer maturities.  The longest maturity typically available to a non-investment grade company is a 10-year high yield bond.
  2. Flexibility: Bonds place few restrictions on a borrower's operations or financial performance when compared to the large number of restrictive covenants typical in loans to non-investment grade companies.
Thus, many companies are willing to pay a higher borrowing cost (and issue bonds) in order to achieve other objectives, specifically lower refinancing risk and greater flexibility.

Loan-Bond Relative Value
When investors compare the risk and return of related instruments, such as loans and bonds from the same issuer, it is called relative value analysis.  In our Jarden example, a portfolio manager would focus on the yield difference of 50 basis points.  
  • If they think this additional return does not adequately compensate them for the additional risk of holding the bond, they will buy the loan.  
  • If, as was the case at the beginning of the credit crunch, the difference was several hundred basis points for many high-yield issuers, they would buy the bond.