Two of the main arguments against higher loan defaults are lower rates and lack of covenants. On lower rates, we believe the transmission mechanism of lower rates to leveraged loans is comparatively weak. Our recent work has shown that LL yields are little changed year-over-year, in part because wider spreads have offset modest declines in LIBOR rates. Looking ahead, 4 rate cuts in 2020 could help loan issuers but there are likely offsetting factors. One is that this assumes loan spreads do not widen, which we think is unlikely, particularly heading into 1H20 with US GDP growth slowing to 0.3-0.5% in 1H20. Two is if rating agency downgrades persist (as we expect) the future cost of new funding for issuers increases substantially with each rating notch; our analysis shows the current spread differential between a B- and a CCC+ loan is c300bp. Three is that the Fed has less room to stimulate: only 38-52% of the rate relief provided in the last two cycles.
On lack of covenants, the key driver of defaults historically is not covenant violations but insolvency and illiquidity. One of the more holistic papers compares these factors in triggering defaults and argues that low market asset value to debt is the key driver while, on average, covenants add limited additional information4. We believe lack of covenants will change the event of default, with more distressed exchanges likely. But it is not clear this is a good outcome. Covenants had weakened leading up to the '15-16 energy default cycle, yet default rates were elevated (peak 22%) and many distressed exchanges failed with roughly half of firms re-defaulting. While loan downgrades to CCCs have been lagging those to B-, we are starting to see more evidence of downgrades to CCC. These decisions are primarily driven by weak operating performance, negative cash flow and capital structure unsustainability (even as issuers do not have maturities until 202022). Once a firm is downgraded to CCC, we believe the re-pricing in loan yields makes distressed exchanges likely, particularly in more stressed markets.
The race to secure a competitive yield has resulted in large quantities of debt being issued and the quality of issuers declining relative to the yield on offer. If a rising tide lifts all boats then the potential for shipwrecks to be revealed when the tide goes out is also a risk. Warren Buffett’s swimming naked remark comes to mind.
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