Hidden in the IMF’s just released 188-page Global Financial and Stability Report is a doozie of a chart that screams not only “credit bubble” but also flashes a red warning sign: “seek cover, implosion in sight.” It depicts US issuance of covenant-lite loans and second-lien loans since 2001, including their phenomenal bubble that so spectacularly collapsed in 2008, and the even greater bubble currently underway – with an equally spectacular future.
Covenant-lite loans, which eliminate many of the protections that lenders normally require, allow over-leveraged junk-rated companies to pile on even more debt when they would normally no longer be able to do so. A key benefit for the Private Equity firms that own them: PE firms make a big part of their profit by having their portfolio companies borrow money, but not for expansion purposes or other productive uses. Instead, PE firms suck that cash out the back door through special dividends, fees, and other devices. When the portfolio company pops, the PE firm conveniently has the cash, and the lenders eat the loss.
To protect themselves, lenders normally force borrowers into covenants that prevent these and other shenanigans. But not anymore. Lenders, driven to near insanity by the Fed’s interest rate repression, are caught up in an all-out chase for yield and don’t look at anything else, and to get that minuscule extra yield, they take on risks, any risks, no questions asked, and to heck with future losses, and they hold their noses and close their eyes and pick up the worst crap, and then find ways of stuffing those risks into your mutual fund.
It’s a feeding frenzy out there.
The longer it goes on, and the more of this reeking debt with a high probability of default is piling up on the books of banks and other lenders, the more damaging the implosion will be. And so covenant-lite debt has become a flashing red light of a credit bubble in its final throes. A record $238 billion were issued in 2013, according to Thomson Reuters. Over 50% of the market, another hair-raising record.
The IMF chart shows the prior bubble as expressed in covenant-lite loans (green line, right scale) and second-lien loans (red line, left scale) and where it all ended so spectacularly – namely in the financial crisis. It also shows the current bubble through 2013. Covenant-lite loans started setting new records last year, but second-lien loans, a particularly nasty contraption for banks, haven’t quite caught up yet. Up to us to figure out where it ends:
This year, it’s even worse.
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