It has been a feeding frenzy for junk debt. Yield-desperate investors, driven to near insanity by the Fed’s strenuous interest-rate repression, are holding their noses and closing their eyes, and they’re bending down deep into the barrel and scrape up even the crappiest and riskiest paper just to get that little extra yield.
Last year, highly leveraged companies issued $1.1 trillion in junk-rated loans. It’s a white-hot market. Leveraged-loan mutual funds – dolled up in conservative-sounding names and nice charts to seduce retail investors – gorge on these loans. They saw 95 weeks in a row of inflows, week after week, without fail, adding over $70 billion to their heft, as Bloomberg reported, and only the sky seemed to be the limit. But suddenly, that endless flow of money reversed.
“It’s going to be a disaster on the way out,” Mirko Mikelic, who helps manage $7 billion in assets at ClearArc Capital, told Bloomberg. “On the way in, there’s insatiable demand….”
Private equity firms have been ruthlessly taking advantage of that “insatiable demand.” And they have a special self-serving trick up their sleeve: Their junk-rated overleveraged portfolio companies issue new loans, but instead of using the funds for expansion projects or other productive uses, they hand them out through the back door as special dividends. It’s one of the simplest ways PE firms use to strip cash out of their portfolio companies. It loads even more debt on the already highly leveraged portfolio company without adding productive capacity. And those who end up holding this debt – for example, the mutual fund in your portfolio – have a good chance of losing it all.
“It’s kind of like an epidemic,” explained Martin Fridson, a money manager at Lehmann, Livian, Fridson Advisors LLC, in an interview with Bloomberg. “Once an investment banker sees that, he’s going to go to his clients and say, ‘Here’s a window of opportunity, you can take a dividend and get away with it.’”
And they’ve been getting away with it. Default rates on junk debt hovered at 1.7% in the first quarter, a near record low. But that’s always the case when liquidity sloshes through the system and years of interest rate repression turns yield investors into brain-dead zombies, always willing to replace troubled debt with new money. But the historical average is 4.5%, and when things tighten up, as they did during the financial crisis, default rates jump into the double digits [read…. Biggest Credit Bubble in History Flashes Warning: ‘Seek Cover’].
They’re all doing it. Junk-rated mobile-phone insurer Asurion finagled a $1.7 billion loan in March. But instead of doing something productive with the funds to generate cash flow to service the loan, it blew the money out the back door as a special dividend which it owners – PE firms Madison Dearborn Partners, Providence Equity Partners, and Welsh Carson, Anderson & Stowe – pocketed with gusto.
BMC software borrowed $750 million via one of the riskiest forms of debt, payment-in-kind (PIK) notes, where, if push comes to shove, BMC can chose to pay interest not with cash but with more of the same debt. The amount it owes gets larger, as its chances of survival shrivel. Instead of defaulting, the company will simply hand the lender more paper that’s increasingly worthless. BMC promptly forwarded the $750 million to its owners, a group of PE firms let by Bain Capital that had acquired BMC only seven months earlier.
Time is of the essence. Platinum Equity, which had acquired Volvo’s rental car division, waited only a week after closing the deal before sucking $262 million out that the company had obtained by issuing PIK debt.
So far this year, these already overleveraged companies have issued nearly $21 billion in junk-rated debt for the purpose of paying special dividends to the PE firms that own them – the most since the bubble of 2007, before it all blew up spectacularly. Of that, $3.5 billion were these reeking PIK notes. When a default occurs, the PE firms have the cash, and the lenders get stuck with largely worthless paper.
That’s what invariably happens when the Fed’s interest rate repression pushes investors out toward the thin end of the risk branch. During normal times, no sane lender would go along with this without demanding a confiscatory yield. The door would be closed to these sorts of glaring wealth-transfer shenanigans. But these are not normal times. This is the greatest credit bubble in history.
Among the most insatiable buyers of this stuff: leveraged-loan mutual funds, and by extension, retail investors. But now, they’re getting cold feet, apparently, and for the first time, after 95 weeks in a row of inflows, they yanked money out, Bloomberg reported. Not a panic just yet, but the flow has reversed. In the week ended April 16, they drained $276 million out of these mutual funds.
And these funds are starting to bleed. The LS&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan 100 Index, which sports a 5-year annual return of 10.5%, dipped into the red for April and might book its first monthly loss since the taper-tantrum turmoil last summer.
Mutual funds that hold leveraged loans are fearsome products. They entice investors with a little extra yield, but still less than an FDIC insured one-year CD used to pay in the pre-crisis days. That’s how far the Fed has pushed it. But these loans are even less liquid than corporate bonds. Unlike bonds or stocks, they’re not regulated. They’re traded the old-fashioned cumbersome way, via email or even the phone, involving complex paperwork that may take weeks to complete. It’s not easy to transfer a loan. And when belatedly spooked investors start selling these mutual funds, fund managers are forced to dump loans into a market where liquidity just evaporates without notice. Prices plunge on the sales that do go through – and those who get out first, bleed the least.