CLO winners to dominate recovering 2021 market
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CLO winners to dominate recovering 2021 market

The US CLO market has been to hell and back in 2020. From the depths of the March sell-off, the sector has faced huge challenges but has seen a remarkable comeback. Bullish sentiment is back on for Q4, and that defines the outlook for 2021. Not all managers will be well placed to take advantage, however, and a wave of consolidation probably looms. By Paola Aurisicchio.

All’s well that ends well — for the US CLO market, at least. New deal supply managed to resume a steady pace into year end, with triple-As breaking new post-pandemic tights and managers rushing to market. CLOs have benefited from a broad rally in credit, though the Federal Reserve’s intended direct support for the market, though the Term Asset Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), proved a damp squib. 

2020 is set to end with more than $75bn of supply, according to Wells Fargo — a positive surprise, given that the market was in turmoil for a large part of the second quarter. This level is still a long way below the record volume of $129.3bn in 2018, or the $119bn seen in 2019.

As the year progressed, spreads on triple-A tranches tightened back in from 190bp or so to almost pre-Covid levels, the rating agencies slowed the pace of their leveraged loan downgrades and triple-A buyers got their investment appetite back. 

That has encouraged market players to predict improving supply next year, with analysts at Barclays and JP Morgan expecting $90bn-$100bn in primary issuance.

Tighter, bigger, better

Triple-A spreads “will continue to tighten along with the continued rise in loan prices,” says Dan Wohlberg, a director at Eagle Point Credit Management in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The US congressional race and the progress of the pandemic will shape the strength of the market at the start of the new year.

Even after Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, the extent of the Democrats’ power will hang in the balance until control of the US Senate is determined in January.

With Republicans looking likely to hold the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, any new fiscal stimulus package will be smaller than it would be with a Democrat clean sweep. But it might also block any potential tax hikes, which could help the market.

Review 2020

“A split House and Senate would also diminish the probability and degree of potential tax hikes and spending increases, something that would be well received by the markets,” says Americo Cascella, co-founder and CEO of newly launched CLO management business Pacific & Plains Capital in Dallas, Texas. “That could engender increased M&A, more debt issuance to finance transactions, and by association more issuance of CLOs.”

If Democrats win control of both houses of the Congress, “we may see diminished incentive for investment and corporate sector activity, which could cascade down into lower issuance volume for the CLO market,” he says. “Overall, we think that the most likely case for the CLO market is to continue growing incrementally at mid-single digit pace over the medium to longer term.”

Recent amendments to the Volcker Rule — effective from October 1 — have also the potential to foster CLOs next year. 

The Volcker rule amendment “is going to be very beneficial to the new CLO issuance because, among other changes, it enables CLOs to return to a 5% bond bucket. It means more room for securitization,” says Nathan Spanheimer, partner in Cadwalader’s capital markets group in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We are also continuing to see managers pushing for flexibility to make sure that CLOs are able to participate in workout scenarios and can take advantage of workout opportunities.”

According to the lawyer, these two factors will also help investor appetite by making the CLO product more attractive.

Still short?

CLOs in 2021 are also likely to see a gradual return to longer reinvestment periods, which prevailed before the Covid crisis. When the pandemic hit, the volatile markets and threat of defaults made investors hesitant about buying bonds to fund a full five years of active management from the CLO manager.

Review 2020

Managers shifted structures to match, and the post-Covid era has seen a proliferation of deals with three year reinvestment periods, rather than the usual five.

But a handful of managers are now issuing with five year reinvestment periods again — First Eagle Alternative Credit, Onex Credit Partners and Bain Capital Credit, for example. As issuance rebounds in 2021 more CLOs are likely to push their reinvestment periods, but some believe shorter deals are here to stay in certain cases. 

For Wohlberg, the trend is back to five year reinvestment periods with a commensurately longer non-call (two years), but he also says that shorter duration reinvestment periods are likely to stay into next year. 

“Some investors may opt to trade off the reinvestment period for non-call or use the shorter duration in reset transactions, where it may be preferable in the structure. Overall, it will continue to be an option for investors,” Wohlberg notes.

Cascella of Pacific & Plains also believes that, in the absence of another economic downturn or shock, “we should see a continued move back toward the historically more traditional five year reinvestment structure as the year goes on. We also think that, increasingly, debt and equity investors are less enthusiastic about having to renew their portfolio constantly.”

Wave of consolidation

Tough times — such as the second quarter of 2020 — act as a proving ground for CLO managers, and this could point the way to consolidation. Successful credit picking and trading out of underperforming loans always matters, but the volatility in 2020, as well as the wave of loan downgrades and restructurings, have made manager performance more crucial than ever.

Review 2020

Even as market prices have bounced back a long way, the percentage of triple-C loans remains high. Some 21% of outstanding deals failed at least one overcollateralisation test, according to Bank of America estimates in May, the peak of the downgrades.

Some managers have yet to venture into the post-Covid market at all with new deals, perhaps as a result of constraints on equity supply as well as performance issues.

Barclays analysts counted 73 broadly syndicated loan CLO managers that have priced a new deal in 2020, according to a mid-November report, some way behind the 89 managers that went to market in 2019.

In 2021, the performance challenges of 2020 will add additional stress on managers, with larger or more experienced shops which remain active in primary, or small managers with a strong differentiating brand, likely to benefit. That might allow some larger platforms to buy their smaller competitors.

“We expect consolidation among CLO managers, especially in the second half of 2021. The CLO market will continue to bifurcate between very large firms with platforms and specialist firms coming into the market with a clear focus and innovation; that, for us, is technology and ESG,” says Daniel Hall, co-founder of Pacific & Plains Capital.

Performance and pricing

Hall points out that “managers that may have performance issues will likely have a more difficult time raising capital and securing competitive debt pricing. We believe that those distressed managers will be the most likely candidates for acquisition as the year progresses.”

Shane Mengel, fellow co-founder and CIO at Pacific & Plains, says: “The disruption caused by Covid-19 acted as a strong market stress test. It provided a lot of insight into the manager spectrum and, in particular, manager differentiation to give investors a base around which to evaluate performance and to determine future capital allocations.”

Performance issues aren’t over, either, with default rates expected to rise and loan downgrades likely.

S&P Global expects as a base case that default rates will increase to 8% by June 2021. In its optimistic scenario, the rating agency forecasts that default rates will fall to 2.5% through June 2021; in its most negative scenario, S&P predicts that the default rate will rise above the all-time high to 9.5% by next June.

The default rate remains a key concern of 2021. CLO managers, on the other side, have learned something by the first wave of negative actions.

“The market has been working to make CLOs better holders of stressed assets to allow CLO managers to best work out of legacy positions,” Wohlberg says.

“We have seen some levelling out in defaults recently and, more importantly, today CLO managers have a better understanding of Covid-related stress and its effect on certain sectors and issuers to forecast concerns.”   GC

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