(Bloomberg) -- The amount of loans to the riskiest U.S. companies ballooned to a record this year, propelled by unprecedented demand for floating-rate debt that offers protection from rising interest rates.
The market for junk-rated loans increased to $683 billion, exceeding the 2008 peak of $596 billion, according to Standard & Poors Capital IQ Leveraged Commentary and Data. The $130 billion surge this year was fueled by borrowings that dont include typical lender protections such as limits on leverage.
Loans, which suffered the biggest losses in the fixed- income market during the financial crisis, staged a comeback as investors funneled a record $64.4 billion into funds that buy the debt in anticipation the Federal Reserve would start unwinding its bond buying thats suppressed borrowing costs. The demand has enabled companies take on more debt for shareholder rewards, prompting regulators to warn that the excesses which contributed to the credit crisis may be creeping back.
The worst deals are made in the best of times is a phrase we hear often, Frank Ossino, a money manager in Hartford, Connecticut, who oversees $2.5 billion of loans at Newfleet Asset Management LLC, said in a telephone interview. While the default environment will remain low, ever more aggressive transactions become the seeds of the next default cycle.
Companies from personal-computer maker Dell Inc. to Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., the worlds biggest hotel chain, obtained $282 billion of loans that were covenant-light, meaning they didnt include financial maintenance requirements, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Speculative-grade companies also stepped up borrowings to pay their owners dividends, with issuance of such debt reaching a record $63 billion this year, Bloomberg data show. Dividend deals, rather than refinancing debt at lower interest rates or funding expansion, do little more than add leverage.
These risky borrowings have been supported by record flows into loan funds, whose assets grew by 85% in 2013, according to a Dec. 19 report from Bank of America Corp.
While increasing investments into loan funds enhances liquidity and increases transparency, the ability of individuals to withdraw money on a daily basis increases the risks of deeper selloffs because theres less sticky money in the system, Ossino said.
In 2008, when the global economy was in the throes of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, loans in the U.S. tumbled 21% in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with a drop of 18% for junk-rated bonds, according to the S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Total Returns Index and the Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Index. Investment-grade debt gained 1.6%.
The growth in junk loans has led regulators to warn about deteriorating underwriting practices.
The Fed and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency sent letters to some of the biggest banks in recent months asking them to avoid originating loans that can be considered criticized, or debt seen as having some deficiency that may result in a loss. The regulators identified 42% of leveragedloans in that category this year in communications sent as recently as October.
Leveraged loans and high-yield, high-risk bonds are rated below Baa3 by Moodys Investors Service and lower than BBB- at S&P.
The average yield to maturity on new-issue first lien loans fell to 4.69% at the end of last month from 5.82% at the start of the year, S&P LCD data show.
Citigroup Inc. is forecasting U.S. companies will issue $375 billion of new loans next year, 15% less than what they raised in 2013, mainly because of the potential impact of regulations on collateralized loan obligations.
While the eventual form of regulations is still unclear, its effect on leveraged loans will be greater than high-yield, analysts led by Michael Anderson wrote in a Dec. 17 report.
Regulators are considering rules targeting CLOs, the biggest buyers of loans, as part of the financial reform mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, that may force banks to hold onto portions of debt they sell to CLOs.
CLOs raised more than $76 billion this year, the most since 2007, according to Citigroup.
Implementation of these rules may reduce CLO formation by as much as $250 billion, according to a study published Dec. 18 by the Loan Syndications and Trading Association.
Even as loans receive greater scrutiny, firms such as Citigroup predict they will generate gains for investors.
Citigroup is forecasting leveraged loans to return 3% next year compared with 2.5% forjunk bonds. Loans are poised to return 5% this year, after gaining 10.51% last year, according to the S&P LSTA Leveraged Loan 100 index.
High-yield is about the only asset class where you can get current income with reasonable credit defaults in a slowly but steadily improving economy, Tim Broadbent, head of Americas Leveraged Loan Syndicate at Barclays Plc in New York, said in reference to junk loans during a telephone interview.
The U.S. speculative-grade default rate was 2.4% in November, down from 2.5% in October, according to a Dec. 8 report from Moodys. The bond rater estimates the measure will finish this year at 2.3%.
The Fed said it start cutting its $85 billion in monthly purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed bonds next month while holding its benchmark interest rate low, according to minutes from its Dec. 17-18 policy meeting.
Policy makers said in a statement it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate well past the jobless-rate threshold, especially if inflation stays below the Feds 2% target. The rate has been in a range of zero to 0.25% since 2008.
We could potentially see more retail flows in 2014 than this year if people really believe the Fed will begin to raise rates, Broadbent said.
Elsewhere in credit markets, the extra yield investors demand to hold corporate bonds worldwide rather than government debentures fell to the lowest level in more than six years. Sales of the securities dropped for a second week, reaching the least this year. The cost to protect against defaults on corporate bonds in the U.S. fell to the lowest since October 2007.
Relative yields on investment-grade bonds from the U.S. to Europe and Asia narrowed 4 basis points to 126 basis points, or 1.26%age points, the least since November 2007, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Corporate Index. Yields fell to 2.9658% from 2.9723% on Dec. 13.
The Bloomberg Global Investment Grade Corporate Bond Index is little changed this month, bringing the loss for 2013 to 0.44%.
The Markit CDX North American Investment Grade Index, a credit-default swaps benchmark used to hedge against losses or to speculate on creditworthiness, dropped 5.5 basis points last week to 64.51 basis points, the biggest decline since the period ended Oct. 18 to the lowest level since Oct. 31, 2007, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.
The Markit iTraxx Europe Index of 125 companies with investment-grade ratings fell 0.7 to 70.9 at 9:38 a.m. in London.
The indexes typically fall as investor confidence improves and rise as it deteriorates. Credit swaps pay the buyer face value if a borrower fails to meet its obligations, less the value of the defaulted debt. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.
Kroger Co. led $25.1 billion of corporate-bond issuance globally last week, a 57% decline from the previous period and the least since the week ended Dec. 28, 2012.
The largest U.S. grocery chain sold $2 billion of debt in four parts to help fund its acquisition of Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. The offering included $700 million of 3.3% notes due January 2021 paying 110 basis points more than similar-maturity Treasuries.
The S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 index was little changed at 98.16 cents on the dollar. The measure, which tracks the 100 largest dollar-denominated first-lien leveraged loans, has returned 4.81% this year.
In emerging markets, relative yields narrowed 4.45 basis points last week to 333 basis points, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.s EMBI Global index. The measure has averaged 318 this year.