Loan Market Overview

The “retail” market for a syndicated loan consists of banks and, in the case of leveraged transactions, finance companies and institutional investors. Before formally launching a loan to these retail accounts, arrangers will often get a market read by informally polling select investors to gauge their appetite for the credit. After this market read, the arrangers will launch the deal at a spread and fee that it thinks will clear the market. Until 1998, this would have been it. Once the pricing was set, it was set, except in the most extreme cases. If the loans were undersubscribed, the arrangers could very well be left above their desired hold level. Since the Russian debt crisis roiled the market in 1998, however, arrangers have adopted market-flex language, which allows them to change the pricing of the loan based on investor demand--in some cases within a predetermined range--as well as shift amounts between various tranches of a loan, as a standard feature of loan commitment letters. As a result of market flex, loan syndication functions as a “book-building” exercise, in bond-market parlance. A loan is originally launched to market at a target spread or, as was increasingly common by 2008 with a range of spreads referred to as price talk (i.e., a target spread of, say, LIBOR+250 to LIBOR+275). Investors then will make commitments that in many cases are tiered by the spread. For example, an account may put in for $25 million at LIBOR+275 or $15 million at LIBOR+250. At the end of the process, the arranger will total up the commitments and then make a call on where to price the paper. Following the example above, if the paper is vastly oversubscribed at LIBOR+250, the arranger may slice the spread further. Conversely, if it is undersubscribed even at LIBOR+275, then the arranger will be forced to raise the spread to bring more money to the table.

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