Senior Loans: An Introduction

To generate sufficient income, relative to both historical standards and inflation, consider allocating to senior secured loans as they offer yields comparable to those of high yield bonds, but with less duration risk due to their floating rate coupons. And because loans are more senior in their capital structure, they have historically witnessed lower relative levels of volatility than fixed-rate high yield. Learning more about the nuances, mechanics and potential benefits of senior loans can help you to move beyond traditional bond markets and integrate this asset class into portfolios.

What Are Senior Secured Loans?

Issued by below investment-grade rated firms, senior secured loans are typically used to refinance existing debt or to finance corporate actions such as acquisitions, leveraged buyouts, dividends, etc.

The cash flows of senior loans are similar to most other fixed income securities in that investors receive interest payments (also known as coupons), typically on a quarterly basis, and repayment of principal at maturity or redemption. However, these coupon payments are slightly nuanced relative to plain vanilla bonds.

First, the interest payment of a senior loan is variable. Coupons payments fluctuate as they are tied to a reference rate such as LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) or SOFR (Secured Overnight Financing Rate). Second, a “fixed spread” is added on top of the reference rate to compensate investors for the additional credit risk they assume, as senior loans are below investment-grade rated debt. And third, the reference rate may sometimes have a “floor” which protects investors from the coupon falling below a certain level if interest rates decline. As the reference rate fluctuates daily, the coupon payment resets, generally every quarter. See below for an example of how a coupon payment might be calculated.

Coupon Payment Example

Other key features of senior secured loans include their payback preference and pledged collateral. The issue is “senior,” as holders of these loans have a priority claim over other creditors in the event of a default. For firms with multiple issuances of debt, there is generally a capital structure, or hierarchy, in which creditors are paid back. The senior creditors are paid out first, and any remaining funds are split among the subordinated debtholders.

And lastly, the loan is “secured” because assets are pledged as collateral for the loan if interest or principal payments cannot be met by the issuer. This offers senior secured loan investors recourse, as the assets backing the loan could be liquidated to repay the creditors.

Figure 1: Borrower’s Capital Structure

Loan Market Landscape and Investor Base

Over the past 20 years, the size of the senior loan market has grown at a compound annual rate of approximately 13.8% from about $90 billion in 2001 to $1.19 trillion in 2020.1 Over two-thirds (68%) of senior loan demand comes from managers of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs),2 a structured product backed by a diversified pool of senior loans. The next largest owners of loans are hedge funds and separate accounts (16%) and loan-focused mutual funds (8%).3 The remaining 8% includes other financial institutions and asset managers such as non-loan mutual funds, insurance companies, and banks.4

Senior Loans versus CLOs

A collateralized loan obligation (CLO) is a security backed by a diversified pool of senior loans. The CLO manager will issue debt and equity in order to raise cash from investors, then use this cash to purchase millions of dollars in senior secured loans. The cash flows generated from the underlying senior loans are then passed on to the investors, however they are not paid out equally.

Debt issued by a CLO is divided into difference slices, or “tranches.” Each tranche has a different risk profile due to varying claims on cash flow from the portfolio of loans. Tranches with the most senior claim might be assigned a rating of AAA, while subordinated tranches are rated lower. As with any other investment decision, investors select tranches based on the tranche’s risk profile and expected returns.

As the CLO generates cash flows, the funds are paid to investors in a waterfall-like fashion. The senior-most tranche will be made whole first. After they are repaid, the mezzanine tranches receive their payments. This continues until all debt tranches receive what they are owed and any excess cash is then distributed to the equity investors.

It is important to realize that just like with investing in plain vanilla bonds, credit risk could materially hinder returns, especially in subordinated debt and equity tranches. Due to the waterfall of payments, it is possible that if negative credit events occur, the lower tranches and/or equity investors might not be repaid.

Figure 2: Annual Returns: CLOs versus Senior Loans and High Yield Bonds (%)

Senior Loans Versus High Yield (And Other Types of Corporate Debt)

On the surface, senior secured loans might appear very similar to high yield corporate debt, as both securities are issued by below investment-grade rated issuers and offer higher yields than that of investment-grade corporate bonds. However, there are several differentiating characteristics between these two securities types.

Starting with the most basic, as previously explained, senior loans pay a floating rate coupon that typically resets every quarter, whereas high yield corporates pay a fixed interest rate, typically in semi-annual installments, over the life of the bond. This leads to a large divergence in interest rate sensitivity between the two. Due to their resetting coupon payment, senior secured loans typically have a duration of 0.25 years while high yield debt broadly has a duration of 3.79 years, although the duration of individual bonds will vary.5 This longer duration can be a headwind, especially during periods of rising rates. In fact, duration effects detracted 2.52% from high yield bonds’ performance in 2021, while its impact on senior loans was muted.6

Key differences also arise when it comes to investor protections. Unlike senior secured loans, high yield corporate bonds are typically not secured by any underlying asset. That is to say, issuers of these bonds do not pledge collateral to secure the loan. This is important because if there is a bankruptcy or liquidation, there are generally no assets to back the high yield bond issuance.

Furthermore, issuers of senior secured loans are generally more restricted in the management of company finances due to covenants. Covenants are provisions in a credit agreement or indenture that restrict the issuer from performing certain actions (or require them to perform certain actions). These provisions are widely viewed as a benefit to holders of bonds and loans, as they offer guardrails for how the issuer can use its capital.

Examples of convents include prohibiting the issuer from incurring additional debt, selling certain assets, or making cash dividend payments over a previously agreed upon amount. They might also oblige the issuer to achieve certain financial ratios and deliver financial statements to creditors in a timely fashion.

Covenants are not an exclusive feature to senior secured loans, as high yield bondholders typically require similar conditions. However, relative to high yield bonds, senior secured loans generally have more covenants and are more restrictive.

The final key difference relative to high yield bonds deals with payback priority. Senior secure loans sit higher in the issuer’s capital structure than subordinated high yield debt. This means if the issuer defaults, holders of senior loans are legally entitled to be made whole before the high yield bond investors. This is critical as there might be nothing left to disburse once the senior loan creditors recoup their investment.

Putting this all together, it should be no surprise that senior secured loan investors have historically experienced double the recovery rates compared to high yield corporate bond holders (65% versus 31%).7 Furthermore, senior loans have historically experienced less volatility than high yield bonds as a result of the protections described above. Since September 2008, loans have seen 2.01% less overall volatility and, more importantly, 2.04% less downside volatility (both annualized figures).8

Figure 3: Volatility Reduction of Senior Loans Versus High Yield Bonds (%)

Lastly, most of what was mentioned in comparison to high yield corporate bonds also holds true for investment-grade corporate bonds. These bond issues also have fixed interest payments and are generally not secured. However, because investment-grade rated firms have historically experienced lower default rates, investors generally do not require the same level of assurances than high yield debt investors. As a result, covenant protections on investment-grade rated issues are usually quite minimal.

Figure 4: Senior Loans Versus High Yield and Investment-Grade Bones at a Glance

Senior Loans Versus High Yield (And Other Types of Corporate Debt)

Investors may realize various benefits by allocating to senior secured loans. For starters, senior loans might be an attractive option for income-seeking investors due to their elevated yield (3.88% yield to worst).9 Also, considering that the five-year breakeven rate remains elevated at 2.90%,10 investors are left with limited options to generate yields above inflation expectations.

While the yield of senior secured loans is slightly lower than that of junk bonds (4.28% yield to worst),11 it is still substantial in the context of other traditional fixed income asset classes yields, as shown below. Further, it stands to reason that senior secured loans might offer a slightly lower yield than below investment-grade corporates in exchange for the previously discussed investor protections (seniority, covenants, and collateral).

Figure 5: Yield to Worst of Senior Loans Versus Other Traditional Fixed Income Sectors (%)

Sensitivity to interest rates is another important consideration. Because high yield corporate bonds pay a fixed coupon, they have much higher duration risk (3.79 years),12 whereas senior loans’ resetting coupon greatly reduces their sensitivity to changes in rates. This means that senior secured loans are generally more efficient in balancing pursuit of yield with interest rate risk, as their yield-per-unit-of-duration registers at approximately 15.5 versus 1.1 for high yield corporate bonds.13

Expanding upon duration risk, holders of senior secured loans are likely to benefit more during periods of rising rates as a result of the resetting coupon. In fact, during three-month periods when both the US 5-Year and 10-Year Treasuries climbed more than 30 basis points, senior secured loans, on average, returned 4.23% for investors compared to investment-grade corporates’ -0.18%.14

Figure 6: Average Return When Both the US 5- and 10-Year Treasuries Rise 30 Basis Points or More (%)

In addition to their attractive yield and duration profile, senior loans have also been more resilient during periods of market drawdowns, compared to similarly rated corporate bonds.

First, it is important to understand credit spreads in the context of bond market drawdowns, as this is generally how below investment-grade credit is priced. A credit spread, also known as a yield spread, is simply the yield differential between a risk-free security, such as a US Treasury, and another debt security of similar maturity. The difference in yield between the two securities represents the extra yield investors require for taking on additional credit risk. In times turmoil, credit spreads grow wider as investors generally seek safer investments, pushing yields upward on less risky investments, and flee riskier debt, causing those yields to rise.

In times of widening credit spreads, senior secured loans have proven to hold up better than high yield bonds. When analyzing monthly changes in below investment-grade credit spreads, senior loans have outperformed high yield bonds by an average of 0.54% when spreads widen more than 20 basis points over the month.15 And when limiting the analysis to the ten worst spread widening months, senior loans’ average excess return over high yield bonds increases to 0.95%.16

Figure 7: Average Excess Return When Credit Spreads Widen More Than 20 Basis Points (%)

Finally, within the context of portfolio construction, senior secured loans may offer investors more diversification. Relative to junk bonds, senior loans have historically exhibited lower correlations to all selected major asset classes in the chart below. While senior loans are approximately 10 percentage points less correlated to equities than high yield bonds, their difference in correlation to fixed income sectors is about twice that amount.17 This could benefit to investors as allocating to assets that are uncorrelated can potentially build more efficient portfolios; a key tenet of modern portfolio theory.

Figure 8: Correlation of Senior Loans and High Yield Bonds Versus Other Traditional Asset Classes

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