If anything bodes well for the economy, this does: companies are opening up new revolving lines of credit and refinancing older instruments at reduced rates.
In 2010, lenders doubled their issuance of syndicated, revolving lines of credit, a staple of corporate finance, according to data from Thomson Reuters Loan Pricing Corp., with borrowings accelerating the second half of the year, to $381 billion.
During the financial crisis, banks cut their exposure to revolvers, downsizing instruments or flatly refusing to renew them. Now, individual banks are slowly raising the amount of untapped commercial-credit commitments they're willing to keep on their books, according to federal call reports.
As in the larger corporate-loan market, new issues are predominantly refinancings of debt set to mature in the next 12 months. In late February, for example, Avista Corp. replaced existing debt set to mature last April with a new $400 million facility that expires in 2015. Near the same time, FelCor Lodging Trust, an owner of 82 upscale hotels, closed on a $225 million instrument secured by 11 of its properties.
FelCor had terminated a line of credit in 2009 because covenants were getting tight, says Steve Schafer, FelCor's vice president of strategic planning. But once earnings rebounded, FelCor pursued a new revolver with a three-year maturity, a lower interest rate, and an option for a one-year extension to 2015.
"It's always good to push out maturities," says Schafer. "The lower interest rate [LIBOR plus 4.5%] improves our earnings, and a new [line] will help us manage liquidity better — we've been carrying excess cash because we didn't have a line of credit."
"With not as many strong credits, banks are eager to lend, and they are kind of bending some of the standards," says Richard M. Pollak, a practice group leader in lending and structured finance at Troutman Sanders LLP.
Companies with steady earnings can lengthen terms to five and, at the outside, seven years. "It's fairly typical of what we see entering a growth cycle," says Walter Owens, head of U.S. commercial banking at TD Bank. "But we're a bit surprised by some of the deals going out [five and seven years]. We've let some of these deals go because we didn't think the company deserved that type of facility."
Borrowers like being locked in. "They don't have to worry about waking up one morning and discovering that their lender is not so enamored of their business anymore," Pollak says.
So, could banks be underpricing risk again? While easing up on some loan conditions, banks are more disciplined at valuing the receivables, inventory, and real estate that secure lines of credit, says TD Bank's Owens. "Since loss and default rates were not as high as most banks anticipated, in the last six months banks have been more aggressive. But, from a historical perspective, they're still fairly conservative."
And companies are having to put up a lot of assets. For example, Delta Air Lines's new revolver is secured by accounts receivable, airport slots, ground-service equipment, spare parts, engines, and flight simulators, among other property. "Out of an abundance of caution, banks are taking a lot more collateral," says Pollak. So, while banks and institutional investors may be going long, they're definitely hedging their bets.