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Fall 2021




University of Iowa College of Law




It was once conventional wisdom that lenders routinely influenced corporate managers’ decision making. Covenants constrained borrower risk taking and compelled specific affirmative obligations to protect lenders. Recent policy discussion, however, laments loan markets’ turn to various forms of high-risk lending. So-called leveraged loans — relatively risky, below-investment-grade loans — more than doubled in outstanding dollar terms, growing from about $550 billion in 2010 to $1.2 trillion by 2019. These risky loans have taken up a larger and larger share of the loan markets over time. More leveraged loans are also “covenant-lite,” issued without traditional financial maintenance covenants. And regulators worry about “add-backs” — borrowers’ growing practice of making upward adjustments to projected earnings that tend to weaken leverage constraints.

Moreover, bank regulatory changes have incentivized “originate-to-distribute” loan syndications that enable non-bank lenders to hold and trade leveraged loans too risky for banks to keep. Syndicated lending now involves greater and greater participation by nonbank or “institutional” lenders like hedge funds, CLOs (collateralized loan obligations), and mutual funds. Commentators worry about the new species of risky loans, with their dearth of traditional covenants and the fewer instances of lender intervention, which may portend instability in debt markets. At the same time, weakened covenant protections may lead to weakened corporate governance.

In this Article, I respond to these fears, arguing that they may be overblown. The increasing share of leveraged and covenant-lite loans may not necessarily evidence undisciplined debt issuance. Many seemingly troublesome loans are issued as subparts of deals that include loans with traditional covenants and cross-default provisions, which effectively constrain borrower behavior. Though add-backs may increase firm leverage, they may also improve the informativeness of earnings-based financial covenants. In addition, while the incidence of loan covenant violations has dropped dramatically across U.S. public firms, recent research suggests that covenants have become more efficient. In effect, covenants are doing more with less. Financial covenants have generally become less restrictive and more discriminating in differentiating distress from non-distress situations.

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