US credit market off to a record start in 2021

Casino operator Studio City, technology company Broadcom and DIY shop Home Depot have helped kick off a frenetic start to US credit markets in 2021, with companies issuing more dollar bonds in the first two days of the year than ever before. 

In total, almost $50bn of new debt has already been lapped up by investors, according to data from Refinitiv, as companies look to take advantage of low borrowing costs to refinance bonds and fund takeovers. 

It is the fastest pace of corporate bond issuance over the first two days of the year on record. Further deals expected on Wednesday were set to push the total past the $52bn sold in the record first trading week of 2017. 

“We’re off the races again to start the year,” said John Gregory, head of leveraged finance at Wells Fargo Securities.

Studio City was the first company to come to market on Monday, launching an eight-year bond that was eventually increased from $600m to $750m due to demand, according to people familiar with the transaction. The company was seeking to refinance debt coming due in 2024. Broadcom followed suit, raising $10bn across five different maturity bonds with maturities stretching out as far as 30 years, in part to repay debt coming due this year. 

Other companies have used the favourable rate environment to fund acquisitions, with mergers expected to be a primary driver of bond issuance this year, according to bankers.

Home Depot sold $3bn of bonds across three maturities to finance its takeover of construction supplier HD Supply. There remains close to $60bn of debt to be raised this year to finance acquisitions that have already been announced by investment-grade companies, according to Barclays. 

Meghan Graper, head of US investment grade syndicate at Barclays, said that refinancing and acquisitions made up “the two-pronged driver of supply”. 

“They are a feature of every conversation with issuers I have been part of recently,” she said. 

The borrowing binge comes off the back of a record-breaking year for issuance in 2020. Companies raised $2.5tn of bonds in the US last year, as investors flocked to bolster corporate balance sheets during the pandemic, helped by supportive central bank policies that in effect backstopped the market. 

Bankers expect overall issuance to decline this year, but still anticipate companies to issue debt opportunistically given the low cost of borrowing. The average yield across US investment-grade bonds ended 2020 at an all-time low of 1.78 per cent, after investors bought in to the debt. 

Market confidence in the continuous support of central banks and an eventual economic recovery from coronavirus also spread to lower-rated companies, often badly affected by the effects of the pandemic.

Investors are “willing to take on more risk than ever before”, said Mr Gregory. Lower-rated issuers, offering higher yields, have already sold more bonds than in any previous first trading week of the year. 

“[Investors] are convinced rates are not going higher and that we are going to come out of the other side of Covid,” he said.

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