CLOs: A Better Way to Access Leveraged Loans | ETF Trends

By William Sokol
Director of Product Management

Rising rates have driven volatility in the leveraged loan market. We believe CLOs offer attractive access to loans in this environment, given their structural risk mitigation.

Increasing economic uncertainty and concern about the impact of rising interest rates on non–investment grade borrowers have resulted in increased volatility in the leveraged loan market. We believe investment grade collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), which are securitized pools of leveraged loans, may offer an attractive way to access the loan space in the current environment.

Despite recent concerns about leveraged loans, we also believe there are several mitigating factors that investors can take comfort in. First, fundamentals remain strong and have continued to improve. Leverage among borrowers has continued to decline, and EBITDA and revenue growth were above consensus in the second quarter of 2022. Interest coverage ratios are at a three–year high, as revenue growth has outpaced interest expense. Further, default rates remain very low, standing at 1.36% over the past year (as of the end of August 2022), while average recovery rates were at their historical average of 62%.1

To be sure, there are increasing headwinds. Coverage ratios will likely decline, as higher policy rates begin to trickle through. Given the extremely low default rates recently, it is reasonable to expect an increase. J.P. Morgan is forecasting a 2.25% loan default rate in 2023, representing a material increase, but still lower than the historical average of 2.9% since 1992.2

Coverage Ratios at Three Year High

Coverage Ratios at Three Year High

Sources: J.P. Morgan; Capital IQ.

CLOs are directly impacted by dynamics in the underlying loan portfolios, but benefit from structural risk protections. A combination of subordination, active management, collateral/coverage tests and the cashflow waterfall that characterize CLOs help to insulate investors, particularly those in investment grade rated tranches. As a result of these built–in risk protections, an extreme level of defaults is needed in an underlying loan portfolio to incur a loss of principal for investment grade CLO tranches if held to maturity.

Defaults, therefore, have been almost non–existent in the highest rated tranches. For example, AAA and AA rated tranches have never experienced a default loss. For BBB–rated CLO tranches (the lowest investment grade rating tier), it is estimated that 9–13% of a CLO’s loan portfolio needs to default for 5–7 consecutive years to lose the first dollar of principal.3 That is approximately 3–4 times the historical annual average, for multiple years—something that has never occurred.

Historical defaults in investment grade tranches have been extremely rare and were primarily experienced in CLOs issued prior to the financial crisis. Since then, subordination levels and portfolio guidelines have become even more conservative. An investment directly in a loan fund, on the other hand, directly exposes an investor’s capital to defaults. Based on J.P. Morgan’s 2023 default rate forecast and the average recovery rate of 62%, a loss of nearly 0.9% of principal would be expected in a leveraged loan strategy.

CLOs Benefit from Multiple Structural Protections
Active Management CLO managers analyze issuers and apply sector expertise to construct portfolios. Fees are generally linked to performance.
Credit Support Subordinated tranches absorb losses first.
Covenants & Collateral Requirements CLOs have features that are protective of debt tranches:

  • CLO portfolios are subject to quality and diversity tests that must be met.
  • Interest cashflows are diverted to pay off senior tranches if tests such as interest coverage or overcollateralization are not met.
Excess Spread Excess income vs. interest paid on debt tranches provides protection in case coverage tests are not met, which can be used to buy additional assets or pay down notes.

Source: VanEck.

Although default risk is not the primary concern for investment grade CLOs, investors are exposed to both spread risk and downgrade risk. The level of single B–rated loans within the leveraged loan universe is an issue that has received some attention, particularly those which are only one downgrade from falling into the CCC category. This is of interest to CLO investors because most deals have a CCC exposure limit of 7.5%. If breached, cashflows get diverted from lower rated tranches to senior tranches. We believe the faster payoff of senior tranches in this scenario should help alleviate investment grade CLO investor concerns. Further, according to BofA Research, most CLOs are well below this limit, and it is worth noting that because CLOs are actively managed, managers have the ability to move into higher quality loans.

Historically, CLOs have performed relatively well in spread widening environments compared to leveraged loans, with an average outperformance of approximately 3.6% in the four periods in which credit spreads widened significantly since 2011.4 Longer term, CLOs have provided similar returns as leveraged loans over the past decade, with lower volatility, resulting in better risk–adjusted returns. Overall volatility and drawdown has been lower among investment grade CLO tranches overall compared to loans. However, lower rated investment grade tranches (A and BBB) have exhibited higher volatility and drawdown, which we believe necessitates an active approach that incorporates both bottom–up security selection based on extensive due diligence as well as top–down portfolio construction to add risk or de–risk based on market conditions.

VanEck has partnered with PineBridge Investments on the VanEck CLO ETF (CLOI), which provides access to investment grade floating–rate CLOs. CLOI benefits from PineBridge’s decades of CLO market experience, both as a CLO manager and CLO tranche investor, and deep leveraged finance expertise.

Originally published by VanEck on September 29, 2022. 

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1 Source: J.P. Morgan.

2 Source: J.P. Morgan.

3 Source: PineBridge Investments.

4 Source: VanEck and Morningstar. Spread widening environments defined by periods in which the average credit spread of the ICE BofA US High Yield Index widened by more than 200 basis points since 12/31/2011: 6/23/2014 – 2/11/2016, 10/3/2018 – 1/3/2019, 1/20/2020 – 3/23/2020 and 12/28/2021 – 7/23/2022. CLO performance is measured by the J.P. Morgan CLO Index, leveraged loan performance is represented by the Morningstar LSTA US Leveraged Loan 100 Index.

Index descriptions:

ICE BofA US High Yield Index (H0A0) tracks the performance of U.S. dollar–denominated below investment grade corporate debt publically issued in the U.S. domestic market.

J.P. Morgan Collateralized Loan Obligation Index (CLOIE) tracks US dollar denominated broadly–syndicated, arbitrage CLOs.

Morningstar LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index seeks to mirror the market–weighted performance of the largest institutional leveraged loans as determined by–criteria based upon market weightings, spreads, and interest payments.

This is not an offer to buy or sell, or a recommendation to buy or sell any of the securities mentioned herein. The information presented does not involve the rendering of personalized investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. Certain statements contained herein may constitute projections, forecasts and other forward looking statements, which do not reflect actual results, are valid as of the date of this communication and subject to change without notice. Information provided by third party sources are believed to be reliable and have not been independently verified for accuracy or completeness and cannot be guaranteed. The information herein represents the opinion of the author(s), but not necessarily those of VanEck.

An investment in the VanEck CLO ETF (CLOI) may be subject to risks which include, among others, Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLO), debt securities, LIBOR Replacement, foreign currency, foreign securities, investment focus, newly–issued securities, extended settlement, affiliated fund, management, derivatives, cash transactions, market, Sub–Adviser, operational, authorized participant concentration, new fund, absence of prior active market, trading issues, fund shares trading, premium/discount, liquidity of fund shares, non–diversified, and seed investor risks. The Fund may also be subject to liquidity, interest rate, floating rate obligations, credit, call, extension, high yield securities, income, valuation, privately–issued securities, covenant lite loans, default of the underlying asset and CLO manager risks, all of which may adversely affect the Fund.

Investing involves substantial risk and high volatility, including possible loss of principal. An investor should consider the investment objective, risks, charges and expenses of the Funds carefully before investing. To obtain a prospectus and summary prospectus, which contain this and other information, call 800.826.2333 or visit Please read the prospectus and summary prospectus carefully before investing.

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