One of Wall Street’s hottest hedge funds has pulled in a quarter of a billion dollars from a small group of investors seeking out returns from an obscure corner of capital markets: collateralised loan obligations.
Diameter Capital, which posted a 24 per cent gain in its main hedge fund last year, intends to use the seed money to structure and sell its first six CLOs, which bundle together risky company loans and use them to back interest payments on slices of new debt, each with different levels of risk and return.
The asset class nestles just on the fringe of markets, dominated by specialists, but demand is now rising more broadly. The combined $250m investment in Diameter from alternative asset managers Apollo Global Management and Corbin Capital, and the pension fund of renewable energy company Babcock & Wilcox, also hints at a shift towards the mainstream.
“CLOs have survived the market swoon intact,” said Bret Leas, who runs Apollo’s structured credit business. “Therefore the asset class continues to gain more widespread acceptance. It’s no longer niche.”
Part of the allure for investors is that the CLO market offers a way to improve returns now that low interest rates have made higher-yielding assets scarce.
Total issuance of CLOs in the US this year is running at a record pace around $70bn, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, with the total market now sitting at $770bn outstanding, according to Citi. The bank predicts it will grow to $850bn by the end of the year.
“It is a source of return in a world where there are not many obvious returns,” said Craig Bergstrom, chief investment officer at Corbin, who noted Diameter’s record as part of the $8.5bn investment manager’s decision to invest. Once interest has been paid to debt investors in the CLO, whatever is left flows through to the equity holders that have provided seed capital.
CLOs have been viewed sceptically in the past. Before the pandemic struck, regulators had expressed concerns that they had facilitated risky lending with weaker standards, and that they could lay the groundwork for a future credit crisis.
But CLO participants now feel vindicated, arguing that a strong rebound from the depths of the coronavirus-induced fall in markets has proved the resilience of the structure and offered comfort to cautious investors, even if critics still point to the large amount of assistance provided by the Federal Reserve that helped all credit markets — from bonds to loans — recover.
Even CLO equity investors, most exposed to the default of underlying issuers, largely ended 2020 with positive, single-digit returns, according to multiple industry sources.
“CLOs have come out pretty unblemished,” said Scott Snell at credit fund Tetragon, which invests in both the debt and equity of CLOs. “If liquidity had not been provided by the Fed, CLOs would have been more adversely impacted but it also would have been more challenging for all markets, not just CLOs.”
Eager to capitalise on the demand, a host of fund managers has sought to enter the market or expand their business.
As a result, some market participants expect consolidation among CLO managers. There are 135 CLO managers in the US, according to Citi, with 50 of them managing less than $2bn. Industry veterans say that depending on the fees charged and the size of the team, it typically takes $2bn to $3bn in assets to break even.
However, few M&A deals have emerged with both new and existing managers seemingly preferring tie-ups akin to Diameter’s.
Diameter’s launch follows York Capital ceding control of its CLO business to a new entity called Generate Advisors earlier this year, partnering with Kennedy Lewis Investment Management who will provide a $200m equity contribution to future deals. Kayne Anderson in January raised $600m in a fund to invest in the equity of both its own and other managers’ CLO deals.
This is Apollo’s fifth partnership, starting with an equity financing for CLO manager Gulf Stream in 2011, with three others in between.
“We preferred to build something ourselves that we can infuse with our DNA as opposed to buying a business that’s struggling on another platform,” said Scott Goodwin, who co-founded Diameter with Jon Lewinsohn. The pair met while working at credit fund Anchorage roughly a decade ago, starting Diameter in 2017. Investing across credit markets, it has become known as one of the most prolific hedge funds in recent years.
Goodwin’s first boss working at Citi was Jim Zelter, now co-president of Apollo. Both Goodwin and Lewinsohn also had a long-held relationship with John Zito, Apollo’s deputy chief investment officer, cemented after Apollo supported Diameter’s entry into issuing collateralised debt obligations.
“A lot of people talk about it but there has been very little CLO M&A,” said Leas at Apollo. “The price sellers expect to be paid is not typically attractive to firms like ours when we can just either issue our own deals or seed other managers. A tie-up is a far more likely way to launch a CLO manager these days.”