Companies issue bonds to finance operations. Most companies can borrow from banks, but view direct borrowing from a bank as more restrictive and expensive than selling debt on the open market through a bond issue.

The costs involved in borrowing money directly from a bank are prohibitive to a number of companies. In the world of corporate finance, many chief financial officers (CFOs) view banks as lenders of last resort because of the restrictive debt covenants that banks place on direct corporate loans. Covenants are rules placed on debt that are designed to stabilize corporate performance and reduce the risk to which a bank is exposed when it gives a large loan to a company. In other words, restrictive covenants protect the bank's interests; they're written by securities lawyers and are based on what analysts have determined to be risks to that company's performance.

Here are a few examples of the restrictive covenants faced by companies:

  • They can't issue any more debt until the bank loan is completely paid off
  • They can't participate in any share offerings until the bank loan is paid off
  • They can't acquire any companies until the bank loan is paid off

Relatively speaking, these are straightforward, unrestrictive covenants that may be placed on corporate borrowing. However, debt covenants are often much more convoluted and carefully tailored to fit the borrower's business risks. Some of the more restrictive covenants may state that the interest rate on the debt increases substantially should the chief executive officer (CEO) quit, or should earnings per share drop in a given time period. Covenants are a way for banks to mitigate the risk of holding debt, but for borrowing companies they are seen as an increased risk.

Simply put, banks place greater restrictions on what a company can do with a loan and are more concerned about debt repayment than bondholders. Bond markets tend to be more forgiving than banks and are often seen as being easier to deal with. As a result, companies are more likely to finance operations by issuing bonds than by borrowing from a bank.

For more further reading, see Debt Reckoning and Corporate Bonds: An Introduction To Credit Risk. For more about bonds, see Bond Basics Tutorial and Advanced Bond Concepts.