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What is a 'Leveraged Loan'

A leveraged loan is a type of loan that is extended to companies or individuals that already have considerable amounts of debt and/or a poor credit history. Lenders consider leveraged loans to carry a higher risk of default, and as a result, a leveraged loan is more costly to the borrower. Leveraged loans for companies or individuals with debt tend to have higher interest rates than typical loans; these rates reflect the higher level of risk involved in issuing the loan.

BREAKING DOWN 'Leveraged Loan'

In business, leveraged loans are also used in the leveraged buyouts (LBOs) of other companies. A leveraged loan is structured, arranged and administered by at least one commercial or investment bank. These institutions are called arrangers and subsequently may sell the loan, in a process known as syndication, to other banks or investors to lower the risk to lending institutions.

Defining a Leveraged Loan

There is no exact criteria for defining a leveraged loan. Some market participants base it on a spread. For instance, many of the loans pay a floating rate, typically based on LIBOR plus a stated interest margin. If the interest margin is above a certain level, it is considered a leveraged loan. Others base it on the rating, with loans rated below investment grade, which is categorized as Ba3, BB- or lower from the rating agencies Moody's and S&P.

S&P's Leveraged Commentary & Data (LCD), which is a provider of leveraged loan news and analytics, places a loan in its leveraged loan universe if the loan is rated BB- or lower. Alternatively, a loan that is nonrated or BBB- or higher is classified as a leveraged loan if the spread is LIBOR plus 125 basis points or higher and is secured by a first or second lien.

Price Flex

Typically, banks are allowed to change the terms when syndicating the loan, which is called price flex. The interest margin can be raised if demand for the loan is insufficient at the original interest level in what is referred to as upward flex. Conversely, the spread over LIBOR can be lowered, which is called reverse flex, if demand for the loan is high.

Reasons for a Leveraged Loan

Companies typically use a leverage loan to finance mergers and acquisitions (M&A), recapitalize the balance sheet, refinance debt or for general corporate purposes. M&A could take the form of an LBO. This occurs when a company or private equity company purchases a public entity and takes it private. Typically, debt is used to finance a portion of the purchase price. A recapitalization of the balance sheet occurs when a company uses the capital markets to change the composition of its capital structure. A typical transaction issues debt to buy back stock or pay a dividend.

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