US lenders primed for a fall

Sawers Andrew
Автор: Sawers Andrew
More than 5,000 UK companies had to take on the burden of complying with the US Sarbanes-Oxley regulations. A new report says that many thousands more might do so voluntarily

Fears of a credit crunch have sparked panic in the world markets. But far from signalling a wider economic collapse it could just be a much needed and long-overdue correction in the market, writes Charlotte Moore The collapse of US sub?prime mortgages has caused a crisis of confidence in the financial markets, sparking sharp falls in equities from London to Singapore. Central banks have taken the unusual step of pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the markets to prevent a liquidity crunch.

Every day brings news of another casualty: Goldman Sachs says it will inject billions of dollars of its own money to bail out its hedge fund, then the Dutch bank, NIBC – badly hit by its exposure to US sub-prime – agrees to be bought by Kaupthing, the Icelandic investment bank.

This shake-up of the markets could make a finance director wonder whether it will be harder to get the credit line renewed or find the necessary debt financing to make the next acquisition. But, while finance directors should monitor the markets carefully, it is not time to batten down the hatches, say the experts.

For seasoned market watchers this shake-up of the credit markets has been a long-time coming and, for many, it represents a welcome return to normality.

Not a surprise

Simon Collins, chief executive of corporate finance at KPMG, says:
“I think we have seen lending conditions that have almost universally been regarded as insanity. Words like ‘unsustainable’ have been bandied around for some time, yet everyone reacts with shock at the first sign of a market correction.”
This correction blocked the overnight flow of lending between financial institutions around the world over several days prompting the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan to inject funds into the market. They took this step to ensure that lending rates stayed close to the levels set by them.

Central banks, especially the Bank of England, will be relieved if the current crisis makes investors more wary of risk. When the Bank presented its most recent quarterly inflation report, the governor, Mervyn King, said that while he thought the current crisis was not an international financial crisis, he appreciated the change in credit spreads: “To the extent that these are starting to widen, I think that’s a welcome development as a more realistic appraisal of risk is being seen.”
The current credit crunch is affecting those who have used highly sophisticated financial engineering to slice up their corporate debt into different tranches that were then parcelled off into complex new financial instruments such as collateralised debt obligations.

The uncertainty has different implications for different sections of the market. “My sense is that a financial director at a good quality company with a clear trading story will find the debt market still open for business,” says Collins.

This applies to both a FTSE-100 company planning to make a public bond offering and a small company wishing to raise around ?50m to ?200m from three to four banks. “What is causing the market jitters at the moment is the banks’ concern over their underwriting risk. If investor appetite for billion-dollar loans has dried up, the banks don’t want to be left holding all of the debt,” says Collins. As most corporate deals tend to be denominated in millions rather than billions, banks are likely to be less concerned about their underwriting risk.

Closer scrutiny

But the current edginess means that banks are likely to scrutinise their client’s financial statements more closely and likely to impose tougher loan conditions than has been the case in recent years. Wolseley’s group finance director, Steve Webster, says: “I think if you are a company that is currently trying to re-finance, or you are not in a strong position financially, life is likely to be difficult for the next few months. But if you are in a strong fiscal position, then the current market turmoil is unlikely to have a major impact. There will, however, be a slight tightening in credit margins.”

Webster says he will be watching carefully to make sure that this credit crunch does not spark a crisis of confidence in the equity markets or a slowdown in consumer confidence. “It is the overall effect this could have on the economy that would be of greater concern to us,” he says.

Collins thinks that there could be a silver lining for finance directors. “Private equity is likely to find it harder to raise the necessary debt financing for its acquisitions so finance directors can worry less about becoming the next victim of a takeover bid,” he says.

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