Corporates tapping the bond market should expect an in-depth, rigorous look at COVID-19 impacts.
Seller beware: Corporates selling bonds to bolster their liquidity this spring should expect a rigorous due diligence experience involving auditors, underwriters, internal counsel and external capital markets lawyers, among others.
- The once seemingly perfunctory process for investment-grade issuers has become an intensive, multi-day, near round-the-clock affair, as banks and investors scrutinize issuer disclosures about COVID-19’s near- and long-term business impact.
Be prepared. Once generic diligence questions are now very specific, even referencing unofficial public documents and news sources indicating business slowing that capital markets lawyers would never have used pre-pandemic.
“Things are happening so quickly, it almost gives us no choice,” Keith DeLeon, counsel at Sidley Austin LLP, told NeuGroup members at recent virtual meeting of treasurers at large-cap companies.
Extra time. In normal times, companies often issue debt immediately following Q1 financial filings, sometimes just before and sometimes on the same day. But now underwriters want more time to review.
- “For first quarter and probably through the rest of 2020, underwriters are likely to recommend conducting the business and auditor calls a day or two following the filing of the 10-Q,” said Chris Cicoletti, a managing director of debt capital markets at US. Bank, which sponsored the meeting.
- But don’t wait too long. Pre-coronavirus, offerings could take place weeks after the public filing, using a “bring-down call” with investors to fill in the gap. Few companies had filed 10-Qs so it’s hard to know, but that period may have shrunk to just a few days, Mr. DeLeon said, adding, “Diligence and disclosure, which clearly go hand-in-hand, go stale a lot faster.”
Groundhog Day. Mr. DeLeon observed that a current trend in the market involves diligence being refreshed overnight, because of new developments in between serial go/no-go calls.
- “Deals are ready to go from a documentation perspective, there is a go/no-go call or market update that results in a decision to stand down, the diligence and disclosure are refreshed and the cycle repeats day after day until the deal gets done or stands down indefinitely,” he said.
Ready the big guns. Due diligence calls may once have been handled by treasury’s head of funding or investor relations. “It’s no longer delegated but handled by the C-suite officers,” Mr. DeLeon said.
- Prepare for more underwriter questions. Full due diligence sessions are conducted with lead underwriters; now, co-managers and “passives” want the leads to ask more questions about coronavirus impact during a second call where the company updates underwriters on what may have changed since the first call.
- “We don’t ask issuers to go through the entire diligence agenda again, but we do go through the biggest ticket items,” and that means the COVID-19 impact, Mr. DeLeon said.
- Current practice suggests providing as much quantitative disclosure regarding the impacts of COVID-19 as possible, and other carefully worded qualitative disclosures regarding the actual and potential impacts of the pandemic in the risk factor and recent developments sections of offering and other disclosure documents.
Speed is of the essence. Quickly drafting disclosures as well as efficient mechanics, such as printing the offering documents, are vital to take advantage of optimal windows to issue bonds. The difference in pricing over just a few hours can be as much as half a percentage point given current intraday volatility. “Things like printer turnaround time have become critical in the current market given the often tight windows for optimal deal execution,” Mr. DeLeon noted.