In today’s challenging economic climate, private equity sponsors are trying to figure out how to fill funding gaps in acquisition financings — and how to provide additional capital to their troubled portfolio companies. In lieu of providing additional equity, some sponsors are requesting the ability to participate as a lender in the senior debt facilities of the portfolio company. Also, on occasion, it’s the lenders who need to find someone to take a piece of a new loan, and the equity sponsor is the only one standing by ready to do so.
If the lenders decide to allow the sponsor to become a lender in their debt facilities, what steps should they take to best protect themselves, given the different hats this new lender will be wearing?
Voting rights. Given the sponsor’s ability to control the borrower, the sponsor should not have the same set of voting rights available to the other lenders. The sponsor should have the ability to protect its investment, but should generally be a silent participant, without the ability to interfere with actions the lenders may need to take. The sponsor’s commitment should be removed from the calculation of required lenders, and the voting terms should provide that the vote of the sponsor won’t be required other than for a very specific set of items (typically 100% vote issues):
- Increase the commitment of the sponsor-lender
- Reduce the interest rate on the sponsor-lender’s loans
- Reduce the principal amount owing to the sponsor-lender
- Change the pro rata treatment of the loans
- Subordinate the loans
Information/Meetings. It is important to ensure that the sponsor, as both the equity owner and a lender, does not have the same access to information, rights to attend bank group meetings and ability to require action by the agent as the other lenders have. In this regard, the sponsor-lender should not be allowed to:
- Require the agent or any lender to take any action or exercise any remedy
- Attend any meeting between the agent and the lenders to which the borrower is not invited
- Receive any information or communication from the agent or any lender that is not sent to or by the borrower (i.e., shared among the lenders only)
- Provide information obtained in its capacity as a lender to any member of management of the borrower
Bankruptcy. In a bankruptcy, the sponsor-lender’s interests differ significantly from the rest of the lenders, since the sponsor as equity owner receives a different set of rights. To protect the lenders from actions which may be taken by the sponsor-lender in a bankruptcy, the sponsor should agree not to impede any actions being taken by the agent, so long as the sponsor-lender is being treated equally with the other lenders. The sponsor-lender should also agree that its vote in bankruptcy shall be cast in the same proportion as that by the other lenders, which results in the sponsor essentially being dragged along proportionally to the votes of the other lenders. This is particularly important if the sponsor-lender will hold more than one third of the debt, providing a potential blocking position on issues requiring a lender vote in a bankruptcy.
Allowing the sponsor to participate in the senior loans may be essential to completing a transaction or providing a portfolio company with additional liquidity. It can be done, but with careful consideration of the challenges it presents to the rest of the lender group.