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Asia private debt market surges

Asia Pacific’s private debt market is primed for growth with an increasing number of global and regional investors eyeing a greater role amid the ravages of the pandemic.

The region is still a backwater as far as global private debt is concerned, with North America and Europe accounting for 91% of assets under management, according to a report by Preqin. While commercial banks in Asia continue to dominate lending activity, more money managers are making their forays into the region’s relatively nascent market for private credit.
At the end of July, Ares SSG, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-headquartered Ares Management, closed a US$1.6bn fund that will provide secured loans and other facilities to businesses in Asia Pacific.

“Similar to what has happened in the US and Europe, reliance on banks is expected to gradually reduce while leading alternative investors with more flexible capital like Ares SSG continue to grow,” said Peter Graf, who joined Ares SSG from Credit Suisse in July as managing director in Sydney to focus on Australian and New Zealand direct lending.

With approximately US$7.5bn under management, Ares SSG is one of the region’s largest credit-focused alternative investment managers. Other private debt managers are also ramping up fundraising across a range of strategies in Asia and have been on a hiring spree. Earlier this month, Barings, a subsidiary of MassMutual, appointed Justin Hooley as a managing director in the Asia Pacific private finance group in Sydney from Deutsche Bank. He will originate, underwrite and manage private credit investments in the developed markets in the region.

In August, Tanarra Credit Partners hired Peter Han as a managing director in Hong Kong from Tor Investment Management to focus on higher-yielding opportunistic investments across Asia Pacific. The firm launched its second APAC private credit fund of at least A$500m (US$367m) earlier this year.

AustralianSuper is aiming to triple its private debt investments to over A$15bn in three years and growing its private credit team to 16 from 10 members in 12 months, Australia’s largest pension fund said in late July. In June, Muzinich & Co’s first Asia Pacific private debt fund targeted at lower middle-market companies attracted Singapore’s DBS Group Holdings as an anchor investor. Meanwhile, Queensland Investment Corp has been bolstering its private debt capability with a slew of new hires this year.

“There has been a deepening of liquidity in the APAC private debt market, with significant fundraising having taken place even during the height of Covid,” said Andy Tan, head of loan syndicate for South Asia at Credit Suisse in Singapore. “There are more players in the market and more interested parties than what we would have seen two years ago. The question now is whether there are enough quality credits for all these new credit funds to invest in?”

Asia Pacific’s private debt market has grown significantly, with assets under management skyrocketing 195% in five years to a record US$59bn as of September 2020, according to Preqin’s June report. The tally for direct lending in the region has nearly tripled since December 2017 and made up a quarter of total private debt assets.

“When interest rates and bond rates are so low in so many countries, a lot of institutional investors have got limited options, so they have to think about expanding into private credit,” said Andrew Lockhart, Sydney-based managing partner at Metrics Credit Partners, an alternative asset manager specialising in direct lending to Asia Pacific companies with more than A$7bn under management.

Aussie lead

The wave of institutional liquidity entering countries such as Australia and New Zealand has driven some developments seen in other more established markets in North America or Europe. Australasia has been at the forefront of the growth in Asia private debt, with an increasing number of global and local investors active, particularly in leveraged loans. Australia has been a hotbed for mergers and acquisitions this year, with a number of term loan B and unitranche financings closing successfully.

“Global private equity firms favour Australia given the developed market and legal framework akin to North American and European markets,’’ said Graf.

Bob Sahota, chief investment officer at Revolution Asset Management in Sydney, said relative value for private debt still stacks up versus public markets. The boutique manager focuses on leveraged buyout loans, private asset-backed securities and commercial real estate debt in Australia and New Zealand.

“Everyone from high-net-worth investors to family offices, endowments, pension funds to large superfunds are all looking for two things – income, which you don’t get in traditional bonds, and capital preservation and stability.”

Tan of Credit Suisse said that outside of Australia and New Zealand, the rest of Asia is still very traditional bank finance driven given the availability of cheaper bank debt, but noted some large Indian credits have looked to explore new structures.

“We anticipate India’s loan market to further evolve, particularly on the back of the focused interest from private equity firms that the market has attracted.”

There are opportunities in secondary loan purchases as well as new financings for borrowers with specific capital needs such as acquisitions, growth or refinancings in Asia Pacific as lenders are focused on managing their own balance sheets to address credit quality, according to Edwin Wong, Hong Kong-based managing partner and CEO at Ares SSG.
Source: IFR (Reporting by Mariko Ishikawa; Editing by Prakash Chakravarti)

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