When Astrea V 3.85% bond was launched, some investors remarked that it is better than some of the recently issued corporate bonds, such as SIA 3.03% bonds. What are the differences between Private Equity (PE) bonds and corporate bonds, and are PE bonds really better than corporate bonds?
It is difficult to compare Astrea bonds with, say, SIA bonds, since their nature of business are different. To make the comparison between PE bonds and corporate bonds more meaningful, let us consider a hypothetical bond issued by Azalea Asset Management, which is the sponsor of the Astrea III/IV/V bonds. Fig. 1 below shows the corporate structure of Azalea.
Fig. 1: Azalea Corporate Structure
The assets of Azalea are the 3 Astrea companies issuing the Astrea III/IV/V bonds and owning the underlying portfolios of PE funds. Azalea probably have some other income-generating assets, such as the investment management company shown in Fig. 1 above, plus some other unlisted PE funds. To simplify the discussion, let us assume that Azalea's assets are only the 3 Astrea companies issuing the Astrea III/IV/V bonds. Thus, the nature of business of Azalea and Astrea III/IV/V companies are similar. What would be the differences between the hypothetical Azalea corporate bond and Astrea III/IV/V PE bonds? Note that the PE bonds are not limited to the Class A-1 bonds which are open to retail investors. There are also Class A-2, B and C bonds.
The first key difference would be the assets. Astrea PE bonds are secured against the PE funds in the respective Astrea companies, whereas Azalea corporate bond would be unsecured. In the hypothetical scenario where the Astrea PE bonds default, Astrea bondholders could force the respective Astrea companies to liquidate their PE funds and return money to the bondholders. However, in the event that the liquidation proceeds are insufficient to redeem the bonds, bondholders have no recourse to Azalea, or to the other Astrea companies. For example, if Astrea III bonds were to default, Astrea III bondholders have no rights to the assets of Azalea, Astrea IV and Astrea V companies. The assets of each company are ring-fenced and could only be used to service the bonds issued by the respective company.
Similarly, in the hypothetical scenario where the Azalea corporate bond defaults, Azalea bondholders have no claims over the PE funds held in the 3 Astrea companies. Nevertheless, they could force Azalea to sell off the Astrea companies together with their portfolio of PE funds and PE bonds. However, they could not force Azalea to break up the Astrea companies, sell off their PE funds, redeem the Astrea PE bonds, and return excess cash to Azalea to pay off the corporate bondholders (Note: it might be possible to do so for other project/ asset-level bonds, but the terms of Astrea PE bonds do not allow for early liquidation of assets and redemption of bonds). In other words, regardless of what happens to Azalea, Astrea PE bondholders will not be affected.
So does it mean that Astrea PE bonds, which are secured against the PE funds of the respective Astrea companies, are better than Azalea corporate bonds which are unsecured? Not necessarily. The key factor is the quality of the assets that are securing the bonds. If the assets are of high quality, the PE bonds have good collaterals. Conversely, if the assets are of low quality, the collaterals would be useless. Remember, Astrea PE bondholders have no recourse to Azalea and the other Astrea companies. They can only count on the assets in their respective Astrea companies to pay interest and redeem the bonds.
Although Azalea corporate bond is unsecured, if the Astrea companies are generating good cashflows for Azalea, it does not matter whether the bond is secured or not. In a hypothetical scenario where one of the Astrea companies have poor assets whereas the other Astrea companies have good assets, it might be better to hold the unsecured Azalea corporate bond than the secured but troubled Astrea PE bond. So, quality of assets is key in determining whether secured or unsecured bonds are better.
The second difference is that besides receiving cashflows from the Astrea companies to redeem the Azalea corporate bond, Azalea could refinance through bank borrowings, new corporate bonds, shareholder loans from Temasek, or even private share placements and IPO! Being a corporate bond, there are many avenues to refinance it. Astrea PE bonds do not have such avenues. To reiterate, Astrea PE bondholders can only count on the assets in the respective Astrea companies. If the assets are good, PE bondholders will get the promised returns. If the assets are poor, they will suffer some losses.
Having said the above, being able to borrow money is a double-edged sword. While borrowings could help to refinance the Azalea corporate bond, Azalea could also run the risk of borrowing too much money and jeopardise its ability to pay interest to and/or redeem the Azalea corporate bond if banks decide that Azalea's credit risk is too high. For the Astrea PE bonds, such risks have been mitigated. The terms of Astrea PE bonds prohibit the Astrea companies to borrow money other than to issue the different classes of bonds at inception, as well as to meet capital calls and cover bond interest payment shortfalls. The last 2 conditions are actually safeguards for the PE bondholders (see Understanding the Safeguards of Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds for more info).
In another few more days, the Class A-1 bonds of Astrea III, the first wholesale Private Equity (PE) bond listed in Singapore, will be redeemed as scheduled. What could we learn from the 3-year existence of this bond, which could provide some useful insights on the behaviour of Astrea IV and V bonds?
Astrea III publishes annual reports, which document the cashflows received, performance of its underlying PE investments, outlook for PE investments as well as the usual income statements and balance sheets. In the 3 years of its existence, the cashflows of Astrea III from its investments in PE funds are shown in Fig. 1 below.
Fig. 1: 3-Year Cashflows of Astrea III
Over the 3 years, Astrea III has received total distributions of USD952M, capital calls of USD176M, resulting in net distributions of USD776M. At inception, the weighted average age of the PE funds which Astrea III invested into is 6 years. The cashflows are typical of investments in mature PE funds, as shown in Fig. 2 below.
Fig. 2: Typical Cashflows of PE Investments
Moving forward, Astrea III will likely see less distributions, as indicated in Fig. 2. Already, the investments made by the underlying PE funds into companies are already showing signs of ageing, as shown in Fig. 3.
Fig. 3: Holding Period of Underlying PE Investments
The average holding period of the underlying PE funds' investments into companies has increased from 4.0 years in 2016, to 4.5 years in 2017 and 5.2 years in 2018. There are 2 opposing reasons why PE funds hold onto their investments for longer than usual -- it could be to extract more value from a good company, or it could be the company could not deliver as promised and the PE fund has difficulty selling it for a good price. If it is the first reason, it is a good thing for PE bond investors. But if it is the second reason, PE bond investors will have reasons to be worried.
What happened to the distributions received by Astrea III over the 3 years? Fig. 4 below shows the balance sheet for the Financial Years ending in Mar 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Fig. 4: Astrea III's Balance Sheets
The first thing to notice is the investments in PE funds have been shrinking, from USD1,070M in 2017 to USD904M in 2018 and finally to USD739M in 2019. This is due to the net distributions of USD568M from the PE funds from 2017 till 2019, offset by fair value gains in the PE funds of USD236M over the same period.
A portion of the net distributions went to increase the cash account, which increased from $203M in 2017 to around USD340M in both 2018 and 2019. Another portion went to pay interest of USD21M to bondholders in 2018 and 2019. The remaining distributions were used to pay the sponsor in the form of repayment of shareholder loans and dividends to shareholders. From 2017 till 2019, a total of USD385M was paid to the sponsor/ shareholder.
Because of the distributions and payments to sponsor, the asset base has been shrinking. On the other hand, there is relatively little cashflow used to pay down the bonds (as they have not matured). If the trend continues, bond holders might end up holding onto a shrinking asset base of ageing PE funds with declining distributions while the sponsor gets all its capital back (see Where Do Astrea Bonds Stand Along PE Fund Lifecycle? for more info on PE lifecycle and its impact on cashflows). By the time the bonds mature, there might be little cashflows left to redeem the bonds. Remember, once the cash leaves Astrea III by way of repayment of shareholder loans and/or dividend to shareholder, bond holders have no recourse to Azalea or Temasek.
Thus, one key risk for bond investors in mature PE funds is when the fund is in the midst of the harvesting period, the sponsor gets most of the money while bond investors get only the interest payment. When the harvesting dries up, bond investors do not get sufficient cashflows to redeem the bonds while the sponsor already gets all its capital back.
Fortunately for Class A (A-1 and A-2) bond holders of Astrea III, there are safeguards in place to ensure that the above scenario does not happen. Every 6 months, Astrea III has to set aside some cash in reserve accounts which can only be used to redeem the Class A bonds. The reserve accounts totalled USD161M, USD224M and USD258M in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. These reserves accounts are sufficient to redeem the Class A-1 bonds which will mature in the next few days. The total amount of Class A-1 bonds is SGD228M (approximately USD170M).
Another safeguard that Astrea III put in place is the Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio should not exceed certain thresholds ranging from 20% to 45%. If these thresholds were exceeded, Astrea III has to divert more cashflows to the Reserves Accounts. Based on Fig. 4, the LTV ratio of Astrea III is 27%, 18% and 24% in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Had there been no such safeguards to set aside cash during the harvesting period, the balance sheet would have been worse for bondholders. Fig. 5 below shows the balance sheet had the reserves accounts been paid out to sponsor.
Fig. 5: Balance Sheet of Astrea III Excluding Reserves Accounts
The LTV ratios would have been 42%, 43% and 58% in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. In particular, bond holders would end up being a larger supplier of capital than the sponsor while still not getting the bulk of the distributions from the PE investments!
In conclusion, if you are a bond investor in mature PE funds, be prepared to see a shrinking asset base while most of the distributions go to the sponsor. Make sure you have safeguards in place to ensure that a portion of the distributions are set aside for the sole purpose of redeeming the bonds!
Now that the allocation for Astrea V 3.85% bonds is released, everyone can go back to their regular activities and forget about it. However, if you, like myself, hope to one day get a piece of the equity portion of Private Equity (PE) investments, then we should continue to learn and understand more about PE. Today's discussion is on the lifecycle of a PE fund and where do the 3 Astrea bonds stand along the lifecycle. This has major implications on the risks of the bonds, as we shall discuss later.
In the first phase, the General Partner (GP) who runs the PE fund, will source for new investors and get their commitment to provide capital as and when needed to invest into promising companies. When capital commitments for the target fund size are obtained, the fund will close.
In the second phase, the GP will source for promising companies to invest into. This is usually called the Investment Period, as the fund is busy investing into companies. During this phase, the fund can invest in any new companies so long as they satisfy the criteria in the investment mandate.
After buying into the companies, the fund will work with the companies' management to enhance their operations such that they can achieve a higher valuation than what the fund paid for. The typical duration that a fund holds onto a company is about 5 years, but could exceed 10 years for an under-performing company.
When the time is ripe, the fund will seek to exit the company, either by IPO, sale to another company, or even sale to another PE fund. This is known as the Harvesting phase. During this period, the PE fund is not allowed to invest in new companies, but is allowed to invest additional money into existing companies, known as follow-on investments.
Finally, before the stated lifespan of the fund is up, the GP has to exit all remaining companies, return all proceeds to investors and dissolve the fund. The 10-year lifespan is not a fixed timeline, as GPs can request for extensions of 1-2 years so that they do not need to carry out a fire sale of the remaining companies.
Based on the above lifecycle of a PE fund, investors of the PE fund (known as Limited Partners) will contribute capital in the early years of the fund before receiving distributions in the later years when the PE fund exits its investments. The cumulative cash inflow over the lifecycle of the PE fund resembles a J-Curve. See Fig. 2 below.
Fig. 2: PE J-Curve
For an investor in a PE fund, where the fund is along its lifespan matters. In the early years, there is significant capital outlay as the PE fund invests into new companies. There are also significant risks in streamlining the company for greater efficiency. In addition, the company might struggle under the usually significant debt load placed upon it by the PE fund. Not all of the companies will prosper and make money for the PE fund.
In the closing years of the PE fund, although there is no further capital outlay, the cash distribution from PE fund is declining as it exits more and more companies. Also, whatever companies remaining in the PE fund might be under-performing and might not be worth much.
Thus, if the PE J-Curve shown in Fig. 2 is accurate, the sweet spot is around the 5th year of the PE fund. In addition, exits should be timed before the 10-year lifespan is up.
In Jun 2016, Azalea first introduced PE bonds to the market with Astrea III bonds. 2 years later, it launched Astrea IV bonds and just last week, it launched Astrea V bonds. The weighted average age of funds at the time of launch and scheduled call date of the 3 Astrea Class A-1 bonds are as follow.
Wt Age of Fund
Scheduled Call (Yrs)
Their lifespans superimposed onto the PE J-Curve are shown in Fig. 3 below.
Fig. 3: Lifespan of Astrea Bonds Relative to PE Fund Lifecycle
Astrea III bonds (blue line) will last from the 6th to 9th year of the underlying PE funds that Astrea III is investing into. This is the sweet spot that we discussed earlier -- enter around the 5th year and exit before the 10th year. It is probably the safest of the 3 Astrea bonds. In fact, it has just been announced that this bond would be redeemed as scheduled in 2 weeks' time.
Astrea IV bonds (purple line) will last from the 7th to 12th year of the underlying PE funds. The PE funds are generating a lot of cash currently, with total net distributions (after deducting capital calls) of USD243M in Astrea IV's first year of existence. This is equivalent to 22% of its portfolio value at the time of IPO. However, as shown in Fig. 3, the amount of distributions is expected to decline moving forward.
Astrea V bonds (brown line) will last from the 5th to 10th year of the underlying PE funds. Compared to Astrea IV bonds, there is a little more risks initially, as the companies in the PE funds are less mature and less ready to be exited. Furthermore, there are higher capital calls expected. But if these risks in the initial years can be overcome, Astrea V bonds will have less risks towards the end compared to Astrea IV bonds, as cashflows towards the tail-end would not have declined as much.
When you look at the risks of Astrea IV and Astrea V bonds, some of the safeguards that Azalea put in place for the bonds start to make a lot of sense. Let's talk about Astrea V bonds first, as it is simpler. As mentioned, one of the key risks for it is higher capital calls. This is mitigated by the capital call facility that allows Astrea V to borrow money from the banks to meet the capital calls.
For Astrea IV bonds, the key risk is not receiving sufficient distributions towards the tail-end to redeem the bonds in full. Although there is liquidity facility to meet interest payments in the event of shortfalls in distributions, there is no liquidity facility that Astrea IV can borrow to redeem the bonds. Money to redeem the bonds can only come from the distributions from the underlying PE funds. However, towards the tail-end, such distributions are declining and might not be sufficient to redeem the SGD242M bonds in full.
In fact, it would be unfair to bondholders if it were to happen considering that in the initial years of the bond, the underlying PE funds are generating a lot of cash, most of which are passed through to the sponsor. For the first year of Astrea IV, out of total net distributions of USD243M, all classes of bondholders (Class A-1, A-2 and B) were paid only USD26M in interest. Other expenses during the same period totalled USD7M. If there were no safeguards in place, the remaining USD210M (equivalent to 86% of net distribution of USD243M) and another USD15M in existing cash would flow to the sponsor. This money can leave Astrea IV as dividends to shareholder and repayment of shareholder loans instead of being retained within Astrea IV. Once the money leaves Astrea IV, bondholders have no recourse to Azalea as the shareholder/ sponsor to redeem the bonds in full. Recall that the bond is not guaranteed by either Azalea, or its parent, Temasek?
To prevent this from happening, Azalea has put in place a safeguard that part of the distributions have to be set aside in reserves accounts for the sole purpose of redeeming the bonds. For the first year of Astrea IV, a total of USD80M has been set aside. Hence, the distributions flowing to the sponsor is reduced to USD145M instead of USD225M. This ensures that there will be sufficient cash to redeem the bonds when they mature, even though distributions from the underlying PE funds are declining.
In conclusion, PE bonds are not a simple matter of buy-and-forget. Investors need to understand where they stand along the lifecycle of PE funds and also what investor protection they have. Azalea has done a good job protecting investors from losses, but investors still need to protect themselves by learning more about PE investments.
It has been exactly a year since I last blogged. My last blog post was on Astrea IV 4.35% bonds. Coincidentally, Astrea's management, Azalea, has recently launched the IPO for Astrea V 3.85% bonds. One year has passed. What do I think about Astrea bonds?
If you read last year's blog post on Would I Invest in Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds?, you would know that I was not too keen on Astrea IV 4.35% bonds. A large part of the reasons had to do with Private Equity (PE) bonds being a new asset class and there was too little time to properly analyse whether it would be a good investment. Given the time constraint, I relied on whatever understanding I had about fund of funds and leveraged buyout funds and concluded that I would not be applying for the IPO.
A week later, after the IPO had closed, I had more time to look at the structure of the Astrea IV bond and acknowledged that it could be a safe one, but only because of all the credit enhancement safeguards put in place. See Understanding the Safeguards of Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds for more info.
Thus, when the IPO for Astrea V 3.85% bonds was launched this week, the first thing I checked was whether it has similar safeguards as Astrea IV 4.35% bonds. It has. Still, it is necessary to re-iterate that being PE bonds, Astrea bonds are not traditional bonds and it is important to understand the risks of the underlying assets. Below is a summary of the risks that I am aware of.
Understated Loan-to-Value Ratio in Fund of Funds
Astrea V bonds invest in 38 PE funds run by independent PE fund managers. Its stated Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio for the Class A bonds (comprising Class A-1 and Class A-2 bonds which have equal seniority) is 34.8%. This means that for Class A bonds to start losing money, the value of the underlying investments has to drop by 65.2%. However, the underlying PE funds have their own debts and these debts are not considered when computing the LTV ratio of 34.8% for Astrea V bonds. The true LTV ratio after considering the debts in the underlying PE funds (i.e. look-though basis) is likely to be much higher. This ratio matters. See Would I Invest in Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds? for an example.
High Leverage Used by Buyout Funds
80% of the Astrea V investments are in buyout funds. As discussed in Would I Invest in Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds?, buyout funds use a lot of debts when acquiring companies. Typical debts is in the region of 6-7 times Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation (EBITDA). High debts at the underlying PE funds, couple with a Fund of Fund structure, underestimates the true, look-through LTV ratio of the Astrea bonds.
Assurance of Net Asset Value
Astrea V has a portfolio value of USD1,342M. This is an important figure that is used to compute the LTV ratio. After the debacle of the Hyflux preference shares and perpetual securities, it became clear that asset values should not be taken at face value. Hyflux's main asset, Tuaspring Integrated Water and Power Project, which has a stated Net Asset Value (NAV) of $902M as at end of Financial Year 2017, could not be sold at close to book value. Given that PE investments are illiquid assets, what is the assurance that the portfolio value of Astrea V is really as stated?
This question was posted during the Astrea Investor Day in Jan 2019 and during the public roadshow on Astrea V bonds conducted with SGX Academy on Saturday. Azalea's management replied that the NAV of PE funds is checked by reputable auditors. In addition, there are secondary markets where PE funds are traded. The value at which they are traded is close to the NAV reported by the PE fund managers. Furthermore, when the PE investments are disposed of, Azalea cross-checks the sale value against the reported NAV. In most cases, the sale value exceeds the reported NAV.
PE in a Potential Bubble
PE investments have generated better returns than public equities in the last 20 years. This has resulted in a lot of funds flowing into PE investments, and increased competition between PE fund managers to find good deals. This has led to assets being purchased at higher prices. At the same time, the debts used by buyout funds to acquire companies has been on the rise. At some point in time, the PE boom will probably end, potentially leading to falls in NAV. See Bain & Company's report on Private Equity: Still Booming, but Is the Cycle Near Its End? for more info.
At Saturday's roadshow, Azalea replied that this is also a good time for selling assets in the PE funds that Astrea V has already invested in, which will result in cashflows coming back to the Astrea bonds. Furthermore, as most of the PE fund managers have a lot of experience running PE funds, they believe that the PE fund managers will be able to navigate the environment.
While I agree that this is a good time for selling assets in PE funds, this also means that the high asset prices are reflected in the portfolio value of Astrea's investments. In the event that asset prices correct, Astrea's portfolio value will also decline. This will lead to a rise in the LTV ratio, but there is a safeguard in place if the LTV ratio exceeds 50%.
Although I believe Astrea IV and V bonds to be fairly safe for retail investors, I cannot emphasize enough that the reason this is so is because of the credit enhancement safeguards that Azalea painstakingly put in place. Also, for investors interested to buy Astrea bonds, please understand what you are buying into.
Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are unusual retail bonds as they are backed by Private Equity (PE). There are 5 safeguards put in place by the issuer to ensure that cashflows from PE investments are adequate to meet the obligations of the bond. These are:
Maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) Ratio
Capital Call Facilities
To understand why these safeguards are important and necessary, let us consider a hypothetical scenario in which I wish to issue Boring Investor bonds to retail investors to raise capital to invest in public equities listed on the SGX. Cashflows for the bonds would come from sale of equity investments and dividends from investee companies.
Generally, the Straits Times Index (STI) generates annualised returns of 7% in capital appreciation and 3% in dividends on average. To entice investors to my Boring Investor bonds, I would probably have to pay interest rate of 5% on the bonds. The first question that comes to mind is how do I ensure that I could meet the 5% interest obligations on the Boring Investor bonds on a sustainable basis when I could only receive 3% dividends from the equity investments? There are several things I can do, as described below.
Maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) Ratio
Supposed I intend to invest $1M in the SGX equities. At a dividend rate of 3%, the maximum dividends I could get from the equities annually is only $30K. Based on the bond interest rate of 5%, the maximum amount of Boring Investor bonds I could issue is $30K / 5%, or $600K. The maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio that can be supported by dividends on a sustainable basis is only 60%. Thus, by setting a maximum cap on the LTV ratio, I can better ensure that bond holders are paid on time.
There will be times when the economy is not doing well and the investee companies have to cut dividends. When this happens, I might not get sufficient dividends from the equity investments to pay interest to bond holders. I will need to borrow money temporarily from the banks to pay the bond interest.
Capital Call Facilities
There will also be times when some companies need to issue rights issues to raise money. Given that most the funds raised from the Boring Investor bonds have been invested in the SGX equities, I might not have sufficient funds to subscribe to the rights issues and buy additional shares in the companies at a bargain. To guard against this, I can set up a credit line with the banks to temporarily borrow money to subscribe to the rights issues.
Given the unpredictable nature of the cashflows from dividends and sale of equity investments, it is prudent to set up a sinking fund to save some excess cashflows after paying the bond interest and other necessary expenses. The amount to be set aside for the sinking fund each year is a pre-determined amount, but it is only set aside if excess cashflows are available. The sinking fund will be topped up until there are sufficient funds to redeem the Boring Investor bonds in full. This would increase the likelihood that the bonds could be redeemed in full when they mature.
Generally, after meeting all the obligations mentioned above, any remaining cashflows would belong to the sponsor shareholder. However, as an additional gesture of goodwill, I can share the remaining cashflows 50:50 with bond holders if certain performance threshold is met by a certain date. The cashflows shared with bond holders would be used to top up the sinking fund mentioned above, if it is not full yet.
As you can see above, cashflows from equity investments (more so for PE investments and PE funds) are unpredictable, irregular and discretionary whereas interest and principal repayment obligations of bonds are fixed and mandatory. There is a need for some of the above-mentioned safeguards (known as credit enhancements) to ensure that bond obligations can be met when they fall due. If there were no credit enhancements, and the fixed and mandatory bond obligations were solely funded by the irregular and discretionary cashflows from equity investments, defaults on the bonds would likely happen at some point in time.
Thus, the Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are safe mainly because of the safeguards put in place. It is not a bond, but a structured bond. The credit ratings for Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are expected to be "A(sf)", with "sf" denoting structured finance. To avoid confusion with traditional bonds, it is best to refer to the Astrea IV 4.35% bonds as structured bonds, just like we differentiate structured deposits from fixed deposits.
Did I invest in Astrea IV 4.35% bonds? No, I did not. I prefer to invest in traditional bonds in which the underlying cashflows are sufficient to meet the bond obligations without any credit enhancements.