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Leveraged-loan market under heat to use blockchain

The technology speeds up settlement and makes loan data available, but some quarters may resist this change

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"Slow settlement is a major deterrent to many of the investors looking at the loan market. Technology is the answer to improving this process and blockchain looks to be in a really strong position." - Charles Bennett, managing director in European credit sales at Credit Suisse Group

London

NOWHERE are investors more aware of the use of blockchain than in the leveraged-loan market, where transactions can take weeks to settle. Pressure is now building for the market to adopt technology developed to run crypto-currencies like Bitcoin as a potential way to unlock one of the most arcane corners of finance.

The leveraged-loan market has grown to around US$1.2 trillion, according to Leveraged Commentary & Data (LCD) of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Even so, it takes 33 days on average to settle transactions in Europe, the Loan Market Association (LMA) says, versus two days for most stock and bond trades.

This restricts growth and blockchain is being touted by some participants as a potential solution. Charles Bennett, managing director in European credit sales at Credit Suisse Group, said: "Slow settlement is a major deterrent to many of the investors looking at the loan market. Technology is the answer to improving this process and blockchain looks to be in a really strong position."

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Loan market lobby groups are studying the technology's potential impact on an industry that still depends on phone and even fax messages. The LMA recently ran a seminar that discussed how blockchain could shake up the market, and the Association for Financial Markets in Europe has set up a working group looking into its possibilities. The New York-based Loan Syndications & Trading Association told members recently to "prepare for disruptive innovation".

The market for leveraged loans, used by the riskiest companies to raise cash, is traditionally controlled by banks acting as agents between borrowers and investors.

Advances in blockchain, since it was adopted by cryptocurrency providers to keep a digital tally of transactions, could limit the role of the so-called "golden ledger" in which banks record the identities of loan buyers, how much they hold and deal terms. That may address the current imbalance of data and high risk of error.

Lenders have to keep manual records on their holdings and the interest they're due because they don't have access to the agents' data. Phone calls and e-mail from investors checking their records match the ledger account for about 25 per cent of agents' operational costs, according to consulting firm Keystone Strategy. Blockchain could enable each investor to easily keep track of where they stand.

Joseph Salerno, chief executive officer at fintech company Synaps Loans, said: "A lot of the delay in settling trades comes from checking that all parties agree on the same terms. With blockchain, they know the position recorded on the ledger is the authoritative version."

Synaps is developing a blockchain-based product that uses an algorithm to distribute loan information across a digital network of nodes or hubs, with each one hosted by a participant in the market, he said. The company is a joint venture between tech firm Ipreo and blockchain startup Symbiont and was tested last year with 19 firms, including Barclays, State Street Corp and Wells Fargo.

Rival Finastra started offering a system in late April that it developed with software firm R3 and organisations including BNP Paribas, HSBC Holdings and State Street.

Jacqueline Morcombe, who is responsible for lending sales and strategy at Finastra, said: "With more transparency, we can expect to see an increase in investors and more liquidity."

But removing kinks from an old-fashioned system may not be straightforward. Agents who earn a fee from investors for every loan trade in Europe could oppose increased automation if it reduces their profits, said David Milward, London-based head of loans at Janus Henderson Investors.

"Some banks may see the agency function as a profit centre, given the fees they're generating, so they may resist more efficient trading," he said.

Agent banks also carry out some functions that new technology can't replace, such as know-your-customer procedures and handling borrower requests to veto certain lenders, said Beth MacLean, a money manager at Pacific Investment Management Co, which oversees US$1.8 trillion, including the world's biggest bond mutual fund.

"Until the technology can carry out those tasks, as well as more complex jobs like distributing interest and processing prepayments, I can't see it speeding up settlement," she said. Slow settlement "can be a liquidity issue" during bouts of stress, though most managers have facilities in place to compensate, she said.

Instead of using blockchain to distribute loan information, financial data firm IHS Markit is exploring its use to speed up cash transfers.

Still, blockchain may eventually bring down costs and prompt agents to charge less, said Nigel Houghton, managing director at the LMA.

"This tech may, in time, prove to bring down the cost of administering loan facilities such that lower fees are more readily contemplated," he said. BLOOMBERG