Why defined benefit pension plans should consider private credit

Alternative investments have become a more prevalent aspect of multi-asset investing. Moreover, defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are increasingly using alternatives to help address some of the key challenges they face in managing a pension plan such as funding benefits, reducing volatility of funded status and diversifying overall risk at the total portfolio level.

In this blog post we'll look specifically at private credit, addressing the growth in private credit markets, the potential benefits it can deliver to investors and the impact of adding private credit to the asset mix of a DB pension plan.

A growing opportunity set

Providing loans to companies has historically been one of the main components of commercial banking activity. However, bank consolidations that began in in the mid-1990s and regulations that followed the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (i.e., Dodd-Frank, Basel III) have led to reduced lending activity to small- and medium-sized companies. And while traditional financing sources have retrenched, capital from private credit funds has filled the void, marking a decade of significant growth with total private credit assets under management (AUM) rising from $237.9 billion at the end of 2008 to $848 billion at the end of 2020. Private credit AUM is expected to grow even further over the next several years, reaching a projected $1.46 trillion at the end of 2025.¹

Private credit comes in many forms, but most commonly involves non-bank institutions making loans to private companies, based on the cashflows generated by the respective business, for the acquisition of a hard asset (e.g., real estate) or acquiring existing loans on the secondary market. Examples of different types of loans include:

  • Senior debt – a loan that will be repaid first if the borrower defaults
  • Subordinated debt - a loan that is repaid after senior debt in the event of bankruptcy
  • Unitranche debt – senior and subordinated debt combined into one loan
  • Mezzanine – a form of financing that combines debt and equity

The investment rationale

We believe private credit offers plan sponsors distinct investment benefits, including:

Superior performance potential relative to public fixed income

Private credit has outperformed its public counterpart (Credit Suisse Leveraged Loan Index) in 20 of the last 20 vintage years by an average of 5.48%, according to data from Hamilton Lane.² The current market environment also highlights the potential for outperformance on a go-forward basis given the available risk premiums in direct U.S. middle market loans, which is estimated to be between 2.3% and 3.4% above that of broadly syndicated loans.

Portfolio diversification

Private markets represent a large investable universe. For example, in the U.S. there are over 17,000 private companies with annual revenues over $100 million, versus approximately 2,600 public companies with the same revenues. By this measure, investors only allocating to public markets are limiting their opportunity set to just 15% of the largest firms in the U.S.⁴

Private credit offers less volatility relative to public fixed income such as bank loans and high yield, given that loans are not publicly traded and are typically valued on a quarterly basis. As such, they are not subject to the technical market moves experienced by investments with daily market-to-market pricing.

Private credit also offers investors greater downside protection as they are typically higher in the capital structure and have strong covenants, including lender protections requiring companies to meet certain financial conditions—such as debt/EBITDA or interest coverage ratios. Even in the event of default, the average recovery rate for U.S. middle market senior loans between 1989 and 2018 was 75%, which was significantly higher than the 56% recovery rate for senior secured bonds.⁵

Finally, in times of negative calendar-year returns seen in high yield markets, such as 2008, 2015 and 2018, data shows that the Cliffwater Direct Lending Index outperformed the Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Index by an average of 13.26% each year.⁶

Shorter duration relative to private equity

The shorter average lifespan of private credit investments relative to private equity results in a quicker investment period and return of capital (often within a two-to-six year window). As such, investors who may be subject to liquidity constraints (such as pension plans that are closed and frozen, or closed but still accruing benefits) can still gain the benefits of private markets exposure without having to invest in funds that have a 10-year term, as is the case with private equity.

Impact of adding private credit

When considering the addition of alternative investments in a portfolio, it is important for plan sponsors to understand the impact on key metrics such as total portfolio expected return, surplus volatility and contributions. In the example below, we summarize the impact of adding a 10% allocation to private credit to the portfolio (funded from equities) of a typical DB pension plan. In this example, the plan has assets of $175 million and $210 million in liabilities.

   60% Global Equity | 40% LDI* 50% Global Equity | 10% Private Credit | 40% LDI*
Expected return 5.49% 5.60%
Volatility 10.53% 9.03%
Surplus volatility 9.30% 7.91%
Expected present value of cumulative contributions
$105 million $103 million
1-in-20 worst case present value of cumulative contributions $184 million $169 million
*Liability-Driven Investments

The addition of private markets resulted in an improvement in the efficiency of the portfolio, including:

  • An increase in expected return from 5.49% to 5.6%
  • A reduction in portfolio volatility from 10.53% to 9.03%
  • A reduction in surplus volatility from 9.3% to 7.91%
  • A $2 million reduction in the present value of cumulative contributions
  • A $15 million reduction in contributions in the event of a worst-case downside scenario over a 10-year horizon

Importantly, as example above shows, the addition of private credit typically results in a steadier return pattern, leading to fewer dips in funded status —therefore reducing the chances for unanticipated spikes in contribution requirements.

The bottom line

As plan sponsors seek to address the challenges of delivering on the pension promise—including generating returns to fund liabilities, improving / protecting funded status and mitigating downside equity risks via broader diversification—they are increasingly looking to utilize private credit in their asset allocation.

Ultimately, while each DB plan's circumstances are different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we believe it is a worthwhile exercise for plan sponsors to consider various alternative allocations to private credit to improve potential outcomes.

¹ The Rise of Private Credit: Who, What, Where and Why, July 2020; S&P Global Market Intelligence, November 2020

² Hamilton Lane, March 31, 2021

³ Cliffwater 2021 Q2 Report On U.S. Direct Lending, June 30, 2021

⁴ Hamilton Lane, Broader Horizons: The Case for Private Markets Investing, April 2021

⁵ Oaktree Insights, Direct Lending: Benefits, Risks, and Opportunities, May 2021

⁶ Cliffwater 2021 Q2 Report on U.S. Direct Lending, June 30, 2021