Your Definitive Guide to Direct Lending

Your Definitive Guide to Direct Lending

Most private credit falls under the category of direct lending. This article explains what direct lending is, how it differs from other forms of private credit, and the benefits and risks to investors.

4 min read

If you’ve been researching private credit, you might have come across the term ‘direct lending.’ Contrary to popular belief, these are not one and the same. In fact, direct lending is a subset of the private credit sector.

This article will delve into the intricacies of direct lending, exploring its benefits and risks for borrowers and lenders alike. We will also examine the differences between consumer and commercial direct lending, and how the sector differentiates itself from other private credit strategies. We'll also discuss strategies for mitigating risks and maximizing the benefits of investing in direct lending to businesses.

Key Takeaways

  • Direct lending involves the issuance of loans to commercial entities from any non-bank lender
  • Direct lending represents a significant portion of the private credit market, and distinguishes itself through its strong risk / return profile
  • While direct lending offers attractive returns and diversification benefits, it also requires careful risk management and sector-specific expertise to navigate successfully

What is Direct Lending?

Direct lending is a financial strategy where loans are provided directly to businesses by private credit (non-bank) lenders.

This approach has gained traction in recent years as regulatory changes have prompted banks to issue fewer loans, necessitating an alternative solution to meet market demand. Direct lenders also offer more flexible loan structures than banks, thus making them an attractive option for highly specialized sectors such as technology or healthcare, even though direct lending tends to come with higher interest rates than traditional bank lending.[1]

Direct lending now represents 44% of assets under management within the private credit market, indicating its significant growth and the expanding opportunities it offers.[2] This, despite the fact that reduced regulatory oversight (compared to that of traditional banking) poses a higher risk of default, which lenders and investors in direct lending must be cognizant of.

Differences Between Consumer and Commercial Direct Lending

Understanding the distinctions between consumer and commercial direct lending is crucial for navigating the landscape effectively. These differences impact interest rates, loan terms, and the criteria lenders use for evaluation.

Consumer loans often carry higher rates for smaller amounts due to the fixed costs associated with the overall business model, whereas commercial loans might have higher or lower rates based on risk profiles and loan sizes. Loan terms also vary, with consumer loans typically containing shorter durations compared to the more negotiable, longer terms of commercial loans.

The evaluation process for loan applications also diverges between the two. Consumer loans primarily focus on personal financial indicators such as credit score and income. In contrast, commercial loans delve into the business's financial health, examining aspects like cash flow and industry trends.

How Does Direct Lending Differ from Other Forms of Private Credit?

Private credit can be broken down into a collection of sub-strategies, including direct lending, leveraged loans, mezzanine lending, venture debt, distressed debt, real estate and infrastructure debt, and opportunistic / special situations lending.

At 44% of total private credit AUM, direct lending is far and away the largest portion of private credit lending. Direct lending distinguishes itself via its unique risk / return profile, enabling it to offer higher returns than other forms of private credit that are much riskier, and therefore have larger loss rates.[3] For example, direct lending often provides returns that are 2-4 percent above those of syndicated leveraged loans.[4]

One other important consideration is that direct loans are usually senior secured, which means they are positioned at the top of the capital structure, providing a reduced risk profile and a degree of protection which isn’t as prevalent in other private credit investments.[5]

What are the Benefits and Risks of Investing in Direct Lending?

The primary benefit to investing in direct lending is that the asset class has historically outperformed traditional investments like stocks and U.S. high yield bonds, providing higher returns over long-term investment horizons.[6] The bond-like nature of such investments (consistent cash flow) also helps smooth out portfolio volatility during times of market stress.

Of course, investing in direct lending does not come without its challenges. Default risk (that a borrower cannot meet their repayment obligations), interest rate risk (that interest rates will increase or decrease during the life of the loan, and therefore reduce the loan’s value, depending on if the loan is fixed or floating rate), and liquidity risk (that the lender may not be able to meet an investor’s redemption expectations), are all factors that investors in this asset class should consider.

For more on the risks of investing in private credit, read our deep dive here.

In essence, while direct lending presents an opportunity for higher returns and lower volatility, it demands careful risk management and a deep understanding of the sector to overcome its inherent challenges successfully.

In Conclusion

Direct lending has emerged as a compelling alternative to traditional bank lending, offering both borrowers and lenders unique benefits. For borrowers, it provides enhanced flexibility and access to capital, while lenders can enjoy higher returns and diversification opportunities.

However, this landscape is not without its challenges, including the risks of borrower default and the impact of economic factors on loan performance. As the direct lending market continues to evolve, stakeholders must remain adaptable in order to navigate its complexities successfully.

For those considering investing in direct lending, it's crucial to understand the nuances of this asset class, including the differences between consumer and commercial lending, and how direct lending compares to other private credit strategies. With the right approach and due diligence, direct lending can provide a worthwhile addition to an investment portfolio, balancing the prospect of higher returns with manageable risks.

  1. Source: Oaktree - N.D. ↩︎

  2. Source: BlackRock - N.D ↩︎

  3. Source: BlackRock - N.D ↩︎

  4. Source: Fed - Feb 23, 2024 ↩︎

  5. Source: M&I - N.D ↩︎

  6. Source: BlackRock - N.D ↩︎