Insufficient Due Diligence
The syndicated loan markets have expanded steadily in recent years, reaching a record of more than $2.5T in US total issuance in 2017, surpassing the previous record of $2.14T set in 2013. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uslending-records/u-s-syndicated-lending-topples-records-in-2017-idUSKBN1ED2NO.) As the markets expand, more and more lenders, particularly smaller banks or non-bank institutions, are able to diversify exposures with reduced efforts, by delegating some of the works required for originating loans to the lead agent banks.
In this process, however, due diligence by participating lenders, and hence their risk assessments, may suffer. In some instances, it may be appropriate to assign lower risks to syndicated loans, particularly larger ones extended to large public corporations, and adjust the due diligence accordingly. In some other cases, nonetheless, due diligence may not be sufficient, because there is insufficient public information about the borrower, and the lender does not have sufficient manpower or resources to conduct adequate due diligence, resulting in misjudgments of the risks involved.
Additionally, a participating bank may trust that the lead agent bank will conduct the syndication competently and disclose all relevant information in good faith, or risk damaging its reputation. If this trust is misplaced, however, the participating bank may find it difficult to obtain appropriate legal recourses.
Arm’s Length Dealing
First of all, most syndicated loan agreements explicitly provide that the lead agent bank is not a fiduciary for the participating lender, and that the participating lender has conducted its own credit analysis based on appropriate information, not relying on the lead agent bank. (Eg, “The LSTA’s Complete Credit Agreement Guide”, by Bellucci & McCluskey, 2016; JPMorgan Chase v. Luxor Capital, Supreme Court of NY, NY County, 2010.) Moreover, in NY, syndicated loan dealings generally are considered arm’s length transactions between the lenders, and the lead agent bank does not owe a fiduciary duty to the participating banks.
For example, in Banque Arabe et Internationale E’Investissement v. Maryland National Bank (US Court of Appeals, 2nd Cir. 1995), Maryland National Bank originated a $35m loan for conversion of rental buildings to coops or condos, and sold $10m of the loan to Banque. The borrower eventually defaulted, because the NY regulators delayed in approving any of the conversions, and Banque sued Maryland National Bank for failing to disclose the delays in regulatory approval. The Court held that “[i]n the case of arm’s length negotiations or transactions between sophisticated financial institutions, no extra-contractual duty of disclosure exits. […] This same principle applies to loan participation agreements, in which there is deemed to be no fiduciary relationship unless expressly and unequivocally created by contract.”
That being said, all parties to the loan syndicate, including the lead agent bank, are bound by the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Also, if the lead agent bank possesses “superior knowledge” of matters not readily available to the other parties, or if it needs to complete or clarify partial or ambiguous statement previously made, the lead agent bank may have duty to disclose the information. Otherwise, the lead agent bank may be subject to claims of fraud. (Eg, Banque Arabe et Internationale E’Investissement v. Maryland National Bank.) The parties can also negotiate for specific disclosures by the lead agent bank and incorporate them into the agreement. These remedies, however, may not be generally available and need to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Addressing multibank lending transactions, OCC has advised participating banks to conduct independent credit analysis, to require the borrower to make full credit information available, and to require the lead agent bank (or the selling bank) to provide available information on the borrower, among others. (OCC Banking Circular 181 (Rev.), “Purchases of Loans in Whole or in Part-Participations”, August 2, 1984.) Sufficient due diligence is always the best policy, be it a syndicated or participant loan.