Business Development Companies (BDCs) are publicly traded private debt and equity funds. I know that description isn’t terribly sexy, but keep reading and you’ll find there’s a lot to be excited about.
BDCs provide financing to firms too small to seek traditional bank financing or to do an IPO, but at the same time are too advanced to interest the earliest-stage venture capitalist. These companies are often near or at profitability and just need extra cash to reach the next milestone. Filling this void, BDCs provide funds to target companies in exchange for interest payments and/or an equity stake.
BDCs earn their living by lending at interest rates higher than those at which they borrow. Conceptually, they act like banks or bond funds, but with access to yields unlike any you’ll see from a traditional bond fund. The interest rate spread—meaning the difference between their capital costs and interest they charge their clients—is a major component of their business.
Oftentimes, a BDC will increase its dividend when market interest rates have not changed. Like a bank, the more loans it has in force, the more it profits. Increasing its dividend payout will generally have a very positive effect on its share price.
Unlike banks or many other traditional financial institutions, however, BDCs are structured to pay out more than 90% of their net profits to the shareholders. In return, BDCs don’t pay any income tax. In essence, their profits flow through to the owners. Many investors like to own BDCs in an IRA to create tax-deferred or tax-free income. The opportunity to use them for tax planning purposes, access to diversified early-stage financing, and the impressive dividend yields they deliver make them a perfect fit for the Bulletproof Income strategy we employ at Miller's Money Forever.
As a business model, BDCs emerged in response to a particular need: early-stage companies needed funding but couldn’t do it publicly due to their small size. At the same time, these companies didn’t match the investment criteria of so-called angel investors or venture capital providers. Enter the Business Development Company.
BDC teams, through expertise and connections, select the most promising companies in their fields and provide funds in return for a debt or equity stake, expecting gains from a potential acquisition scenario and a flow of interest payments in the meantime. The ability to selectively lend money to the right startup companies is paramount. It makes little difference how much interest they charge if the client defaults on the loan.
With limited financing options, BDCs’ clients may incur strict terms regarding their debt arrangements. The debt often comes with a high interest rate, has senior-level status, and is often accompanied by deal sweeteners like warrants which add to the upside potential for those with a stake in the borrowing company.
In return for these stringent terms, the borrower can use the funds to:
•Increase its cash reserve for added security;
•Accelerate product development;
•Hire staff and purchase licenses necessary to advance R&D, etc.
•Invest in property, plant, and equipment to produce its product and bring it to market.
Turning to a BDC for funds allows a company to finance its development and minimize dilution of equity investors while reaching key value-adding milestones in the process.
What’s in It for Investors?
In addition to the unique opportunity to access early-stage financing, we like BDCs for their dividend policy and high yield. The Investment Act of 1940 requires vehicles such as BDCs to pay out a minimum of 90% of their earnings. In practice, they tend to pay out more than that, plus their short-term capital gains.
This often results in a high yield. Yields of 7-12% are common, which makes this vehicle unique in today’s low-yield environment. The risk is minimized by diversification—like a good bond fund, they spread their assets over many sectors. This rational approach and the resulting income make the right BDC(s) a great addition to our Bulletproof Income strategy.
BDCs and the Bulletproof Income Strategy
In short, BDCs serve our strategy by:
- Providing inflation protection in the form of high yields and dividend growth;
- Limiting our exposure to interest-rate risk, thereby adding a level of security (some BDCs borrow funds at variable rates, but not the ones we like);
- Maintaining low leverage, which BDCs are legally required to do;
- Distributing the vast majority of their income to shareholders, thereby creating an immediate link between the company’s operating success and the shareholders’ wellbeing… in other words, to keep their shareholders happy, BDCs have to perform well.
How Should You Pick a BDC?
Not every BDC out there qualifies as a sound investment. Here’s a list of qualities that make a BDC attractive.
- Dividend distributions come from earnings. This may sound like common sense, but it’s worth reiterating. A successful BDC should generate enough quarterly income to pay off its dividend obligations. If it doesn’t, it will have to go to the market for funds and either issue equity or borrow—or deplete cash reserves it would otherwise use to fund future investments. An equity issuance would result in share dilution; debt would increase leverage with no imminent potential to generate gains; and a lower cash reserve is no good either. We prefer stocks that balance their commitments to the shareholders with a long-term growth strategy.
- The dividends are growing. This is another characteristic of a solid income pick, BDC or otherwise. Ideally, the dividend growth would outpace inflation, in addition to the yield itself being higher than the official CPI numbers. This growth can come from increasing the interest rate spread and also having more loans on the books.
- Yields should be realistic. We’d be cautious about a BDC that pays more than 12% of its income in dividends. Remember, gains come from the interest it receives from the borrowers. Higher interest indicates higher-risk debt on a BDC’s balance sheet, which should be monitored regularly.
- Fixed-rate liabilities are preferred. We need our BDC to be able to cover its obligations if interest rates rise. Fixed rates are more predictable than floating rates; we like the more conservative approach.
- Their betas should be (way) below 1. We don’t want our investment to move together with the broad market or be too interest-rate sensitive. Keeping our betas as low as possible provides additional opportunities to reduce risk, which is a critical part of our strategy.
- They are diversified across many sectors. A BDC that has 100 tech companies in its portfolio is not as well diversified as a one with 50 firms scattered across a dozen sectors, including aerospace, defense, packaging, pharmaceuticals, and others. Review a company’s SEC filings to see how many baskets its eggs are in.
Right now, BDCs look very interesting to income-seeking investors. They provide excellent yields, diversification opportunities, and access to early-stage companies that previously only institutions enjoyed. They also fit in with Miller Money Forever's Bulletproof Income strategy, the purpose of which is to provide seniors and savers with real returns, while offering maximum safety and diversification.
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By Andrey Dashkov
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