For the last couple of years lenders have been taking the call from the telecommunications industry. Next year they may want to get in on a "friends and family" plan.
Telecommunications companies have been banks' best corporate customers. Since 1998 the telecom industry has received 180 loans worth $119 billion, more than in the three previous years combined, according to Thomson Financial Securities Data. The borrowing frenzy may not be over, according to bankers and analysts. Apart from Internet-related ventures, they say, there is no more dynamic industry than telecommunications - a sector driven by intensifying competition and need for capital.
Among the names that may soon be in the loan market are DBA Communications and VoiceStream Wireless Corp. Nextel Communications Inc., which recently dropped a hostile $8.31 billion bid for NextWave Telecom Inc., had been considered a likely borrower and may still turn to the market if it moves later to buy wireless licenses held by NextWave, which has sought bankruptcy protection.
There may be so many loans, bankers say, that fund managers and banks may pass on some of them - because of diversification rules that keep many funds from buying too much in one sector.
Rosemarie Kalinowski, a telecommunications debt analyst at Standard & Poor's, pointed to a Federal Communications Commission decision last week to let Bell Atlantic Corp. compete in New York as evidence that regulatory reform and a need for consolidation will continue to drive telecommunications companies into the loan and bond markets.
"It's been driven and will continue to be driven by all of the M&A activity that's occurred to date," Ms. Kalinowski said.
That's good news for leading telecom lenders such as Chase Manhattan Corp., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., and J.P. Morgan & Co. that have invested heavily in building teams specializing in telecommunications. Through Dec. 23, these four banking companies have combined to lead 76% of the loans, or $43 billion brought to market this year.
Tom Okell, a managing director and head of Bank of America's telecom lending team in Dallas, said that the market continues to have "explosive growth driven by technological and regulatory changes."
"The whole industry has a ton of opportunity," he said.
But if telecom is the main pipeline to profitable lending, it also may prove to be the riskiest. The industry produced one of the biggest loan debacles of the year, a Chase-led credit to Iridium LLC that defaulted in March - just three months after its syndication.
One loan executive predicted that many more companies and their loans will trip in 2000. After all, like Iridium many telecom companies carry highly leveraged loans - priced at least 250 basis points over the London interbank offered rate.
What may save lenders is that telecom companies also have significant assets, not only equipment but licenses and market share that offer other companies a reason to bail them out. Usable assets were something Iridium, a provider of satellite phones, lacked.
"It was the biggest example," S&P's Ms. Kalinowski said of Iridium. "But it was also the only example."