Transfers of loan portfolios between lending institutions have always been commonplace in the financial market. A number of factors may come into play – some lenders may wish to lower their risks and proportion of bad debts in their balance sheets; some may undergo restructuring or divest their investment portfolios elsewhere, to name a few. The real estate market in particular has been affected by the announcement of the "three red lines" policy by the People's Bank of China in 2020 which led to a surge of transfers, or attempted transfers, of non-performing loans. Other contributing factors include the continuous effects of the Sino-US trade war and the Covid-19 pandemic.
TRANSFERABILITY OF LOANS
The legal analysis regarding the transferability of loans can be complex. The loan agreement should be examined with a view to identifying any restrictions on transferability of the loan between lenders, such as prior consent of the debtor and, in some cases, whether such consent may be withheld. Other general restrictions may apply given that most banks have internal confidentiality rules and data protection requirements, the latter of which may also be subject to governmental regulations. Certain jurisdictions may restrict the transfer of loans relating to specific types of receivables – mortgage or consumer loans being prime examples. It is imperative to conduct proper due diligence on the documentation and underlying assets in order to be satisfied with the transferability of the relevant loans. This may be complicated further if there are multiple projects, facility lines or debtors. It is indeed common to see a partial transfer of loans to an incoming lender or groups of lenders.
METHODS OF TRANSFER
The transfer of loans may be carried out in different ways and often involves assignment, novation or sub-participation.
A typical assignment amounts to the transfer of the rights of the lender (assignor) under the loan documentation to another lender (assignee), whereby the assignee takes on the assignor's rights, such as the right to receive payment of principal and interest on the loan. The assignor is still required to perform any obligations under the loan documentation. Therefore, there is no need to terminate the loan documentation and, unless the loan documentation stipulates otherwise, there is no need to obtain the debtor's consent, but notice of the assignment must be served on the debtor. However, many debtors are in fact involved in the negotiation stage, where the parties would also take the opportunity to vary the terms of the facility and security arrangement.
Novation of a loan requires that the debtor, the existing lender (transferor) and the incoming lender (transferee) enter into new documentation which provides that the rights and obligations of the transferor will be novated to the transferee. The transferee replaces the transferor in the loan facility and the transferor is completely discharged from all of its rights and obligations. This method of transfer does require the prior consent of the relevant debtor.
Sub-participation is often used where a lender, whilst wishing to share the risks of certain loans, nonetheless prefers to maintain the status quo. There is no change to the loan documentation – the lender simply sells all or part of the loan portfolio to another lender or lenders. From the debtor's perspective, nothing has changed and, in principle, there is no need to obtain the debtor's consent or serve notice on the debtor. This method of transfer is sometimes preferred if the existing lender is keen to maintain a business relationship with the debtor, or where seeking consent from the debtor or notifying the debtor of any transfer is not feasible or desirable. In any case, there would be no change to the balance sheet treatment of the existing lender.
OFFSHORE SECURITY ARRANGEMENTS
The transfer of a loan in a cross-border transaction often involves an offshore security package. A potential purchaser will need to conduct due diligence on the risks relating to such security. From a legal perspective, the security documents require close scrutiny to confirm their legality, validity and enforceability, including the nature and status of the assets involved. Apart from transferability generally, the documents would reveal whether any consent is required. A lender should seek full analysis on the risks relating to enforcement of security, which may well be complicated by the involvement of various jurisdictions for potential enforcement actions.
A key aspect to the enforcement consideration is whether a particular jurisdiction requires that any particular steps be taken to perfect a security interest relating to the loan portfolio (if the concept of perfection applies at all) and, if so, whether any applicable filing or registration has been made to perfect the security interest and, more importantly, whether there exists any prior or subsequent competing security interest over all or part of the same assets. For example, security interests may be registered in public records of the security provider maintained by the companies registry in Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands for the purpose of obtaining priority over competing interests under the applicable law. The internal register of charges of the security provider registered in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands should also be examined as part of the due diligence process. Particular care should be taken where the relevant assets require additional filings under the laws of the relevant jurisdictions, notable examples of such assets being real property, vessels and aircraft. Suites of documents held in escrow pending a potential default under the loan documentation should also be checked as they would be used by the lender or security agent to facilitate enforcement of security when the debtor defaults on the loan.
DUE DILIGENCE AND BEYOND
Legal due diligence on the loan documentation and security package is an integral part of the assessment undertaken by a lender of the risks of purchasing certain loan portfolios, regardless of whether the transfer is to be made by way of an assignment, novation or sub-participation. Whilst the choice of method of transfer is often a commercial decision, enforceability of security interests over underlying assets is the primary consideration in reviewing sufficiency of the security package in any proposed loan transfer.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.