What is a Covenant?
How Covenants Work
Covenants are most common in lending agreements and bond indentures. They can be financial or operational in nature.
Operational covenants often require borrowers to maintain their physical assets to certain standards, meet minimum disclosure requirements, engage only in permissible business lines, or maintain a certain level of insurance.
Financial covenants are frequently ratios that the borrower is required to stay above or below (a 2:1 debt-to-equity ratio or interest coverage ratio, for example), but there are usually also restrictions on debt levels and minimum working capital requirements. Financial covenants often limit the borrower's purchase of new assets, changes in control, the use of the borrowed funds, and the payment of dividends (so that shareholders cannot vote to pay themselves huge dividends, leaving nothing for the creditors). Some may also limit compensation packages for officers.
The lending agreement in which the covenant appears will also provide detailed formulas to be used to calculate the ratios and limits. It is important to note that in many cases these formulas do not conform to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). For example, the covenant may include leases in the debt calculation, or it may consider capital leases as an expense. As a result, it is very important that borrowers scrutinize covenants before borrowing.
Violating a covenant can trigger a technical default. This means that although the issuer is making interest and principal payments on time, it is not operating within the agreed-upon guidelines and is thus increasing the risk of default in the eyes of the lender or bondholders. The borrowers typically have a certain amount of time to remedy the technical default, but it often lowers the borrower's credit rating and stock price.
Why Covenants Matter
Lenders attach covenants to bond issues and loans as a way to force the borrower to operate in a financially prudent manner that ensures it will repay the debt. Issuers, on the other hand, usually negotiate the most flexible covenants they can so they have the freedom to make decisions and take risks that might ultimately benefit the shareholders.
In either case, covenants act as a safety mechanism that allows both parties to achieve its goals.