(Bloomberg) -- Billionaire hedge fund manager Alan Howard paid $59 million for a Manhattan townhouse in March. Just two months later he obtained a $30 million mortgage from Citigroup Inc.
Denis Sverdlov, worth $6.1 billion thanks to his shares in electric-vehicle maker Arrival, recently pledged part of that stake for a line of credit from the same bank. For Edgar and Clarissa Bronfman the loan collateral is paintings by Damien Hirst and Diego Rivera, among others. Philippe Laffont, meanwhile, pledged stakes in a dozen funds at his Coatue Management for a credit line at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
In the realm of personal finance, debt is largely viewed as a necessary evil, one that should be kept to a minimum. But with interest rates at record lows and many assets appreciating in value, it’s one of the most important pieces of the billionaire toolkit -- and one of the hottest parts of private banking.
Thanks to the Bronfmans, Howards and Sverdlovs of the world, the biggest U.S. investment banks reported a sizable jump in the value of loans they’ve extended to their richest clients, driven mainly by demand for asset-backed debt.
Morgan Stanley’s tailored and securities-based lending portfolio approached $76 billion last quarter, a 43% increase from a year earlier. Bank of America Corp. reported a $67 billion balance of such loans, up more than 20% year-over-year, while loans at Citigroup’s private bank -- including but not limited to securities-backed loans -- rose 17%. Appetite for such credit was the primary driver of the 21% bump in average loans at JPMorgan’s asset- and wealth-management division. And at UBS Group AG, U.S. securities-based lending rose by $4 billion.
“It’s a real business winner for the banks,” said Robert Weeber, chief executive officer of wealth-management firm Tiedemann Constantia, adding his clients have recently been offered the opportunity to borrow against real estate, security portfolios and even single-stock holdings.
Spokespeople for Howard, Arrival and Laffont declined to comment, while the Bronfmans didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Rock-bottom interest rates have fueled the biggest borrowing binge on record and even billionaires with enough cash to fill a swimming pool are loathe to sit it out.
And for good reason. With assets both public and private at historically lofty valuations, shareholders are hesitant to cash out and miss higher heights. Appian Corp. co-founder Matthew Calkins has pledged a chunk of his roughly $3.5 billion stake in the software company -- whose shares have risen about 145% in the past year -- for a loan.
“Families with wealth of $100 million or more can borrow at less than 1%,” said Dan Gimbel, principal at NEPC Private Wealth. “For their lifestyle, there may be things they want to purchase -- a car or a boat or even a small business -- and they may turn to that line of credit for those types of things rather than take money from the portfolio as they want that to be fully invested.”
Yachts and private jets have been especially popular buys in the past year, according to wealth managers, one of whom described it as borrowing to buy social distance.
Loans also allow the ultra-wealthy to avoid the hit of capital gains taxes at a time when valuations are high and rates are poised to increase, perhaps even almost double. Postponing tax is a “significant benefit” for portfolios concentrated and diversified alike, according to Michael Farrell, managing director for SEI Private Wealth Management.
Critics say such loans are just one more wedge in America’s ever-widening wealth gap. “Asset-backed loans are one of the principal tools that the ultra-wealthy are using to game their tax obligations down to zero,” said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.
While using public equities as collateral is the most common tactic for banks loaning to the merely affluent, clients further up the wealth scale usually have a bevy of possessions they can feasibly pledge against, such as mansions, planes and even more esoteric collectibles, like watches and classic cars.
One big advantage for the wealthy borrowing now is the possibility that rates will ultimately rise and they can lock in low borrowing costs for decades. Some private banks offer mortgages on homes for as long as 20 years with fixed interest rates as low as 1% for the period.
The wealthy can also hedge against higher borrowing costs for a fraction of their pledged assets’ value, according to Ali Jamal, the founder of multifamily office Azura.
“With ultra-high-net worth clients, you’re often thinking about the next generation,” said Jamal, a former Julius Baer Group Ltd. managing director. “If you have a son or a daughter and you know they want to live one day in Milan, St. Moritz or Paris, you can now secure a future home for them and the bank is fixing your interest rate for as long as two decades.”
Securities-based lending does comes with risks for the bank and the borrower. If asset values plunge, borrowers may have to cough up cash to meet margin calls. Banks prize their relationships with their richest clients, but foundered loans are both costly and humiliating.
Ask JPMorgan. The bank helped arrange a $500 million credit facility for WeWork founder Adam Neumann, pledged against the value of his stock, according to the Wall Street Journal. As the value of the co-working startup imploded, Softbank Group Corp. had to swoop in to help Neumann repay the loans and avert a significant loss for the bank.
A spokesperson for JPMorgan declined to comment.
Still, for the banks it’s a risk worth taking. Asked about securities-backed loans on last week’s earnings call, Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Sharon Yeshaya said they’d “historically seen minimal losses.” Among the bank’s past clients is Elon Musk, who turned to them for $61 million in mortgages on five California properties in 2019, and who also has Tesla Inc. shares worth billions pledged to secure loans.
“As James [Gorman] has always said, it’s a product in which you lend wealthy clients their money back,” Yeshaya said, referring to Morgan Stanley’s chief executive officer. “And this is something that is resonating.”
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