Merx Aviation: IQ 2021 Update

Apollo Investment (AINV) has reported its full year and fiscal IVQ 2021 results through March 31, 2021. To management’s credit, much was said about the BDC’s largest investment – aircraft lessor and maintenance company Merx Aviation Finance LLC. We’ve written about Merx before on three occasions. The BDC Credit Reporter has been skeptical of the – let’s say – “generous” valuations AINV has placed on its debt and equity investments in Merx, despite the severe impact of the pandemic on flying and the value of aircraft and their leases. Both in the IVQ 2020 and in the IQ 2021 results, AINV has increased the value of its investment in Merx after a modest unrealized write-down earlier in 2020. As of now, the $190.5mn of first lien debt is carried at par, as was the case before the pandemic. The value of the now $120.3mn in equity is given as $125.1mn, up $0.5mn in the period.

On the latest conference call AINV sought to explain how Merx could be re-leasing planes at lower rates than before the pandemic or having to sell them off and still see an increase in the value of the equity stake. (Previously the BDC pointed to increases in their aircraft maintenance activities for its higher valuation, but this was not mentioned in the most recent conference call). Much as we’d like to, we don’t follow how AINV maintains such a high equity valuation despite the undeniably tough conditions. We rate the company CCR 4 despite the fact that AINV values its overall investment modestly over cost. However, we encourage readers to review the conference call transcript and decide for themselves.

With all that said, industry trends seem to be on the mend for Merx and total capital at risk – thanks to a large principal repayment – has dropped from $321mn as of March 2020 to $311mn a year later. The debt is performing at a 10% yield (down from 12% previously). The equity is non-income producing. The overall annual return on assets invested – both debt and equity – is 6.4% versus something closer to 15% pre-Covid when the loan yield was higher and dividends were being paid. AINV’s management does not envisage a return to those halcyon days but hopes for a ROA somewhere in-between.

This is very much a work in progress, but if industry conditions improve as expected, AINV should be able to avoid any further reduction in its debt yield from Merx. Once securitizations of aircraft are sufficiently paid down – which are senior to where AINV sits – we may even see a resumption of some dividend payouts. However, we cannot estimate when that might occur. We are maintaining our CCR 4 rating till we get more substantive good news and the credit remains Trending because we would not be surprised to see values and income change materially again – probably for the better – in IIQ 2021.

Even if AINV extricates itself from Merx without a realized loss (even though the loss of investment income has been substantial in recent quarters), the question remains why a BDC supposedly committed to portfolio diversification would invest 30% of its capital (using the IQ 2021 numbers) in a single company ?