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US banking lawyers were hoping for more of the same as they entered 2018, following an unprecedented boom year for commercial lending work. Low interest rates and the Trump administration’s perceived looser regulation of the banks kept deals flowing at a rapid pace in 2017. The expectation for the future is that the tax reforms will bring more corporate money onshore, thereby driving up valuations as companies look for somewhere to invest their cash. Direct lenders also continue to make a big impression on mid-market financings, and this side of the market is providing a good inroad into the lending market for firms with strong private equity relationships, such as Ropes & Gray LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, who are typically known for their borrower work.

Low borrowing costs remain a significant driver of activity in the US debt markets as borrowers continue to take advantage of cheap debt to refinance and lock-in deals before the feared rise in interest rates. On the investment grade debt side, issuance hit $1.3tn in 2017 - raised from a total of 1,167 deals - which represents the highest annual value on record. The energy and power sector, which accounted for 13.2% of all investment grade offerings, was the most active industry sector, with healthcare (8.7%) and technology (7.8%) standing out as the next best performing areas.

The high-yield debt market also held steady for much the same reasons as the investment grade area, namely a rush to secure cheap finance before the dreaded rise in interest rates. In fact, refinancings accounted for two thirds of high-yield debt activity during 2017 and the strong demand spurred the US high-yield debt market to post its most successful year since 2014, with 511 deals raising a total of $277bn. In good news for the beleaguered energy industry, the relative stability in commodity prices led the oil and gas sector to record its strongest year since 2014, accounting for 74 deals totaling $39bn.

The current 5.1% yield on US high-yield investments, combined with the ongoing favorable economic conditions, should see the high-yield markets continue to make progress during 2018.

In 2017, the US stock market successfully shook off the uncertainty that marred 2016 to produce a confident performance. Indeed, the S&P 500 Index had a record-breaking run, which saw it post 12 straight months of gains for the first time ever - it finally finished the year almost 20% higher than it started. In terms of IPOs - arguably the barometer of the equity markets - it was definitely a comeback year. The volume of stock market debuts rose from 105 in 2016 to 160 in 2017, an increase of around 52%. IPO value was equally as impressive, with value from listings on US exchanges rising above $38bn for the first time since 2014.

The technology, media and telecoms sector led the charge, representing around a third of listings - double the total seen during 2016. Indeed, offerings in the sector in 2017 accounted for $12.5bn-worth of share offerings, which equaled the value of technology, media and telecoms offerings during the previous two years combined. Unsurprisingly, the sector accounted for the two biggest IPOs of the year, with Snap (parent company of Snapchat) raising $3.4bn in March and American cable television company Altice USA raising $1.9bn in June.

However, volatility returned to the markets again in February 2018 when a massive wobble in global markets followed the Dow’s biggest one-day points fall. Although equities were quick to recover, the episode demonstrates the uncertainty below the surface, with the looming threat of an interest rate rise continuing to spook investors.

The main players in this space include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, all of which are equally adept on both the issuer and underwriter side. There is also a band of firms who are leaders in certain core industry areas, particularly energy, technology and life sciences. On the technology side, California-headquartered Cooley LLP and Fenwick & West LLP are market leaders, while Texas-headquartered Baker Botts L.L.P. and Vinson & Elkins LLP are go-to firms for energy work.

Partners in the US structured finance space made one clear and repeated observation about the evolution of their discipline: these days, structured finance practitioners must be both transactional lawyer and regulatory lawyer. While transactional activity has ostensibly undergone a full resurrection, firms are still handling a fair amount of standalone regulatory work following the final stages of Dodd-Frank implementation. Similarly, MiFID II has already presented new challenges across the trading continuum, which will keep structured finance lawyers busy for the foreseeable future. Domestically, some partners noted that any further changes made by the current administration to the market regulatory regime will be on the side of deregulation, but at the time of publication such amendments had yet to be introduced. Cryptocurrencies may be one outlier to that generalization. Though these digital monetary mediums have thus far exhibited striking volatility, the late-2017 Bitcoin boom fueled at least fleeting interest in the possibility of hedging products tied to the value of Bitcoin. If these products gain popularity, spectators can expect to see a host of regulations to follow.

In many ways reflective of the wider corporate transactional market, securitization was way up across nearly every asset class (with one possible exception being RMBS); CLOs in particular posted a 100% increase in deal volume from H1 2016 to H1 2017. The boost in activity can be explained by pointing to the US’s healthy equity markets, in part driven by the corporate expectation of favorable treatment under what is perhaps the most comprehensive tax reform legislation in the post-war period; but one should also note a number of more acute trends that have driven the relative boom. Indeed, the market-maker spread has become so thin that securitization is becoming an increasingly attractive option. Moreover, though debt remained cheap in 2017, firms have noted a marked increase in marketplace lending and fund-driven transactions; however, late 2017 also witnessed higher default rates in the unsecured marketplace lending sector.

Given the dominance of the US capital markets, it’s unsurprising that 2017 was a banner year also for the international capital markets, particularly on the equity side, which recorded a 18.5% hike in global value to $783.7bn - this represented a two-year high. The four most active segments globally for ECM issuance were the financial (20%), industrials (12%), technology (11%) and energy and power (10%) sectors.

In terms of first listings specifically, global exchanges secured 1,700 IPOs during 2017; not only did this mark a hefty 44% rise on the previous year, it was also the largest volume of listings seen since the financial crisis. In total, proceeds from first listings totaled over $196bn in 2017. In addition to US success, European listings also jumped by over 40%, and among the headlines in Asia in 2017, China’s Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges attracted a record number of IPOs, with over 400 companies floating on the two exchanges during the year. Latin America also proved robust, with Argentina’s increasingly optimistic political environment pushing its Merval index up by a mammoth 77% - it eventually hit a record high at the end of 2017.

The international debt markets also remained active, with the value of global debt activity reaching $7.2tn - although this represented a slight drop on last year’s value, it was still only the second year on record where deal value surpassed $7tn.

Against the backdrop of the booming finance markets is the specter of the next potential big crash. When the Dodd Frank Act was signed into law in 2010, it was emblematic of a general antipathy towards excessive risk taking among financial institutions and of a political will, fueled by public discontent, to place vastly increased regulations across all aspects of the financial industry. Eight years after its enactment, the necessary compliance measures and risk management procedures have been established by those very institutions the act sought to regulate. As a result, and with interest rates on a slight upward trajectory after years hovering at or slightly above zero, banks are once again starting to look at doing deals and concentrating on producing healthy returns on equity for their shareholders.

Although some of this profit-making activity continues to manifest itself in the shape of divesting non-core assets, there has also been an increased interest in M&A. A significant amount of this has occurred within the rapidly growing fintech space, with banks viewing strategic partnerships and acquisitions of fintech companies not just in terms of potential revenue enhancement possibilities but also as a tool for cost mitigation and rationalization.

There has, however, been some sense of taking stock, as banks await a firmer indication as to the direction of travel regarding the Trump administration’s financial services sector policy. Certainly, the signs coming from the White House have emphasized a rolling back of over-burdensome regulations which have been viewed, not just by the President but also by a significant proportion of the Republican Party, as detrimental to commerce as a whole. Indeed, should the Choice Act - the proposed Republican bill to roll back a significant number of the protections laid out in Dodd-Frank - become law, it could indirectly present corporate boardrooms and private equity firms with opportunities considered unfathomable just a year ago.

At a retail level, although the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) remains in place (at least for the time being), the resignation of its former head Richard Cordray and the installation of the Trump-approved Mick Mulvaney as its new director certainly signals a dramatic change in its approach to regulating the consumer finance industry in light of both Mulvaney’s and Trump’s previous criticisms of the agency as an overzealous regulator that impedes commerce. Already Mulvaney has put the brakes on an investigation begun by his predecessor regarding a data breach of credit reporting agency Equifax, and it will be interesting to see how the expected slowdown in regulatory action by the agency impacts on the workflow of firms specializing in disputes and regulatory work in the consumer finance sector.

Firms at the top of the ranking will have a deep involvement in these key regulatory concerns, from both an advisory and transactional perspective. Weight is also attached to the diversity of a firm’s client base - and while major investment banking mandates are headline grabbing and important, there are numerous other types of financial services entities that have been affected by the tightening of regulations, from asset managers to insurers. The ranking also pays attention to cross-border capability, particularly in light of the increased tendencies for regulators around the world to collaborate.

Project finance in the US continues to be dominated by energy projects, with infrastructure still taking a backseat role. The public private partnership (PPP or P3) format that has been so popular in other parts of the world is evident, but has not as yet been taken up with any great alacrity. Notwithstanding, 2017 yielded an upturn in greenfield projects in the aircraft sector, and there was also a number of mandates relating to road and rail improvement. Things may change in the very near future, with the Trump administration currently structuring a plan to encourage $1.3tr in state, local and private financing to build and repair infrastructure.

With regards to energy, the burgeoning renewables sector remained popular with commercial banks and institutional investors, with tax equity financings enveloping the market in a race to bring good alternative energy projects to the fore. For developers, the collapse of yieldco promoter SunEdison marked a shift in financing strategy. Rather than starting yieldcos to buy projects once they are operating, recycling the capital into new installations, the current mood is to turn to a large and deepening pool of buyers - including insurance companies and pension funds - to provide funding and sometimes take control of income-producing assets. The potential disruption to the financing of renewable projects implicit in the base erosion tax appears for the present to be negligible; however, the Trump administration has dealt the solar industry a blow with its imposition of tariffs on solar equipment made outside the US.

The conventional power sector enjoyed a strong year, with many infrastructure and private equity funds involved in equity investments into generating plants as well as acquisitions and dispositions. The oil and gas sector was also busy in the midstream segment, with various major financings for LNG terminals; and low commodity prices triggered activity in the upstream market in terms of consolidation and M&A following insolvency.

Aside from the US market, many law firms saw substantial engagement with Latin American infrastructure and energy projects, principally from offices in Miami, Houston and New York.

With energy prices rising and the energy exploration and production (E&P) industry showing signs of recovery, the focus of the US restructuring market in 2017 turned to the retail industry. Here, changing shopping habits of consumers and the popularity of e-commerce put a visible strain on bricks-and-mortar retailers, with the largest Chapter 11 filing in this space being that of Toy"R"Us. While there has been a deceleration in the rate of E&P filings, mandates in this space continue to keep firms busy, including the recent high-profile bankruptcies of Seadrill and GenOn. The energy bankruptcy boom over recent years is also now having a cumulative effect on the service industry, particularly in the transport sector. In addition, healthcare is an area where companies are suffering increased distress, with uncertainty in the industry under the current administration adding further pressure.

For company-side representation, Kirkland & Ellis LLP continues to be a standout firm and secured mandates in some of the largest restructuring proceedings in 2017, including Toy"R"Us, Seadrill and AVAYA. Other premier firms on the debtor-side include Jones Day and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. Firms taking on key roles on the creditor-side of the table include Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP.

The lull in municipal restructurings in the US continued, following the conclusion of litigation related to Detroit’s restructuring. Again, the debt crisis of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and related engagements dominated the space: the failure of the commonwealth to negotiate restructuring deals with creditors has resulted in several filings, following the expiration of the automatic stay previously activated by PROMESA. Many firms are engaged either in court or advising on litigation strategy. Restructuring efforts were delayed by the damages caused by Hurricane Maria, which exacerbated the debt crisis, triggering the need for a revised fiscal turnaround plan.

In mainland US, high-debt-value cases related to hospital districts, reflecting the pressures on the healthcare sector.

One of the most significant developments in the not-for-profits (NFPs) space was the passing of President Trump’s tax reform bill in December 2017, which has targeted, among other areas, the federal deductibility of state and local income taxes. It is likely that these reforms may reduce taxpayers’ disposable income, meaning a potential decrease in charitable donations. NFP entities are also likely to be directly affected, with some private college and university endowments now subject to an excise tax on their net investment income.

In the wake of the new legislation, the trend in the NFP space to find more creative ways to maximize both financial efficiency and social returns continues. Two areas which have seen a significant uptick in activity are impact investing and program-related investments, particularly in sectors viewed as under threat by governmental policies, for example the environmental sector. Consolidations between organizations with similar charitable missions are also on the rise as NFPs take a proactive approach to counter potential repercussions following the tax legislation.

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