Flavor of the Month

Turns out there’s nothing plain about vanilla.

Back in March a huge storm – cyclone Enawo – struck Madagascar, a major grower responsible for supplying 80% of the world’s vanilla pods. That crop devastation caused pod prices to hit a record high this year of $600 per kilogram. “It has been ridiculous,” said the chief of one major UK “healthy alternative” ice cream company.

The trickle-down effect of this commodity crisis has been felt all year long as producers searched for other alternatives. The good news is that just 1% of all vanilla flavoring comes from pods themselves. Other non-food sources include coal tar, wood, and petroleum. Makes us think differently about that ice cream cone we had last weekend.

As summer winds down, the fate of the most popular ice cream flavor echoes what investors may forget about the leveraged loan market. Similar to pre-cyclone vanilla prices, middle market loan spreads have been in a steady state for over four years.

In part that’s because sponsors and issuers have traded potential spread tightening for higher leverage. It’s also due to the lowest-cost producers – namely, commercial banks – having exited (with some exceptions) from non-investment grade credit.