Business debt, and worries about it, are up


Associated Press

NEW YORK

Homeowners appear to have learned the lesson of the Great Recession about not taking on too much debt. There is some concern that corporate America didn’t get the message.

For much of the past decade, companies have borrowed at super-low interest rates and used the money to buy back stock, acquire other businesses and refinance old debt. The vast majority of companies are paying their bills on time, thanks in large part to profits that have surged since the economy emerged from the Great Recession nine and a half years ago.

But with interest rates rising and U.S. economic growth expected to slow next year, worries are building from Washington to Wall Street that corporate debt is approaching potentially dangerous levels. U.S. corporate debt has grown by nearly two-thirds since 2008 to more than $9 trillion and, along with government debt, has ballooned much faster than other parts of the bond market. Investors are most concerned about companies at the weaker end of the financial-strength scale – those considered most likely to default or to get downgraded to “junk” status should a recession hit.

“I’ve been more worried about the bond market than the equity market,” said Kirk Hartman, global chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Asset Management. “I think at some point, all the leverage in the system is going to rear its ugly head.”

Consider General Electric, which said in early October it would record a big charge related to its struggling power unit, one that ended up totaling $22 billion. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s subsequently downgraded GE’s credit rating to three notches above “speculative” grade, which indicates a higher risk of default.

GE, with about $115 billion in total borrowings, is part of a growing group of companies concentrated at the lower end of investment-grade. Other high-profile names in this area within a few notches of junk grade include General Motors and Verizon Communications. They make up nearly 45 percent of the Bloomberg Barclays Credit index, more than quadruple their proportion during the early 1970s.

Credit-rating agencies say downgrades for GE, GM or Verizon aren’t imminent. But the concern for them, and broadly for this swelling group of businesses, is if profits start falling or the economy hits a recession.

If those companies do drop below investment grade, they’d be what investors call “fallen angels,” and they can trigger waves of selling. Many mutual funds and other investors are required to own only high-quality, investment-grade bonds – so they would have to sell any bonds that get cut to junk.

The forced selling would lead to a drop in bond prices, which could result in higher borrowing costs for companies, which hurts their ability to repay their debts, which could lead to even more selling.

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