While the market has been generally euphoric over Trump’s proposed fiscal agenda (even if in recent weeks it increasingly looks its implementation will be indefinitely delayed), one adverse side effect which has largely been ignored by the market is the impact of rising interest rates not only on sovereign debt, but on record corporate debt loads. Conveniently, this was one of the more notably topics covered in the latest Global Financial Stability report released by the IMF on Wednesday.
According to the IMF writes, as corporate leverage has risen, and is now at the highest level since the start either the financial crisis or the dot com bubble, depending on which metric one uses…
… so too has the proportion of income devoted to debt servicing, notwithstanding low benchmark borrowing costs. And while the absolute level of debt servicing as a proportion of income is low relative to what it was during the global financial crisis, the 4 percentage point rise has brought it to its highest level since 2010, which leaves firms vulnerable to tighter borrowing conditions. The average interest coverage ratio—a measure of the ability for current earnings to cover interest expenses— has fallen sharply over the past two years.
Meanwhile the IMF warns that earnings have dropped to less than six times interest expense close to the weakest multiple since the onset of the global financial crisis.
Historically, deterioration of the interest coverage ratio corresponds with eventual widening in credit spreads for risky corporate debt. Here, the IMF is surprised to note that the market pricing of corporate risk has decoupled from the decline in interest coverage ratios, suggesting more mispricing of risk due to central bank intervention:
Declines in the interest coverage ratio have been concentrated mostly in smaller firms, which may have less access to capital market financing than their larger counterparts. Under what the IMF dubs an adverse scenario, an “unproductive fiscal expansion” could lead to a sharp rise in borrowing costs. Such a sharp rise in interest rates amid tepid earnings growth could further compromise the ability of firms to service their debt.
Under this scenario, the combined assets of challenged firms could reach almost $4 trillion, the IMF calculates.
The IMF then warns that the number of firms with very low interest coverage ratios — a common signal of distress — is already high: currently, firms accounting for 10% of corporate assets appear unable to meet interest expenses out of current earnings:
This figure doubles to 20% of corporate assets when considering firms that have slightly higher earnings cover for interest payments, and rises to 22% under the assumed interest rate rise.
The stark rise in the number of challenged firms has been mostly concentrated in the energy sector, partly as a result of oil price volatility over the past few years. But the proportion of challenged firms has broadened across such other industries as real estate and utilities. Together, these three industries currently account for about half of firms struggling to meet debt service obligations and higher borrowing costs.
As the FT notes, this stark warning warning about potential US risks resulting from a sharp rise in interest rates, came alongside what was otherwise a relatively cheery assessment of the broad state of global financial stability, which the IMF said had been improving since last year. Besides the possibility of US policy mis-steps the IMF said China’s credit boom continued to pose a major risk to the global economy as authorities there struggled to rein in credit growth, repeating what has increasingly become a regular warning from the fund.
The IMF also reiterated a well-known warning about China’s financial system, whose assets are more than 3x greater than China’s GDP (more on that later), as well as bringing attention to the European bank sector, where “persistently weak profitability is a systemic stability concern.”
As for the biggest risk denoted by the IMF, the threat of mass defaults should interest rates spike making debt service impossible for up to 22% of US corporations, perhaps it was this that Gary Cohn explained to Donald Trump ahead of the president’s recent interview with the WSJ in which he admitted that he suddenly prefers lower interest costs. That said, it remains to be seen if the “unproductive fiscal expansion” envisioned by the IMF can be avoided.
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Finally, here are two useful panels from the IMF depiting the evolution of corporate leverage and the credit cycle in the US…
… as well as the full visual explanation of linkages between debt service, interest coverage ratios and corporate vulnerability resulting from higher interest rates.