Disruption and Credit Markets

By Bo Becker (Stockholm School of Economics) and Victoria Ivashina (Harvard Business School)

Corporate bond defaults have been on a long and powerful upward trajectory in the past few decades. The default rate of U.S. corporate bonds rose from 0.12 percent to 0.46 percent between the first and second halves of the period from 1970 to 2016—an increase of almost four times. The rating agency Moody’s reports that, of the ten years with the highest default rates since 1960, six occurred in the new millennium and none before 1990. In a recent working paper, we investigate the role of disruption in explaining this trend.

By disruption, we refer to the process whereby new firms replace old firms using innovations in their business models, operations, or new technology. This process causes incumbent firms to lose market share, suffer reduced profitability, and, as we demonstrate, default on debt obligations. Just to name a few of the many recent examples: single-location bookstores were disrupted by chain stores, which were in turn disrupted by online bookstores, and off-line travel agents were disrupted by online services.

In our study, we compare industries with high rates of arrival of new firms, measured as either venture capital investments in the sector over the last five years or as the fraction of public firms in the industry with an IPO date in the past five years. The two variables capture different stages of disruptors’ ascent. While one can easily think of several broad forces that have increased innovation and disruption over the past few decades, different industries have been affected at different speed and different depth. We exploit this variation to draw the connection between disruption and defaults.

Our measures of disruption positively predict future defaults on corporate bonds, controlling for a host of other factors (including time, industry, bond characteristics such as seniority and callability, and issuer characteristics such as credit rating). These bonds are largely issued by mature firms (startups rarely access the bond market). Not only are future defaults higher in industries with high rates of disruption, but the bond market prices this in: newly issued bonds in high-disruption industries have higher yields. These findings are surprising, as a reasonable expectation might be that firms in the same industry would generally suffer similar fates. We would then expect to see high rates of new firm creation coupled with low defaults on the debt (of incumbents). Instead, we find the opposite.

An active IPO market and elevated venture capital investment may help the inception and advancement of potential disruptors, but underlying causes may be found in technological shifts (information technology, mobile, and ,in an earlier era, perhaps electricity), deregulation (think airlines), and globalization (in our data, industries directly exposed to off-shoring are no more likely to see defaults; however, global markets may have an important role in scaling up the opportunities available for disruptive businesses).

The importance of disruption probably extends beyond creditors to other stakeholders of incumbent firms. The corporate bond market is useful for studying disruption because bonds are liquid securities with detailed, high-quality data. Furthermore, losses on corporate bonds are important because bonds are widely held. This is in contrast with the gains from disruption, which tend to be concentrated with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors.

OECD Report on Corporate Bond Markets in a Time of Unconventional Monetary Policy

By Ryan M. Rossner (Harvard Law School, J.D. 2019)

On February 25, the OECD published another report in its Capital Market Series, Corporate Bond Markets in a Time of Unconventional Monetary Policy, which noted both a significant increase of outstanding nonfinancial corporate debt and a simultaneous decrease in bond quality post-financial crisis. Authored by Mats Isaksson, Serdar Çelik, and Gul Demirtaş, the report drew upon a dataset of almost 85,000 unique corporate bond issues by nonfinancial companies from 114 countries between 2000 and 2018.

The report provides a detailed account of capital markets development post-financial crisis with comparisons among different jurisdictions.  The authors emphasize that levels of nonfinancial corporate bond issuances have reached record highs. Global outstanding debt in the form of corporate bonds issued by nonfinancial companies reached almost $13 trillion USD at the end of 2018, twice the amount in real terms than was outstanding in 2008.  The report links the expansion of corporate bond issuances to regulatory initiatives aimed at encouraging corporate bond issuances, expansionary monetary policy, and (particularly in the EU) quantitative easing.  The report also forecasted a record repayment period ahead with $2.9 trillion coming due for advanced economy issuers and $1.3 trillion for emerging economy issuers within 3 years.

The US remains the largest corporate bond market and US issuers raised the most funds over the period.  However, the authors found that the number of US nonfinancial issuers increased only modestly in the post-crisis era, suggesting increased issuer concentration in US primary corporate bond markets. Over the same period, Japan, the EU, Korea, and China all increased both their use of corporate bond issuances as a means of borrowing and their number of issuers. Most strikingly, the number of Chinese companies issuing bonds increased steeply from 68 issuers in 2007 to a peak of 1,451 in 2016.

Amidst the expansion, the authors found a marked decrease in bond quality. To support these conclusions, the authors pointed to a marked expansion of non-investment grade bonds, and the increase of BBB-rated bonds (the rating just above non-investment grade) as a percentage of investment grade debt (to 54% in 2018).

The report also noted a decrease in covenant protection for non-investment grade corporate bonds. The authors devised a “Covenant Protection Index” of US issuances, by looking at the presence or absence of 27 different types of covenants in bond indentures.  While the index is a rough measure of covenant protection, it demonstrated a downward trend for non-investment grade bonds.  The authors attribute the decrease in covenant protections to increased issuer bargaining power in a low interest rate environment, as investors have been willing to forgo certain protections in favor of higher yields.

The authors note that the combination of increased bond issuances, a “prolonged period of low issuer quality,” and “lower levels of covenant protection” for noninvestment grade bonds suggest that in an economic downturn the amount of expected future corporate bond defaults “may be considerably larger than that experienced in the financial crisis.” This report comes shortly after Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, during the January FOMC meeting press conference, described the current state of corporate debt as a “macroeconomic risk,” which could “amplify” a negative downturn.

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For a previous Roundtable post on distressed debt, see Edward Altman & Robert Benhenni, “The Anatomy of Distressed Debt Markets.”

 

The Anatomy of Distressed Debt Markets

By Edward I. Altman (New York University) & Robert Benhenni (Pole Universitaire Leonard de Vinci)

The market for investing in distressed securities, the so-called “vulture” markets, has captured the interest of increasing numbers of investors and analysts. These investors, sometimes categorized as “alternative asset” institutions, mainly hedge funds, now can convincingly argue that the market has matured into a genuine asset class, with a reasonably long history of data on return and risk attributes.

In earlier works, Professor Altman has helped to classify this market into two distinct categories: (1) “Distressed” debt, meaning bonds or loans whose yield to maturity (later amended to option-adjusted yield) was equal to or greater than 10% above the 10-year U.S. government bond rate (later amended to be the U.S. government bonds with comparable duration), and (2) “Defaulted” debt, referring to bonds or loans of firms who have defaulted on their debt obligations and were in their restructuring (usually Chapter 11) phase.

The purpose of this article is to document the descriptive anatomy of the distressed debt markets size, growth, major strategies, characteristics, and participants, and then to explore its performance attributes, reviewing the relevant 30-year period from 1987-2017.  The article notes a number of unique aspects which make this asset class attractive, especially to hedge fund managers who can move in and out of the securities depending upon the credit cycle.

The article is available here.