By Mike Harmon (Gaviota Advisors, LLC) and Claudia Robles-Garcia (Stanford Graduate School of Business)
Corporate leveraged finance cycles have followed a predictable pattern in the forty years that have ensued since the invention of the junk bond in the late 1970s. They expand as investors’ risk appetites grow and recede as default rates rise. The recession of credit cycles has historically facilitated a healthy “creative destruction” in the form of restructuring transactions which have enabled over-leveraged companies to fix their burdened balance sheets. While the current credit cycle is positioned to share some of the characteristics of past cycles, it is also shaping up to differentiate itself in some meaningful ways. First, companies entered the current crisis with significantly more debt, and with that debt bearing a much higher blended risk profile, than in past cycles. Second, the restructuring “fix” has required much more additional financing than previous cycles, due to the economic nature of the crisis. Third, companies have had much more contractual leeway to avoid default, and to solve their liquidity problems with more leverage, than they have in previous cycles. Fourth, many investors have been aligned with borrowers on their desire to maintain elevated leverage levels. And finally, and probably most importantly, the Fed’s actions have facilitated, and even encouraged, the raising of more leverage. As a result of all of these factors, we believe that this restructuring cycle is more likely to see companies emerge with significantly more debt than we have seen in previous cycles. This will exacerbate the highly publicized “zombie” problem (where companies that are technically insolvent have no real catalyst to restructure), which could impact economic growth, and will increase the likelihood of a more protracted restructuring cycle in the years to come.
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