Restructuring Corporate Debt – A Different Kind of Cycle

By Mike Harmon (Gaviota Advisors, LLC) and Claudia Robles-Garcia (Stanford Graduate School of Business)

Mike Harmon
Claudia Robles-Garcia

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.

The full article is available here.

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.