Last updated: 08:57 / Thursday, 4 February 2016
Main Sector Concerned Is Oil

Corporate Defaults Piling Up

Corporate Defaults Piling Up
  • The corporate default rate is at its highest level since 2009. Among the number of companies defaulting in 2015 one-fifth are from emerging markets
  • Most are in Brazil and Russia. And the main sector concerned is oil and gas
  • “It would be logical to expect heavily indebted companies to have a decreasing capacity to pay down debt, especially those that operate in sectors most sensitive to economic cycles”

The corporate default rate is at its highest level since 2009. In its latest study on 30 November, Standard & Poor’s reported a sharp increase in the number of companies defaulting in 2015: 101 issuers reneged on their obligations. The last time the figure was so high was in 2009. The latest two companies failing to repay their debt are Uralsib, a Russian bank, and China Fishery, a global fish and seafood supplier. Among these hundred plus companies, only 21, i.e. one-fifth, are from emerging markets. Most are in Brazil and Russia. And the main sector concerned is oil and gas, says Jean-Philippe Donge, Head of Fixed Income at Banque de Luxembourg.

The latest news concerning Petrobras, Glencore, Valeant and VW has echoes of the crisis we saw in the 2000s on the corporate debt market. At that time, a number of companies were posting record debt levels which ended up causing them to default or engage in major debt restructuring: World- Com, Enron, General Motors and France Télécom to name a few. We might well wonder whether the situation is different this time round. “But if it isn't, does this mean the corporate debt cycle is at tipping point? Are we about to see major debt restructurings?”, asks Donge. Let's look at the history of the price of the Glencore 1.25% bond maturing in March 2021. In 2012, Glencore launched its acquisition of the Swiss mining company Xstrata. In 2013, it took over the Canadian trader Viterra and in 2015 embarked on a merger with Rio Tinto. The latter did not succeed.

Primary sector debts and bank loans

Many companies are now posting debt and liquidity levels equivalent to those of the telecoms sector in the early 2000s. You only have to look at the sharp increase in global issue volumes, says the expert. In 2014, these came to 3.5 trillion dollars compared to 2.1 trillion in 2008 (3). Weak growth and the resulting deflationary pressures have led to a fall in earnings. The first companies to be affected are linked to oil and mining.

In emerging markets, Brazil and Russia have the greatest number of struggling companies. Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras) and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) are a microcosm of the type of problems encountered on the corporate debt market: meltdown in commodity prices at the same time as an increase in corporate debt. Petrobras is a semi-public Brazilian and integrated energy company. BNDES is the Brazilian government's financial arm for funding various projects, ranging from agriculture to infrastructure, in Brazil and elsewhere but mainly in South America.

The quantitative easing programs being conducted in developed countries, in particular by the US Federal Reserve, led to massive financial inflows to emerging markets between 2008 and 2014. These flows encouraged an increase in bond issues and bank loans, for a total of nearly 7 trillion dollars, he adds.

The case of BNDES illustrates the position of the corporate sector in emerging markets. Last year, after a continuous increase in its loan portfolio and with assets of 330 billion dollars, it was on the point of overtaking the World Bank as the world's second-biggest development bank after the China Development Bank. Unfortunately, it has suffered a sharp slowdown in activity this year, leading to a decline in disbursements. From January to October, the total amount of loans made by the bank came to around R$105 billion, which represents a drop of 28% compared to the amounts disbursed in the same period in 2014. From January to September, the bank's net income came to R$6.6 billion, which is 10.3% below the level recorded in the same period in 2014, specifies Donge.

Are we heading for a corporate debt crisis?

Potential fears for the corporate debt market would seem to be justified. Debt levels are high. Earnings are down. Monetary policies have taken or will be taking a less accommodative turn (despite the recent pronouncements by the President of the ECB). In particular, the return to a cycle of rising US interest rates coupled with a relatively strong dollar are looming over the market. If this does not happen, it would mean that the economic situation is not improving. “Heavily indebted companies therefore find themselves between a rock and a hard place, especially those that operate in sectors most sensitive to economic cycles. For the next few months, it would be logical to expect them to have a decreasing capacity to pay down debt.” He concludes.