Jan 24, 2020

S&P finds record low credit-ratings downgrades

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The number of companies around the world that had their credit ratings downgraded from investment grade to speculative grade — so-called fallen angels — hit the lowest level in 23 years, S&P Global reported Thursday.

Context: There were only 19 fallen angels last year, which marked the fourth consecutive year the number has declined, the longest stretch on record.

But, but, but: While BBB-rated bonds grew to a record 50% of all outstanding investment grade U.S. corporate debt last year, downgrades fell to a record low 0.3%, data from BofA Global Research found.

  • The number of “zombie companies,” or businesses with interest payments higher than their annual earnings, has reached a level not seen since the global financial crisis, BofA estimated.
  • And the percentage of public companies in the U.S. losing money over 12 months has risen close to 40%, its highest level since the late 1990s outside of post-recession periods, WSJ reported.

Why it matters: Many companies appear to be holding their investment grade ratings by adding significantly to their debt load.

  • "Last week, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York also warned that downgrades to the flood of bonds sitting at the lower end of the investment-grade spectrum pose a financial stability concern," MarketWatch's Joy Wiltermuth writes.
  • "In October, the International Monetary Fund said that some $19 trillion of corporate debt globally could be at risk in a recession that is half as severe as the global financial crisis, in its annual global financial stability report."

On the other side: The global tally of companies with credit ratings upgraded to investment grade from speculative grade was 22 in 2019 — the lowest in 10 years.

Go deeper: S&P 500 companies expect declining earnings and profit margins for Q4

Go deeper

Companies are behaving like it's a recession

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite historically low interest rates, U.S. companies are being unusually frugal, holding back on issuing new debt and pumping up their balance sheets with cash.

Why it matters: Historically, when interest rates are low and the economy is strong, companies have levered up to increase capital expenditures and buy assets in order to expand. The opposite is happening now.

Central banks have cut interest rates 800 times since the Great Recession

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mexico's central bank cut interest rates to 7% last week, marking the 800th interest rate cut by a central bank since the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy in September 2008, Bank of America Global Research notes.

What's happening: The number of rate cuts from central banks have picked up steam since last year when the global economy's growth rate stumbled to its slowest since the financial crisis.

Gentlemen (and ladies) prefer bonds

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Getty Contributor

After pouring record inflows into bond funds last year, investors are doing so at an even faster pace in 2020 — pushing 10 times more money into bonds than stocks.

By the numbers: More than $65 billion has flowed into bond funds this year, according to Lipper Refinitiv data provided to Axios, outpacing inflows through 2019's record pace when bond funds took in $316 billion.