Over the last decade, easy financial conditions encouraged an increase in sovereign and corporate debt. Indeed, the leverage of American companies has reached record high levels and US corporate debt has been used for financial risk-taking to fund corporate payments to investors, as well as for mergers and acquisitions. At the opposite, the leverage of European companies has remained at low levels as European companies have remained more cautious over this cycle. In 2019, we have evolved in a new regime: the global economy has entered a synchronised slowdown and major central banks have returned to an easing stance. What are the risks for companies in this new context? We are following closely:
- The downgrade risk in the US Investment Grade universe. Net leverage for US issuers have resumed their upward trajectory in recent months. In 2020: (1) companies to make a trade-off between maintaining share buy backs and the stability or their debt (2) the downgrade risk to increase among firms facing increase pressure on profits.
- The default rate risk for low-quality high-yield bonds. Sluggish earning growth poses the biggest threat for companies to pay interest on their debt despite the low cost of financing. Indeed, at this stage of the cycle, we think that interest coverage is more closely related to earnings than to its interest expense: interest coverage could be quickly eroded by a hit to earnings. A selective approach is required in the low-rated Euro and US High Yield segments.