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$3 trillion headache on the way for corporations

Saturday, 30 Nov 2013 | 9:00 AM ET
Image Source | Getty Images

Borrowing money at bargain basement interest rates may seem now like a nice way to pad profits and share prices, but it may not be as much fun in a few years.

Companies face three consecutive years where more than $1 trillion each will come due in the form of maturing bond issues that have been used during the free-wheeling, zero-interest days courtesy of the Federal Reserve.

When that happens, corporations will have to choose between rolling over, or refinancing, debt at interest levels likely to be higher than the present day or using cash on their balance sheets to pay off their creditors.

The calculus from both borrowers and the Fed assumes that rates will still be low enough to roll the debt, and economic growth will be strong enough to absorb the costs of paying it down.

It's a high stakes bet that market experts hope will pay off.

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"I don't think it's a 'black swan,' but it is something that's going to cause earnings to be negatively impacted that investors are not paying attention to," said Michael Yoshikami, CEO at Destination Wealth Management. "We're in a Goldilocks environment with low rates, but that's not going to last forever. When it does end, real costs are going to hit and that's going to hit the bottom line."

The good news is that the danger is not immediate.

The big maturities don't start coming until 2016, when $1.02 trillion is due. In 2017 that number hits $1.04 trillion and in 2018 jumps to $1.1 trillion, according to Dealogic. In 2014, $893.5 billion comes due.

Where the problem occurs is with the direction of Fed policy.

Since the financial crisis exploded in 2008, the Fed has kept rates near zero, allowing companies cheap access to cash which they've used to finance operations and buy back their own shares to boost prices.

While consumers have been cutting leverage, companies and the government have been steadily increasing their loads.

(Read more: Deflation is scarier than inflation, investors say)

Non-financial business debt, in fact, has surpassed pre-crisis levels, rising from $10.3 trillion in the first quarter of 2008 to $13.1 trillion at the end of the second quarter in 2013, according to Fed flow of funds data. Non-financial corporate cash is also around record levels at $1.8 trillion.

For some, it's a familiar refrain of America borrowing its way into a hole.

"Everybody likes to talk about the pristine corporate balance sheet. Nobody likes to mention that they're debt-strapped," said economist Michael Pento at Pento Portfolio Strategies. "Low debt service payments have really helped profitability, but that all changes when interest rates mean-revert."

How soon mean-reversion—a return to a normal state of affairs—happens will be key to how big of a burden corporate debt becomes.

"Once interest rates mean-revert, all of the benefits from low interest rates go away and it's very damaging to corporate balance sheets and the economy as a whole," said Pento, author of The Coming Bond Market Collapse: How to Survive the Demise of the U.S. Debt Market.

The Fed has hinted that it will begin reducing the pace of its $85 billion of monthly purchases early in 2014 but has assured that it won't start raising interest rates until unemployment falls significantly further and inflation takes hold.

By that time, companies hope a recovery has taken hold and the $8.33 trillion that matures between now and 2014 will be manageable.

(Read more: Marc Faber: 'In a massive, speculative bubble')

"I'd be surprised if there's a problem," said Kevin Ferry, president of Cronus Futures Management. "If there's something out there that's a serendipitous little benefit, it's that CFOs are in a great position for almost the next three to five years from a financing standpoint, but the CEOs are not really confident enough and can't see that far down the road from an economic growth perspective."

"It's kind of a weird situation where if they could see down the road they could have the growth spurt that mean all the difference in the world," he added.

If that's true, it also would be a boon to government, which has doubled its debt load since the crisis to $15 trillion and also issues the vast majority in short-term paper.

Bond pros are hoping both situations are manageable.

"We were terribly worried for a long time about this great debt wall in high yield, that there was a huge number of bonds maturing in '12, '13 and '14. (Quantitative easing) allowed all the issuers to go ahead and refinance," said Marilyn Cohen, president of Envision Capital Management. "I don't think it's a big problem in the scheme of things. At worst, the economy will still be plugging along as it is now."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.

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