Next worry—surging corporate debt levels

Corporations are piling on debt, but investors don't seem to be worried, drawing comparisons to the kind of complacency that helped drive the financial crisis.

Nonfinancial business debt surged to $11.7 trillion in the second quarter, a 6.3 percent gain that was the third-biggest move since 2007. Total corporate debt was $7.4 trillion, a 6.8 percent annualized increase, according to the Federal Reserve.

Companies have been loading up on debt during the Fed's five-year run of near-zero interest rates on short-term debt. They've used it in some part for capital expenditures but have been especially aggressive at share buybacks and dividends, moves that reward shareholders during a time when the S&P 500 stock index has surged more than 190 percent from its March 2009 lows.

But worries are beginning to crop up that the debt party faces an unhappy ending particularly if growth slows and the Fed follows through on plans to end the quantitative easing monthly bond-buying program that has pushed its balance sheet past $4.5 trillion and coincided with the stock market rise.

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"The combination of more volatility and more leverage could be a significant problem at some point down the road," Citigroup credit analyst Stephen Antczak and others warned in a recent report for clients. "There is complacency about re-leveraging and its ultimate impact on default risk."

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Investors, in fact, have priced in a default risk of just 0.12 percent for single-A debt and 0.91 percent for single-B, levels that "are well below the lows reached" before Lehman Brothers collapsed and triggered the financial crisis, Antczak said.

"It's also worth noting that the lofty multiple back in '09 was in large part due to falling profitability in a recessionary environment. Now it's driven by debt being layered on stable-or-rising profits, which actually could be more problematic," he added. "The question that jumps out is how high could leverage go if we encounter an economic slowdown and profits fall given this heightened debt load?"

For the purpose of its research, Citi used two sample groups of high-grade corporate debt issuers, one with consistently high-grade credit and the other that was rated investment grade for at least one quarter since 2006, the latter including the "fallen angels" who have seen ups and downs on the credit spectrum.

Overall, companies who have added debt outnumber those who have cut debt by 2-to-1. Leverage has increased the most for companies with the most debt, but all groupings saw overall gains.

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Debt also has grown without regard to profits. Health-care companies in the groups Citi studied have increased debt 43 percent since 2011 even though profits have increased just 5 percent. Retail debt has jumped 42 percent at a time when profits have grown 15 percent.

All of this has coincided with a big push by companies to use debt to boost shareholder value.

Share repurchases, or buybacks, have surged 30 percent over the past 1½ years in Citi's sample group. A dividend increase of $45 billion has outpaced the buyback number of $40 billion during the same span.

"It's worth noting that dividends are arguably less visible (at least to strategists), and therefore are subtly pushing leverage higher," Antczak said. "Key point: don't underestimate the depth and breadth of the re-leveraging trend."

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For investors, the lesson is to find companies that are more able to handle an increasing debt load. Goldman Sachs strategists recently noted that investors are turning away from "bad balance sheet" companies—i.e. heavier debt loads—and favoring companies with less leverage.

In the market's eyes, more debt doesn't automatically transfer to a higher default rate, Antczak said. He recommends finding companies that have added more debt without increasing their market-implied default risk. One example: General Dynamics, a company that has increased debt by about 20 percent even as earnings before interest, taxes, debt and amortization have decreased 7 percent while its yield spreads have remained tight.