Moody's warns of 'particularly large' wave of junk bond defaults ahead

Francisco Leong | AFP | Getty Images

With corporate debt hitting its highest levels since before the financial crisis, Moody's is warning that substantial trouble is ahead for junk bonds when the next downturn hits.

The ratings agency said low interest rates and investor appetite for yield has pushed companies into issuing mounds of debt that offer comparatively low levels of protection for investors. While the near-term outlook for credit is "benign," that won't be the case when economic conditions worsen.

The "prolonged environment of low growth and low interest rates has been a catalyst for striking changes in nonfinancial corporate credit quality," Mariarosa Verde, Moody's senior credit officer, said in a report. "The record number of highly leveraged companies has set the stage for a particularly large wave of defaults when the next period of broad economic stress eventually arrives."

Though the current default rate is just 3 percent for speculative-grade credit, that has been predicated on favorable conditions that may not last.

Since 2009, the level of global nonfinancial companies rated as speculative, or junk, has surged by 58 percent, to the highest ever, with 40 percent rated B1 or lower, the point that Moody's considers "highly speculative," as opposed to "non-investment grade speculative."

In dollar terms, that translates to $3.7 trillion in total junk debt outstanding, $2 trillion of which is in the B1 or lower category.

"Strong investor demand for higher yields continues to allow all but the weakest issuers to
avoid default by refinancing maturing debt," Verde wrote. "A number of very weak issuers are living on borrowed time while benign conditions last."

The level of speculative-grade issuance peaked in the U.S. in 2013, at $334.5 billion, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. American companies have $8.8 trillion in total outstanding debt, a 49 percent increase since the Great Recession ended in 2009.

During that time, there's been a strong divergence in debt issuance, with investment-grade firms (shown below in the green line) pulling back as a share of total debt issuance, while speculative grade debt (the blue line) has increased.

The rise of junk

View Related Chart

Click to show more