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The US corporate debt default rate could reach its highest level since 1981 in the next three years, Standard & Poor’s says.

Based on our estimates of a worst-case scenario, the three-year U.S. cumulative default rate between 2008 and 2010 among speculative-grade nonfinancials will rise to 23.2%, the worst on record since 1981.

If realized, this estimate suggests that 353 speculative-grade rated nonfinancial firms could default between 2008 and 2010, with potentially more than 200 of these defaults materializing in the second half of 2009 and in 2010.

Consumer-sensitive sectors — such as consumer products, media and entertainment, and retail and restaurants — will be among the worst hit, in line with what happened in 1990-1992.

Details are available in Default, Transition, and Recovery: By 2010, U.S. Corporate Default Rate Could Rise To More Than 23%.

Source: US Corporate Debt Default Rate Could Top 23% by 2010