Seeking Alpha

The Corporate Debt Bubble

by: Ariel Santos-Alborna

Corporate debt to GDP is at its highest level in all of recorded history.

50% of that debt is BBB, or one level above junk.

Decreased cash flows and less corporate debt demand in a recession will stop buybacks and lead to insolvency in the junk bond market.

This may lead to another wave of bail outs and increased sovereign debt.

Increased sovereign debt will lead to Japanese and European-like economic malaise unless the U.S. creates inflation.

As wages have remained relatively stagnant for decades, credit has become the engine of economic growth in the U.S., and excess credit and leverage the primary driver of recessions. The two charts below demonstrate this process. Real wages have remained stagnant since 1973. Around that time we begin to see increases and violent swings in consumer credit change. The reason? Without wage growth, the credit economy must be pumped up to increase consumption (and therefore GDP).

(Source: Economic Policy Institute)

(Source: Trading Economics)

Home ownership, created with debt, increased drastically before the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s and the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. When homeowners began defaulting, the crisis shifted to banks. Then credit froze as banks held worthless mortgage backed securities until the government stepped in. Government balance sheets assumed most of the banks' debt and the Fed provided easy credit and ample liquidity through low interest rates and Quantitative Easing to spurn lending. Thus, the seeds were sewn for the excesses we see today in corporate and sovereign debt.

This article demonstrates how an economic slowdown will likely burst the corporate debt bubble. With limited room for increasing sovereign debt levels, the crisis may shift to currencies.

The Corporate Debt Bubble

This bull market's excess is undoubtedly in the corporate debt sector. Corporate debt has doubled since the 2008 crisis. Corporate debt to GDP is at its highest level in all of recorded history. Naturally, too much debt lowers your credit quality. This is evident by the fact that roughly 50% of the corporate debt market is BBB, or just one level above junk. The explosion of BBB debt can be seen in the second chart below. AT&T has amassed $191 billion of total debt. Ford has $157 billion of debt but a much less manageable 450% debt/equity ratio. General Electric and General Motors are two other companies with debt levels putting them at risk of downgrade.

(Source: St. Louis Fed)

(Source: Bloomberg)

Corporate buybacks through issuing debt and cash flows is propping up equity markets. As the chart below shows, corporations have made up for the reduced demand from institutions (who are net sellers), households, and rest of world. If and when a recession occurs, expect a flight to safety from foreign buyers, pension systems, and financial institutions. This means less buyers of corporate debt and less buybacks.

(Source: Atlas Wealth Management)

So when cash flows decrease in the next recession, less net buyers of BBB debt in a flight to safety, and many BBB corporations become downgraded to junk (the % depends on the severity of the recession), the share buybacks currently propping up the equity market will come to a screeching halt and nothing will be left to support current equity prices. Additionally, the junk bond market is less than half the size of the BBB market and typically faces a lack of liquidity at the first sign of recession. A nearly illiquid junk bond market cannot absorb a wave of BBB downgrades, especially from blue chip companies listed above. A major downgrade will make the junk bond market insolvent, high yield spreads will widen, and companies that rely on junk debt financing will be at risk of defaulting.

Likelihood of a Recession

With the transportation sector rolling over, reduced consumer spending, reduced semiconductor sales, global PMI at its lowest level in seven years, and the 2s-10s curve only 160 bps from inverting, we are certainly in the midst of a growth rate cycle slowdown. Despite this, the possibility of a recovery still exists with a dovish Fed cutting amidst these warning signs. I do not believe the Federal Reserve can kick this can down the road and prevent recession for another several years. The reason? They told us the probability is low.

The NY Fed probability of recession index has reached 31.4%. Only one time in history has this index reached 30% and a recession not occur in the next twelve months, and that occurred in 1967. A reading above 30% has preceded every other recession in history as the chart below shows. When the NY Fed tells us there is a high probability of recession, investors should listen.

(Source: NY Fed)


The U.S. will be forced to bail out overleveraged corporations. With Japan's debt to GDP ratio at nearly 250% as a precedent, there is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. can take on more debt to prevent a collapse in the high yield corporate sector. However, two issues come to mind: 1) the political will to bail out large corporations. 2) the economic drag of high debt as interest payments consume a higher portion of federal expenditures. Not to mention the $122 trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities that the U.S. will have to finance with deficit spending.

The U.S. has several options. They can ride this monetary experiment ad infinitum and experience several years or decades of economic malaise like Europe or Japan. They can default on their debt. They can enact austerity to get the budget in order. They can grow out of the debt (decreasing debt as a percentage of growing GDP). Or they can inflate the debt away by monetizing it or devaluing the currency.

In a blog post here, I discuss Ray Dalio's article on macroeconomic paradigm shifts. He believes in a combination of the above: "So there will have to be some combination of large deficits that are monetized, currency depreciations, and large tax increases." With Modern Monetary Theory at the forefront of economic debates, this likelihood of this outcome has never seemed higher. I believe the second act of unconventional monetary policy will look something like what Dalio describes above.

Risk and Reward by Asset Class

This hopes to answer the so what. If the U.S. erases its sovereign debt through currency devaluation, the prices of gold and bitcoin will skyrocket. I also firmly believe that long term interest rates will reach zero, becoming a boon for bond prices. Disinflation is highly intact, which is why I'm currently neutral on commodities, yet recommend a portion of one's portfolio in commodities for diversification. I also recommend long volatility positions as a hedge against sharp downturns.

The Fed's recession index is too strong a sign to ignore. I recommend being underweight U.S. stocks and am neutral emerging market stocks though long-term bullish. This depends on price action of the U.S. dollar, which I cannot determine with certainty. This dynamic may take years to come to fruition, if at all. Yet the possibility makes gold and bitcoin attractive buys at the moment. With gold and bitcoin price action despite global disinflation, I believe investors are beginning to price in the possibility of currency devaluation.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.