Following the end of the summer, the final stretch of 2009 offers a good opportunity to take stock of the events that roiled the economy this year and assess the tone of the financial markets for the rest of the year.

Buoyed by an encouraging stream of positive economic data, sentiment in the financial markets has been relatively upbeat. Much of the recovery has stemmed from the monetary and fiscal stimulus the government pumped into the financial system in copious amounts to revitalize critical pipelines of money and credit.

However, this year will see a record volume of default in corporate debt, in line with expectations. In the first eight months of 2009 a total of 216 corporate issuers defaulted (both nonfinancials and financials), affecting rated debt worth $523 billion. If this pace continues, the global default tally will reach 324 in 2009, the highest annual total in 28 years—since the inception of our data series on defaults. The volume of debt affected by these defaults also soared to a record high.

Other key takeaways from the year thus far:

The U.S. is the epicenter of economic and credit-market weakness. At the beginning of the year our 12-month forward baseline prediction for the U.S. speculative-grade default rate was 13.9% by yearend, with an upper bound of 18.5% and a lower bound of 10.0%. The default rate hit 10.4% in the 12 months ended in August 2009, giving us reason to believe it is headed toward our predicted range by the end of the year. Corporate default incidence (by count) within the population or rated companies has been highest in the U.S., which blazed ahead with 158 defaults in 2009 (through Sept. 16). Of the remainder, the EU recorded 15, the other developed markets (mainly Canada) 12, and the emerging markets 31.

Consumer discretionary sectors lead the global default count, though industrials and housing-related sectors also are reporting numerous casualties. Companies in leisure/media are in the lead globally (mainly because of the U.S.), with 53 defaults in 2009 (through Aug. 31). Next in line is the aerospace/auto/capital goods/metals category (35 defaults), followed by forest products and building materials (26 defaults), and consumer/service (24 defaults). When factoring in only speculative-grade ratings, homebuilders and forest products led with a global default rate of 18% for the trailing 12 months ended in August.

Defaults continue to emerge from the lowest rungs of the ratings ladder. This is true not only in a single year but also on a cumulative basis. More than four-fifths (86%, or 187 entities) of this year's defaults year-to-date emerged from the speculative-grade domain, with an initial rating of BB+ or lower.

Companies with an original rating of B face maximum default risk exposure. Among this year's defaulters, entities with an initial rating in the B rating category (which includes B+, B, and B-) accounted for the largest number of defaults, at 122. Next in line were entities with an initial rating in the BB rating category, with 54. Companies with a first rating of CCC+ or lower accounted for 11 of this year's total default count.

An avalanche of low-rated rating originations during the credit boom indicates that considerable default risk still resides in the pipeline. For example, a total of 1,340 new speculative-grade ratings were originated globally from 2006 through the first half of 2009, of which only 100 have defaulted. This indicates a survival rate of 92.5%, which is expected to erode over time as more casualties occur and more issuers age. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact timing for such casualties because forbearance measures can delay the day of reckoning, particularly as financing conditions ease.

The flow of distressed-debt exchanges has accelerated substantially and likely will reach an all-time high in 2009. Plummeting liquidity and deteriorating fundamentals set in motion a flurry of corporate distressed exchanges. In part, the increase reflected a pragmatic reaction to the shortage of financing options in the throes of the financial crisis. Of this year's 216 defaults, 81 were defined as distressed exchanges, by far the single leading default trigger across both developed and emerging markets. With $71.0 billion in rated debt, Ford Motor (F) was the largest issuer (by par volume) so far in 2009 to implement a distressed exchange. CIT Group (CIT), with $42.1 billion, came in second.

By contrast, formal bankruptcy filings have been lower. The liquidity crunch created several bottlenecks for exit financing options and hastened the use of alternative pragmatic strategies, including prepackaged bankruptcies, distressed exchanges, and standstill agreements. Only 54 formal bankruptcies have been recorded globally this year, of which 48 were in the U.S., affecting rated debt worth $150.5 billion. With $53 billion in rated debt, General Motors was by far this year's biggest bankruptcy, followed by Charter Communications, with $22.5 billion.

Troubled leveraged buyouts (LBOs) from prior years remain a fertile source of defaults this year. The actual volume of LBOs has dropped precipitously, totaling only $21.9 billion in the U.S. in the first half of 2009, compared with a peak of $433.7 billion in full-year 2007, according to Standard & Poor's Leveraged Commentary & Data. Moreover, in contrast with 2006, new deals in the U.S. are increasingly being funded with higher equity contributions and smaller shares of senior debt. Nevertheless, prior-year deals continue to emerge as casualties. In Europe, for example, 42 of 48 defaults recorded in the first half of 2009 were LBO-related.

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