Why Corporate America’s Debt Is a ‘Major Risk’

Things may be all right for now, but the future doesn’t look bright.
Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

Are investors in denial about how dim the outlook is for American businesses?

That’s the question Société Générale’s Andrew Lapthorne, global head of quantitative strategy, posed to his bank’s clients.

“Asset valuations are extreme; returns are poor, the probability of losses is high and the ability to recover any losses quickly is low,” he writes.

In particular, the strategist sounded an alarm over the state of corporate America’s balance sheet. Company spending exceeds cash flow by a near-record amount—a fundamentally unsustainable situation—as net debt continues to increase at a rapid pace.

LAP CORP1
Source: Societe Generale
LAP CORP2
Source: Societe Generale

In many cases, companies have used debt to repurchase their own stock, flattering their bottom-line financial performance. While not all buybacks are financed by debt, Lapthorne did note a correlation between net repurchases and the change in corporate indebtedness.

­“U.S. corporate balance sheets are a major risk going forward,” he says. “U.S. corporates are massively overspending.”

LAP DEBT
Source: Societe Generale

To be fair, servicing this debt load isn’t as onerous as it might appear, because of low interest rates. And despite the recent steepening of corporations’ yield curve, companies have continued to extend duration, which offers them more certainty about what their interest payments will be over the long term.

“For corporate credit, there’s very little concern about short-term coverage from the market,” write analysts at Bespoke Investment Group. “We note that maturities continue to creep up slowly; despite higher spread costs, corporates are generally borrowing further out the curve and ‘locking’ low rates.”

But over the long haul, the performance of stock markets will be primarily driven by earnings increases—and the level of corporate indebtedness implies that any latitude to boost earnings per share by shrinking the denominator is limited.

Corporate profits in the U.S., meanwhile, have declined for five consecutive quarters. As Bloomberg’s Matthew Boesler reminds us, the combination of near-record corporate debt-to-GDP, record low return on equity, ever-higher labor costs, and subdued pricing power doesn’t paint an inspiring picture for growth.

.CORPROE G Index (U.S. nonfinanc 2016-10-21 09-35-45
Source: Bloomberg

U.S. profitability is on a “cyclical downtrend,” Lapthorne concludes.

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