Corporate Defaults’ Doubling Down Stakes

With the raging coronavirus, oil price crash, and US dollar climb combining to cramp high-yield corporate issuer access and soundness, sell-side houses have doubled the default forecast to 5%, with Middle East hydrocarbon companies most at risk. That figure is still half the 2009 crisis level, but equal to the taper tantrum fallout five years ago when big emerging economies with fiscal and current account deficits were in the crosshairs. Quasi-sovereign names should be spared, and Chinese property developers likely can rely on onshore backup as the country restarts from the earliest virus rampage. Outside weak known categories like Argentina and Chinese industrials, a large chunk of the universe pre-financed last year and through February when appetite remained. Frontier country participation in turn is small at $70 billion mainly from Jamaica, Ukraine and Nigeria. The distressed fraction below $70 is 15% of the total, and under $50 is 5%, in line with recent crisis trends but far short of the 2009 crash when it was over half of volume. The status is more due to panic selling than poor credit fundamentals at this stage, but certain sectors and businesses are clearly in trouble. Airlines will not soon rebound from health-related travel precautions, and Digicel out of the Caribbean proposed a below par exchange on $2 billion in notes in March. An estimated $70 billion is due this year in the high-yield/unrated segment, out of $250 owed for external corporates overall. With the international channel now closed, most firms should be able to tap local banks and bond markets, but real estate sponsor demand in China may crowd out other candidates. Indonesian refinancing is more elusive, but large near-term maturities do not loom. Should global fixed income volatility continue as measured by the VIX and other gauges, the spread over US Treasuries could magnify to almost 1000 basis points, according to JP Morgan calculations.

Corporate Eurobond trading was $925 billion or 17% of total turnover in 2019, and was outpaced by sovereigns with a 60/40% relative split, trade association EMTA reported. Brazil’s Petrobras was the leader, and Brazilian instruments came in second behind Mexican as the most popular generally with $780 billion in activity. Local debt was over 55% of the total, with Indian, Chinese and South African bonds among the favorites. Argentina dominated sovereign Eurobonds with three frequently traded offerings accounting for $250 billion. It is under virus quarantine and Economy Minister Guzman has signaled that the restructuring offer timetable may slip even as the contours of previously-outlined proposals prepare investors for steep interest and principal reductions. As an academic he also advocated GDP-linked instruments beyond the growth warrants contained in the last swap, and the IMF has released policy and technical papers on the subject that may finally see practical application. The Bank of England and International Securities Markets Association also organized working groups around the theme that could be mobilized in the current Argentina deal, and may also feature in neighbors skirting default with commodities and tourism collapse to double the reach.

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