Credit Quality in a Freefall

The distressed-debt ratio quadruples in a month's time though some signs point to a light at the end of the tunnel.

Credit quality deteriorated steeply from mid-October to mid-November despite the recent actions by the Federal Reserve to stimulate credit markets.

As of Nov. 15, $36.2 billion worth of debt was in distressed issues, more than four times the $8.6 billion reported a month earlier, according to Standard & Poor’s. Distressed debt as a percentage of total debt recorded its largest monthly increase in five years, more than doubling to 4.9 percent from 2.3 percent. The ratio was as low as 2.1 percent 12 months ago.

Distressed credits are defined as speculative-grade-rated issues that have option-adjusted spreads of more than 1,000 basis points relative to Treasuries.

Other metrics also suggest that the credit crunch continues to impact the overall credit markets. For example, the non-distressed speculative-grade bond spread widened to 502 basis points in mid-November from 392 basis points a month earlier, according to S&P.

In addition, the total number of rated companies with issues trading at distressed levels ballooned to 224, almost double the 120 in October, according to the report.

S&P noted that of the 224 companies on this month’s distressed list, half had either negative outlooks or ratings on CreditWatch with negative implications. The outlooks on 39 percent of the companies were stable, 7 percent were positive, and 4 percent were developing.

Of the 52 companies listed at the 1,000 bps level, 27 were rated “B-” or lower, and 39 were on CreditWatch with negative implications or had negative outlooks.

Not surprisingly, financial issues are suffering the most. Of the $36.2 billion of distressed issues, finance companies had the largest exposure, constituting 45 percent of the total debt affected, according to S&P. Next came media and entertainment at just over 20 percent.

Brokerage and finance companies displayed the highest distress rates as a share of total speculative-grade-rated issues, at 20 percent and 13.6 percent, respectively.

Not all of the news was bad. S&P pointed out that the U.S. speculative-grade default rate — typically the last indicator of stress within a credit cycle — hit an all-time low of 0.98 percent at the end of October, down from a previous low of 1.13 percent in September.

“Though default risk is rising, this year’s default count continues to be constrained in part because of limited refunding needs, as well as structural concessions that avert payment default,” S&P said in its report.

Year to date, the U.S. has recorded 13 defaults. “The U.S. speculative-grade default rate remains suppressed and is likely to post a year-end 25-year low of close to 1 percent,” S&P predicted.

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