One Bank’s Surprising Discovery: The Debt Party Is Finally Over

A recurring theme on this website has been to periodically highlight the tremendous build up in US corporate debt, most recently in April when we showed that “Corporate Debt To EBITDA Hits All Time High.” The relentless debt build up is something which even the IMF recently noted, when in April it released a special report on financial stability, according to which 20% of US corporations were at risk of default should rates rise. It is also the topic of the latest piece by SocGen’s strategist Andrew Lapthorne who uses even more colorful adjectives to describe what has happened since the financial crisis, noting that “the debt build-up during this cycle has been incredible, particularly when compared to the stagnant progression of EBITDA.”

Lapthorne calculates that S&P1500 ex financial net debt has risen by almost $2 trillion in five years, a 150% increase, but this mild in comparison to the tripling of the debt pile in the Russell 2000 in six years. He also notes, as shown he previously, that as a result of this debt surge, interest payments cost the smallest 50% of stocks in the US fully 30% of their EBIT compared with just 10% of profits for the largest 10% and states that “clearly the sensitivity to higher interest rates is then going to be with this smallest 50%, while the dominance and financial strength of the largest 10% disguises this problem in the aggregate index measures.”

Another key point that Lapthorne makes, as also highlighted here back in November 2015, is that the reason for this increase in debt is largely down to financial engineering aka share buybacks (see charts below). However the most recent data points to a significant change in this trend with not only debt issuance in decline, but also the quantity of share buybacks.

Clearly over the long-term, this is obviously good news; borrowing money to buy back your elevated shares is clearly nonsense. However that has been the case for a number of years now. Are US corporates really waking up to the foolishness of their actions or are they constrained by their balance sheets? Or they may simply be anticipating greater clarity on Trump’s policies? Who knows! But in the short term, this does significantly reduce the impact of the biggest net purchaser of US equities, according to the SocGen strategist.

In other words, Lapthorne has found something surprising: after years of constant growth “having boomed out of control”, net debt growth is rapidly heading toward zero, and perhaps even a contraction, for the first time since the financial crisis!

Needless to say, for an economy in which debt growth – either public or private – has been a primary driver of overall economic expansion, this is a stunning development. So what is driving it.

Here, Lapthorne makes several nuanced observations which have significant implications not only on future debt levels but overall equity prices and broader risk-assets:

Firstly, while the headline S&P 500 continues to move ever higher, the dynamics within the US equity market are not so encouraging. The chart below breaks down the FT US non-financial universe into top and bottom quintiles based on balance sheet strength (as measured by Merton’s Distance to Default). What is abundantly clear is that while the strongest continue to do very well, ever since the Fed surprised the markets back in February with a US rate move, stocks with the weakest balance sheets have struggled.

This goes to an observation we made last month, namely that virtually half of the S&P return has been due to a handful of high growth tech, (i.e., no debt) companies. At the same time, the average stock as measured by the equal-weighted performance, has also gone nowhere.

And here is where SocGen may have found something few have considered so far: “many are associating the surge in FAANG performance as a ‘go-for-growth’ play, but in a reality it looks like investors are running scared into cash rich companies.”

Lapthorne’s conclusion: “This is not a Trump policy play, this is balance sheet risk.

Lapthorne next highlights an odd discrepancy between equity and debt: the aversion to debt “may seem a little odd given that high yield bond yields are down at historical lows and the appetite for new issuance remains strong. What drives credit is typically a mixture of leverage levels, interest rates, asset prices and asset volatility. Corporate leverage ratios are currently high, despite near record asset prices, and while interest rates are gradually rising, credit spreads on high yield bonds have plummeted. Why? Well asset volatility is very low compared to historical levels, or to put it another way, asset price confidence is high. This, coupled with the continuous clamor for yield, is helping to compress corporate bond spreads. This overconfidence may be misplaced. If equity volatility were to move higher, lower quality bonds could struggle, as firms with poor balance sheets are already in the US equity market.

The chart below plots the relationship between long/short portfolios formed on balance sheet strength (again using Merton) and high yield bond yields. That they have a strong historical relationship is not surprising as both are measures of credit risk, but as such it is interesting when they diverge. For example there are only two instances in which we saw major divergences in the chart below. The first was the original Fed tapering bond sell-off in 2013. The second is today, with equity markets clearly balance sheet risk averse and credit markets seemingly incredibly complacent.

Going back to the core point made by the SocGen strategist, namely that investors are increasingly reluctant to lend to companies that already have a sizable debt load, Lapthorne points out, as one would expect, that where he has seen the greatest aversion to debt is within the smaller cap Russell 2000 index. A long/short balance sheet strength strategy is up 20% this year the long leg is up 7% and the short leg is off 13%. To confirm this is not all about beta or cyclicality a long portfolio formed on just price volatility is flat this year while the short leg is off 7%.

To summarise SocGen’s unexpected finding which started by looking at debt incurrence among various “quality” strata of companies and ended up with implications for risk appetite for stocks: the strength of tech stocks (lowest amount of debt) and the Russell 2000 weakness (most debt) this year has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with interest rate rises and balance sheet concerns.

And one final point from SocGen: “the problem with highly leveraged companies experiencing falling market caps is that it makes things worse, i.e. implied leverage and price volatility both go up!”

We wonder if Janet Yellen and her central bank peers are aware of these findings which have dramatic consequences for the Fed’s treasured “wealth effect”, as they set off to not only raise rates but also unwind record balance sheets, in the process exacerbating the divergence between a handful of no/low debt companies and the rest of the public market facing increasingly higher interest rates…

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