The rise in corporate debt

The rise in corporate debt

Rodolphe Chollat-Namy

In this article, Rodolphe Chollat-Namy (ESSEC Business School, Master in Management, 2019-2023) analyzes the rise in corporate debt.

Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the level of debt in the world has increased significantly. Global debt, which includes the debt of (non-financial) corporations, financial institutions, governments and households, has risen from 292% of global GDP in 2008 to 318% in 2018. This increase in global debt is primarily driven by the growth of non-financial corporate debt after the subprime crisis. Indeed, the debt of non-financial companies rose from 78% to 92% of GDP between 2008 and 2018. What are the reasons for this increase? How did the coronavirus crisis impact debt levels? What are the consequences of rising debt levels?


Growth in corporate debt through the bond markets, mainly driven by emerging countries

An increase linked to an increase in bond issues

Until the 2008 crisis, the banking sector was the fastest growing corporate financing tool, notably through international banks. Since the 2008 crisis, there has been a shift. Companies then began to take on more debt on the financial markets (bonds) than from banks (credit). Thus, the increase in corporate debt since the 2008 crisis has been mainly through the bond markets. The main driver of this increase is the accommodating monetary policies pursued by the developed economies.


An increase driven by developing countries

Moreover, the rise in non-financial corporate debt has not been uniform across the world. It has actually been concentrated in emerging economies. Between 2008 and 2018, this type of debt in emerging economies grew from $9 trillion to $28 trillion. This growth is much faster than the growth of the GDP of these countries. Indeed, over the same period, the debt of non-financial companies has increased from 56% to 96% of GDP. At the same time, the debt of non-financial corporations has grown at the same rate as GDP since 2008 in the developed economies (with the exception of China).


The growing share of bond markets, in the case of emerging economies, is noteworthy. Indeed, between 2008 and 2018, the share of bonds in the total debt of non-financial companies in emerging economies rose from 19% to 32%, effectively increasing by 13 percentage points.


A rise in non-financial private sector debt with the Covid-19 pandemic

The exceptional measures taken by governments around the world eased financial conditions to support the economy of their own country. This response to the pandemic helped maintain the flow of credit to households and businesses, facilitated the recovery and contained financial risks. Nevertheless, this support has increased private non-financial sector indebtedness in both advanced and emerging economies.

While we saw above that the debt-to-GDP ratio of firms in developed countries was constant between 2008 and 2018, it worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic. The debt of private non-financial firms in developed countries rose from 149% of GDP in Q3 2019 for the US to 160% in Q3 2020. Similarly, debt of private non-financial firm in the Eurozone rose from 120% to 129% over the same period. Debt levels are not uniformly high as it depends on the size of the company and its sector of activity.

Companies have had massive recourse to borrowing first of all to cope with their cash flow difficulties, between a fall in activity and marked tensions in terms of payment. In addition to this, there is also a precautionary attitude which is pushing companies to use their borrowing capacity to the maximum in order to build up an extra cash cushion. Finally, large companies will also take advantage of borrowing facilities for other purposes. In particular, they will use debt to conduct share buyback programs and pay dividends.


What are the consequences of increased debt?

The growth in debt financing can have a number of positive aspects. It may indicate that firms are less constrained in their financing, allowing them to raise more funds to pursue profitable investment projects and expand. Similarly, it may mean that firms are obtaining new financing outside the traditional banking system, which helps them grow by diversifying their sources of funding.

However, it also poses a number of risks. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, corporate debt reached a worrying level. The question is: how will companies manage the repayment of their debt?

The accumulation of high levels of debt in a period of weak economic growth and declining corporate profits has been accompanied by increased default risks.

In addition, refinancing risks may have increased, as the fastest growth in corporate debt has been through bond financing, which is more difficult to refinance.

Finally, the post-covid recovery is likely to be asynchronous and divergent across countries. Financial conditions are likely to tighten in developed country markets, making it more difficult to finance companies in emerging economies.

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About the author

Article written in June 2021 by Rodolphe Chollat-Namy (ESSEC Business School, Master in Management, 2019-2023).

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