Are we facing another subprime crisis?

Fears are growing that leveraged loans – a high-risk section of the corporate debt market – could cause a subprime mortgage-style meltdown. Marina Gerner reports.

931-TRU-634
Toys R Us collapsed under the weight of its debts

Fears are growing that leveraged loans a high-risk section of the corporate debt market, worth more than $1.2trn could cause a "subprime mortgage-style meltdown", say Anna Isaac and Tom Rees in The Daily Telegraph. This time, the borrowers are not US homeowners taking out mortgages, but "US companies with weaker credit ratings", notesJim Puzzanghera in the Los Angeles Times.

Companies taking out such loans are often already heavily indebted. Last year, for example, toy shop chain Toys R Us and US department-store giant Sears collapsed under the strain of such debt. Investors have flocked to leveraged loans because typically the interest rates charged are not fixed but floating, so they rise along with central bank rates. But in their haste to invest, lenders have been willing to accept far more forgiving terms (known as "covenant-lite") than in the past.

In 2007, "cov-lite" loans accounted for about 25% of leveraged loans now it's a record 80%, reports credit ratings agency Moody's. So when hard times hit and default rates rise from their current lows, says Moody's, recovery rates for lenders could average 61 cents on the dollar, well below the historical average of 77 cents.

Central banks are starting to worry

The Bank for International Settlements (often known as the central banks' central bank) warns the Financial Times that a slide in the value of such loans "could spur fund redemptions, induce fire sales and further depress prices".

In turn, this could hurt "the broader economy by blocking the flow of funds to the leveraged credit market". Demand for CLOs may now be cooling. In December, investors rattled about the overall economic outlook pulled $1bn from the asset class, notes the FT. But the debt pile remains significant.

A slow-motion meltdown

As a result, a shock credit-market collapse seems a lot less likely than a"slow-motion meltdown". Yet while we may not be facing a repeat of 2008, a slump would still hurt. As former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen told the FT last autumn, when the next recession hits, "there are a lot of firms that will go bankrupt because of this debt. It would probably worsen a downturn."

Recommended

How long can the good times roll?
Economy

How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019
Why Wall Street has got the US economy wrong again
Economy

Why Wall Street has got the US economy wrong again

The hiring slowdown does not signal recession for the US economy. Growth is just moving down a gear, says Brian Pellegrini.
25 Oct 2019
The charts that matter: the dollar flexes its muscles
Global Economy

The charts that matter: the dollar flexes its muscles

As the US dollar made significant gains this week, everything else sold off. John Stepek looks at how it's affected the charts that matter most to the…
26 Sep 2020
The world's central banks will follow the Federal Reserve's example
Global Economy

The world's central banks will follow the Federal Reserve's example

The US Federal Reserve – America's central bank – has said that it would become more tolerant of inflation and hold interest rates down. Others will f…
25 Sep 2020

Most Popular

The electric-car bubble could get an awful lot bigger from here
Renewables

The electric-car bubble could get an awful lot bigger from here

The switch to electric cars is driving a huge investment bubble. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says John Stepek. Fortunes will be made and l…
24 Sep 2020
Can Rishi Sunak’s winter plan save the UK economy?
UK Economy

Can Rishi Sunak’s winter plan save the UK economy?

With his Winter Economic Plan, chancellor Rishi Sunak is hoping to support the economy through the dark months ahead as restrictions tighten again. Jo…
25 Sep 2020
The rising dollar is proving bad news for most other assets – will it last?
Investment strategy

The rising dollar is proving bad news for most other assets – will it last?

Precious metals, stocks and pretty much every other asset has taken a tumble as the US dollar strengthens. Dominic Frisby looks at how long this trend…
23 Sep 2020