What higher rates may mean for corporate credit

Morgan Stanley Research

09/14/23

Summary: As US companies face down $2.6 trillion in debt coming due, investment-grade bonds may see stronger performance than high-yield bonds and loans.

Learn more about corporate credit.

After rapidly raising interest rates since March 2022, the Federal Reserve may keep those rates higher for longer to help tame inflation, according to Morgan Stanley strategists. With an extended period of muted economic growth likely to follow, the interest-rate environment has implications for companies’ ability to raise new capital or refinance existing debt.

Currently, US companies are staring down a “refinancing wall,” with $2.6 trillion in corporate debt coming due between 2023 and 2025. As companies seek to refinance this debt, higher rates will translate into higher cost of debt for companies, which in turn will weigh on their credit fundamentals. However, companies’ ability to scale the refinancing wall and adapt to a higher cost of debt will vary widely depending on their credit quality.

Higher-quality borrowers will be better able to cope, while lower-quality borrowers will find debt increasingly challenging to afford. As a result, Morgan Stanley Research expects to see spread decompression in corporate credit markets—where essentially, lower-quality credit spreads will widen relative to higher-quality credits. Credit spread reflects the compensation investors want in order to take on credit risk. Decompression often occurs when there’s a higher perceived risk in the market.

It’s important to understand which borrowers are most likely to be affected and why bond quality is key, as Morgan Stanley Research anticipates stronger performance for investment-grade credit over leveraged credit in bonds and loans.

Unequal exposure to a coming credit squeeze

Companies raised a significant amount of capital from mid-2020 until early in 2022. As a result, and with rates staying low until the first half of 2022, most companies have until now, been able to remain on the sidelines, insulated from credit-related stress even as interest rates have risen dramatically over the last 15 months. However, as refinancing needs loom larger and higher debt costs persist, this luxury will not last unless the outlook for corporate earnings improves dramatically, which Morgan Stanley Research believes is unlikely.

What’s more, companies’ ability to pay the interest on their leveraged loans has been deteriorating in line with rising rates, which makes loans the most vulnerable part of the corporate credit spectrum. Interest expenses were already rising faster than EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) for the median loan borrower in the fourth quarter of 2022 and have risen since, meaning that interest coverage ratios (ICRs) are declining.

As it relates to existing debt, Morgan Stanley Research believes that by the end of 2023—assuming that earnings growth remains flat—ICRs on loans will likely trend below historical averages, dropping to 4.5 from a peak of 5.5 in the fourth quarter of 2021. If earnings growth declines, ICRs could dip close to recessionary troughs and significantly increase the number of companies with stressed ICRs. If the approaching wall of maturities is included in this calculation, ICRs will come under even greater pressure. In this environment, Morgan Stanley Research expects loan-only structures to underperform mixed-capital structures.

For larger and higher-quality borrowers, the outlook is meaningfully different. While investment-grade companies will see their coverage ratios decline from their current levels of robust health, they should weather the challenges through gradual ICR declines and by focusing on restructuring, or revisiting, balance sheets.

Morgan Stanley Research’s expectations for spreads and returns reflect these differences based on credit quality. For investment-grade credit, forecasts include positive excess returns of 0.5% and more robust total returns of 7% to 8%. For high-yield bonds and loans, negative excess returns are expected, and total returns could be in the 4% to 5% range, or less in the event of volatility and downside risks.

For investment-grade credit, forecasts include positive excess returns of 0.5% and more robust total returns of 7% to 8%. For high-yield bonds and loans, negative excess returns are expected, and total returns could be in the 4% to 5% range, or less in the event of volatility and downside risks.

According to Morgan Stanley Research, some investors are looking at investment-grade bonds as opposed to high-yield bonds and loans as companies seek to refinance their debts.

The source of this article, “What Higher Rates Mean for Corporate Credit,” was originally published on July 5, 2023. 

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