One week ago, we closed the book on the long-running debate whether gross (and net) leverage is the highest on record, when we showed a chart from Goldman according to which net debt/EBITDA for all companies (with or without energy) is the highest on record, surpassing the previous credit bubble peak by nearly 0.3x turns. Furthermore, as Goldman said that the time, “given we are 8+ years into an economic expansion, we believe it’s prudent to also view this via a “normalized EBITDA” lens (i.e., median NTM 2007Q1-2017Q1). On this basis, aggregate leverage (ex- Energy) would move up to 2.1x, roughly 20% higher than current levels and 18% above the prior cycle peak.“
Of course, none of the above matters right now; in fact if anything as Friday’s oversubscribed Tesla bond sale as well as yesterday’s massively oversubscribed sale of Amazon bonds confirmed, investors still can’t get enough of corporate debt.
But how much longer can this relentless re-leveraging continue before something snaps, or before someone finally pays attention? According to BofA’s chief credit strategist, Hans Mikkelsen, the answer is 2018.
Recall that the 2017 BofAML Corporate Risk Management Survey showed that roughly two-thirds of US companies do in fact plan to use some of the overseas cash to pay down debt. A lot of companies – but not as many – also have plans for each of the categories “Share repurchases”, “M&A”, “Capital expenditure”, “Dividends”, “Fund Pension” and “Other”. But these are also the usual uses of proceeds for new issuance, suggesting that that overseas cash will be used over time in place of supply, thus further reducing gross leverage as existing bonds mature. However, even despite this corporate balance sheets overall will remain relatively stretched and we think that 2018 is when corporate bond investors again get very concerned about fundamentals. This as less uncertainty about US fiscal policy, and continued economic growth of just around 2%, incentivize companies once again to accelerate M&A and share repurchases.
Well, if this is what “less uncertainty about US fiscal policy” looks like just over a month before a debt ceiling debate which increasingly looks like it could result in a technical default by the US, we would hate to see what more uncertainty is. But we agree that even in that case, companies would probably just issue more debt, not less, as they rush to take advantage of every last greater fool out there investing with other people’s money.