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Corporate America's epic debt binge leaves US$119b hangover

The Federal Reserve's historically low borrowing rate isn't benefiting corporate America like it used to.

[WASHINGTON] The Federal Reserve's historically low borrowing rate isn't benefiting corporate America like it used to.

It's more expensive for even the most creditworthy companies to borrow or refinance even as the Fed has kept its benchmark at near-zero the last seven years. Companies have loaded up on debt. They owe more in interest than they ever have, while their ability to service what they owe, a metric called interest coverage, is at its lowest since 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.  The deterioration of balance-sheet health is "increasingly alarming" and will only worsen if earnings growth continues to stall amid a global economic slowdown, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc credit strategists led by Lotfi Karoui. Since corporate credit contraction can lead to recession, high debt loads will be a drag on the economy if investors rein in lending, said Deutsche Bank AG analysts led by Oleg Melentyev, the bank's US credit strategy chief.

"The benefit of lower yields for corporate issuers is fading," said Eric Beinstein, JPMorgan Chase & Co's head of US high-grade strategy.

As of the second quarter, high-grade companies tracked by JPMorgan incurred US$119 billion in interest expenses over the last year, the most for data going back to 2000, according to the bank's analysts. The amount the companies owed rose 4 per cent in the second quarter, the analysts said.

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The risk of default is negligible for companies with good credit. Even so, their health isn't likely to improve when the Fed finally raises the lending rate, and it could worsen even without a hike, said Ashish Shah, the global head of credit strategies at AllianceBernstein Holding. A souring economy or a shocking event such as a prominent terrorist attack could also cause borrowing costs to spike, he said.

The fallout of more borrowing coupled with lower earnings has raised concern among the analysts who track the debt and the money managers who buy it. Yet it seems the companies themselves are acting as if it's not happening. They're still paying out record amounts in buybacks and dividends.

In the second quarter, the most creditworthy companies posted declining earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Yet they returned 35 per cent of those earnings to shareholders, according to JPMorgan.

That's kept their cash-payout ratio - how much money they give to shareholders relative to Ebitda - steady at a 15-year high.

The borrowing has gotten so aggressive that for the first time in about five years, equity fund managers who said they'd prefer companies use cash flow to improve their balance sheets outnumbered those who said they'd rather have it returned to shareholders, according to a survey by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Since May, stocks of companies that have spent the most buying back their shares have performed even worse than the S&P 500 index. That comes after buyback stocks outperformed the S&P 500 each year since 2007.