2. Borrowing by businesses and households
The high level of business-sector debt is likely to amplify the adverse effects of the COVID-19 outbreak
Vulnerabilities arising from business debt were elevated at the end of 2019, while vulnerabilities arising from household debt were at more modest levels. Business debt levels were high relative to either business assets or GDP, with the riskiest firms accounting for most of the increase in debt in recent years. By contrast, household borrowing has advanced more slowly than overall economic activity in recent years and remained heavily concentrated among borrowers with high credit scores.
Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 outbreak poses severe risks to businesses of all sizes and millions of households. Economic activity is contracting sharply, and the associated reduction in earnings and increase in credit needed to bridge the downturn will expand the debt burden and default risk of a highly leveraged business sector. While household debt vulnerabilities were generally modest before the pandemic, the severity of the shock and the associated sudden increase in unemployment and sharp decline in incomes may lead to a significant rise in delinquencies and defaults on household debt.
Table 2 shows the volume and recent historical growth rates of forms of debt owed by nonfinancial businesses and households as of the end of 2019. Total outstanding private credit was split almost equally between businesses and households, with each owing close to $16 trillion.
Table 2. Outstanding Amounts of Nonfinancial Business and Household Credit
(billions of dollars)
|Average annual growth, 1997–2019:Q4
|Total private nonfinancial credit||32,207||4.2||5.5|
|Total nonfinancial business credit||16,058||4.8||5.7|
|Corporate business credit||10,117||4.7||5|
|Bonds and commercial paper||6,558||4.1||5.6|
|Noncorporate business credit||5,941||4.9||7.2|
|Commercial real estate||2,508||6.2||6.2|
|Total household credit||16,149||3.5||5.4|
Note: The data extend through 2019:Q4. Growth rates are measured from Q4 of the year immediately preceding the period through Q4 of the final year of the period. The table reports the main components of corporate business credit, total household credit, and consumer credit. Other, smaller components are not reported. The commercial real estate (CRE) row shows CRE debt owed by both corporate and noncorporate businesses. The total household-sector credit includes debt owed by other entities, such as nonprofit organizations. GDP is gross domestic product.
* Leveraged loans included in this table are an estimate of the leveraged loans that are made to nonfinancial businesses only and do not include the small amount of leveraged loans outstanding for financial businesses. The amount outstanding shows institutional leveraged loans and generally excludes loan commitments held by banks. For example, lines of credit are generally excluded from this measure. The average annual growth rate shown for leveraged loans is computed from 2000 to 2019:Q4, as this market was fairly small before 2000.
Source: For leveraged loans, S&P Global, Leveraged Commentary & Data; for GDP, Bureau of Economic Analysis, national income and product accounts; for all other items, Federal Reserve Board, Statistical Release Z.1, "Financial Accounts of the United States."
In the years before the pandemic shock, total private credit advanced roughly in line with economic activity...
Over the past several years, the combined total debt owed by businesses and households expanded at a pace similar to that of nominal GDP. As a result, the nonfinancial-sector credit-to-GDP ratio was broadly stable through the end of 2019, similar to its level in mid-2005, the period preceding the episode of rapid credit growth from 2006 to 2007 (figure 2-1). Going forward, the credit-to-GDP ratio will likely rise dramatically in 2020, as GDP is expected to fall precipitously.
Figure 2-2 shows the credit-to-GDP ratio separately for the nonfinancial business and household sectors (the next section discusses leverage of financial firms). The business debt-to-GDP ratio has risen significantly over the past several years, surpassing its historical high. In contrast, the household debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen steadily over the past decade.
. . . but business leverage was near its highest level over the past two decades...
An indicator of the leverage of businesses—the ratio of debt to assets for all publicly traded nonfinancial firms—was at its highest level in 20 years at the beginning of 2020 (figure 2-3).11 Moreover, for highly leveraged public firms—defined as firms above the 75th percentile of the leverage distribution—this indicator is close to a record high. The net issuance of riskier forms of business debt—high-yield bonds and institutional leveraged loans—showed some variation but remained high, overall, through 2019 (figure 2-4).
Historically low interest rates likely lessened investor concerns about default risks arising from higher leverage, as the ratio of earnings to interest expenses (the interest coverage ratio) had remained high for the median firm and near the historical median for riskier firms, defined as those in the bottom 25th percentile of the distribution of this ratio (figure 2.5). As the economic effects of COVID-19 continue to unfold, earnings declines will imply significantly lower interest coverage ratios, which could trigger a sizable increase in firm defaults. Policy interventions may help businesses withstand a period of weak earnings by issuing new debt and extending existing credit, but many of these businesses will emerge with even higher amounts of leverage, suggesting that vulnerabilities stemming from the business sector, including nonpublic companies and small businesses, are likely to remain elevated for some time.
. . . and debt owed by large corporate businesses has already shown some signs of amplifying the economic effects of COVID-19
Business debt growth picked up during January and most of February. Early indicators point to a sharp slowdown in new debt since the end of February, while businesses have also started drawing on existing credit lines at banks (see the box "Risks Associated with Banks' Corporate Credit Exposures through Credit Lines"). Against this backdrop, approximately $170 billion of investment-grade corporate bonds and $29 billion of speculative-grade corporate bonds issued by nonfinancial corporations are set to mature before the end of 2020, representing 25 percent and 11 percent, respectively, of the average annual nonfinancial corporate issuance of each grade over the past five years. While bond issuance has resumed, particularly for investment-grade bonds, and policy interventions appear to be supporting lending, tight financing conditions could compromise the ability of some businesses to refinance their existing debt and, as a result, intensify the economic effects of the pandemic on these businesses' employment and investment decisions.
At the beginning of 2020, about half of investment-grade debt outstanding was rated in the lowest category of the investment-grade range (triple-B)—near an all-time high. The amount of debt downgraded from investment grade to speculative grade in 2019 was close to the historical average over the past five years. However, almost $125 billion of nonfinancial investment-grade corporate debt has been downgraded to speculative grade since late February, and expected defaults may rise if the economic outlook and corporate earnings are revised downward. Widespread downgrades of bonds to speculative-grade ratings could lead investors to accelerate the sale of downgraded bonds, possibly generating market dislocation and downward price pressures in a segment of the corporate bond market known to exhibit relatively low liquidity.12
Similarly, vulnerabilities stemming from leveraged lending were increasing through mid-February 2020, as demand remained strong while credit standards stayed weak. Issuance came to a halt at the end of February, as investors became more cautious and attentive to volatility in financial markets. Reflecting this change in sentiment, the share of newly issued loans to large corporations with high leverage—defined as those with ratios of debt to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization greater than 6—dropped in the first quarter of 2020 after two years in which the share reached historical highs (figure 2-6). Defaults on leveraged loans ticked up in February and March and are likely to continue to increase, with the specific contour highly dependent on the path of overall economic activity (figure 2-7). Such developments would weaken the balance sheets of lenders, including CLOs that hold leveraged loans, and amplify the economic effects of COVID-19.
On the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak, households were generally in sound financial condition; however, a substantial number of households will face increasing financial distress
The rise in unemployment in April demonstrates the severe shock to income and economic security many households face. Before this shock, households were generally in sound financial condition. Nonetheless, strains associated with the performance of household debt may worsen significantly and affect lenders throughout the financial system.
Borrowing by households had been rising in line with incomes in recent years...
Through the end of last year, household debt grew a bit less than income, with debt owed by households with prime credit scores accounting for most of the growth. Loan balances owed by borrowers with prime credit scores, who constitute about one-half of all borrowers and about two-thirds of all balances, continued to grow in the second half of 2019, surpassing pre-crisis levels (after an adjustment for general price inflation). By contrast, inflation-adjusted loan balances for the remaining one-half of borrowers with near-prime and subprime credit scores have changed little since 2014 (figure 2-8).
. . . and mortgage borrowing poses less risk to the financial system than in the 2000s...
Mortgage debt accounts for roughly two-thirds of total household credit. Through the end of 2019, new mortgage extensions remained skewed toward prime borrowers, consistent with the general shift in the composition of household debt toward less-risky borrowers and in line with stronger underwriting standards relative to the mid-2000s (figure 2-9). Although many households face substantial losses in income, widespread forbearance measures should help damp the effect of COVID-19 on delinquencies, which were at low levels at the end of 2019 (figure 2-10). Relatively few borrowers had negative equity, a factor that will also serve to limit defaults (figure 2-11). While the severe decline in economic activity and tightening of lending standards originating from the COVID-19 pandemic might put downward pressure on house prices, the ratio of outstanding mortgage debt to home values at the end of 2019 was at the level seen in the relatively calm housing market of the late 1990s. Higher levels of homeowner equity generally reduce the likelihood of borrower defaults and would also provide lenders with a degree of protection against credit losses even as borrowers take advantage of forbearance measures, lessening concerns that a deterioration in lenders' balance sheets might impede future credit issuance and further worsen the economic outlook (figure 2-12).
. . . although some households are struggling to manage their debt
The remaining one-third of total debt owed by households, commonly referred to as consumer credit, consists mainly of student loans, auto loans, and credit card debt (figure 2-13). Table 2 shows that consumer credit rose 4.5 percent over 2019 and currently stands at about $4 trillion.
Borrowers with subprime credit scores accounted for about one-fourth of outstanding auto loan balances as of the end of 2019 (figure 2-14). Despite the prolonged economic expansion and low interest rates, delinquency rates for auto loans to subprime borrowers have remained elevated for the past several years and are expected to increase further in response to the COVID-19 outbreak (figure 2-15).
Consumer credit card balances were almost $1 trillion at the end of 2019, with subprime and near-prime borrowers, taken together, accounting for about half of that amount (figure 2-16). Delinquency rates for these two groups of borrowers could climb above the peaks of 2009 and 2010 given the sharp increase in the unemployment rate (figure 2-17).
Finally, the already elevated delinquency rates on student loans highlight the challenges associated with debt payments for a number of households going into the pandemic. While a substantial number of households are facing, and will face, additional stress as a result of the pandemic, the risk that student loan debt, per se, poses to the financial system appears limited at this time; the majority of loans were issued through government programs, and the Cares Act guarantees payment forbearance and stops interest accrual until the end of September 2020.
11. The dashed line in the series beginning in the first quarter of 2019 reflects a structural break due to a new accounting standard that requires operating leases, previously considered off-balance-sheet activities, to be included in measures of debt and assets. Return to text
12. The box "Vulnerabilities Associated with Elevated Business Debt" in the May 2019 report gives a fuller description of risks associated with downgrades of credit ratings; see Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2019), Financial Stability Report (Washington: Board of Governors, May), pp. 22–25, https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/financial-stability-report-201905.pdf. Return to text