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European defaults back on the rise as economy stalls

A DETERIOATING economic environment, tighter bank lending and the prospect of more than €69bn (£57.5bn) of speculative-grade debt maturing over the next two years could drive the European corporate default rate up to 6.1% over the coming quarters – which would equate to 41 companies in our rated universe defaulting by the end of the year.

This follows an increase in the default rate in the fourth quarter of last year to 4.8%, following a low of 3.7% at the end of the third quarter, which Standard & Poor’s (S&P) believes marks another turning point in the default cycle. During the 12 months to the end of December 2011, 34 companies defaulted on €19.5bn of funded debt. Of these, the majority (30) were in S&P’s private credit estimate portfolio, accounting for €15.5bn of the total debt.

Furthermore, in a downside scenario, the default rate may climb to 8.4% or even higher in 2012 if the economic and financing environment deteriorates further due to a deeper or more protracted recession in Europe.

Explaining the turning point

The renewed uncertainty regarding the solvency of certain eurozone sovereigns in the European Economic and Monetary Union since last summer marks a turning point for corporate defaults for at least three reasons.

First, and most obviously, business prospects in Europe have taken a turn for the worse, with at least a shallow recession now in prospect for the first half of 2012. S&P’s economists have scaled back their base-case economic forecasts for the eurozone, as well as the UK.

They expect a shallow recession in the first half of 2012, with countries enduring austerity measures dragging on the still positive growth that is anticipated in Germany and other Northern European countries.

Secondly – just as relevant for the default outlook given the high percentage of highly leveraged companies in S&P’s speculative-grade portfolio that still need to refinance over the next two to three years – is the fragile condition of the banking industry that has become more evident over the past few months. Specifically, this includes an excessive dependence on European Central Bank liquidity due to the freezing up of the interbank market, the limited ability of even top-tier banks to raise unsecured funding in the debt capital markets and the requirement that banks achieve core Tier 1 equity targets of 9% by the end of June 2012.

Indeed, this is prompting a rapid reduction of risk-weighted assets for many major European banks, including the sales of noncore businesses and banks shifting business priorities back to their core markets. S&P believes one consequence of these developments is that it will be important for European banks to credibly demonstrate the quality and strength of their newly fortified balance sheets.

Thirdly, and somewhat related to the second factor, S&P sees signs that the phoney war of forbearance may be coming to an end. The policy of temporary relief by senior lenders for borrowers in distress is reaching its limits given the proximity to principal maturity dates in 2013-2014 and the pressure on banks to improve the quality of assets on their balance sheets.

For S&P, this implies that senior bank lenders are increasingly likely to adopt a more robust stance to disposing of noncore assets or taking appropriate remedial action to address loan exposures – where underperforming businesses with overleveraged balance sheets have approaching maturities. The recent announcements by the new Spanish government that it will require Spanish banks to increase provisions on impaired assets are a strong signal that a new sense of realism is seen as a necessary step towards restoring confidence in the banks. It was always S&P’s view that the default rate over the past two years was artificially depressed by the accommodating behaviour of senior lenders more interested in minimizing book losses while at the same time capitalizing on amendment fees and higher spreads.

Many private credit estimate companies face debt restructuring

Over the past two years many speculative-grade companies – with reasonable operating performance and leverage, and that have public ratings and access to debt capital markets – have been proactive in improving their liquidity position by tapping into the liquid speculative-grade bond market to term out any debt maturities coming due over the next two years.

In contrast, most companies with private credit estimates are heavily reliant on either internally generated cash flow or debt financing from leveraged counterparties, namely banks and CLOs. Yet, banks currently face the challenges of higher funding costs and a more demanding regulatory environment.

Existing CLO investors, meanwhile, will have declining capacity to refinance debt of their portfolio companies as they reach the end of their reinvestment periods by 2014. Therefore, in S&P’s view many of the most vulnerable companies have little choice but to trundle on relying on senior lenders to amend covenants as required and to hope that economic and debt market conditions will improve sufficiently to facilitate a viable refinancing before going-concern issues arise.

S&P believes many of these most vulnerable companies will require debt restructurings a year or more before their term debt matures in 2013-2014. Indeed, as of the end of December 2011, almost 50% of S&P’s private credit estimate portfolio had scores of ‘b-‘ or ‘ccc’, up from 45% at the end of 2010. A substantial portion of about 55% of the 167 credit estimates that have defaulted since the end of 2007 remain highly vulnerable to defaulting again, meaning that they have a credit estimate of ‘b-‘ or lower.

Clearly, there are huge challenges awaiting financial directors in the coming year and, consequently, S&P has slightly revised upward their corporate default projections for 2012.

Paul Watters is a primary credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in London

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