Earlier in 2016, the US Investment Grade bond market passed an key milestone when some time around August, the total amount of high grade debt outstanding hit $6 trillion, tripling from $2 trillion at the time of the financial crisis. Most, if not all, of the new funding was used to buyback stock.
And now, as we come to the end of 2016, another $6 trillion number makes a dramatic appearance, this time in a slightly different metric: according to Dealogic, global debt sales hit a record in 2016, led by corporations rushing to load up on cheap borrowing costs, now threatened by Trump’s vague policies to boost the US economy. As the FT reported, courtesy of record low rates throughout most of 2016, overall debt issuance in the year rose to just over $6.6 trillion, breaking the previous annual record set in 2006.
Corporates “took advantage of low rates,” said Monica Erickson, portfolio manager with DoubleLine Capital. “The cost of capital is low so it makes sense for them to come to market.”
Companies accounted for more than half of the $6.62 trillion of debt issued, underlining the extent to which negative interest-rate policies adopted by the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan encouraged the corporate world to increase its leverage. The problem: rates are now rising rapidly.
Corporate bond sales - both investment grade and junk - climbed 8% year on year to $3.6tn, led by blockbuster $10bn-plus deals to finance large mergers and acquisitions.
The remaining debt included sovereign bonds sold through bank syndication, US and international agencies, mortgage-backed securities and covered bonds. The figures exclude sovereign debt sold at regular auction.
However, the annual bond issuance record may remain untouched for a while: the recent Trumpflation rally has accelerated the move higher in interest rates that some investors fear will make debt burdens harder to bear in 2017. It will certainly make new issuance more expensive for corporate Treasurers and CFOs.
Cited by the FT, Pimco's Scott Mather said that “the low cost of financing with record-low interest rates simply made building up leverage tempting. This happens every economic cycle, but what makes this one special is the added incentive to issue debt at very low interest rates. It sows the seeds of the next downturn or the next credit event.”
As the following chart shows, eight of the 10 largest bond sales underwritten by banks this year were from companies, including offerings from brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, PC manufacturer Dell and Microsoft.
To be sure, 2016 was a "special" year with the universe of negative-yielding bonds touching $14tn at one point, forcing asset managers to "stomach lower returns."
It wasn't just corporations, however, rushing to load up on debt: the year’s debt sales were buoyed by China and Japan-based issuers, up 23 and 30 per cent respectively, from a year earlier.
Investors say they expect 2016 is likely to prove a high-water mark for debt issuance in this cycle, with the Fed forecast to raise rates further and question marks growing over the future of bond-buying programs from the BoJ and the ECB.
For a world drowning in debt, where by some estimates total debt/GDP is now around 225% (after clocking in at 199% in Q2 2014 per "that" McKinsey study)...
... any slowdown in debt issuance, or any roadblocks to the rolling over of tens of trillions in short-term debt, could prove calamitous. which is also why many market watchers are convinced that after a spike in yields in the next few months, fears of the next recession will sent yields to even lower, all time lows.