What Blows Up First? “Almost Junk” Bonds

The key insight of the Austrian School of Economics (maybe the key insight of ALL economics) is that the amount you borrow matters, but so does the use to which you put the money.

A case in point is US corporate debt, which has changed structurally lately in very scary ways. The short version of the story is that after the US cut interest rates to historically low levels to keep the Great Recession from swapping it’s capital R for a capital D, public companies figured out that they could borrow money for less than their stocks’ dividend yield, use the proceeds to buy back their outstanding shares, and generate free cash flow in the process. And – a nice added perk – the increased demand pushed their share price up and landed their CEOs even bigger year-end bonuses.

So that’s what they did, on an epic scale.

(Click on image to enlarge)

corporate share buybacks almost junk bonds

But – recall the Austrian School insight – the result was soaring debt without any new productive assets to offset the cost.

Generally speaking, debt rising faster than operating income equals diminished creditworthiness. So all that borrowing has produced several trillion dollars of debt that’s just one step above junk. Here’s an excerpt from money manager Louis Gave’s take on the subject.

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