Standard & Poor’s announced Wednesday that corporate defaults by American companies could rise to more than $35 billion in the next 15 months — a prediction it says could be conservative. By contrast, there have been only 15 defaults totaling $4.5 billion in 2007.

S&P said it arrived at the number after reviewing the liquidity of all rated corporate companies, and their ability to survive in a market characterized by cautious investors, and more limited opportunities to companies that rely on financing from short-term commercial paper, high-yield loans, and high-yield bonds. The $35 billion figure appears to primarily reflect the default risk among the 75 weakest corporate borrowers.

“We have found that companies rated in the ‘BB’ category and higher are generally well positioned to weather at least several months of market turbulence,” the rating agency said. “However, companies rated in the ‘B’ category and lower are most vulnerable, considering the current market volatility and that cash liquidity is the lifeblood of these firms.

The rating agency said its review focused on the coming 8-12 months because “we believe the current credit crunch could last for some time.” S&P said its analysts believe the coming year includes “some risks of a protracted economic slump, a sustained rise in borrowing costs, and the inability to satisfactorily execute planned asset sales.” Any one of those issues, it said, would cause great harm to companies rated “B” and lower.

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Despite the warning, S&P said that changes in ratings weren’t likely in the short term, because many companies took advantage of the looser credit markets in recent quarters to refinance and push out the maturities on their debt. That explanation comes after criticism of rating agencies for being slow to change ratings of subprime mortgage debt, and may also have been intended to head off questions about why the rating agency’s default predictions aren’t reflected in a larger number of rating changes now. The rating agency warned that “we anticipate the increase in low-quality credit borrowers to lead to a rise in defaults over the next year.”

S&P added that a deterioration of the credit and economic environments that mirrored the 2001-2002 period could make things considerably worse. During that period, some $250 billion of corporate debt defaulted.

S&P also warned that the downturn could last for much longer, and involve far more corporate defaults “if the world’s central banks do not support the global capital markets–particularly the structured finance markets.” S&P explained that warning by suggesting that damage to those markets would lead to further constraints on liquidity.

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