Conventional wisdom says that it is better to be a large company than a small one when credit is tight. Bigger firms have more room for manoeuvre: they have access to more types of funding, they have more fat to cut, and they have greater bargaining power with lenders. Even so, life is getting ever more uncomfortable for the bigger beasts of the corporate jungle.
According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent lending survey, American banks are tightening terms more aggressively for bigger firms than for tiddlier ones (see chart). Lenders are more cautious than they have been at least since 1990. The story among European banks is similar. Lenders in emerging markets can be more suspicious of multinational firms than they are of locals. “We just don’t know what they’ve got on their balance-sheets back home,” says one bank boss in Africa.
Violent movements in exchange rates are causing additional headaches, says Andrew Balfour of Slaughter & May, a law firm. Calculations of financial ratios can be thrown out by wild currency movements, potentially triggering breaches of loan covenants. Companies with sterling-denominated credit lines may find that their facilities are not big enough as a result of the pound’s recent sharp fall, for instance.
It is not panic stations yet. Most firms can survive for a while with the credit tap turned off. Analysis by Moody’s, a rating agency, shows that the vast majority of highly rated companies in America and Europe have enough headroom, in the form of cash and undrawn bank facilities, to be able to survive for 12 months without needing new financing. European corporate-debt markets have seen a rare flurry of issues in the past few days by opportunistic, highly rated firms.
Governments are also working hard to prop up credit markets. The Fed’s programme to buy commercial paper, a form of short-term company debt, had acquired almost $300 billion by November 26th. Banks on both sides of the Atlantic are issuing lots of government-backed bonds, which should encourage lending.
For now, an uneasy truce exists between most companies and their lenders. Some banks made tentative attempts in the autumn to pull out of loan agreements because their cost of financing had spiked so high. But they quickly backed down. In turn, banks are doing what they can to persuade corporate treasurers not to draw down credit facilities unless they have to. But hard choices are looming.
As the economic news worsens and profits dive, more firms will be at risk of breaching covenants on standard measures such as the ratio of debt to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. Furthermore, a good deal of debt will fall due in the next few years: Reuters Loan Pricing Corporation, a data provider, estimates that more than $1 trillion of loans will need to be refinanced globally in each of the next three years, mainly in America and Europe.
Competition for capital is bound to increase in that time, given the coming torrent of government-debt issuance. Auditors also want to be reassured about refinancing prospects well before maturity dates so they can sign off on companies as going concerns. With little obvious benefit in waiting, many expect to see a concerted effort by companies to renegotiate funding facilities early in 2009, once the year-end squeeze is over (see article).
In the face of more requests for waivers and refinancings, banks will react selectively. “We will distinguish between companies that are temporarily in crisis and those that are not,” says Alessandro Profumo, the chief executive of UniCredit, an Italian bank.
The lucky ones will still pay a hefty price for access to credit. Not only will the costs of borrowing zoom, but terms will become much tighter. Old-fashioned provisions such as “clean-up” clauses, which require borrowers to pay their debts down to zero for a specified period every year, are creeping back into some discussions. The onus is also on borrowers to show that they are taking steps to cut costs before they come to lenders for more money. Banks want to know that you have exhausted all other avenues yourself, says Sheila Smith of Deloitte, a consultancy. Even then, facilities are likely to shrink as non-bank investors such as hedge funds drop out of loan syndicates and banks that had only extended money in the hope of ancillary business also draw back.
For those firms that find doors starting to shut on them, the prospects are grim. Despite some talk of a bigger role for private placements, this is not the best time to start forging relationships with new creditors if existing ones turn unfriendly. Many firms are going into this downturn with fewer unencumbered assets than in previous recessions, which makes it harder to secure new credit. Asset disposals, one obvious way of raising cash, are extremely hard to pull off at the moment. Nor does it help that many corporate loans have been securitised and divvied up among lots of investors, making it harder for firms to negotiate modifications.
Projections for defaults are rising fast. Bain, a consultancy, now expects as many as 140 American speculative-grade companies to default in 2010, sharply up from a forecast of 40-50 in April. Worse, firms that default are likelier to end up in full liquidation. In America, debtor-in-possession financing, which helps firms that have entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to meet their cash needs while they reorganise, has dried up. “The gap between financial distress and financial disaster has become much smaller,” says John Grout of the Association of Corporate Treasurers, a British trade body. So too, it seems, has the difference between big companies and small ones.