Companies are also putting their merger-and-acquisition plans on hold — in the first quarter, the number of deals announced in the United States fell by 10 percent, to 2,103, according to Refinitiv data. Deals often require billions of dollars in financing, and companies that can postpone such plans are doing so, including Xerox, which said it put its efforts to acquire HP on hold to focus on the pandemic.
“Everyone is just trying to get by day to day at the moment,” said Krista Schwarz, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. “Right now is not the time to grow the company — it’s the time to stay solvent.”
Investors who buy company bonds are asking for higher interest rates as compensation for the additional risk, which could put more stress on companies with already strained finances. For instance, companies are struggling to issue commercial paper — a popular form of short-term promissory note typically used to cover payroll, rent and other immediate payments — because the few skittish investors who aren’t steering entirely clear are demanding the highest premium in more than a decade.
“The commercial paper market is essentially frozen,” said Mark Cabana, a rates strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research. “Because of coronavirus, because of the economy, everyone is just trying to raise cash — there is no one to take the other side.”
What’s more, the debt that is already circulating in the financial markets, including corporate bonds and packages of corporate loans, is looking less safe for investors to hold. Some big money managers like pension funds are obligated to keep risky products off their books but many are big buyers of company bonds, which in better times were considered safe and prudent investments. But with the changing environment, the credit ratings on such bonds are going down.
On Monday, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Exxon Mobil, the biggest American oil company, to ‘AA’ from ‘AA+’ citing lower oil and natural gas prices, weak demand for chemicals and low refining margins. A downgrade could make it harder for Exxon to borrow.
But it’s the smaller companies — which underpin the American economy and tend to lean more heavily on debt — that could be especially hurt by a run on credit.