Debt is that which is owed; usually referencing assets owed, but the term can also cover moral obligations and other interactions not requiring money. In the case of assets, debt is a means of using future purchasing power in the present before a summation has been earned. Some companies and corporations use debt as a part of their overall corporate finance strategy.
A debt is created when a creditor agrees to loan|lend a sum of assets to a debtor. In modern society, debt is usually granted with expected repayment; in many cases, plus interest Historically, debt was responsible for the creation of indentured servants.
The word comes from the Old French dette and ultimately Latin debere to owe, from de habere to have. The B was reintroduced in the 17th century, possibly by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755— several other words that had existed without a B had them reinserted at around that time.
Before a debt can be made, both the debtor and the creditor must agree on the manner in which the debt will be repaid, known as the standard of deferred payment. This payment is usually denominated as a sum of money in units of currency, but can sometimes be denominated in terms of goods. Payment can be made in increments over a period of time, or all at once at the end of the loan agreement.
Types of debt
A company uses various kinds of debt to finance its operations.
The various types of debt can generally be categorized into:
- secured and unsecured debt,
- private and public debt,
- syndicated and bilateral debt, and
- other types of debt that display one or more of the characteristics noted above
A debt obligation is considered secured if creditors have recourse to the assets of the company on a proprietary basis or otherwise ahead of general claims against the company.
Unsecured debt comprises financial obligations, where creditors do not have recourse to the assets of the borrower to satisfy their claims.
Private debt comprises bank-loan type obligations, whether senior or mezzanine.
Public debt is a general definition covering all financial instruments that are freely tradeable on a public exchange or over the counter, with few if any restrictions.
Loan syndication is a risk management tool that allows the lead banks underwriting the debt to reduce their risk and free up lending capacity.
A basic loan is the simplest form of debt. It consists of an agreement to lend a principal sum for a fixed period of time, to be repaid by a certain date. In commercial loans interest, calculated as a percentage of the principal sum per year, will also have to be paid by that date.
In some loans, the amount actually loaned to the debtor is less than the principal sum to be repaid; the additional principal has the same economic effect as a higher interest rate.
A syndicated loan is a loan that is granted to companies that wish to borrow more money than any single lender is prepared to risk in a single loan, usually many millions of dollars. In such a case, a syndicate of banks can each agree to put forward a portion of the principal sum.
A bond is a debt Security issued by certain institutions such as companies and governments.
A bond entitles the holder to repayment of the principal sum, plus interest.
Bonds are issued to investors in a marketplace when an institution wishes to borrow money.
Bonds have a fixed lifetime, usually a number of years; with long-term bonds, lasting over 30 years, being less common. At the end of the bond's life the money should be repaid in full. Interest may be added to the end payment, or can be paid in regular installments (known as coupons) during the life of the bond. Bonds may be traded in the bond markets, and are widely used as relatively safe investments in comparison to equity.
In national accounting, debts are added according to those who are indebted. Household debt is the debt held by households. "National" or Public debt is the debt held by the various governmental institutions (federal government, states, cities ...). Business debt is the debt held by businesses. Financial debt is the debt held by the financial sector (from one financial institution to another). Total debt is the sum of all those debts, excluding financial debt to prevent double accounting. These various types of debt can be computed in debt/GDP ratios. Those ratios help to assess the speed of variations in the indebtness and the size of the debt due. For example the USA have a high consumer debt and a low public debt, while in eastern European countries, for example, the opposite tends to be true.
There are differences in the accounting of debt for private and public agents. If a private agent promises to pay something later, it has a debt, and this debt is enforceable by public agents. If a public body passes a law stating that it'll pay something later (a kind of promise), it keeps the right to change the law later (and not to pay). This is why, for instance, the money governments promised to pay for retirements does not show up in the public debt assessment, whereas the money private companies promised to pay for retirements do.
Securitization occurs when a company groups together assets or receivables and sells them in units to the market through a trust. Any asset with a cashflow can be securitized. The cash flows from these receivables are used to pay the holders of these units. Companies often do this in order to remove these assets from their balance sheets and monetize an asset. Although these assets are "removed" from the balance sheet and are supposed to be the responsibility of the trust, that does not end the company's involvement. Often the company maintains a special interest in the trust which is called an "interest only strip" or "first loss piece". Any payments from the trust must be made to regular investors in precedence to this interest. This protects investors from a degree of risk, making the securitization more attractive. The aforementioned brings into question whether the assets are truly off-balance-sheet given the company's exposure to losses on this interest.
Debt, inflation and the exchange rate
As noted above, debt is normally denominated in a particular monetary currency, and so changes in the valuation of that currency can change the effective size of the debt. This can happen due to inflation or deflation, so it can happen even though the borrower and the lender are using the same currency. Thus it is important to agree on standards of deferred payment in advance, so that a degree of fluctuation will also be agreed as acceptable. It is for instance commonTemplate:Fact to agree to "US dollar denominated" debt.
The form of debt involved in banking accounts for a large proportion of the money in most industrialised nations (see money and credit money for a discussion of this). There is therefore a relationship between inflation, deflation, the money supply, and debt. The store of value represented by the entire economy of the industrialized nation, and the state's ability to levy tax on it, acts to the foreign holder of debt as a guarantee of repayment, since industrial goods are in high demand in many places worldwide.
Inflation indexed debt
Borrowing and repayment arrangements linked to inflation-indexed units of account are possible and are used in some countries. For example, the US government issues two types of inflation-indexed bonds, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) and I-bonds. These are one of the safest forms of investment available, since the only major source of risk — that of inflation — is eliminated. A number of other governments issue similar bonds, and some did so for many years before the US government.
In countries with consistently high inflation, ordinary borrowings at banks may also be inflation indexed.
Debt ratings, risk and cancellation
Risk free interest rate
Lendings to stable financial entities such as large companies or governments are often termed "risk free" or "low risk" and made at a so-called "risk-free interest rate". This is because the debt and interest are highly unlikely to be defaulted. A good example of such risk-free interest is a US Treasury security - it yields the minimum return available in economics, but investors have the comfort of the (almost) certain expectation that the US Treasury will not default on its debt instruments. A risk-free rate is also commonly used in setting floating interest rates, which are usually calculated as the risk-free interest rate plus a bonus to the creditor based on the creditworthiness of the debtor (in other words, the risk of him defaulting and the creditor losing the debt). In reality, no lending is truly risk free, but borrowers at the "risk free" rate are considered the least likely to default.
However, if the real value of a currency changes during the term of the debt, the purchasing power of the money repaid may vary considerably from that which was expected at the commencement of the loan. So from a practical investment point of view, there is still considerable risk attached to "risk free" or "low risk" lendings. The real value of the money may have changed due to inflation, or, in the case of a foreign investment, due to exchange rate fluctuations.
The Bank for International Settlements is an organisation of central banks that sets rules to define how much capital banks have to hold against the loans they give out.
Ratings and creditworthiness
Specific bond debts owed by both governments and private corporations is rated by rating agencies, such as Moody's, Fitch Ratings Inc., A. M. Best and Standard & Poor's. The government or company itself will also be given its own separate rating. These agencies assess the ability of the debtor to honor his obligations and accordingly give him a credit rating. Moody's uses the letters Aaa Aa A Baa Ba B Caa Ca C, where ratings Aa-Caa are qualified by numbers 1-3. Munich Re, for example, currently is rated Aa3. S&P and other rating agencies have slightly different systems using capital letters and +/- qualifiers.
A change in ratings can strongly affect a company, since its cost of refinancing depends on its creditworthiness. Bonds below Baa/BBB (Moody's/S&P) are considered junk- or high risk bonds. Their high risk of default (approximately 1.6% for Ba) is compensated by higher interest payments. Bad Debt is a loan that can not (partially or fully) be repaid by the debtor. The debtor is said to default on his debt. These types of debt are frequently repackaged and sold below face value. Buying junk bonds is seen as a risky but potentially profitable form of investment.
Short of bankruptcy, it is rare that debts are wholly or partially forgiven. Traditions in some cultures demand that this be done on a regular (often annual) basis, in order to prevent systemic inequities between groups in society, or anyone becoming a specialist in holding debt and coercing repayment. Under English law, when the creditor is deceived into forgoing payment, this is a crime: see Theft Act 1978.
Effects of debt
Debt allows people and organizations to do things that they would otherwise not be able, or allowed, to do. Commonly, people in industrialised nations use it to purchase houses, cars and many other things too expensive to buy with cash on hand. Companies also use debt in many ways to leverage the investment made in their assets, "leveraging" the return on their equity. This leverage, the proportion of debt to equity, is considered important in determining the riskiness of an investment; the more debt per equity, the riskier. For both companies and individuals, this increased risk can lead to poor results, as the cost of servicing the debt can grow beyond the ability to pay due to either external events (income loss) or internal difficulties (poor management of resources).
Excesses in debt accumulation have been blamed for exacerbating economic problems.
For example, prior to the beginning of the Great Depression debt/GDP ratio was very high. Economic agents were heavily indebted. This excess of debt, equivalent to excessive expectations on future returns, accompanied asset bubbles on the stock markets. When expectations corrected, deflation and a credit crunch followed.
Deflation effectively made debt more expensive and, as Fisher explained, this reinforced deflation again, because, in order to reduce their debt level, economic agents reduced their consumption and investment. The reduction in demand reduced business activity and caused further unemployment. In a more direct sense, more bankruptcies also occurred due both to increased debt cost caused by deflation and the reduced demand.
It is possible for some organizations to enter into alternative types of borrowing and repayment arrangements which will not result in bankruptcy. For example, companies can sometimes convert debt that they owe into equity in themselves. In this case, the creditor hopes to regain something equivalent to the debt and interest in the form of dividends and capital gains of the borrower. The "repayments" are therefore proportional to what the borrower earns and so can not in themselves cause bankruptcy. Once debt is converted in this way, it is no longer known as debt.
Arguments against debt
Some argue against debt as an instrument and institution, on a personal, family, social, corporate and governmental level. Islam forbids lending with interest even today, while the Catholic church allowed it from 1822 onwards, and the Torah states that all debts should be erased every 7 years and every 50 years.
Debt will increase through time if it is not repaid faster than it grows through interest. This effect may be termed usury, while the term "usury" in other contexts refers only to an excessive rate of interest, in excess of a reasonable profit for the risk accepted.
In international legal thought, Odious debt is debt that is incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the interest of the state. Such debts are thus considered by this doctrine to be personal debts of the regime that incurred them and not debts of the state.
In an economy with high interest rates, debt will be more costly to a business than more flexible dividends on equity investment. It may be easier for a struggling business to be financed through equity investment as it may be possible to avoid paying a dividend if times are hard.
IMF on private debt restructuring
- Source: Approaches to Corporate Debt Restructuring in the Wake of Financial Crises IMF January 26, 2010
The global financial crisis has distressed the corporate sector in a number of countries, affected both by a tightening of credit and weaker consumer demand. As countries now move from the initial crisis containment phase, a period of sustained corporate debt (and operational) restructuring can be expected in order to repair corporate balance sheets and to realign the corporate sector to the post-crisis economy. The insolvency law is one important tool to support orderly corporate debt restructuring. But insolvency law solutions are not sufficient to address the scale of debt distress that can be expected to arise in the wake of a financial crisis. A key policy question is how to calibrate government intervention, including focused insolvency law reform, to spur the debt restructuring process.
This paper starts from a discussion of the economic case for moderated government intervention in debt restructuring in the nonfinancial corporate sector. It then draws on lessons from past crises to explain three broad approaches that have been applied to corporate debt restructurings in the aftermath of a crisis. From there, it addresses challenges in designing and implementing a comprehensive debt restructuring strategy and draws together some key principles.