Ratings Firms Give Companies More Breathing Room


They made the identical prediction in 2018. And in 2017. And in 2016. And in 2015, when the corporate introduced an enormous merger that quadrupled its debt. Yet bond rankings for the maker of Rubbermaid containers and Sharpie markers haven’t budged.

When S&P and Moody’s made their upbeat projections in 2018, they made an error that understated Newell’s indebtedness, in accordance with a Wall Street Journal evaluate of the score corporations’ calculations. They have since mounted their numbers, however nonetheless charge Newell investment-grade. Investors have been much less forgiving, promoting off the bonds and driving up their yield.

Bonds of Newell Brands, makers of Elmer’s Glue, have risen in yield, whereas holding their investment-grade score.


Richard B. Levine/ZUMA Press

Moody’s and S&P didn’t dispute revising their calculations, however mentioned the adjustments didn’t have an effect on their rankings.

Amid an epic company borrowing spree, rankings corporations have given leeway to different huge debtors like

Kraft Heinz Co.


Campbell Soup Co.

, permitting their stability sheets to swell.

“It’s pretty eye-popping if you’ve been doing this for 20-plus years, to see how much more leverage a number of these companies can incur with the same credit rating,” mentioned

Greg Haendel,

a portfolio supervisor at Tortoise in Los Angeles overseeing about $1 billion in company bonds. “There’s definitely some ratings inflation.”

Years of rock-bottom rates of interest have fueled a growth in borrowing, driving debt owed by U.S. firms excluding banks and different monetary establishments to almost $10 trillion—up about 60% from precrisis ranges. Leverage—how a lot debt an organization owes relative to its earnings—hit a excessive within the second quarter of this yr, in accordance with

JPMorgan Chase

& Co. knowledge on investment-grade bonds going again to 2004, which additionally excludes monetary firms.

The buildup has fueled probably the most divisive debates on Wall Street: Will larger debt masses trigger huge losses when the financial system turns? Or have low rates of interest made the borrowing extra manageable?

Moody’s and S&P say their rankings are correct as a result of firms like Newell have stable, world manufacturers and generate adequate money circulate to repay the bonds. “We take rating actions where appropriate in line with our methodologies,” mentioned

Tom Mowat,

analytical supervisor at S&P Global Ratings. The rankings corporations additionally say their grades have precisely predicted defaults, which is their foremost goal.

S&P and Moody’s charge Newell, Kraft and Campbell Soup of their triple-B class, which is the bottom for bonds thought of investment-grade. These bonds are well-liked with buyers as a result of they’re thought of unlikely to lose cash. A downgrade under the bottom of the three notches within the class, triple-B-minus, would drop the businesses into the junk-bond class, which might elevate their borrowing prices. 

The triple-B score has exploded within the final decade, with debt excellent greater than tripling to $three.7 trillion, Intercontinental Exchange knowledge present. These days, about 50% of all investment-grade bonds are rated triple-B, up from 38% in September 2009.

Investors are skeptical of a few of the rankings. More than $100 billion price of bonds commerce with yields like junk regardless of their triple-B-minus rankings, pricing data from Advantage Data Inc. exhibits. That is regardless of a flood of money into investment-grade debt. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Investment-Grade Index has returned 13% this yr, on monitor for its finest efficiency since 2009, in accordance with FactSet.

Kraft Heinz, makers of boxed macaroni and cheese, was given two years to satisfy a leverage goal by S&P.


Alex Wong/Getty Images

Investors and analysts have instructed the Securities and Exchange Commission that they’re involved concerning the buildup of triple-B debt.

Last October,

Adam Richmond,

Morgan Stanley’s

then head of U.S. credit score technique, testified at an SEC listening to that if leverage had been the only real standards for rankings, many triple-B rated firms wouldn’t qualify for such excessive grades. He warned that “downgrade activity could be heavy” as soon as the financial system inevitably weakens. The agency’s analysts wrote in a September report that investment-grade firms “have not de-levered significantly and are still getting credit for assumed earnings growth, integration of acquisitions, and other ‘plans’ to delever.”

JPMorgan raised comparable considerations in a report it submitted to a bond-investor advisory committee on the SEC. In February, the committee created a brand new group to look at credit score rankings and doubtlessly suggest new laws to spice up oversight of the business, in accordance with individuals aware of the group.

Moody’s and S&P each say different components they think about present much less threat amongst triple-B rated firms. Cash circulate relative to debt has improved whilst leverage has elevated, S&P says. Moody’s analysts wrote in a January report that these debtors are “substantially larger, more profitable and less burdened by interest expense than in 2007.”

Kristalina Georgieva, the brand new head of the International Monetary Fund, was extra cautious in a speech earlier this month. In a serious downturn, she mentioned, $19 trillion of company debt could be liable to default, almost 40% of complete debt in eight main economies. “This is above the levels seen during the financial crisis,” she mentioned.

Last yr, S&P upgraded Kraft, one of many greatest company debtors, saying value financial savings would assist push leverage under 4 instances annual earnings by late 2019. In June, S&P downgraded Kraft as the corporate restated previous earnings however stored Kraft on the lowest rung of investment-grade, giving it one other two years to satisfy the goal. In September, S&P estimated leverage was within the “high-4x area.”

“How long do you give management the benefit of the doubt?” mentioned

Lon Erickson,

a portfolio supervisor at Thornburg Investment Management, who oversees $7 billion in company debt, together with some Kraft bonds.


What doable penalties are you able to foresee from bond-ratings corporations permitting firms to maintain excessive rankings regardless of failing to satisfy debt targets? Join the dialog under.

A spokesman for the corporate mentioned that “Kraft Heinz remains committed to our investment-grade status.” S&P raised questions concerning the bonds in an August report, however mentioned it’s ready to see how a brand new technique anticipated on the firm subsequent yr will impression them.

Moody’s downgraded Campbell Soup because it purchased snack firm Snyder’s-Lance final yr for $6.1 billion, together with debt. About seven months after the downgrade, Moody’s estimated Campbell’s leverage had topped 5 instances earnings and mentioned it was “too high at current ratings.” Moody’s gave the corporate till July 2020 to get it under 4 instances earnings. 

A Campbell spokesman mentioned the corporate is “well on our way” to assembly that focus on. After the corporate introduced it might promote some companies in August, Moody’s analysts mentioned the proceeds “should be sufficient to reduce Campbell’s leverage closer to sustainable levels” for the score.

When Keurig Green Mountain merged with

Dr Pepper Snapple Group

in 2018, Moody’s mentioned it might downgrade the mixed firm if leverage didn’t fall to about 4 instances earnings by January 2020. This yr, Moody’s mentioned 4 instances annual earnings by the tip of 2020 was effective.

Moody’s just lately gave Campbell till July 2020 to get its leverage down. 


Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“If it’s a strike, it’s a strike. If it’s a ball, it’s a ball,” mentioned

Joe Pimbley,

a former Moody’s analyst and principal of Maxwell Consulting. “Call it as you see it.”

A spokeswoman for Keurig Dr Pepper mentioned that S&P’s and Moody’s rankings “appropriately reflect the strength and creditworthiness of our company.”

The rankings corporations say they query firms’ debt discount plans. “By nature we are a pretty skeptical bunch. We like to poke holes in stories,” mentioned

Peter Abdill,

who oversees Moody’s rankings for shopper merchandise firms.

One firm that has been given important leeway by rankings corporations is shopper items large Newell Brands, which makes the whole lot from Elmer’s glue to Yankee Candles. While meals firms like Kraft and Campbell produce regular earnings in good and unhealthy economies, Newell is extra cyclical, which means it’s extra prone to run into bother throughout a downturn.

When Newell mentioned it might purchase rival Jarden Corp. for about $20 billion in December 2015, S&P and Moody’s analysts mentioned Newell might hold its low investment-grade score as a result of debt would fall from greater than 5 instances projected earnings to underneath 4 instances by December 2017.

Newell had tens of thousands and thousands of using on that call. A provision tucked into an $eight billion acquisition bond sale in March 2016 mentioned Newell would owe its buyers as a lot as $160 million extra in annual curiosity prices if it acquired downgraded into junk territory.

The provision highlights the battle confronted by the rankings corporations. Investors use score corporations’ analysis, however firms that situation bonds pay for the rankings. Moody’s and S&P say they don’t enable the battle, or bond provisions like these, to affect their score selections.

In 2018, underneath stress from activist buyers, Newell introduced plans to promote a few third of its companies and purchase again greater than 40% of its shares, strikes that would decelerate deleveraging. Moody’s and S&P confirmed the corporate’s score and predicted its leverage would fall to lower than 4 instances earnings by the tip of 2018.

This previous February, Newell introduced that its debt was three.5 instances earnings on the finish of 2018. But Newell did not account for misplaced earnings from companies it bought when it calculated the determine.

Investors had been skeptical, mentioned James Dunn of CreditSights, an unbiased credit score analysis agency. He estimated Newell’s precise debt load to be 5.three instances projected earnings.

Moody’s and S&P’s leverage estimates mirrored Newell’s method, in accordance with a Journal evaluate of their calculations. Moody’s estimated Newell’s year-end leverage at three.eight instances in a Nov. 2018 report. S&P put it at three.9 instances in a July 2018 observe.

Moody’s additionally overstated Newell’s earnings by double-counting amortization when calculating earnings earlier than curiosity, tax, depreciation and amortization—the denominator of the leverage ratio.

Adjusting for the errors, Moody’s estimate of Newell’s leverage ought to have been nearer to 6 instances earnings, the Journal discovered.

Earlier this month, Moody’s up to date its calculation of Newell’s year-end 2018 leverage to 6 instances earnings, versus a revised estimate of 5.5 instances it printed in August that took varied asset gross sales into consideration. S&P raised its quantity to five.four instances earnings, citing “normalized” figures that additionally took into consideration Newell’s asset gross sales.

An S&P spokesman mentioned in an e mail that “our analysis speaks for itself.”

Moody’s confirmed its 2018 calculation included earnings from companies Newell had bought. Moody’s mentioned the calculation was only a completely different approach of measuring leverage, although it agreed that double-counting amortization was an error, and mentioned it corrected it in October.

Kraft and Newell long-term bonds commerce in junk territory. S&P and Moody’s predict Newell will cut back its debt to about 4 instances earnings throughout the subsequent yr or so.

Write to Gunjan Banerji at Gunjan.Banerji@wsj.com and Cezary Podkul at cezary.podkul@wsj.com

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