Though the Federal Reserve moved over the weekend to slash rates and buy treasuries, markets around the world fell on Monday anyway. The coronavirus threatens to set off financial contagion in a world economy with very different vulnerabilities than on the eve of the global financial crisis, 12 years ago.In key ways the world is now as or more deeply in debt as it was when the last big crisis hit. But the largest and most risky pools of debt have shifted — from households and banks in the United States, which were restrained by regulators after the crisis, to corporations all over the world.As businesses deal with the prospect of a sudden stop in their cash flows, the most exposed are a relatively new generation of companies that already struggle to pay their loans. This class includes the “zombies”— companies that earn too little even to make interest payments on their debt, and survive only by issuing new debt...The easy money policies pursued by the Federal Reserve, and matched by central banks around the world, were designed to keep economies growing and to stimulate recovery from the crisis. Instead, much of that money went into the financial economy, including stocks, bonds and cheap credit to unprofitable companies.As the economic expansion continued, year after year, lenders grew increasingly lax, extending cheap loans to companies with questionable finances. Today the global debt burden is again at an all-time high...The level of debt in America’s corporate sector amounts to 75 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, breaking the previous record set in 2008. Among large American companies, debt burdens are precariously high in the auto, hospitality and transportation sectors — industries taking a direct hit from the coronavirus.Hidden within the $16 trillion corporate debt market are many potential troublemakers, including the zombies. They are the natural spawn of a long period of record low interest rates, which has sent investors on a restless hunt for debt products that offer higher reward, with higher risk. Zombies now account for 16 percent of all the publicly traded companies in the United States, and more than 10 percent in Europe, according to the Bank for International Settlements, the bank for central banks. A look at the data reveals that zombies are especially prevalent in commodity industries like mining, coal and oil, which may spell upheavals to come for the shale oil industry, now a critical driver of the American economy.
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