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The zombies are coming: Coronavirus protections could be delaying a bankruptcy crisis

Data: IIF; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of business bankruptcies and insolvencies in most countries has declined this year through the coronavirus pandemic as the world is seeing far fewer bankruptcies than it did in 2019.

Yes, but: That is largely thanks to assistance from central banks and government measures restricting things like foreclosures.


Why it matters: When the smoke clears the world is likely to be looking at a sizable increase in the number of zombie companies — firms that owe more on debt than they generate in profits but are kept alive by relentless borrowing.

  • "Zombie firms are smaller, less productive, more leveraged and invest less in physical and intangible capital," the Bank for International Settlements concluded in a report last month.
  • "Their performance deteriorates several years before zombification and remains significantly poorer than that of non-zombie firms in subsequent years."

The bottom line: More zombies will lead to a slower, less efficient and less productive global economy.

Background: The number of zombies globally increased in 2019 for the third straight year and was on pace to reach one in five S&P 500 companies in the U.S. this year before the pandemic.

  • The BIS report also noted that among publicly traded small and midsized companies, "the share of assets, capital and debt sunk in zombie firms is as high as 30%-40%."

By the numbers: Much has been made of the fact that the U.S. national debt now exceeds the country's GDP, but U.S. companies have increased their debt load to 90% of the country's GDP, up from 75% in the fourth quarter of 2019, economists at the Institute of International Finance note in a recent report.

  • In the first half of the year, non-financial corporates piled up some $1.4 trillion of new debt, bringing the total debt load to a record high of $17.6 trillion.
  • Outstanding bank loans to small and midsized companies rose to more than $400 billion and now is more than $6.5 trillion, or 34% of GDP.

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