Firms frequently pay to have their debt rated. The two leading bond-rating firms are Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s (S&P). The debt ratings are an assessment of the creditworthiness of the corporate issuer. The definitions of creditworthiness used by Moody’s and S&P are based on how likely the firm is to default and the protection creditors have in the event of a default.
It is important to recognize that bond ratings are concerned only with the possibility of default. Earlier, we discussed interest rate risk, which we defined as the risk of a change in the value of a bond resulting from a change in interest rates. Bond ratings do not address this issue. As a result, the price of a highly rated bond can still be quite volatile.
The highest rating a firm’s debt can have is AAA or Aaa, and such debt is judged to be the best quality and to have the lowest degree of risk. For example, the 100-year BellSouth issue we discussed earlier was rated AAA. This rating is not awarded very often: As of 2014, only four nonfinancial U.S. companies had AAA ratings. AA or Aa ratings indicate very good quality debt and are much more common.
A large part of corporate borrowing takes the form of low-grade, or “junk,” bonds. If these low-grade corporate bonds are rated at all, they are rated below investment grade by the major rating agencies. Investment-grade bonds are bonds rated at least BBB by S&P or Baa by Moody’s.
Rating agencies don’t always agree. To illustrate, some bonds are known as “crossover” or “5B” bonds. The reason is that they are rated triple-B (or Baa) by one rating agency and double-B (or Ba) by another, a “split rating.” For example, in March 2014, real estate investment company Omega Healthcare Investors sold an issue of 10-year notes rated BBB– by S&P and Ba1 by Moody’s.
A bond’s credit rating can change as the issuer’s financial strength improves or deteriorates. For example, in January 2014, Moody’s cut the bond rating on PlayStation 4 manufacturer Sony from Baa3 to Ba1, lowering the company’s bond rating from investment grade to junk bond status. Bonds that drop into junk territory like this are called fallen angels. Although sales of the new PS4 were a positive factor noted by Moody’s, the rating agency felt that the majority of Sony’s core business such as TVs, mobile phones, digital cameras, and personal computers faced difficult times ahead.
Credit ratings are important because defaults really do occur, and when they do, investors can lose heavily. For example, in 2000, AmeriServe Food Distribution, Inc., which supplied restaurants such as Burger King with everything from burgers to giveaway toys, defaulted on $200 million in junk bonds. After the default, the bonds traded at just 18 cents on the dollar, leaving investors with a loss of more than $160 million.
Even worse in AmeriServe’s case, the bonds had been issued only four months earlier, thereby making AmeriServe an NCAA champion. Although that might be a good thing for a college basketball team such as the University of Kentucky Wildcats, in the bond market it means “No Coupon At All,” and it’s not a good thing for investors.