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Credit Trends: 'BBB' Pulse: U.S. And EMEA Fallen Angels Are Set To Rise As The Economy Grinds To A Halt


COVID-19- And Oil Price-Related Public Rating Actions On Corporations, Sovereigns, International Public Finance, And Project Finance To Date


Default, Transition, and Recovery: Default Rates Continue To Climb As Weakest Links Remain Elevated


Default, Transition, and Recovery: The U.S. Speculative-Grade Corporate Default Rate Could Rise To 9% By September 2021


Default, Transition, and Recovery: Oil And Gas Leads 2020 Global Corporate Defaults, Reflecting Sector Challenges

Credit Trends: 'BBB' Pulse: U.S. And EMEA Fallen Angels Are Set To Rise As The Economy Grinds To A Halt


The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing most countries to adopt strict social distancing measures (both formally and informally) in an effort to contain the spread of the disease. As a result, global demand for many goods and services has plummeted, pushing the global economy into a recession (see "The Escalating Coronavirus Shock Is Pushing 2020 Global Growth Toward Zero," March 30, 2020). The oil and gas sector is also facing its own unique shock to supply following the failure of Saudi Arabia and Russia to agree on production and export levels.

To assess the potential magnitude of these shocks with regard to 'BBB' rated companies' vulnerability to becoming fallen angels, or issuers downgraded into speculative grade ('BB' category or lower), we developed a hypothetical scenario to project the proportion of outstanding 'BBB' nonfinancial debt that may be more vulnerable to downgrade into speculative grade in the current environment. As part of our analysis, we assigned relative risk assessments to 'BBB' category nonfinancial companies in the U.S. and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) based on S&P Global Ratings' credit ratings, outlooks, and CreditWatch statuses at approximately the end of the first quarter. These risk assessments reflect broad possibilities for the percentages of issuers and their debt that are more vulnerable to downgrades to speculative grade.

Through the first quarter of 2020, approximately $2.67 trillion of long-term debt in the U.S. and $1.7 trillion in EMEA was held by companies rated in the 'BBB' category. A majority of this debt in both regions is attributable to firms rated 'BBB+' and 'BBB' and those with stable outlooks (see charts 1 and 2). This is important to note given the relative resilience of higher ratings, which typically display greater stability over time, even during recessionary periods (see "2018 Annual Global Corporate Default And Rating Transition Study," April 9, 2019).

In our hypothetical scenario, the proportion of outstanding 'BBB' category nonfinancial debt projected to be vulnerable to downgrade into speculative grade is under 10% of the total. This is roughly in line with the issuer-based fallen angel rate of 9% during the height of the financial crisis. In fact, as indicated in previous reports (see "'BBB' Pulse: Vitals Remain Stable For The Largest Issuers," Nov. 25, 2019), a majority of the largest 'BBB' issuers account for a high concentration of the total 'BBB' debt in both regions, and most of these are rated above 'BBB-'.

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S&P Global Ratings acknowledges a high degree of uncertainty about the rate of spread and peak of the coronavirus outbreak. Some government authorities estimate the pandemic will peak about midyear, and we are using this assumption in assessing the economic and credit implications. We believe the measures adopted to contain COVID-19 have pushed the global economy into recession (see our macroeconomic and credit updates here: As the situation evolves, we will update our assumptions and estimates accordingly.

The estimates in this article are hypothetical projections. As the situation evolves, actual rating actions will follow the analysis of relevant data and the application of our criteria, as appropriate, as determined by ratings committees.

'BBB' Fallen Angel Debt Projected To Reach $640 Billion In 2020

Our projections through the rest of 2020

In our hypothetical scenario, we estimated the amount of long-term nonfinancial corporate 'BBB' debt vulnerable to downgrade to speculative grade by assigning fallen angel probabilities for each rating and outlook or CreditWatch combination among companies rated 'BBB' by S&P Global Ratings in the U.S. and EMEA at the end of the first quarter of 2020. These hypothetical relative probabilities and the approach used to generate the estimates are summarized in the appendix (see table 2). The estimated results of this hypothetical scenario were as follows:

  • For the U.S., roughly $240 billion, or about 9% of the outstanding total long-term 'BBB' debt at the end of the first quarter, is more vulnerable to downgrade to speculative grade in the last three quarters of 2020.
  • In EMEA, the equivalent figures are $145 billion and 8% of long-term 'BBB' debt.
  • Combined, upwards of $385 billion in 'BBB' debt could fall to speculative grade in the remainder of 2020.

Outside of the U.S. and EMEA, there is another $775 billion in outstanding 'BBB' nonfinancial corporate debt across roughly 340 issuers. Most are carrying rather modest debt loads, but some have large debt totals or are susceptible to downgrade if their related sovereign is downgraded. A notable recent example is the lowering of the long-term foreign currency rating on PEMEX to 'BBB' from 'BBB+' following a similar action on Mexico, which accounts for approximately $93 billion in debt.

Fallen angel totals already high so far in 2020

The estimates above are in addition to the already increased level of fallen angel debt thus far in 2020. So far this year, 17 publicly rated companies have become fallen angels in the U.S. and EMEA through the first quarter. This amounts to $237 billion of rated long-term debt in the U.S. and $20 billion in EMEA ($257 billion in total, with the U.S. accounting for 92%) from 'BBB' companies that were downgraded to speculative grade. See table 1 for a list of publicly rated fallen angels. The large debt volume in the U.S. is largely attributable to the downgrades of three issuers: Ford Motor Co., Occidental Petroleum Corp., and The Kraft Heinz Co., which together accounted for roughly $190 billion, or 74% of the combined total between the U.S. and EMEA.

When adding these amounts to our forward-looking hypothetical scenario totals above, our total estimates for fallen angel debt through the end of 2020 rise to about $475 billion in the U.S. and $165 billion in EMEA, or roughly $640 billion in total. This estimated total, should it materialize, would represent a new annual high for fallen angel debt, topping the previous record of $512 billion in 2005, following the downgrades of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., and above the $441 billion in 2008 and 2009 combined, during the financial crisis.

By industry, this debt is somewhat concentrated in autos (44%, all from Ford Motor Co. at $114 billion); oil and gas (24%, mainly Occidental Petroleum Corp. at $44 billion); and consumer products (12%, all from Kraft Heinz Co.) (see chart 3). By issuer count, the spread of sectors is more diversified, with oil and gas, infrastructure, and retail and restaurants accounting together for about 70% of 'BBB' fallen angels (see chart 4).

It is important to note that of the 17 fallen angels through March 2020, all but three were rated 'BBB-' prior to reaching speculative grade. Of the downgraded debt amounts shown below, 78% is attributable to 'BBB-' rated issuers.

We expect further fallen angels in the weeks and months ahead.

Table 1

2020 Fallen Angels
Date Issuer To From Sector/subsector Country Rated debt affected (mil. $)

Atlantia SpA

BB- BBB- Infrastructure Italy 16,297

Spirit AeroSystems Inc.

BB BBB- Aerospace and defense U.S. 1,900

EQT Corp.

BB+ BBB- Infrastructure U.S. 4,945

EQM Midstream Partners L.P.

BB+ BBB- Infrastructure U.S. 3,500

Kraft Heinz Co. (The)

BB+ BBB- Consumer products U.S. 31,539

Macy's Inc.

BB+ BBB- Retail/restaurants U.S. 7,149

Ruby Pipeline LLC

BB BBB- Infrastructure U.S. 825
3/23/2020 Immobiliare Grande Distribuzione SIIQ SpA BB+ BBB- Homebuilders/real estate companies Italy 855

Delta Air Lines Inc.

BB BBB- Transportation U.S. 4,550

Ford Motor Co.

BB+ BBB- Automotive U.S. 113,862

Occidental Petroleum Corp.

BB+ BBB Oil and gas U.S. 43,913

Apache Corp.

BB+ BBB Oil and gas U.S. 11,080

Western Midstream Operating L.P. (Occidental Petroleum Corp.)

BB+ BBB- Infrastructure U.S. 8,120

Marks & Spencer PLC (Marks & Spencer Group PLC)

BB+ BBB- Retail/restaurants U.K. 2,068

Patterson-UTI Energy Inc.

BB+ BBB Oil and gas U.S. 875

Continental Resources Inc.

BB+ BBB- Oil and gas U.S. 5,200

Esselunga SpA

BB+ BBB- Retail/restaurants Italy 1,105
Note: Table does not include Big Lots Inc., due to a lack of long-term rated debt. *Includes debt of Ford Motor Credit. Data through March 27. Source: S&P Global Ratings Research.

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Fallen Angel Risk Is Higher In Sectors Most Affected By The Pandemic

Downgrades, negative outlook revisions, and CreditWatch placements have increased in the wake of COVID-19, especially in those sectors that have experienced the immediate and acute economic and business impact of the pandemic, such as airlines, transportation, retail, lodging and leisure, gaming, and autos. Meanwhile, the collapse in oil prices has affected the oil and gas sector. As the impact of the pandemic and social distancing spreads, we expect the pace of fallen angels will remain elevated in 2020 across all, or nearly all, sectors.

We view favorably the liquidity-preserving actions implemented by central banks, along with the massive amounts of fiscal stimulus proposed or being implemented by many governments, since they will likely provide important support to credit markets. However, the significant short-term decline in demand for many products and services is placing severe stress on retail and restaurants, cruise and lodging, and airlines and aerospace. We believe the fiscal stimulus measures enacted by governments, even combined with central bank actions, will likely not fully offset the negative effects of the severe decline in demand on credit fundamentals. Additionally, the oil markets are facing a severe supply-demand imbalance in second-quarter 2020. As a result, we expect that downgrades could remain elevated across the sectors below.

Oil and gas

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Spot and future prices are testing multiyear lows and oil markets are heading into a period of a severe supply-demand imbalance in second-quarter 2020. On March 19, S&P Global Ratings lowered its West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude oil price assumptions for 2020 by $10 a barrel. We believe a material supply response from non-OPEC producers is unlikely until later in 2020.

There is a concentration of debt rated at the lowest investment-grade rung, 'BBB-', in the U.S., with the two largest borrowers, Energy Transfer L.P. (BBB-/Stable/--) and Plains All American Pipeline L.P. (BBB-/Stable/A-3), accounting for roughly 58% of 'BBB-' rated debt. Plains announced significant cuts to its capital spending budget and its distribution in response to the market uncertainty and completed a $165 million asset sale ($440 million closed or under definitive agreement year to date), which will likely keep credit measures well within our downgrade trigger. We expect Energy Transfer to announce similar defensive measures, although it has more diversified cash flow and is not as operationally leveraged to crude logistics.

Oil and gas producers.  Given a sharp shift in investor sentiment toward oil and gas producers and coronavirus concerns, rating actions in the investment-grade segment could be more severe than in the last down cycle, in 2015-2016. In March, several investment-grade exploration and production and oilfield services companies were downgraded out of investment grade, the largest being Occidental Petroleum Corp. with roughly $44 billion of debt.

Midstream.  We expect midstream companies to face a more challenging marketplace for the remainder of 2020 and 2021 as producers reevaluate their development timelines and production forecasts. The midstream energy sector is under ongoing pressure as a result of weak counterparty credit profiles and recontracting risk.

Retail and restaurants

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Credit risks to the global retail sector have soared as the effort to contain COVID-19 results in store closures, changes to shopping habits, and heightened risk of a broad-based macroeconomic decline. The degree of any impact on our ratings will depend on the duration of shutdowns, the trajectory of a future rebound, and each issuer's unique exposure and credit characteristics.

We have lowered the ratings or revised outlooks to negative on several retailers, including department stores that are facing severe topline and earnings contraction due to temporary closures in light of social distancing measures. On a number of restaurants, we have revised outlooks or placed the ratings on CreditWatch with negative implications as a result of the drop in customer traffic. In our ongoing surveillance of the retail and restaurants sector, we will continue to view issuers with the most exposure to social distancing measures and discretionary spending as at the greatest risk of credit deterioration, and we will factor in unique circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

We envision the brunt of the shock from social distancing in the second quarter, followed by a gradual improvement as social distancing measures are relaxed. We believe issuers in the hardest-hit subsectors within restaurants and retail could face year-over-year topline declines of more than 50% in the second quarter, resulting in a steeper drop in earnings and cash flow.

The largest 'BBB-' rated borrower in EMEA is U.K.-based Tesco PLC, with roughly $9 billion of debt, and in the U.S., the largest is Dollar Tree Inc., with $5 billion of debt.

Leisure and lodging

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Cruise.  We expect a significant loss of revenue and cash flow at least in 2020 for cruise ship operators, stemming from the cessation of sailings for a period this year and reduced consumer demand in light of travel advisories and high-profile cruise ship quarantines. Given the uncertainty around the magnitude and duration of the COVID-19 impact, the ratings on several cruise ship operators have been lowered by multiple notches. Earlier this month, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. was downgraded out of investment grade, and Carnival Corp. was downgraded to the lowest rung of investment grade, 'BBB-', and remains on CreditWatch with negative implications.

Lodging.  For as long as they are in place, restrictions on travel and consumer activity will cause a significant decline in revenue at lodging companies. These restrictions are also spurring a very high number of group hotel booking cancelations and deferrals, as well as business and leisure transient cancelations and postponements, causing occupancy, average daily rates, and revenue per available room at hotels to decline significantly. We plan to update our base-case forecasts and publish them over the next few weeks, which could cause us to lower ratings on several lodging issuers.

Transportation and airlines/aerospace

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The global spread of the coronavirus has led to a sharp reduction in demand for air travel in recent weeks. We believe the industry's capacity reductions, along with sharply lower oil prices, will be insufficient to offset the decline in its travel demand. Although our current forecast assumes reduced capacity and revenue declines stemming from the coronavirus, we believe the pandemic's actual effect on the industry could differ.

As of now, we expect traffic to begin to recover in late 2020, with only partial recovery in 2021, but any further delay will prolong weakness in credit metrics and increase downgrades across the sector. Airlines and aircraft leasing companies are seeking to defer orders from aircraft makers, spreading the damage to commercial aerospace (already under pressure from Boeing's long-delayed 737 Max deliveries). The ratings on several companies, including Southwest Airlines Co. (BBB/Watch Neg/--) and Boeing Co. (BBB/Watch Neg/A-2), were lowered in March. Additionally, Delta Air Lines Inc. was lowered out of investment grade, to 'BB', and remains on CreditWatch negative.

Some related sectors, such as car rentals, will also see significantly reduced revenue and earnings. Freight transportation is less affected but will be hurt by the unfolding global recession and reduced trade volumes.


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In response to coronavirus risks and fading demand, the large majority of global auto manufacturers have announced temporary production shutdowns at most of their plants in Europe and the U.S. and have switched to liquidity-protection mode. Our revised sales scenario indicates intense credit pressures ahead for automakers. We expect potential government stimulus packages and central banks' actions to facilitate access to funding will only partially relieve these pressures. We now project global sales will decline by almost 15% in 2020, to less than 80 million units.

The ratings on Renault S.A., including the 'BBB-' long-term issuer credit rating, were placed on CreditWatch negative in February. At this time, we expect the potential downgrade of the company, with roughly $25 billion of debt, to be limited to one notch. Most of the auto debt in EMEA is rated two notches above speculative grade. Volkswagen AG and Daimler AG, with $174 billion of debt combined, are both rated 'BBB+' with negative rating outlooks.

General Motors Co. (BBB/Watch Neg/--), the largest 'BBB' category automaker in the U.S. with nearly $59 billion of debt, including its captive finance unit, was placed on CreditWatch negative in late March following the suspension of its manufacturing operations in North America.

Some 'BBB' Companies Come To Market Amid Difficult Funding Conditions

Fear of forced selling in the face of a recession appears to be driving the relative increase in risk for the 'BBB' rating category (see chart 15). The greatest recent expansion in yields began on March 9, when the 10-year Treasury yield closed at 0.49%--the first and thus far only time it has gone below 0.5%. However, in the days following the Federal Reserve's initiation of several bond-buying programs on March 23, investment-grade yields started to retreat again, while issuance has picked up.

These programs include the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) and the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF), both designed to provide liquidity to the bond markets for large employers in the U.S. The PMCCF is designed to make purchases of investment-grade corporate bonds in the primary markets, while the SMCCF is meant to do the same in secondary markets. Although these are still very new initiatives, since these facilities were announced, yields on investment-grade debt have retreated somewhat.

Chart 15


Despite these challenges, some 'BBB' issuers have issued new debt recently. In fact, many of these firms were able to issue at rates slightly below where prevailing secondary pricing has come in. The average spread among these issuers in the U.S. with maturities of approximately five and 10 years was about 60 basis points lower than that of secondary yields. And most of these issuers priced at or near par, indicating a solid reception by the market.

This is certainly not to indicate that bond issuance among 'BBB' category firms is set to take off anytime soon. It is still important to consider that the investment-grade market has certainly contracted during the pandemic, but it has not experienced the near-complete lockdown that the speculative-grade market has faced. That said, the U.S. saw a tremendous amount of investment-grade issuance come to market in March, largely after the Fed's introduction of its various programs.

The March total reached a record $182 billion of investment-grade nonfinancial issuance, though largely from the 'A' rated segment. The 'BBB' nonfinancial segment did still see $55 billion for the month, pushing the year-to-date total up to $110.8 billion through March, from $88.3 billion in the first three months of 2019. In EMEA, however, the earlier impact of the virus in February limited first-quarter issuance to $31 billion, from $44 billion at the same time in 2019.

Appendix: Hypothetical Scenario Analysis Approach And Additional Exhibits

This hypothetical scenario analysis included parent firms in the U.S. and EMEA rated in the 'BBB' category and all qualifying debt in their organizational hierarchies, as well as the qualifying debt of subsidiaries rated in the 'BBB' category whose parents are not rated in the 'BBB' category. Reported debt included both secured and unsecured bank loans, subordinated debt, medium-term notes, preferred stock, convertible debt, and drawdowns under medium-term note programs. It did not include commercial paper programs, shelf registrations, revolvers, or certificates of deposit.

It is important to note that the hypothetical risk weights for the stable outlooks in table 2 approximate the relative fallen angel rates experienced by the combined U.S. and EMEA regions at the high point of downgrades during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, over a nine-month time frame. For the purpose of our hypothetical analysis, we limited these downgrade rates to a nine-month time frame to roughly match expectations for the approximate remainder of 2020.

The risk weights applied to the negative and positive outlooks and CreditWatch statuses represent estimates for fallen angel potential given the current economic backdrop and its unique stressors--with far more fallen angel risk among companies rated 'BBB-' and on CreditWatch with negative implications, and essentially no fallen angel risk for companies rated 'BBB+' with positive outlooks. We then simply multiplied the debt distribution by each corresponding risk weight in this scenario and summed the total.

Table 2

Hypothetical Fallen Angel Scenario Risk Weights
Outlook/CreditWatch BBB+ BBB BBB-
Positive 0 0 5
Stable 3 4 15
Negative outlook 5 15 40
CreditWatch negative 6 33 75
Source: S&P Global Ratings.

Table 3

U.S. 'BBB' Debt By Rating And Outlook/CreditWatch
Rating Watch positive/positive outlook Stable outlook Negative outlook Watch negative Total
BBB+ 7.2 22.9 3.9 0.8 34.7
BBB 0.5 34.5 5.0 3.8 43.8
BBB- 0.7 16.4 3.3 1.1 21.6
Total 8.3 73.8 12.1 5.7 100.0
Source: S&P Global Ratings.

Table 4

EMEA 'BBB' Debt By Rating And Outlook/CreditWatch
Rating Watch positive/positive outlook Stable outlook Negative outlook Watch negative Total
BBB+ 0.0 28.4 11.8 4.7 44.9
BBB 1.8 33.5 2.2 0.8 38.3
BBB- 1.0 10.1 3.7 2.1 16.9
Total 2.8 79.9 17.7 7.6 100.0
Source: S&P Global Ratings.

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Related Research

  • The Escalating Coronavirus Shock Is Pushing 2020 Global Growth Toward Zero, March 30, 2020
  • 2018 Annual Global Corporate Default And Rating Transition Study, April 9, 2019
  • 'BBB' Pulse: Vitals Remain Stable For The Largest Issuers, Nov. 25, 2019

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Ratings Performance Analytics:Nick W Kraemer, FRM, New York (1) 212-438-1698;
Primary Analysts:Alex P Herbert, London (44) 20-7176-3616;
Jeanne L Shoesmith, CFA, Chicago (1) 312-233-7026;

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