CNBC - Finance

Companies’ mad dash for debt hitting record levels

“We’ve had seven years of zero percent interest rates. People have been pushed further and further out on the risk curve,” said Michael Pento, an economist and founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies and author of “The Coming Bond Market Collapse” in 2013. “These people owning these bonds are being stuck with the relatively low and riskier interest rates for a very long time. You have to ask yourself if inflation always will be absent. I have my doubts on that.”

Investors generally have been willing to put money in the bond market this year. Fixed income funds in total have attracted $ 90 billion in inflows. Last week alone, junk funds pulled in $ 3.9 billion, the largest weekly inflow in eight months, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Not only are investors willing to buy more debt, they’re also attaching fewer conditions. Rating service Moody’s tracks covenant quality, essentially a measure of standards that bond issuers must meet, and reported Thursday that the latest reading remains near record highs, which indicates weak restrictions.

Moreover, Moody’s said the ranks of the lowest level of junk bond issuers are growing, with an 8 percent quarterly increase and 27 percent growth annually, thanks in large part to weakness in oil and gas companies.

Read MoreWatch out: Your company could soon be ‘junk’

Still, corporate bond spreads have come up to around their historical average, providing impetus for institutional investors trying to claw out yield any way they can, even if it means an extraordinarily long-term commitment.

“Retail investors will not be interested in going out that far, but pension funds and many entities that have an actuarial table that they have to adhere to will,” said Marilyn Cohen, president of Envision Capital Management. “Over the last several months, corporate spreads have widened quite significantly. Those entities like public and private pension funds, they get a little bit more bang for their buck.”

It’s been a rough time for pension funds and endowments.

The industry got a jolt recently when the California Public Employees Retirement System announced it was lowering its historic 7.5 percent expected rate of return in an effort to reduce volatility in its portfolio caused by reaching for risk. CalPERS, which suffered through a 2.4 percent return for its most recent fiscal year, conceivably could lower the target to 6.5 percent over time.


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