Ten years after central banks unleashed a period of record low interest rates, the central banks’ central bank is warning that this may not have been the smartest move.
In the latest quarterly review from the Bank of International Settlements, the Basel-based organization that oversees the world’s central banks warned that decades of falling interest rates have led to a sharp increase in the number of “zombie” firms, rising to an all time high since the 1980s, threatening economic growth and preventing interest rates from rising.
Zombie firms are defined as companies that are at least 10 years old, yet are unable to cover their debt service costs from profits, in other words the Interest Coverage Ratio (ICR) is less than 1x for at least 3 consecutive quarters. These types of companies, which first gained attention in Japan decades ago and have since gained prevalence in Europe and, increasingly, the United States. According to a second definition, a requirement for a “zombie” is to have comparatively low expected future growth potential. Specifically, zombies are required to have a ratio of their assets’ market value to their replacement cost (Tobin’s q) that is below the median within their sector in any given year.
According to authors Ryan Banerjee and Boris Hofmann, zombie firms that fall under the two definitions are very similar with respect to their current profitability, but qualitatively different in their profitability prospects, which may be a function of how central banks have “broken” the market. Graph 1 below shows that, for non-zombie firms, the median ICR is over four times earnings under both definitions. As the majority of zombie firms make losses, the median ICRs are below minus 7 under the broad measure and around minus 5 under the narrow one, so this is hardly a surprise.
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