If General Electric’s credit rating gets downgraded again, it would join a growing list of companies that let their stellar credit grades slide during a decade of cheap borrowing costs.
General Electric once prided itself on its gilt-edged credit rating. Then came the global financial crisis, which tarnished the industrial giant’s standing.
Now, as the company faces one of the deepest slumps in its 125-year history, its grade is on the verge of falling again.
S&P Global Ratings put GE on notice that it might lower its grade after the company acknowledged a raft of challenges: cash-flow shortfalls, falling earnings and weak power markets that have undercut its biggest business. With a new chief executive officer and an activist investor sitting on the company’s board, S&P is examining how the company will spend its money as it looks to shore up its beaten-down stock price.
If GE gets downgraded again, it would join a growing list of companies that let their stellar credit grades slide to please shareholders. A decade of cheap borrowing costs have made it an easy decision. Bond markets have been willing to lend to average-Joe borrowers for just a few basis points more than what companies with top-notch grades can command.
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When there’s little reward for being among the most financially prudent companies, few will embrace it. There are only two companies — Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson — with top AAA ratings. In 1980, there were 32.
“There’s really no value for a company to have the highest ratings,” said Jesse Fogarty, a senior portfolio manager at Insight Investment, which oversees more than $727 billion globally. “It’s more of a status symbol than anything else.”
GE has ramped its borrowings before. In 2015, then-CEO Jeffrey Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to support expansion efforts, even if it meant lower bond grades. The company was shrinking its finance unit, a key beneficiary of higher credit scores. At the time, GE was rated AA+, the second highest level.
S&P has GE at AA-, its fourth-highest level. The firm, which had $136.4 billion of debt as of the end of September, lost its AAA ratings in March 2009.