在著名的青少年喜剧《老板度假去》（Weekend At Bernie’s）中，老板死后，两名员工以自己的方式处理了他的尸体：给他戴上深色太阳镜，拖着他出席各种派对，让他看起来尽可能像活着一样。
咨询公司13D Global Strategy & Research的常务董事特雷弗·诺伦对这一现象有长期研究，他表示：“如果一家公司在不继续举债或清理资产的情况下无法履行债务，就是僵尸公司。低利率的持续时间越长，僵尸公司的数量就会越多。”
实际上，根据位于瑞士的国际清算银行（Bank for International Settlements）的研究报告，在14个发达经济体中，上市公司如今有12%是僵尸公司。Bianco Research的分析指出，标普1500指数中有14%的公司可以被认定为僵尸公司。国际清算银行货币经济部主任克劳迪亚·博里奥指出：“在20世纪80年代，这个比例还只有2%。”
诺伦表示，活跃的投资者应该回避那些突出的僵尸公司。随便列举几个境况凄惨的公司，例如西尔斯百货（Sears）、玩具反斗城（Toys “R” Us）和巴尼斯纽约精品店（Barneys New York），它们都很明显只是在垂死挣扎。
然而，目前来看，利率正在降低：美联储（The Federal Reserve）最近降息25个基点，这是十年来他们首次决定降息。此举会让僵尸公司获得续命之机，甚至催生一些新的僵尸公司。
In the famous teen comedy “Weekend At Bernie’s”, when their boss dies, a couple of staffers deal with his cadaver the only way they know how: Putting dark sunglasses on him, dragging him around to various parties, and generally making him seem as alive as possible.
A solid comedy premise—and one with more similarities to our current economy than you might think.
In the financial world, companies on life support are called “Zombies”: Those firms which are not even able to cover their debt-servicing costs with current earnings. They are in bad shape, and probably should have gone out of business already.
Yet, they are being kept alive. And yes, they walk among us.
“If a firm cannot meet its debt obligations without taking out even more debt or liquidating assets, it's a zombie,” says Trevor Noren, managing director of advisory firm 13D Global Strategy & Research, who has long studied the phenomenon. “The longer interest rates stay low, the more the zombie population will multiply.”
In fact across 14 advanced economies, zombies now number 12% of all publicly-listed companies, according to a research paper by the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements. Within the S&P 1500, 14% of companies could be classified as zombies, according to analysis by Bianco Research. “In the 1980s, the share was a mere 2%,” notes Claudio Borio, head of BIS’ Monetary and Economic Department.
So how have low interest rates helped create all these zombies? Well, think of it from a bank’s perspective: If you have lent millions of dollars to a troubled client, do you want to admit your mistake, watch that company go bust, and have to write off those loans? Or might you grant them even more cheap credit, in order to keep them going a little while longer?
Voila: A culture of corporate zombies.
In a booming economy with rock-bottom rates, it’s pretty understandable. Company fortunes do turn around sometimes, after all, and nobody likes to see any firm—with all those shareholders, and jobs, and pensions—go under.
But in an era of rising rates, or a recession that pummels everybody across the board, there can be rude awakenings for companies that previously "looked" okay.
It’s not just the U.S. dealing with this problem, either. Since low rates are a global phenomenon, there are plenty of the Walking Dead lurching around in Europe and China, as well.
One result of a global zombie economy is that productivity suffers. After all, propping up an army of half-dead companies is not really how capitalism is supposed to work.
“That may weigh on productivity growth in the long run, as the number of zombie firms rises and absorbs resources that could be employed more productively elsewhere—including by competitors,” says Borio.
Active investors should be able to sidestep prominent zombies, says Noren. The state of bloodied companies like Sears, Toys “R” Us and Barneys New York, to name just a few troubled firms, was fairly obvious as they grunted and staggered around.
But what about passive investors? If 14% of the S&P 1500 is now zombified, and you own an index fund, what exactly is your exposure going to be?
After all, individual investors are notoriously terrible at staying calm and collected during market crises. That’s behavioral finance 101. “If a wave of zombie defaults comes, will investors simply sell the entire basket?” asks Noren. “This is a systemic weakness that could rapidly deepen a market downturn, in the even of heightened and sustained economic turbulence.”
For the moment, though, interest rates are falling: The Federal Reserve recently cut rates by a quarter-point, the first such dip in a decade. That will keep corporate zombies on life support, and maybe even create a few new ones.
But if a full-blown recession hits, balance-sheet fundamentals will become critically important, and only the strongest specimens will survive. That’s when you will realize precisely how many zombies have set up shop in your portfolio.
“It’s just a question of whether it will happen gradually over time, or whether a catalyst—like a recession—will force a rapid reckoning,” says Noren. “Either way, it’s coming.”