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僵尸企业越来越多,可能给美国经济带来威胁

Chris Taylor 2019年09月15日

僵尸企业现有的收入甚至无法偿付债务成本,财务状况很糟糕,甚至已经破产停业。

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。

这个假设在喜剧片中足以站得住脚,但它与我们当今经济形势的相似度可能比你想象得更高。

在金融界,需要有人帮助续命的公司被称作“僵尸”:这些公司现有的收入甚至无法偿付债务成本。它们的状况很糟糕,可能已经破产停业。

但是,它们依旧凭借外来的支撑苟延残喘。而且没错,它们就在我们当中活动着。

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%。”

所以,是低利率催生了这些僵尸公司吗?我们可以从银行的角度来考虑:如果你让一家深陷麻烦的客户贷款数百万美元,你是希望承认自己的错误,眼睁睁看着它破产,再核销这些贷款,还是会再给它一些更便宜的贷款,让它活久一点?

僵尸企业的文化就这样形成了。

在利率处于低点而又蓬勃发展的经济体中,这样做无可厚非。毕竟,公司有时就能时来运转,没有人想看到任何公司——以及相关的投资者、岗位和养老金——化为泡影。

不过若是碰上利率提高,或是让董事会每个人都遭受打击的衰退,那些之前“看起来”还不错的公司就会如梦初醒了。

面对这个问题的不只是美国。由于低利率属于全球现象,因此欧洲和中国也游荡者大量行尸走肉的公司。

全球僵尸经济的结果就是生产力降低。毕竟,支持一堆半死不活的公司可不是资本主义的运作方式。

博里奥表示:“这可能会在长期内影响生产力的提高,因为僵尸公司的数量提升了,它们占据的资源本来可以投入到生产力更高的其他地方,包括竞争对手那里。”

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。

那消极的投资者呢?如果现在标普1500指数里有14%是僵尸公司,而你又持有指数基金,那你的投资最终会怎么样?

毕竟,众所周知,个体投资者很不擅长在市场危机时期保持冷静和镇定。这是行为金融学的常识。诺伦问道:“如果僵尸公司出现违约潮,投资者是否会干脆把整个投资组合全部卖掉?在经济动荡加剧且持续的严峻时刻,这是一个可能迅速让市场衰退变得更加严重的系统性弱点。”

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。

不过一旦出现全面衰退,资产负债表上的基础数据就会变得极其重要,公司只有拿出最强劲的业绩才能存活。到那时,你就会精确地得知自己的投资组合里有多少僵尸公司了。

诺伦表示:“这个问题只在于清算会随着时间缓慢发生,还是类似衰退的催化剂推动着它迅速完成。不管怎样,它已经向我们走来了。”(财富中文网)

译者:严匡正

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.”

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