Will GE be the proverbial “black swan?” – It had come to my attention that General Electric was locked out of the commercial paper market three weeks ago after Moody’s downgraded GE’s short term credit rating to a ratings level (P-2) that prevents prime money market funds from investing in commercial paper. Commercial paper (CP) is an important source of short term, low-cost, liquid funding for large companies. At one point, GE was one of the largest users of CP funding. As recently as Q2 this year, 14.3% of GE’s debt consisted of CP. Now GE will have to resort to using its bank revolving credit to fund its short term liquidity needs, which is considerably more expensive than using CP.

Moody’s rationale for the downgrade was that, “the adverse impact on GE’s cash flows from the deteriorating performance of the Power business will be considerable and could last some time.” Keep in mind that the ratings agencies, especially Moody’s, are typically reluctant to downgrade highly regarded companies and almost always understate or underestimate the severity of problems faced by a company whose fundamentals are rapidly deteriorating.
As an example, Moody’s had Enron rated as investment grade until just a few days before Enron filed bankruptcy. At the beginning of November 2001, Moody’s had Enron rated at Baa1. This is three notices above a non-investment grade rating (Ba1 for Moody’s and BB+ for S&P). Currently Moody’s and S&P have GE’s long term debt rated Baa1/BBB+. In the bond market, however, GE bonds are trading almost at junk bond yields.