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The Components of Corporate Credit Spreads: Default, Recovery, Tax, Jumps, Liquidity, and Market Factors


This paper analyzes the components of corporate credit spreads. The analysis is based on a structural model that can offer a framework to understand the decomposition. The paper contends that default risk may correctly represent only a small portion of corporate credit spreads. This idea stems both from empirical evidence and from the following theoretical assumptions underlying contingent claim models of default: that markets for corporate stocks and bonds are (i) perfect, (ii) complete, and (iii) trading takes place continuously. Thus, in these models there are no transaction or bankruptcy costs, no tax effects, no liquidity effects, no jump effects reflecting market incompleteness, and no market risk factors effecting the pricing of corporate stocks or bonds. The paper starts with the use of a modified version of the Black-Scholes-Merton diffusion based option approach. We estimate corporate default spreads as simply a component of corporate credit spreads using data from November 1991 to December 1998, which includes the Asian Crisis in the Fall, 1998. First we measure the difference between the observed corporate credit spreads and option based estimates of default spreads. We define this difference as the residual spread. We show that for AAA (BBB) firms only a small percentage, 5% (22%), of the credit spread can be attributed to default risk. We show that recovery risk also cannot explain this residual spread. Next, we show that state taxes on corporate bonds also cannot explain the residual. We note that the pure diffusion assumption may lead to underestimates of the default risk. In order to include jumps to default, we next estimate what combined jump-diffusion parameters would be necessary to force default spread to eliminate the residual spread. In each rating class on average firms would be required to experience annual jumps that decrease firm value by 20% and increase stock volatility by more than 100% over their observed volatility in order to eliminate the residual spread. We consider this required increase in stock volatility to be unrealistic as the sole explanation of the residual spread. So next we consider whether the unexplained component can be partly attributable to interest rates, liquidity, and market risk factors. We find the following empirical results: i) increases in liquidity as measured by changes in each firm’s trading volume significantly reduces the residual spread, but does not alter the default spread; ii) increases in stock market volatility significantly reduces the residual spread by increasing the default spread relative to the credit spread, and iii) increases in stock market returns significantly increases the residual spread by reducing the default spread relative to the credit spread. This paper concludes that credit risk and credit spreads are not primarily explained by default and recovery risk, but are mainly attributable to taxes, jumps, liquidity, and market risk factors.

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