Debt is that which is owed; usually referencing assets owed, but the term can also cover moral obligations and other interactions not requiring money. In the case of assets, debt is a means of using future purchasing power in the present before a summation has been earned. Some companies and corporations use debt as a part of their overall corporate finance strategy.
A debt is created when a creditor agrees to lend a sum of assets to a debtor. In modern society, debt is usually granted with expected repayment; in most cases, plus interest.
The word comes from the French dette and ultimately Latin debere (to owe), from de habere (to have). The letter b in the word debt was reintroduced in the 17th century, possibly by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755— several other words that had existed without a b had them reinserted at around that time.
Before a debt can be made, both the debtor and the creditor must agree on the manner in which the debt will be repaid, known as the standard of deferred payment. This payment is usually denominated as a sum of money in units of currency, but can sometimes be denominated in terms of goods or services. Payment can be made in increments over a period of time, or all at once at the end of the loan agreement.
Types of debt
A company uses various kinds of debt to finance its operations. The various types of debt can generally be categorized into:
- secured and unsecured debt,
- private and public debt,
- syndicated and bilateral debt,
- other types of debt that display one or more of the characteristics noted above.
A debt obligation is considered secured if creditors have recourse to the assets of the company on a proprietary basis or otherwise ahead of general claims against the company. Unsecured debt comprises financial obligations, where creditors do not have recourse to the assets of the borrower to satisfy their claims.
Private debt comprises bank-loan type obligations, whether senior or mezzanine. Public debt is a general definition covering all financial instruments that are freely tradeable on a public exchange or over the counter, with few if any restrictions.
A basic loan is the simplest form of debt. It consists of an agreement to lend a principal sum for a fixed period of time, to be repaid by a certain date. In commercial loans interest, calculated as a percentage of the principal sum per year, will also have to be paid by that date.
In some loans, the amount actually loaned to the debtor is less than the principal sum to be repaid; the additional principal has the same economic effect as a higher interest rate (see point (mortgage)), and is sometimes referred to as a banker’s dozen, a play on “baker’s dozen” – owe twelve (a dozen), receive a loan of eleven (a banker’s dozen). Note that the effective interest rate is not equal to the discount: if one borrows $10 and must repay $11, then this is ($11–$10)/$10 = 10% interest; however, if one borrows $9 and must repay $10, then this is ($10–$9)/$9 = 11 1/9 % interest.
A syndicated loan is a loan that is granted to companies that wish to borrow more money than any single lender is prepared to risk in a single loan, usually many millions of dollars. In such a case, a syndicate of banks can each agree to put forward a portion of the principal sum. Loan syndication is a risk management tool that allows the lead banks underwriting the debt to reduce their risk and free up lending capacity.
A bond is a debt security issued by certain institutions such as companies and governments. A bond entitles the holder to repayment of the principal sum, plus interest. Bonds are issued to investors in a marketplace when an institution wishes to borrow money. Bonds have a fixed lifetime, usually a number of years; with long-term bonds, lasting over 30 years, being less common. At the end of the bond’s life the money should be repaid in full. Interest may be added to the end payment, or can be paid in regular installments (known as coupons) during the life of the bond. Bonds may be traded in the bond markets, and are widely used as relatively safe investments in comparison to equity.
Effects of debt
Debt allows people and organizations to do things that they would otherwise not be able, or allowed, to do. Commonly, people in industrialised nations use it to purchase houses, cars and many other things too expensive to buy with cash on hand. Companies also use debt in many ways to leverage the investment made in their assets, “leveraging” the return on their equity. This leverage, the proportion of debt to equity, is considered important in determining the riskiness of an investment; the more debt per equity, the riskier. For both companies and individuals, this increased risk can lead to poor results, as the cost of servicing the debt can grow beyond the ability to pay due to either external events (income loss) or internal difficulties (poor management of resources).
Excesses in debt accumulation have been blamed for exacerbating economic problems. For example, prior to the beginning of the Great Depression debt/GDP ratio was very high. Economic agents were heavily indebted. This excess of debt, equivalent to excessive expectations on future returns, accompanied asset bubbles on the stock markets. When expectations corrected, deflation and a credit crunch followed. Deflation effectively made debt more expensive and, as Fisher explained, this reinforced deflation again, because, in order to reduce their debt level, economic agents reduced their consumption and investment. The reduction in demand reduced business activity and caused further unemployment. In a more direct sense, more bankruptcies also occurred due both to increased debt cost caused by deflation and the reduced demand.
It is possible for some organizations to enter into alternative types of borrowing and repayment arrangements which will not result in bankruptcy. For example, companies can sometimes convert debt that they owe into equity in themselves. In this case, the creditor hopes to regain something equivalent to the debt and interest in the form of dividends and capital gains of the borrower. The “repayments” are therefore proportional to what the borrower earns and so can not in themselves cause bankruptcy. Once debt is converted in this way, it is no longer known as debt.