Debt rated Aaa and AAA has the highest rating. Capacity to pay interest and principal is extremely strong.

Debt rated Aa and AA has a very strong capacity to pay interest and repay principal. Together with the highest rating, this group comprises the high-grade bond class. Debt rated A has a strong capacity to pay interest and repay principal, although it is somewhat more susceptible to the adverse effects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions than debt in high-rated categories.

Debt rated Baa and BBB is regarded as having an adequate capacity to pay interest and repay principal. Whereas it normally exhibits adequate protection parameters, adverse economic conditions or changing circumstances are more likely to lead to a weakened capacity to pay interest and repay principal for debt in this category than in higher-rated categories. These bonds are medium-grade obligations. Debt rated in these categories is regarded, on balance, as predominantly speculative with respect to capacity to pay interest and repay principal in accordance with the terms of the obligation. BB and Ba indicate the lowest degree of speculation, and CC and Ca the highest degree of speculation. Although such debt is likely to have some quality and protective characteristics, these are outweighed by large uncertainties or major risk exposures to adverse conditions. Some issues may be in default. This rating is reserved for income bonds on which no interest is being paid. Debt rated D is in default, and payment of interest and/or repayment of principal is in arrears.

At times, both Moody's and S&P use adjustments to these ratings. S&P uses plus and minus signs: A+ is the strongest A rating and A-weakest. Moody's uses a 1, 2, or 3 designation, with 1 being the highest.

The highest rating a firm's debt can have is AAA or Aaa, and such debt is judged to be the best quality and to have the lowest degree of risk. For example, the 100-year BellSouth issue we discussed earlier was rated AAA. This rating is not awarded very often; AA or Aa ratings indicate very good quality debt and are much more common. The lowest rating is D, for debt that is in default.

Beginning in the 1980s, a growing part of corporate borrowing has taken the form of low-grade, or "junk," bonds. If these low-grade corporate bonds are rated at all, they are rated below investment grade by the major rating agencies. Investment-grade bonds are bonds rated at least BBB by S&P or Baa by Moody's.

Rating agencies don't always agree. For example, some bonds are known as "crossover" or "5B" bonds. The reason is that they are rated triple-B (or Baa) by one rating agency and double-B (or Ba) by another, a "split rating." For example, in June 1996, TCI Communications sold one such issue of three-year notes rated BBB by S&P and Ba by Moody's. Thus, one agency rated the bonds as medium grade, while the other rated them as junk.

A bond's credit rating can change as the issuer's financial strength improves or deteriorates. For example, in 2001, Moody's downgraded Lucent Technology's long-term debt from Baa3 to Ba1, pushing it from investment-grade into junk bond status. Bonds that drop into junk territory like this are called fallen angels. Why was Lucent downgraded? A

Want to know what criteria are commonly used to rate corporate and municipal bonds? Goto www.

standardandpoors.com, www.moodys.com, or www.fitchinv.com..

Ross et al.: Fundamentals of Corporate Finance, Sixth Edition, Alternate Edition

III. Valuation of Future Cash Flows

7. Interest Rates and Bond Valuation

© The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2002

PART THREE Valuation of Future Cash Flows

If you're nervous about the level of debt piled up by the U.S. government, don't go to www.public debt.treas.gov, or to www. brillig.com/debt_clock! Learn all about government bonds . at www.ny.frb.org.

lot of reasons, but Moody's was particularly concerned about a general downturn in the telecommunications supply business along with a potential cash crunch at Lucent.

Credit ratings are important because defaults really do occur, and, when they do, investors can lose heavily. For example, in 2000, AmeriServe Food Distribution, Inc., which supplied restaurants such as Burger King with everything from burgers to giveaway toys, defaulted on $200 million in junk bonds. After the default, the bonds traded at just 18 cents on the dollar, leaving investors with a loss of more than $160 million.

Even worse in AmeriServe's case, the bonds had been issued only four months earlier, thereby making AmeriServe an NCAA champion. While that might be a good thing for a college basketball team such as the University of Kentucky Wildcats, in the bond market it means "No Coupon At All," and it's not a good thing for investors.

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