© Reuters.

By Bharath ManjeshR and Fergal Smith

BENGALURU/TORONTO (Reuters) – Canadian companies went on a debt binge as the COVID-19 crisis slammed the economy, with Canada Inc rushing to the bond market at the heaviest pace in at least a decade.

Corporate bond issuance in Canada between January and May jumped 22.5% to C$78.4 billion ($57.9 billion), according to Reuters calculations, as companies raised funds to safeguard their finances during unprecedented businesses shutdowns.

Cash raised via bonds would make issuers financially more resilient should a second wave of coronavirus infections stall economic recovery. Bonds tend to come due over a longer period than bank loans, adding comfort.

“You don’t want to be caught in a situation when you do need the access to capital markets and they’re closed off to you,” said Barry Schwartz, chief investment officer at Baskin Wealth Management.

Helping reassure credit markets, the Bank of Canada cut rates to near zero in March and began its first large-scale bond-buying program.

Some borrowing was pre-funding and some was used to pay down lines of bank credit, said Brad Meiers, head of debt capital markets and syndication at HSBC Securities. If additional liquidity was needed, he explained, companies could then have room to borrow more.

Banks, miners, energy firms, retailers and real estate firms were among those raising debt. The increased borrowing could be a problem for companies facing slowdowns or with high existing debt loads.

Already, the debt-to-equity ratio of private non-financial corporations jumped to 212% in the first quarter, the highest since 2009, official data showed on Friday.

“Leverage ratios are definitely a concern,” said Benjamin Reitzes, a Canadian rates & macro strategist at BMO Capital Markets. “There may be a hangover from all this.”

With the central bank forecasting a further sharp drop in second-quarter GDP, companies could be in for more pain.

“Businesses might need a little more cash to get through all this and that in turn means again, more issuance, just maybe not at the pace we’ve seen in the last couple of months,” Reitzes added. ($1 = 1.3533 Canadian dollars)

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