When the Great Recession roiled capital and labor markets in early 2009, up to a third of U.S. public corporations, and nearly 60% of privately owned companies, reported high levels of financial distress resulting from frozen credit markets. And the problems of “debt overhang” and corporate underinvestment were clearly in evidence as the combination of default risk and a relatively new provision of the tax code restricted the ability of distressed companies to deleverage their capital structures.
But as described in this article, at least 110 U.S. companies used a little known provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to defer taxes on the cancellation of debt income (CODI) resulting from exchanges or repurchases of significant amounts of debt. This suspension of tax policy gave many distressed U.S. companies the flexibility to cut costs, shore up balance sheets, and boost liquidity, thereby keeping themselves in business and their workers employed throughout the economic crisis. The 110 companies examined either repurchased or exchanged a total of $32.5 billion of corporate debt. The deleveraging of these companies, which represented more than $2.2 trillion in total assets and $520 billion in market capitalization, helped them to remain solvent throughout the downturn and retain their collective 2.2 million employees. The resulting tax savings are estimated to have saved (or in some cases created) almost 90,000 jobs, while contributing $3.2 billion to total corporate earnings and $10.7 billion of output to the national gross domestic product. Although this approach could be criticized as adding to the federal budget deficit, the deferral of taxes on CODI is viewed as a targeted financial policy tool aimed directly at boosting the productive capacity and employment of corporate enterprises.