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Vendor finance: The accidental credit investors

Recent defaults on equipment vendor loans have prompted questions about the way corporates manage credit risk. Industrial companies have amassed many billions in credit exposure as a side product of their main business. Now, under growing pressure from equity investors and rating agencies, some companies are starting to quantify and reduce their mountains of trade debt.

Author: Michael Peterson

When times are good it is easy to be a banker. In every economic boom in history, banks have thrown money at companies - only to see debts go bad when the winds of economic fortune change. As a sharp chill descends on the world economy, history is repeating itself with a surprising twist. In the technology-fuelled euphoria of the recent boom, some of the biggest and most reckless lenders were not banks at all but industrial companies.

A series of recent defaults on trade debt have thrown into sharp focus the practice of vendor finance. Telecom equipment suppliers such as Nortel Networks, Alcatel, Lucent Technologies and Siemens offered generous credit terms to their customers, including both established and start-up telecom operators. As companies raced to build the wireless and broadband telecom infrastructure of the future, these equipment companies amassed billions of dollars of long-term credit exposures. This year several vendor finance portfolios have suffered large losses.

"It was rational to some extent for firms in a competitive environment to extend vendor finance as part of their bid to capture the next generation of equipment sales," says Kevin Buehler, co-head of McKinsey's North American risk management practice.

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