Issuers are almost four times more likely to default on corporate bonds in the highest speculative-grade rating category than in the lowest investment-grade category, according to a study released yesterday by Standard & Poor's Corp.

The study found that the 10-year cumulative default rate for BBB-rated bonds, the agency's lowest investment-grade category, was 5.1% compared with 18.8% for BB-rated issues, the highest non-investment-grade category.

"We were gratified that the results were in line with our expectations," Gail Hessol, a Standard & Poor's managing director, said. "I would have to say that there weren't any significant surprises."

Ms. Hessol said corporations' defaults on rated debt hit a record $15 billion last year, and defaults are expected to reach $15 billion to $20 billion this year. Those figures should drop to $10 billion in 1992, she said. The study culminated a project the rating agency began five to six years ago, Ms. Hessol said. Standard & Poor's tracked mored than 3000 issuers during the period from Jan. 1, 1981 to Dec. 31, 1990, she noted.

The agency's study also revealed that speculative-grade bonds fall into default faster than their investment-grade counterparts. At 9.3%, the first-year default rate for new CCC-rated issuers was higher than the cumulative default rate for A-rated bonds over a decade.

"The findings are noteworthy because they demonstrate the strong correlation between S&P credit ratings and default risk," Ms. Hessol said.

"The huge volume of recent defaults reflects the 1980s takeover craze, financed with risky high-yield bonds and bank loans," she noted.

The "takeover frenzy" and U.S. Bankruptcy code liberalization contributed to the few defalts posted by highly rated companies, Ms. Hessol said.

Two such highly rated credits were Federated Department Stores Inc. and Allied Stores. Federated was rated AAA in 1981, while Allied was rated A the same year. Campeau Corp. acquired Allied in 1986 and Federated in 1988, and the highly leveraged Campeau filed for bankruptcy soon afterward. For new bond issuers rated A or higher, fewer than 1% default within five years.

"Years ago, a company had to be much, much sicker to file for bankruptcy," Ms. Hessol said.

She said that a company's rating affects its borrowing costs, and consequently its financial health. But she also said, "Such circumstances are possible, but, if anything, that does not affect this study very much."

She noted that many bonds that were assigned low ratings by Standard & Poor's between 1986 and 1988 were snapped up by investors.

High-grade corporate bonds overall saw little activity yesterday, but were up about an 1/8 to a 1/4 point, one trader said.

"[Issuers] are still waiting for the yield curve to flatten," said George Ashur, director of corporate bond research at Chase Securities.

The high-yield market was quiet and up about 1/4 point with a good deal of story paper trading, another analyst said.

As for yesterday's ratings changes, Standard & Poor's downgraded Southdown Inc.'s $90 million of senior subordinated notes due 1997 to B from BB-minus, the agency announced yesterday. The downgrade reflects the firm's diminished financial flexibility after weaker-than-expected performance of its core cement and construction materials segments.

Southdown's rating has been on CreditWatch with negative implications since Aug. 20. Also yesterday, the agency assigned a B rating to Southdown's $100 million of senior subordinated notes, which are due 2001 and scheduled to be privately placed.

The implied senior debt rating is BB-minus. Total debt outstanding amounts to approximately $350 million.

Though Southdown has a solid position in the cement and construction materials industry, poor markets have caused severe earnings and cash-flow deterioration. While the rating agency expects those industries to recover, it believes the return to health will be gradual. Cash interest coverage will consequently stay much weaker than expected.

The $100 million private placement, however, will provide financial flexibility until business prospects improve. But if the issue is not sold, the company, which faced a $77 million debt maturity payment in May 1992, could experience a liquidity crunch. Such a crunch would prompt a further downgrade, Standard & Poor's said.

Fitch Investors Service Inc. has given a BBB rating to Texas Utilities Electric Co.'s $275 million Brazos River Authority (Texas) collateralized pollution control revenue bonds 1991 taxable series A, B, C, and D. The bonds, to be sold privately under Rule 144A, mature in 2021.

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