A Gap-filling Theory of Corporate Debt Maturity Choice

by R. Christopher Small, for The Harvard Law School Forum at Harvard Law School, January 29, 2010.

In our paper A Gap-filling Theory of Corporate Debt Maturity Choice, which was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Finance, we develop a new theory to explain time-variation in corporate maturity choice. As in BGW (2003), our theory allows for predictability in bond market returns and has the feature that corporate issuers tend to benefit from this predictability – i.e., they use short-term debt more heavily when its expected returns are lower than the expected returns on long-term debt. Crucially, however, we do not assume any forecasting advantage for corporate issuers: they have no special ability to predict future returns, or to recognize sentiment shocks. Instead, the key comparative advantage that corporate issuers have relative to other players in our model is an advantage in macro liquidity provision.

More specifically, our theory has the following ingredients. First, the bond market is partially segmented, in that there are some important classes of investors who have a preference for investing at given maturities. These investors might include, for instance, pension funds, which, based on the structure of their liabilities, have a natural demand for long-term assets. Second, there are shocks to the supply of long- and short-term bonds that are large relative to the stock of available arbitrage capital. In our empirical work, we associate these supply shocks with changes in the maturity structure of U.S. government debt. And third, there are arbitrageurs (e.g., broker-dealers and, more recently, hedge funds) who attempt to enforce the expectations hypothesis, but  – given limited capital and the undiversifiable nature of the required trade  – do so incompletely, leaving behind some residual predictability in bond returns…(continue reading)

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