The 20 Biggest Bankruptcies in U.S. History
Doing business means taking calculated risks.
Regardless of whether you are opening a lemonade stand or you’re a leading executive at a Fortune 500 company, risk is an inevitable part of the game.
Taking bigger risks can generate proportional rewards – and sometimes, such as for the companies you’ll read about below, the risk-taking backfired to queue up some of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history.
Going For Broke
Today’s infographic comes to us from TitleMax, and it highlights the 20 biggest bankruptcies in the country’s history.
Companies below are sorted by total assets at the time of bankruptcy.
There are times when companies are forced to push in all of their chips to make a game-changing bet. Sometimes this pans out, and sometimes the plan fails miserably.
In other situations, companies were actually unaware they were “all-in”. Instead, the potentially destructive nature of the risk was not even on the radar, only to be later triggered through a global crisis or unanticipated “Black Swan” events.
The Biggest Bankruptcies in the U.S.
Here are the 20 biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history, and what triggered them:
|Rank||Company||Year||Assets at Bankruptcy||Downfall|
|#1||Lehman Brothers||2008||$691 billion||2008 financial crisis|
|#2||Washington Mutual||2008||$328 billion||2008 financial crisis|
|#3||Worldcom Inc.||2002||$104 billion||Accounting scandal|
|#4||GM||2009||$82 billion||Massive debt|
|#5||CIT Group||2009||$71 billion||Credit crunch|
|#6||Pacific Gas & Electric||2019||$71 billion||Wildfires|
|#8||Conseco||2002||$61 billion||Failed acquisition strategy|
|#9||MF Global||2011||$41 billion||European sovereign bonds|
|#10||Chrysler||2009||$39 billion||Massive debt|
|#11||Thornburg Mortgage||2009||$37 billion||Declining mortgage values|
|#12||Pacific Gas & Electric||2001||$36 billion||Drought|
|#13||Texaco||1987||$35 billion||Contract dispute|
|#14||FCOA||1988||$34 billion||Savings and loan crisis|
|#15||Refco||2005||$33 billion||Accounting fraud|
|#16||IndyMac Bancorp||2008||$33 billion||Mortgage market collapse|
|#17||Global Crossing||2002||$30 billion||Plummeting world economy|
|#18||Bank of New England||1991||$30 billion||Bad loans|
|#19||General Growth Properties||2009||$30 billion||Failed acquisition strategy|
|#20||Lyondell Chemical||2009||$27 billion||Decline in demand|
The data set on the biggest bankruptcies is organized by assets at time of bankruptcy. Therefore, they are not in inflation-adjusted terms, meaning the list skews towards more recent events.
This makes the impact of the 2008 financial crisis particularly easy to spot.
The events and consequences relating to the crisis (loan defaults, illiquidity, and declining asset values) were enough to take down banks like Lehman Brothers and WaMu. The after effects – including a slumping global economy – led to a second wave of bankruptcies for companies such as GM and Chrysler.
In total, nine of the 20 biggest bankruptcies on the list occurred in the 2008-2009 span.
A Dubious Distinction
You may also notice that one company was on the list twice, and this was not an accident.
Pacific Gas & Electric, a California company that is the nation’s largest utility provider, has the dubious distinction of going bankrupt twice in the last 20 years. The first time, in 2001, resulted from a drought that limited hydro electricity generation, forcing the company to import electricity from outside sources at exorbitant prices.
The more recent instance happened earlier this year. Facing tens of billions of dollars in liabilities from raging wildfires in California, the utility filed for Chapter 11 protection yet another time.
How Disinflation Could Affect Company Financing
History signals that after a period of slowing inflation—also known as disinflation—debt and equity issuance expands.
How Disinflation Could Affect Company Financing
The macroeconomic environment is shifting. Since the second half of 2022, the pace of U.S. inflation has been dropping.
We explore how this disinflation may affect company financing in Part 2 of our Understanding Market Trends series from Citizens.
Disinflation vs. Deflation
The last time inflation climbed above 9% and then dropped was in the early 1980’s.
|Time Period||March 1980-July 1983||June 2022-April 2023*|
|Inflation at Start of Cycle||14.8%||9.1%|
|Inflation at End of Cycle||2.5%||4.9%|
* The June 2022-April 2023 cycle is ongoing. Source: Federal Reserve. Inflation is based on the Consumer Price Index.
A decrease in the rate of inflation is known as disinflation. It differs from deflation, which is a negative inflation rate like the U.S. experienced at the end of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009.
How might slowing inflation affect the amount of debt and equity available to companies?
Looking to History
There are many factors that influence capital markets, such as technological advances, monetary policy, and regulatory changes.
With this caveat in mind, history signals that both debt and equity issuance expand after a period of disinflation.
Companies issued low levels of stock during the ‘80s disinflation period, but issuance later rose nearly 300% in 1983.
Source: Bloomberg. U.S. public equity issuance dollar volume that includes both initial and follow-on offerings and excludes convertibles.
Issuance grew quickly in the years that followed. Other factors also influenced issuance, such as the macroeconomic expansion, productivity growth, and the dotcom boom of the ‘90s.
Similarly, companies issued low debt during the ‘80s disinflation, but levels began to increase substantially in later years.
|Year||Deal Value||Interest Rate|
Source: Dealogic, Federal Reserve. Data reflects U.S. debt issuance dollar volume across several deal types including: Asset Backed Securities, U.S. Agency, Non-U.S. Agency, High Yield, Investment Grade, Government Backed, Mortgage Backed, Medium Term Notes, Covered Bonds, Preferreds, and Supranational. Interest Rate is the 10 Year Treasury Yield.
As interest rates dropped and debt capital markets matured, issuing debt became cheaper and corporations seized this opportunity.
It’s worth noting that debt issuance was also impacted by other factors, like the maturity of the high-yield debt market and growth in non-bank lenders such as hedge funds and pension funds.
Then vs. Now
Could the U.S. see levels of capital financing similar to what happened during the ‘80s disinflation? There are many economic differences between then and now.
Consider how various indicators differed 10 months into each disinflationary period.
|January 1981||April 2023*|
Next 12 Months
10-Yr Treasury Yield
|Nominal Wage Growth|
Annual, Seasonally Adjusted
|After-Tax Corporate Profits|
As Share of Gross Value Added
* Data for inflation expectations and interest rate is as of May 2023, data for corporate profits is as of Q4 1980 and Q1 2023. Inflation is a year-over-year inflation rate based on the Consumer Price Index. Source: Federal Reserve.
The U.S. economy is in a better position when it comes to factors like inflation, unemployment, and corporate profits. On the other hand, fears of an upcoming recession and turmoil in the banking sector have led to volatility.
What to Consider During Disinflation
Amid uncertainty in financial markets, lenders and investors may be more cautious. Companies will need to be strategic about how they approach capital financing.
- High-quality, profitable companies could be well positioned for IPOs as investors are placing more focus on cash flow.
- High-growth companies could face fewer options as lenders become more selective and could consider alternative forms of equity and private debt.
- Companies with lower credit ratings could find debt more expensive as lenders charge higher rates to account for market volatility.
In uncertain times, it’s critical for businesses to work with the right advisor to find—and take advantage of—financing opportunities.
Learn more about working with Citizens.
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