A Unified Model of Distress Risk Puzzles

A Unified Model of Distress Risk Puzzles

By Zhiyao Chen, Dirk Hackbarth, Ilya A. Strebulaev
January 19,2019Working Paper No. 3794

We build a dynamic model to link two empirical patterns: the negative failure probability-return relation (Campbell, Hilscher, and Szilagyi, JF, 2008) and the positive distress risk premium-return relation (Friewald, Wagner, and Zechner, JF, 2014). We show analytically and quantitatively that (i) procyclical debt financing in highly distressed firms results in a negative covariance between levered equity beta with countercyclical market risk premium; (ii) the negative covariance generates low or negative stock returns and alphas among those highly distressed firms; and (iii) firms with lower distress risk premiums endogenously choose higher leverage, so they are more likely to become distressed and earn negative returns. We provide empirical evidence to support our model predictions.