Credit Risk

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Credit Risk

What is the dictionary definition of Credit Risk?

Dictionary Definition

Credit risk is the risk of loss due to a counterparty defaulting on a contract, or more generally the risk of loss due to some “credit event”. Traditionally this applied to bonds where debt holders were concerned that the counterparty to whom they’ve made a loan might default on payment (coupon or principal). For that reason, credit risk is sometimes also called default risk.

In business, almost all companies carry some credit risk, because most companies do not demand up-front cash payment for all products delivered and services rendered. Instead, most companies deliver the product or service, and then bill the customer, often specifying net 30 payment, in which payment is supposed to be completed on the 30th day after delivery. Credit risk is carried during that time.

Full Definition of Credit Risk

Credit risk is risk due to uncertainty in a counterparty’s (also called an obligor’s or credit’s) ability to meet its obligations. Because there are many types of counterparties – from individuals to sovereign governments – and many different types of obligations – from auto loans to derivatives transactions – credit risk takes many forms. Institutions manage it in different ways.

In assessing credit risk from a single counterparty, an institution must consider three issues:

  • default probability: What is the likelihood that the counterparty will default on its obligation either over the life of the obligation or over some specified horizon, such as a year? Calculated for a one-year horizon, this may be called the expected default frequency.
  • credit exposure: In the event of a default, how large will the outstanding obligation be when the default occurs?
  • recovery rate: In the event of a default, what fraction of the exposure may be recovered through bankruptcy proceedings or some other form of settlement?

When we speak of the credit quality of an obligation, this refers generally to the counterparty’s ability to perform on that obligation. This encompasses both the obligation’s default probability and the anticipated recovery rate.

To place credit exposure and credit quality in perspective, recall that every risk comprises two elements: exposure and uncertainty. For credit risk, credit exposure represents the former, and credit quality represents the latter.

For loans to individuals or small businesses, credit quality is typically assessed through a process of credit scoring. Prior to extending credit, a bank or other lender will obtain information about the party requesting a loan. In the case of a bank issuing credit cards, this might include the party’s annual income, existing debts, whether they rent or own a home, etc. A standard formula is applied to the information to produce a number, which is called a credit score. Based upon the credit score, the lending institution will decide whether or not to extend credit. The process is formulaic and highly standardized.

Many forms of credit risk – especially those associated with larger institutional counterparties – are complicated, unique or are of such a nature that it is worth assessing them in a less formulaic manner. The term credit analysis is used to describe any process for assessing the credit quality of a counterparty. While the term can encompass credit scoring, it is more commonly used to refer to processes that entail human judgment. One or more people, called credit analysts, will review information about the counterparty. This might include its balance sheet, income statement, recent trends in its industry, the current economic environment, etc. They may also assess the exact nature of an obligation. For example, senior debt generally has higher credit quality than does subordinated debt of the same issuer. Based upon this analysis, the credit analysts assign the counterparty (or the specific obligation) a credit rating, which can be used for making credit decisions.

Many banks, investment managers and insurance companies hire their own credit analysts who prepare credit ratings for internal use. Other firms – including Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – are in the business of developing credit ratings for use by investors or other third parties. Institutions that have publicly traded debt hire one or more of them to prepare credit ratings for their debt. Those credit ratings are then distributed for little or no charge to investors. Some regulators also develop credit ratings. In the United States, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners publishes credit ratings that are used for calculating capital charges for bond portfolios held by insurance companies.

The manner in which credit exposure is assessed is highly dependent on the nature of the obligation. If a bank has loaned money to a firm, the bank might calculate its credit exposure as the outstanding balance on the loan. Suppose instead that the bank has extended a line of credit to a firm, but none of the line has yet been drawn down. The immediate credit exposure is zero, but this doesn’t reflect the fact that the firm has the right to draw on the line of credit. Indeed, if the firm gets into financial distress, it can be expected to draw down on the credit line prior to any bankruptcy. A simple solution is for the bank to consider its credit exposure to be equal to the total line of credit. However, this may overstate the credit exposure. Another approach would be to calculate the credit exposure as being some fraction of the total line of credit, with the fraction determined based upon an analysis of prior experience with similar credits.

Credit risk modelling is a concept that broadly encompasses any algorithm-based methods of assessing credit risk. The term encompasses credit scoring, but it is more frequently used to describe the use of asset value models and intensity models in several contexts. These include

  • supplanting traditional credit analysis;
  • being used by financial engineers to value credit derivatives; and
  • being extended as portfolio credit risk measures used to analyze the credit risk of entire portfolios of obligations to support securitization, risk management or regulatory purposes.

Derivative instruments represent contingent obligations, so they entail credit risk. While it is possible to measure the mark-to-market credit exposure of derivatives based upon their current market values, this metric provides an incomplete picture. For example, many derivatives, such as forwards or swaps, have a market value of zero when they are first entered into. Mark-to-market exposure – which is based only on current market values – does not capture the potential for market values to increase over time. For that purpose, some probabilistic metric of potential credit exposure must be used.

There are many ways that credit risk can be managed or mitigated. The first line of defence is the use of credit scoring or credit analysis to avoid extending credit to parties that entail excessive credit risk. Credit risk limits are widely used. These generally specify the maximum exposure a firm is willing to take to a counterparty. Industry limits or country limits may also be established to limit the sum credit exposure a firm is willing to take to counterparties in a particular industry or country. Calculation of exposure under such limits requires some form of credit risk modelling. Transactions may be structured to include collateralization or various credit enhancements. Credit risks can be hedged with credit derivatives. Finally, firms can hold capital against outstanding credit exposures.


Managing credit risk is important for any company, and significant resources are devoted to the task by large companies with many customers (whether they be businesses or individuals). For large companies, there may even be a credit risk department whose job it is to assess the financial health of their customers and extend credit (or not) accordingly. For example, a distributor selling its products to a troubled retailer may attempt to lessen credit risk by tightening payment terms to “net 15”, or by actually selling less product on credit to the retailer, or even cutting off credit entirely, and demanding payment in advance. These strategies will probably impact the distributor’s potential sales, and cause friction in the relationship with the retailer, but the distributor will end up better off if the retailer is late paying its bills, or, especially, if it defaults and declares bankruptcy.
Credit risk is not really manageable for very small companies (i.e. those with only one or two customers). This makes these companies very vulnerable to defaults, or even payment delays by their customers.

The use of a collection agency is not really a tool to manage credit risk; rather, it is an extreme measure closer to a write-down in that the creditor expects a below-agreed return after the collection agency takes its share (if it is able to get anything at all).

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

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Modern Language Association (MLA):
Credit Risk. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. September 24, 2021
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Credit Risk. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: September 24, 2021).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Credit Risk. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Credit Risk are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 17th April, 2020 | 17 Views.