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High Risk in High Yield

Written by Michael Lebowitz | Oct, 11, 2018

Tesla’s corporate debt is rated B2 and B- by Moody’s and Standard & Poors respectively. In market parlance, this means that Tesla debt is rated “junk”. This term is often a substitute way of saying “low-rated” or frequently the term “high-yield” is used interchangeably. Tesla’s bond maturing in October of 2021 pays a 4.00% coupon and has a current yield to maturity of 6.29% based on a market price of $93.625 per $100 of face value. Based on prices in the credit default swap markets, Tesla has a 41% percent chance of defaulting within the next five years.

  • The upside of owning this Tesla bond is 6.29% annually
  • The bond’s annual expected return, factoring in the odds of a default and a generous 50% default recovery rate, is 0.17%
  • Should Tesla default an investor could easily lose half of their initial investment.

Tesla is, in many ways, symbolic of the poor risk/return proposition being offered throughout the high-yield (HY) corporate bond market. Recent strength in the HY sector has resulted in historically low current yields to maturity and tight spreads versus other fixed income classes deemed less risky. Given the current state of yields and spreads and the overall risks in the sector, we must not assume that the outperformance of the HY sector versus other sectors can continue. Instead, we must ask why the HY sector has done so well to ascertain the expected future returns and inherent risks of an investment in this sector.

In this article we’ll examine:

  • What is driving HY to such returns?
  • How much lower can yields on HY debt go?
  • Is further spread tightening possible?
  • What does scenario analysis portend for the HY sector?

All data in this article is courtesy of Barclays.

HY Returns

The HY sector, again also known as “junk bonds”, is defined as corporate bonds with credit ratings below the investment grade (IG) rating of BBB- and Baa3 using Standard and Poors and Moody’s rating scales respectively.

The table below presents returns over various time frames and the current yields for six popular fixed income sectors as well as Barclay’s aggregate fixed income composite. As shown, the HY sector is clearly outperforming every other sector on a year-to-date basis and over the last 12 months.

We believe the outperformance is primarily due to four factors.

First, many investors tend to treat the HY sector as a hybrid between a fixed-income and an equity security. The combination of surging equity markets, low HY default rates and historically low yields offered by alternative fixed-income asset classes has led to a speculative rush of demand for HY from equity and fixed income investors.

The following graph compares the performance between the HY aggregate index and its subcomponents to the S&P 500 since 2015. Note that highly risky, CCC-rated bonds have offered the most similar returns to the stock market.

The next graph further highlights the correlation between stocks and HY. Implied equity volatility (VIX) tends to be negatively correlated with stocks. As such, the VIX tends to rise when stocks fall and vice versa. Similar, HY returns tend to decline as VIX rises and vice versa.

Second, the supply of high yield debt has been stable while the supply of higher rated investment grade (IG) bonds has been steadily rising. The following graph compares the amount of BBB rated securities to the amount of HY bonds outstanding. As shown, the ratio of the amount of BBB bonds, again the lowest rating that equates to “investment grade, to HY bonds has been cut in half over the last 10 years.  This is important to note as increased demand for HY has not been matched with increased supply thus resulting in higher prices and lower yields.

Third, ETF’s representing the HY sector have become very popular. The two largest, HYG and JNK, have grown four times faster than HY issuance since 2008. This has led many new investors to HY, some with little understanding of the intricacies and risk of the HY sector.

Fourth, the recent tax reform package boosted corporate earnings overall and provided corporate bond investors a greater amount of credit cushion. While the credit boost due to tax reform applies to most corporate issuers of debt, HY investors tend to be more appreciative as credit analysis plays a much bigger role in the pricing of HY debt. However, it is important to note that many HY corporations do not have positive earnings and therefore are currently not impacted by the reform.

In summation, decreased supply from issuers relative to investment grade supply and increased demand from ETF holders, coupled with better earnings and investors desperately seeking yield, have been the driving forces behind the recent outperformance of the HY sector.

HY Yields and Spreads

Analyzing the yield and spread levels of the high yield sector will help us understand if the positive factors mentioned above can continue to result in appreciable returns. This will help us quantify risk and reward for the HY sector.

As shown below, HY yields are not at the lows of the last five years, but they are at historically very low levels. The y-axis was truncated to better show the trend of the last 30 years.

Yields can decline slightly to reach the all-time lows seen in 2013 and 2016, which would provide HY investors marginal price gains. However, when we look at HY debt on a spread basis, or versus other fixed-income instruments, there appears to be little room for improvement. Spreads versus other fixed income products are at the tightest levels seen in over 20 years as shown below in the chart of HY to IG option adjusted spread (OAS) differential.

The table below shows spreads between HY, IG, Treasury (UST) securities and components of the high-yield sector versus each other by credit rating.

The following graph depicts option adjusted spreads (OAS) across the HY sector broken down by credit rating. Again, spreads versus U.S. Treasuries are tight versus historical levels and tight within the credit stack that comprises the HY sector.

Down in Credit

As mentioned, the HY sector has done well over the last three years. Extremely low levels of volatility over the period have provided further comfort to investors.

The strong demand for lower rated credits and lack of substantial volatility has led to an interesting dynamic. The Sharpe Ratio is a barometer of return per unit of risk typically measured by standard deviation. The higher the ratio the more return one is rewarded for the risk taken.

When long term Sharpe ratios and return performance of IG and HY are compared, we find that HY investors earned greater returns but withstood significantly greater volatility to do so.  Note the Sharpe Ratios for IG compared to HY and its subcomponents for the 2000-2014 period as shown below. Now, do the same visual analysis for the last three years. The differences can also be viewed in the “Difference” section of the table.

The bottom line is that HY investors were provided much better returns than IG investors but with significantly decreased volatility. Dare we declare this recent period an anomaly?

Scenario Analysis

Given the current state of yields and recent highs and lows in yield, we can build a scenario analysis model. To do this we created three conservative scenarios as follows:

  • HY yields fall to their minimum of the last three years
  • No change in yields
  • HY yields rise to the maximum of the last three years

Further, we introduce default rates. As shown below, the set of expected returns on the left is based on the relatively benign default experience of the last three years, while the data on the right is based on nearly 100 years of actual default experience.

Regardless of default assumptions and given the recent levels of volatility, the biggest takeaway from the table is that Sharpe Ratios are likely to revert back to more normal levels.

The volatility levels, potential yield changes and credit default rates used above are conservative as they do not accurately portray what could happen in a recession. Given that the current economic cycle is now over ten years old, consider the following default rates that occurred during the last three recessions as compared to historical mean.

Needless to say, a recession with a sharp increase in HY defaults accompanied with a surge in volatility would likely produce negative returns and gut wrenching changes in price. This scenario may seem like an outlier to those looking in the rear view mirror, but those investors looking ahead should consider the high likelihood of a recession in the coming year or two and what that might mean for HY investors.


An interest rate is the cost for borrowing money and the return for lending money. Most importantly for investors, interest rates or yields help ascertain the amount of risk investors believe is inherent in a security. When one’s risk expectation and those of the market are vastly different, an opportunity exists.

Given the limited ability for yields, spreads, volatility and default rates to decline further, we think the reward for holding HY over IG or other fixed income sectors is minimal. Not surprisingly, we believe the risk of a recession, higher yields, wider spreads, higher default rates and increased volatility carries a higher probability weighting. As such, the risk/reward proposition for HY appears negatively skewed, and chasing additional outperformance at this point in the cycle appears to be a fool’s errand.

For those investors using ETF’s to replicate the performance of the HY sector, you should also be especially cautious. As a point of reference, Barclays HY ETF (JNK) fell 33% in the last few months of 2008. A repeat of that performance or even a fraction thereof would be a high price to pay for the desire to pick up an additional 2.03% in dividend yield over an IG ETF such as LQD.

The bottom line: Markets are not adequately paying you to take credit risk, move up in credit!

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Michael Lebowitz, CFA is an Investment Analyst and Portfolio Manager for Clarity Financial, LLC. specializing in macroeconomic research, valuations, asset allocation, and risk management. RIA Contributing Editor and Research Director. CFA is an Investment Analyst and Portfolio Manager; Co-founder of 720 Global Research. 

Follow Michael on Twitter or go to 720global.com for more research and analysis.

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