Tag Archives: AA

Digging For Value in a Pile of Manure

A special thank you to Brett Freeze of Global Technical Analysis for his analytical rigor and technical expertise.

There is an old story about a little boy who was such an extreme optimist that his worried parents took him to a psychiatrist. The doctor decided to try to temper the young boy’s optimism by ushering him into a room full of horse manure. Promptly the boy waded enthusiastically into the middle of the room saying, “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”

Such as it is with markets these days.

Finding Opportunity

These days, we often hear that the financial markets are caught up in the “Everything Bubble.” Stocks are overvalued, trillions in sovereign debt trade with negative interest rates, corporate credit, both investment grade, and high yield seem to trade with far more risk than return, and so on. However, as investors, we must ask, can we dig through this muck and find the pony in the room.

To frame this discussion, it is worth considering the contrast in risk between several credit market categories. According to the Bloomberg-Barclays Aggregate Investment Grade Corporate Index, yields at the end of January 2020 were hovering around 2.55% and in a range between 2.10% for double-A (AA) credits and 2.85% for triple-B (BBB) credits. That means the yield “pick-up” to move down in credit from AA to BBB is only worth 0.75%. If you shifted $1 million out of AA and into BBB, you should anticipate receiving an extra $7,500 per year as compensation for taking on significantly more risk. Gaining only 0.75% seems paltry compared to historical spreads, but in a world of microscopic yields, investors are desperate for income and willing to forego risk management and sound judgment.

As if the poor risk premium to own BBB over AA is not enough, one must also consider there is an unusually high concentration of BBB bonds currently outstanding as a percentage of the total amount of bonds in the investment-grade universe. The graph below from our article, The Corporate Maginot Line, shows how BBB bonds have become a larger part of the corporate bond universe versus all other credit tiers.

In that article, we discussed and highlighted how more bonds than ever in the history of corporate credit markets rest one step away from losing their investment-grade credit status.

Furthermore, as shared in the article and shown below, there is evidence that many of those companies are not even worthy of the BBB rating, having debt ratios that are incompatible with investment-grade categories. That too is troubling.

A second and often overlooked factor in evaluating risk is the price risk embedded in these bonds. In the fixed income markets, interest rate risk is typically assessed with a calculation called duration. Similar to beta in stocks, duration allows an investor to estimate how a change in interest rates will affect the price of the bond. Simply, if interest rates were to rise by 100 basis points (1.00%), duration allows us to quantify the effect on the price of a bond. How much money would be lost? That, after all, is what defines risk.

Currently, duration risk in the corporate credit market is higher than at any time in at least the last 30 years. At a duration of 8.05 years on average for the investment-grade bond market, an interest rate increase of 1.00% would coincide with the price of a bond with a duration of 8.05 to fall by 8.05%. In that case a par priced bond (price of 100) would drop to 91.95.

Yield Per Unit of Duration

Those two metrics, yield and duration, bring us to an important measure of value and a tool to compare different fixed income securities and classes. Combining the two measures and calculating yield per unit of duration, offers unique insight. Specifically, the calculation measures how much yield an investor receives (return) relative to the amount of duration (risk). This ratio is similar to the Sharpe Ratio for stocks but forward-looking, not backward-looking.

In the case of the aggregate investment-grade corporate bond market as described above, dividing 2.55% yield by the 8.05 duration produces a ratio of 0.317. Put another way, an investor is receiving 31.7 basis points of yield for each unit of duration risk. That is pretty skinny.

After all that digging, it may seem as though there may not be a pony in the corporate bond market. What we have determined is that investors appear to be indiscriminately plowing money into the corporate credit market without giving much thought to the minimal returns and heightened risk. As we have described on several other occasions, this is yet another symptom of the passive investing phenomenon.

Our Pony

If we compare the corporate yield per unit of duration metric to the same metric for mortgage-backed securities (MBS) we very well may have found our pony. The table below offers a comparison of yield per unit of duration ratios as of the end of January:

Clearly, the poorest risk-reward categories are in the corporate bond sectors with very low ratios. As shown, the ratios currently sit at nearly two standard deviations rich to the average. Conversely, the MBS sector has a ratio of 0.863, which is nearly three times that of the corporate sectors and is almost 1.5 standard deviations above the average for the mortgage sector.

The chart below puts further context to the MBS yield per unit of duration ratio to the investment-grade corporate sector. As shown, MBS are at their cheapest levels as compared to corporates since 2015.

Chart Courtesy Brett Freeze – Global Technical Analysis

MBS, such as those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are guaranteed against default by the U.S. government, which means that unlike corporate bonds, the bonds will always mature or be repaid at par. Because of this protection, they are rated AAA. MBS also have the added benefit of being intrinsically well diversified. The interest and principal of a mortgage bond are backed by thousands and even tens of thousands of different homeowners from many different geographical and socio-economic locations. Maybe most important, homeowners are desperately interested in keeping the roof over their head

In contrast, a bond issued by IBM is backed solely by that one company and its capabilities to service the debt. No matter how many homeowners default, an MBS investor is guaranteed to receive par or 100 cents on the dollar. Investors of IBM, or any other corporate bond, on the other hand, may not be quite so lucky.

It is important to note that if an investor pays a premium for a mortgage bond, say a 102-dollar price, and receives par in return, a loss may be incurred. The determining factor is how much cash flow was received from coupon payments over time. The same equally holds for corporate bonds. What differentiates corporate bonds from MBS is that the risk of a large loss is much lower for MBS.


As the chart and table above reveal, AAA-rated MBS currently have a very favorable risk-reward when compared with investment-grade corporate bonds at a comparable yield.

Although the world is distracted by celebrity investing in the FAANG stocks, Tesla, and now corporate debt, our preference is to find high quality investment options that deliver excellent risk-adjusted returns, or at a minimum improve them.

This analysis argues for one of two outcomes as it relates to the fixed income markets. If one is seeking fixed income credit exposure, they are better served to shift their asset allocation to a heavier weighting of MBS as opposed to investment-grade corporate bonds. Secondly, it suggests that reducing exposure to corporate bonds on an outright basis is prudent given their extreme valuations. Although cash or the money markets do not offer much yield, they are always powerful in terms of the option it affords should the equity and fixed income markets finally come to their senses and mean revert.

With so many assets having historically expensive valuations, it is a difficult time to be an optimist. However, despite limited options, it is encouraging to know there are still a few ponies around, one just has to hold their nose and get a little dirty to find it.

Fixed Income Review – April 2019

The positive trends of the first quarter extended into April with broad-based total return gains across nearly every major fixed-income category. Only the safest corners of the bond markets posted negative returns last month, albeit those losses were quite minor in contrast with the positive returns since the end of 2018.

Returns in April, across the spectrum of indices, were not as impressive as those seen in the first three months of the year. No one expected those types of moves nor would anyone, having enjoyed them, expect them indefinitely. The performance for the rest of the year no doubt depends more on coupon than price appreciation as spreads are tight and headwinds, especially in credit-sensitive sectors, are becoming more obvious as we will discuss below.

As mentioned, the only two modest losers in April were Treasuries and securitized products (mortgages, asset-backeds, and commercial mortgages). Otherwise, the high yield sector again won the day head and shoulders above investment grade corporates, the next closest performer. According to the heat map below, like last month, all sectors are green across all longer time frames adding emphasis to the impressive rally seen since Christmas.

We would not speculate on the likelihood of this trend continuing, as odds favor a weaker performance trajectory. That does not mean poor performance, but risks rise with prices and spreads perched at historically tight levels.

The charts below illustrate the option-adjusted spreads (OAS) for the major categories in the corporate universe. They have all tightened dramatically since the end of the year. If we are correct that the spread tightening is largely done, then the preference would be to play for safety, and some interest carry for the next few months. In doing so, one may miss another unexpected move tighter in very risky high yield bond spreads; however, given current spread levels, one may also avoid increased odds of poor performance and possible losses.

Understanding that compounding wealth depends on avoiding large, damaging, emotional losses we would prefer to accept the risk of lower returns with high-grade securities while reducing our exposure to the riskier, more volatile sectors.

Although cheapening more dramatically than the Investment Grade (IG) sector in the fourth quarter, High Yield (junk) bonds recaptured much of that in the first four months of this year and in doing so returns junk bonds to (more than) full-value status.

The same can also be said for the lower credit sectors within the IG population. A long-term perspective offers proper context for where valuations are today relative to the past 25 years. The risk is clearly skewed to wider credit spreads and cheaper valuations (losses).

The Trend Continues

The recent tightening of spreads offers little new to discuss other than some deceleration of price and spread action. Importantly, and as recent articles have emphasized, this is a very late stage cycle rally. Risks are rising that corporate margin headwinds, slowing global economic activity, and a high bar for rate cuts given the optical strength of the economy limit the scope for price and spread gains in credit.

Overweighting lower rated credit sectors of the fixed income market is currently akin to the well-known phrase “picking nickels up in front of a steam roller.”

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – March 2019

The first quarter of 2019 offered one of the most powerful surges in risky asset valuations seen in history. Closing at 2506 on December 31, 2018, the S&P 500 proceeded to rise 328 points (14.37%) to 2834 in the first quarter. The near vertical leap skyward corresponds directly to the abrupt change in posture from the Federal Reserve (Fed) as they eliminated all threats of rate hikes in 2019. They took the further step of announcing a schedule to halt quantitative tightening (QT).

As might be expected, high yield credit was the best performing sector for the quarter with a total return of 7.26%. Somewhat counter-intuitively, U.S. Treasuries (+2.11%) also rallied for the quarter although they lagged all other major fixed-income sectors as shown in the table below.

For March, risk markets stalled slightly after the big run in the prior two months. Although posting returns of nearly 1%, high yield was the worst performer while investment grade was the best.

The contrast in performance between high-quality and low-quality bonds may be telling. In what could be a related issue, interest rate volatility in the U.S. Treasury market as measured by the MOVE Index spiked higher mid-month and had implications for the credit markets.

As shown in the tables below, only the BBB spread tightened slightly with all others widening by 1-3 basis points. Putting it together, despite solid total returns for the month, the spread widening tells us that corporate credit did not keep pace with falling Treasury yields in March, particularly at the end of the month.

From a macro perspective, the changes in Treasury yields and the yield curve raise broad concerns. Namely, are we nearing the end of the current expansion? As discussed in far more detail in our prior article, Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, the yield curve has a durable track record of signaling major changes in the economic cycle especially when it inverts (longer-term interest rates drop below short-term rates). When an inverted curve is considered with the end of a Fed rate hike cycle, the evidence becomes even more compelling. The Fed abruptly altered their outlook for monetary policy in March putting to rest any concern for further hikes. The market is now pricing for 1 or 2 rate cuts in 2019.

The last time we observed this combination of circumstances, an inverted curve and a market implying fed funds rate cuts, was ominously in late 2006. In October of last year, when the yield curve spread was decidedly positive, most economists including National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow pointed to this barometer and said we were nowhere near recession. The current market narrative now claims we should not pay too much attention to this important historical precedent. As opposed to trying to shape the narrative to suit our interests, we prefer instead to heed history. The odds are that this time is not different.

Time will tell.

All data sourced from Bloomberg and Barclays