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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