Tag Archives: corporate bonds

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.

Summary

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.

Steepening Yield Curve Could Yield Generational Opportunities : Michael Lebowitz on Real Vision

On July 1st, Michael Lebowitz was interviewed by Real Vision TV. In the interview he discussed our thoughts on the yield curve, corporate bonds, recession odds, the Federal Reserve, and much more. In particular, Michael pitched our recent portfolio transactions NLY and AGNC, which were both discussed in the following RIA PRO article: Profiting From a Steepening Yield Curve.

Real Vision was kind enough to allow us to share their exclusive video with RIA Pro clients. We hope you enjoy it.

To watch the Video please click HERE

Goldman Sachs on Corporate Debt: Myopic or Self-Serving?

The biggest problem that most people have is that they read Wall Street research reports and they believe the Wall Street hype… Wall Street analysts are very, very easy to fool, they’re generally parrots for what management tells them.” – Sam Antar, former CFO Crazy Eddie

In 2018, Goldman Sachs underwrote 513 corporate debt issuance deals totaling $94.5 billion. They were paid an average fee of 0.48% or approximately $453.6 million for those efforts.

In a recent research report entitled, Corporate Debt Is Not Too High, Goldman Sachs discusses why they are not concerned with the current levels of corporate debt despite record levels of corporate debt when compared to the nation’s GDP as shown in the chart below.

Goldman’s argument cites the following four reasons:

  1. Corporate debt remains below the 2001 peak as a share of corporate cash flows and has declined as a share of corporate assets
  2. Lower interest rates and more stable cash flows, which help reduce the cost of debt, mean that equilibrium leverage is likely higher than most of the post-war period
  3. Corporate debt in aggregate has a longer maturity which has reduced the refinancing risk
  4. The corporate sector runs a financial surplus which implies that capital expenditures are less dependent on external financing and less vulnerable to a profit squeeze

As discussed in our article The Corporate Maginot Line, not only have corporate debt levels risen dramatically since the financial crisis, but the quality of that debt has declined markedly. With the post-crisis recovery and expansion, the full credit spectrum of corporate debt levels are significantly larger, but debt outstanding in the single-A (A) and triple-B (BBB) rating sectors have grown the most by far.

Unlike previous periods, the composition of corporate debt within the investment grade sector is now heavily skewed toward the riskiest rating category of BBB. BBB-rated securities now represent over 40% of all corporate bonds outstanding. Additionally, all sorts of other risky loans reside as liabilities on corporate balance sheets and are potentially toxic assets for banks and investors. Most notable are leveraged loans extended to businesses by banks to corporations.

Beyond the amount of debt outstanding, another consideration related to creditworthiness are the uses of cash raised by corporations via debt issuance. Have the proceeds been used productively to enhance the future earnings and cash flows of the company, thereby making it easier to service the debt, or have they been used unproductively, creating a financial burden on the company in the future?

In A Perfect World

In an environment where the economy continues to grow at 2% and interest rates remain low, corporations may be able to continue borrowing at the pace required to fund their operations and conduct share buybacks as they wish. The optics appear sound and, based on linear extrapolation of circumstances, there is no reason to believe that tomorrow will differ from yesterday. However, if things do change, this happy scenario being described by the analysts at Goldman Sachs may turn out to be naively optimistic and imprudent.

Let us consider Goldman’s four points one at a time:

  1. Corporate debt remains below the 2001 peak as a share of corporate cash flows and has declined as a share of corporate assets

Corporate debt as a share of cash flow may not be at the 2001 peak, but it is higher than every other instance since at least 1952. As seen in the chart below, this measure tends to peak during recessions, which makes sense given that cash flows weaken during a recession and debt does not budge. This argument is cold comfort to anyone who is moderately aware of the late cycle dynamics we are currently experiencing.

Using corporate debt as a share of corporate assets as a measure of debt saturation suffers from a similar problem. The pattern is not as clear, but given that the value of corporate assets tends to decline in a recession, this metric does not offer much confidence in current conditions. While not at or above prior peaks, debt as a share of corporate assets appears somewhat elevated relative to levels going back to 1952. Unlike debt as a share of cash flow, this metric is not a helpful gauge in anticipating downturns in the economy.

  • Lower interest rates and more stable cash flows, which help reduce the cost of debt, mean that equilibrium leverage is likely higher than most of the post-war period

Goldman’s claim is purely speculative. How does anyone know where the “equilibrium leverage” level is other than by reflecting on historical patterns? Yes, interest rates are abnormally low, but for them to continue being an on-going benefit to corporations, they would need to continue to fall. Additionally, those “stable cash flows” are an artifact of extraordinary Fed policy which has driven interest rates to historical lows. If the economy slows, those cash flows will not remain stable.

  • Corporate debt in aggregate has a longer maturity which has reduced the refinancing risk

This too is a misleading argument. Goldman claims that the percentage of short-term debt as a share of total corporate debt has dropped from roughly 50% in 1985 to 30% today. The amount of corporate debt outstanding in 1985 was $1.5 trillion and short-term debt was about $750 billion. Today total corporate debt outstanding is $9.7 trillion and short-term debt is $2.9 trillion. The average maturity of debt outstanding may be longer today, but the nominal increase in the amount of debt means that the corporate refinancing risk is much bigger now than it has been at any time in history.

  • The corporate sector runs a financial surplus (income exceeds spending) which implies that capital expenditures are less dependent on external financing and less vulnerable to a profit squeeze

According to Federal Reserve data on corporate financial balances, the corporate sector does currently have surplus balances that are above the long-term average, but the chart below highlights that those surpluses have been declining since 2011. The recent boost came as a result of the corporate tax cuts and is not likely to be sustained. Historically, as the economic cycle ages, corporate balances peak and then decline, eventually turning negative as a precursor to a recession. If corporate financial surpluses continue to erode, capital expenditures are likely at risk as has been the case in most previous cycles.

Summary

In a recent speech, Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan stated that the high ratio of corporate debt to U.S. GDP is a concern and that it “could be an amplifier” if the economy turns down. A few days later, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell echoed Kaplan’s comments but followed them by saying, “today business debt does not appear to present notable risks to financial stability.”

“Today” should not concern Chairman Powell, tomorrow should. In that speech, entitled Business Debt and Our Dynamic Financial System, Powell contrasts some key characteristics of the mortgage crisis with current circumstances in corporate lending and deduces that they are not similar.

Someone should remind the Chairman of a speech former Chair Ben Bernanke gave on October 15, 2007, to the Economic Club of New York. Among his comments was this:

“Fortunately, the financial system entered the episode of the past few months with strong capital positions and a robust infrastructure. The banking system is healthy.”

That was exactly 12 months prior to Congress passing legislation to bailout the banking system.

As we suspected, you do not have to search too hard to find a Goldman Sachs report downplaying the risk of subprime mortgages in the year leading up to the subprime crisis.

In February 2007, Goldman penned a research report entitled Subprime Mortgage: Bleak Outlook but Limited Impact for the Banks. In that report, after elaborating on the deterioration in the performance of subprime mortgages, Goldman states, “We expect limited impact of these issues on the banks as bank portfolios consist almost entirely of prime loans.” Goldman followed that up in October 2007 publishing a report on financial crisis poster child AIG titled, Weakness related to possible subprime woes overdone.

Goldman Sachs and their competitors make money by selling bonds, being paid a handsome fee by corporate counterparties. Do not lose sight of that major conflict of interest when you read reports like those we reference here.

Even though it rots teeth and contributes to diabetes, Coca-Cola will never tell you that their soft drink is harmful to your health, and Goldman et al. will never tell you that corporate bonds may be harmful to your wealth if you pay the wrong price. Like most salespeople, they will always hype demand to sell to investors.

Banks will continue to push product without regard for the well-being of their clientele. As investors, we must always be aware of this conflict of interest and do our homework. Bank and broker opinions, views, and research are designed to help them sell product and make money, period. If this were not true, there never would have been a subprime debacle.

The Corporate Maginot Line

Since the post-financial crisis era began more than a decade ago, record low-interest rates and the Fed’s acquisition of $4 trillion of the highest quality fixed-income assets has led investors to scratch and claw for any asset, regardless of quality, offering returns above the rate of inflation. 

Financial media articles and Wall Street research discussing this dynamic are a dime-a-dozen. What we have not heard a peep about, however, are the inherent risks within the corporate bond market that have blossomed due to the way many corporate debt investors are managed and their somewhat unique strategies, objectives, and legal guidelines. 

This article offers insight and another justification for moving up in credit within the corporate bond market. For our prior recommendation to sell junk debt based on yields, spreads, and the economic cycle, we suggest reading our subscriber-only article Time To Recycle Your Junk. If you would like access to that article and many others, you can sign up for RIA Pro and enjoy all the site has to offer with a 30-day free trial period. 

Investor Restraints

By and large, equity investors do not have guidelines regulating whether or not they can buy companies based on the strength or weakness of their balance sheets and income statements. Corporate bond investors, on the other hand, are typically handcuffed with legal and/or self-imposed limits based on credit quality. For instance, most bond funds and ETFs are classified and regulated accordingly by the SEC as investment grade (rated BBB- or higher) or as high yield (rated BB+ or lower). Most other institutions, including endowments and pension funds, are limited by bylaws and other self-imposed mandates. The large majority of corporate bond investors solely traffic in investment grade, however, there is a contingency of high-yield investors such as certain mutual funds, ETFs (HYG/JNK), and other specialty funds.

Often overlooked, the bifurcation of investor limits and objectives makes an analysis of the corporate bond market different than that of the equity markets. The differences can be especially interesting if a large number of securities traverse the well-defined BBB-/BB+ “Maginot” line, a metaphor for expensive efforts offering a false line of security.

Corporate Bond Market Composition

The U.S. corporate bond market is approximately $6.4 trillion in size. Of that, over 80% is currently rated investment grade and 20% is junk-rated.This number does not include bank loans, derivatives, or other forms of debt on corporate balance sheets.

Since 2000, the corporate bond market has changed drastically in size and, importantly, in credit composition. Over this period, the corporate bond market has grown by 378%, greatly outstripping the 111% growth of GDP.  The bar chart below shows how the credit composition of the corporate bond market shifted markedly with the surge in debt outstanding. 

As circled, the amount of corporate bonds currently rated BBB represents over 40% of corporate bonds outstanding, doubling its share since 2000. Every other rating category constitutes less of a share than it did in 2000. Over that time period, the size of the BBB rated sector has grown from $294 billion to $2.61 trillion or 787%.

The Risk

To recap, there is a large proportion of investment grade investors piled into securities that are rated BBB and one small step away from being downgraded to junk status. Making this situation daunting, many investment grade investors are not allowed to hold junk-rated securities. If only 25% of the BBB-rated bonds were downgraded to junk, the size of the junk sector would increase by $650 billion or by over 50%. Here are some questions to ponder in the event downgrades on a considerable scale occur to BBB-rated corporate bonds:  

  • Are there enough buyers of junk debt to absorb the bonds sold by investment-grade investors?
  • If a recession causes BBB to BB downgrades, as is typical, will junk investors retain their current holdings, let alone buy the new debt that has entered their investment arena?
  • Will retail investors that are holding the popular junk ETFs (HYG and JNK) and not expecting large losses from a fixed income investment, continue to hold these ETFs?
  • Will forced selling from ETF’s, funds, and other investment grade holders result in a market that essentially temporarily shuts down similar to the sub-prime market in 2008?

We pose those questions to help you appreciate the potential for a liquidity issue, even a bond market crisis, if enough BBB paper is downgraded. If such an event were to occur, we have no doubt someone would eventually buy the newly rated junk paper. What concerns us is, at what price will buyers step up?  

Implied Risk

Given that downgrades are a real and present danger and there is real potential for a massive imbalance between the number of buyers and sellers of junk debt, we need to consider how close we may be to such an event. To provide perspective, we present a graph courtesy of Jeff Gundlach of DoubleLine.

The graph shows the implied ratings of all BBB companies based solely on the amount of leverage employed on their respective balance sheets. Bear in mind, the rating agencies use several metrics and not just leverage. The graph shows that 50% of BBB companies, based solely on leverage, are at levels typically associated with lower rated companies.

If 50% of BBB-rated bonds were to get downgraded, it would entail a shift of $1.30 trillion bonds to junk status. To put that into perspective, the entire junk market today is less than $1.25 trillion, and the subprime mortgage market that caused so many problems in 2008 peaked at $1.30 trillion. Keep in mind, the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing financial crisis was sparked by investor concerns about defaults and resulting losses.

As mentioned, if only a quarter or even less of this amount were downgraded we would still harbor grave concerns for corporate bond prices, as the supply could not easily be absorbed by traditional buyers of junk.   

Recommendation

Investors should stay ahead of what might be a large event in the corporate bond market. We recommend corporate bond investors focus on A-rated or solid BBB’s that are less likely to be downgraded. If investment grade investors are forced to sell, they will need to find replacement bonds which should help the performance of better rated corporate paper. What makes this recommendation particularly easy is the fact that the current yield spread between BBB and A-rated bonds are so tight. The opportunity cost of being wrong is minimal. At the same time, the benefits of avoiding major losses are large. 

With the current spread between BBB and A-rated corporate bonds near the tightest level since the Financial Crisis, the yield “give up” for moving up in credit to A or AA-rated bonds is a low price to pay given the risks. Simply, the market is begging you not to be a BBB hero.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Summary

The most important yet often overlooked aspect of investing is properly recognizing and quantifying the risk and reward of an investment. At times such as today, the imbalance between risk and reward is daunting, and the risks and/or opportunities beg for action to be taken.

We believe investors are being presented with a window to sidestep risk while giving up little to do so. If a great number of BBB-rated corporate bonds are downgraded, it is highly likely the prices of junk debt will plummet as supply will initially dwarf demand. It is in these types of events, as we saw in the sub-prime mortgage market ten years ago, that investors who wisely step aside can both protect themselves against losses and set themselves up to invest in generational value opportunities.

While the topic for another article, a large reason for the increase in corporate debt is companies’ willingness to increase leverage to buy back stock and pay larger dividends. Investors desperate for “safer but higher yielding” assets are more than willing to fund them. Just as the French were guilty of a false confidence in their Maginot Line to prevent a German invasion, current investors gain little at great expense by owning BBB-rated corporate bonds.

The punchline that will be sprung upon these investors is that the increase of debt, in many cases, was not widely used for productive measures which could have strengthened future earnings making the debt easier to pay off. Instead, the debt has weakened a great number of companies.

Here Are The Key Charts You Should Be Watching

I’ve shown many charts over the past few weeks, so I wanted to use today’s post to update them after the Fed’s Jerome Powell took more of a dovish tone regarding upcoming Fed Funds rate hikes, which caused stocks and other risk assets to rally in relief. Surprisingly, none of the important technical breakdowns I showed in recent weeks were negated by this week’s action.

As I’ve been showing since October, the S&P 500 broke below its uptrend line that started in early-2016, which I view as an important technical breakdown. Despite this week’s rally, the index is still below this important level. The S&P 500 is still holding above its 2,550 to 2,600 support zone that formed at the early-2018 lows. If this level is broken decisively, it would give another bearish confirmation signal. As I said one month ago, I am watching if the S&P 500 forms a bearish head and shoulders pattern.

S&P 500

The next chart shows the LQD iShares Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF. I said that the 110 to 115 support zone is key line in the sand to watch. If LQD closes below this zone in a convincing manner, it would likely foreshadow an even more powerful bond and stock market bust ahead. This week’s action did nothing to change my view.

LQD

The chart below shows the VIX Volatility Index, which I said appeared to be forming a triangle pattern that may foreshadow another powerful move ahead. If the VIX breaks out of this pattern in a convincing manner, it would likely lead to even higher volatility and fear (which would correspond with another leg down in the stock market). On the other hand, if the VIX breaks down from this pattern, it could be the sign of a more extended market bounce or Santa Claus rally ahead. Interestingly, this week’s market bounce and Powell’s comments did not cause this pattern to break down.

VIX

Last week, I showed the key levels to watch in WTI crude oil after its shocking plunge in the past month. I explained that oil broke below its important uptrend line that started in early-2016, which is not a good sign (this breakdown is very similar to the S&P 500’s breakdown). WTI crude oil is sitting right above its key $50 level. A convincing break below $50 would likely signal further bearish action.

WTI

In last week’s crude oil update, I explained that crude oil’s plunge caused an important technical breakdown in the HYG high yield corporate bond ETF (because a good portion of outstanding junk bonds have been issued by shale energy companies). In recent years, bearish moves in crude oil often lead to bearish moves in the HYG ETF and vice versa. I believe HYG’s breakdown is yet another sign that the shale energy bubble is on the verge of popping. This week’s market bounce and Powell’s comments did not negate this bearish breakdown.

HYG

I am watching how these markets act at the key levels discussed and I will provide periodic updates when there are important developments.

Please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with my updates.

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The Worst Place To Be For Bond Investors

Last week, Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Funds noted in a webcast that investment grade corporate bonds are terrible. There is no way to win with them, he said. As much as half the investment grade universe could be downgraded to junk, and that will take buyers out of the market who can’t buy junk bonds. On some basic ratios, Gundlach argued, a lot of investment grade debt should already be rated junk.

Yesterday, DoubleLine Capital Portfolio Manager Monica Erickson was quoted in a Reuters piece arguing similarly that the investment grade corporate bond market is the worst place to be for bond investors. That part of the market has delivered negative returns this year. For example, the iShares Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD) is down 5.50% for the year through November 15. The main investment grade bond index, the Bloomberg Barclay’s US Aggregate Bond Index, is down 2.23% over the same period. This year, investment grade corporates have underperformed lower quality junk bonds.

Interestingly, it’s not that investment grade companies are ready to default, noted Erickson. It’s that the starting yield on investment grade corporates is so low that there is a lot of duration risk in them. That risk reflects how soon or long it takes for an investor to receive their money back in interest and principal payments. If interest rates increase, bonds with higher durations (fewer payments coming back to the investor sooner) suffer more because it takes an investor longer to receive their money back and invest in new prevailing higher rates.

In addition to the higher-than-usual duration risk, investment grade corporates are yielding less over comparable Treasuries than they have previously. Echoing Gundlach’s point, Erickson said BBB-rated (the lowest rung of investment grade) bonds had increased from 20% of the investment grade universe in 2008 to 50% of the universe today. In a downturn, bonds moving from BBB to BB may not find buyers easily since many institutions have prohibitions against owning junk bonds. The BBB-rated universe is around $3 trillion, while the entire junk bond universe is a little over $1 trillion.

The Reuters article said that Erickson favored bank loans over investment grade corporates, since bank loans have a floating rate feature. But they aren’t foolproof either because of their extra dollop of credit risk.

Investors should have a handle on their bond allocations. It may not be a bad time to overweight Treasuries.

Please click here if you have questions about how we manage bond portfolios.

How The Bubbles In Stocks And Corporate Bonds Will Burst

As someone who has been warning heavily about dangerous bubbles in U.S. corporate bonds and stocks, people often ask me how and when I foresee these bubbles bursting. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago:

To put it simply, the U.S. corporate debt bubble will likely burst due to tightening monetary conditions, including rising interest rates. Loose monetary conditions are what created the corporate debt bubble in the first place, so the ending of those conditions will end the corporate debt bubble. Falling corporate bond prices and higher corporate bond yields will cause stock buybacks to come to a screeching halt, which will also pop the stock market bubble, creating a downward spiral. There are extreme consequences from central bank market-meddling and we are about to learn this lesson once again.

Interestingly, Zero Hedge tweeted a chart today of the LQD iShares Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF saying that it was “about to break 7 year support: below it, the buybacks end.” That chart resonated with me, because it echos my warnings from a few months ago. I decided to recreate this chart with my own commentary on it. The 110 to 115 support zone is the key line in the sand to watch. If LQD closes below this zone in a convincing manner, it would likely foreshadow an even more powerful bond and stock market bust ahead.

Corporate Grade Bonds - LQD

Thanks to ultra-low corporate bond yields, U.S. corporations have engaged in a borrowing binge since the Global Financial Crisis. Total outstanding non-financial U.S. corporate debt is up by an incredible $2.5 trillion or 40 percent since its 2008 peakwhich was already a precariously high level to begin with.

Corporate Debt

U.S. corporate debt is now at an all-time high of over 45% of GDP, which is even worse than the levels reached during the dot-com bubble and U.S. housing and credit bubble:

Corporate Debt vs. GDP

Please watch my presentations about the U.S. corporate debt bubble and stock market bubble to learn more:

Billionaire fund manager Jeff Gundlach shares similar concerns as me, saying “The corporate bond market is going to get much worse when the next recession comes. It’s not worth trying to wait for that last ounce of return, or extra yield from the corporate bond market.” Another billionaire investor, Paul Tudor Jones, put out a warning this week, saying “it is in the corporate bond market where the first signs of trouble will emerge.” GE’s terrifying recent credit meltdown may be the initial pinprick for the corporate debt bubble, but make no mistake – it is not an isolated incident. GE may be the equivalent to Bear Stearns in 2007 and 2008 – just one of the first of many casualties. Anyone who thinks that the Fed can distort the credit markets for so long without terrible consequences is extremely naive and will be taught a lesson in the days to come.

Please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with my updates.

If you have any questions about anything I wrote in this piece or would like to learn how Clarity Financial can help you preserve and grow your wealth in the dangerous financial environment ahead, please contact me here.

Are Corporate Bonds Worth The Risk?

Reprint of my latest article for Citywire —-

What are the benefits of adding exposure to investment grade corporate bonds (IGCs) in a stock and bond portfolio?

It may sound like a simple – possibly even stupid – question, but new research suggests that IGCs might not be all they’re cracked up to be. You might even be better off sticking with plain old Treasurys.

The conventional wisdom is that IGCs should improve a portfolio’s volatility-adjusted returns. After all, corporate bonds typically have higher coupons than government bonds without having completely similar trading patterns.

Unfortunately, according to recent research by Jared Kizer of Buckingham Asset Management, the yield premium of IGCs over government bonds doesn’t add much at all to the risk-adjusted returns of a stock-and-government bond portfolio.

In a new paper, Kizer has found that the supposedly attractive premium is based on the historical numbers of the early part of one data set when, especially during the Great Depression, significant credit stress delivered high returns to investors for very highly rated corporate bonds.

Kizer went on to question the veracity of that early data, showing that in later periods – the past 50 years – corporates haven’t added risk-adjusted benefits to performance. We will come back to that dodgy dataset shortly, but for now let’s focus on the past half century.

Examining the period from 1969 to October 2017 using Ibbotson data spliced with some from Bloomberg, Kizer found a compounded return premium of IGCs over government bonds of 1.1% per year. By itself, that is statistically significant. However, Kizer also found that the return premium can be explained by different equity factors, including size, value, momentum and others.

Then, using just the Bloomberg data from 1973 to October 2017, Kizer identified an IGC premium that isn’t statistically significant even before accounting for the equity factors. Basically, adding corporate bonds to a portfolio of stocks and government bonds adds nothing to the volatility-adjusted returns of those portfolios.

Next, as he did in a different piece of research into the diversification benefits of real estate investment trusts with Sean Grover, Kizer tried to replicate the performance of IGCs in portfolios constructed without them. Using four simple portfolios of capitalization-weighted stock indices and government bonds, Kizer found that he was able to replicate the performance characteristics of corporate bonds, concluding that ‘corporate bonds are redundant in portfolios that own stocks and government bonds.’

Misdirected affection

But if this is so, why have others thought that corporate bonds added diversification?

A previous research paper by Attakrit Asvanunt and Scott Richardson touted the benefits of IGCs, but as Kizer explained, the evidence that Asvanunt and Richardson marshalled was unduly influenced by the period around the Great Depression, when corporate bonds might have added diversification. Kizer also doubted the accuracy of some of the early period data.

Specifically, Kizer found a significantly higher Sharpe ratio for the IGC premium compared with either equities or interest rate risk during the period encompassing the Great Depression. Anomalous high returns during the 1930s, a period of significant credit stress and an IGC premium in excess of 2.5% per year in this early period for an index focused on AA and AAA corporate bonds resulted in an IGC premium that seems to be completely disconnected from the frequency of corporate bond defaults.

Directing his analysis to the period between 1930 and 1968 in the Ibbotson data, Kizer found that the IGC premium for that period was ‘more than two times higher than market premium and almost five times higher than the term premium over the pre-1969 period.’ The IGC premium itself was 2.6 % per year, which is high considering that the Ibbotson data is oriented toward the highest quality (AA and AAA) corporate bonds. What’s more, Kizer found that the Sharpe ratio of the IGC premium was well in excess of one in the 1930s and 1940s, but never one or higher in any other decade through 2009. The IGC premium had the highest risk-adjusted returns in three of the four
early-period decades.

Dodgy data

All of this is suspicious because default rates were highest in the 1930s, according to Moody’s data. Somehow, the IGC premium was highest when defaults were highest. Moody’s also reports almost no corporate defaults from the early 1940s through the 1960s, meaning that one might expect the 1940s to have produced a higher IGC premium than the 1930s. Although Kizer wasn’t sure, he suspected that the early data tracked bonds that were rated AAA or AA, but then dropped them if they were downgraded or if they defaulted. That means that their poor performance might not have been accounted for accurately.

The upshot for investors is that adding a permanent allocation of investment grade corporate bonds to a portfolio of stocks and government bonds does not increase that portfolio’s risk-adjusted returns. Kizer did allow for the fact that it might be possible to add corporate bonds opportunistically, or when spreads are relatively wide, reducing exposure to them again when spreads contract. This could theoretically enhance a portfolio’s risk-adjusted returns.

Of course, just as we might be living in a period of higher equity valuations, we might also be living in a period of tighter spreads. That would make such an operation difficult to execute and perhaps not worth the risk premium – or the lack thereof.

The Other Face Of Risk – Bonds

Usually, when it’s a good time to own high quality intermediate term bonds – those that serve as workhorses of most investors’ portfolios, it’s a bad time to own “high yield” (a nice marketing term for “junk”) bonds, and vice versa. That’s because lower interest rates provide a good climate for relatively safe bonds that don’t deliver much yield, and because the economic weakness that low rates signal is often a danger to shaky borrowers.

Conversely, the rising rates that can inflict duration-related damage to safer, lower yielding bonds usually coincide with a robust economy that’s good for junk bonds. So it’s not often that the climate is good or bad for both high-quality intermediate term bonds and high yielding junk bonds.

But, in a note to its investors, the Los Angeles-based value investment firm FPA Funds has just argued that the current environment is bad for both the typical portfolio bond workhorses and more exotic high yielding fare. First, there is a disagreement between the yield curve and the implied inflation that the 10-Year TIPS bond is signaling. The yield curve is flat, implying that investors anticipate deflation. After all, the only reason an investor in longer term bonds would accept a marginally higher yield over a shorter term bond is if the investor anticipates deflation and lower rates in the future. However, that seems unlikely to FPA New Income Fund (FPNIX) portfolio managers Thomas Atteberry and Abhijeet Patwardhan and FPA product specialist Ryan Leggio, since the difference in yield between the 10-year TIPS bond and the 10-Year Treasury is around 2 percentage points now, indicating an anticipation of 2% inflation.

But if inflation – or at least some tepid alternative to deflation – is on the horizon, doesn’t that mean that it’s a good environment for junk bonds? Not so fast say Atteberry, Patwardhan, and Leggio. The high yield “spread” – the difference in yield between high yielding corporate bonds and Treasuries – is very low. That means investors aren’t getting paid much to take the credit risk of owning high yield bonds. That’s especially true since leverage is high among corporate borrowers and covenant quality levels are low. A covenant is a legally binding agreement between borrowers and lenders designed to protect the interests of both parties. Low covenant quality means borrowers don’t have to meet specific requirements.

The authors note that “this is only the third time in the past twenty years when the yield curve has been this flat while at the same time high yield spreads have been this tight.” The upshot of their analysis is that it’s a good time for bond investors to reduce both credit and duration risks. The FPA New Income fund, accordingly, has a short duration, and is reducing credit risk. The fund is avoiding unsecured corporate bonds, and favors secured bonds, for example. It has around 8% of its portfolio in corporate bonds overall compared to 31% and 39%, respectively for funds in the Morningstar Intermediate-Term  Bond and Short-Term Bond Fund categories. As an alternative the fund prefers highly rated asset-backed securities which absorb 57% of its assets. Altogether, 71% of the fund’s assets are in AAA-rated securities.

FPA New Income has always been a “belt-and-suspenders” bond fund from the time legendary investor Bob Rodriguez ran it. It’s managers dislike posting negative return numbers. This has caused them to miss some rallies in bonds. For example, the fund has posted a 2.04% annualized return for the past decade ending in February 2018, while the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Index has delivered a 3.60% annualized return over that time. But the fund’s willingness to “shoot only in a target rich environment” also means it has kept investors safe since 1984, including a 4.31% return during the financial crisis year of 2008 when so many bond funds missed the credit problems of their holdings and faltered as a result. Also, besides never posting a negative return in a calendar year since inception, over the 30 year period ending in February 2018, the fund achieved a 5.85% annualized return versus the 6.13% annualized return of the index. Ten years is a long time, but it’s worth considering whether the fund’s underperformance over the last decade indicates more alarming things about the prevailing credit and interest rate conditions than about its approach.