Tag Archives: corporates

Fixed Income Review – July 2019

We delayed publishing the July Fixed Income Review so we can present fresh data and comment on the surge in volatility following the Fed meeting (7/31) and new tariffs on China (8/1). 

In general, the fixed income markets were mostly sleep-walking through July in anticipation of a July 31st Federal Reserve rate cut and a much-anticipated dovish statement from the Fed.  As if on autopilot, stock markets slogged higher and credit spreads moved tighter throughout the month. Meanwhile, Treasury yields rose modestly after their dramatic declines in May and June. Indeed, as the table below reflects, Treasuries were the only major fixed-income class to lose ground on a total return basis in July. All other categories posted positive returns for the month.

In stark contrast, the ETF table below highlights some of the significant changes we have seen since the beginning of August.

Following the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting on July 31 and the subsequent press conference delivered by Chairman Jerome Powell, the future of monetary policy was suddenly in question. For the first time in several months, the Fed failed to deliver a dovish surprise.

Part of Powell’s response to the first question in the press conference regarding the “hurdle” for further rate cuts was as follows:

“…the committee is really thinking of this as a way of adjusting policy to a somewhat more accommodative stance to further the three objectives that I mentioned. To ensure against downside risks, to provide support to the economy that those factors are pushing down on economic growth and then to support inflation. So, we do think it’ll serve all of those goals. But again, we’re thinking of it as essentially in the nature of a midcycle adjustment to policy.”

Despite the evidence and assurances of rate cuts to provide a firebreak against any potential weakening of the economy, Powell’s reference to “a midcycle adjustment” suddenly raised doubts about their conviction for further easing.  

Given the strength of the U.S. economy, the “downside risks” he refers to are clearly emanating from foreign sources. Now add a Fed that may not be ready to cut rates further and the renewed escalation of the trade war between the U.S. and China and one has a potent cocktail for the volatility seen since the end of July.

As can be seen in the tables above, fixed-income markets in July were mostly a non-event but the first several days of August have been full of fireworks. The table below illustrates the move in U.S. Treasury yields since July 31.

Investment grade and high yield markets reacted with some displeasure to Jerome Powell’s comments and new rhetoric from the administration on trade and tariff challenges associated with China. Although the magnitude of the spread changes did not breach any meaningful technical levels, the speed of the change was rather head-snapping.

We end up in a familiar place. If we are to take the Chairman at his word and potential downside risks warrant a rate cut, it becomes even more challenging to justify the valuations investors are being asked to pay to own risky assets. Despite having posted new highs in recent weeks, the S&P 500 has produced a 3.48% annualized total return over the past 18 months along with volatility of 15.5%. High yield bonds have delivered annualized total returns of 4.80% with 12.9% volatility. Net out the most recent inflation data of 1.6% from those numbers and we struggle to understand why investors have been so enthusiastic.

Eighteen months ago, one could buy 10-year Treasuries at a 2.85% yield. The 7-10 year ETF (Ticker: IEF) has delivered 3.55% total return and with only 4.4% volatility. Needless to say, while not glamorous, the risk-free route provided returns on par with stocks and high-yield but with significantly less volatility. Given the risks Chairman Powell has outlined, might Treasuries, despite near-record low yields, be the safe place to hide in fixed income for the time being? Astute, rational investors will either figure that out on their own or the market will impose its will.

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – June 2019

As central banks have become collectively more dovish throughout 2019, monetary stimulus appears to be back in control of the economic cycle. The Federal Reserve ratcheted up their easing posture at the June Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as one voting member dissented from the group in favor of a rate cut. There were other non-voting members even arguing for a 50 basis point rate cut on concerns about the economic outlook and still muted inflation pressures. Keep in mind this abrupt flip in policy is coming despite unemployment at near half-century lows and inflation hovering around 2.0%, the supposed Fed target.

With that backdrop in play, it is no surprise that June was a good month for all risk assets. Within the Fixed income arena, the riskiest of bonds outperformed against the spectrum of safer fixed-income products. As the table below highlights, every major category performed well with emerging markets (EM) leading the way and investment grade (IG) and high yield (HY) corporate returns close behind.

Fixed income has now completed a “round trip” from June 2018 as yields and spreads in almost every category are back below the levels observed at the same time last year. The tables below illustrate those moves in both yields and spreads.

The anticipation of what is being called “insurance rate cuts” from the Fed as well as easing measures expected from the European Central Bank (ECB), offered investors comfort that these potential actions will keep downside risk and volatility at bay. The hope is that the central bankers are sufficiently ahead of the curve in combating weaker global growth.

Despite investor optimism about the outlook as evidenced in the first half performance, risks remain. Most notably, ongoing deceleration in trade and industrial activity could worsen and bring an end to the current record-long economic U.S. expansion. The United States is surrounded by economies that are faltering, including Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, much of southeast Asia and, most importantly, China. The Trump trade policy agenda only adds to these risks, especially for those countries dependent on exports for economic growth.

If risks do not abate, then we should expect forceful actions from central bankers. The common response of Treasury yields and the yield curve is for the short end (out to two- or three-year maturities) to drop significantly and the long end to either hold steady or fall but much less so than short rates resulting in what is called a bullish curve steepener. As we discussed in Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, past episodes of rate cuts illustrate this effect.

With investors complacent, yields and spreads on risky assets back to extremely rich levels, and global trouble brewing, the pleasant by-product of recent Fed rhetoric might quickly be disrupted. If so, the gains of the first half of 2019 would become a vague memory.

Apart from slowing global trade and industrial activity, keep in mind there are plenty of other potentially disruptive issues at hand including China leverage, Brexit, the contentious circumstances between the U.S. and Iran, the Italian government fighting with the European Commission on fiscal issues, Turkish currency depreciation, on-going problems in Argentina and more.

At the moment, the Fed and the ECB appear to have the upper hand on the markets, and higher yielding asset alternatives that reward an investor for taking risk are benefiting. Still, a critical assessment of the current landscape demands that investors engage and think critically about the risk-reward trade-off under current circumstances. The Fed and the ECB are not hyper-cautious and dovish for no reason at all. There is more to the current economic dynamic than meets the passive observer’s eye.

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – May 2019

To quote from last month’s FI Review, “The performance for the rest of the year no doubt depends more on coupon than price appreciation as spreads are tight and headwinds are becoming more obvious…

On the surface, it looks as though fixed income had another excellent month with the exception of the high yield (junk) sector. Year-to-date, total return gains range from between 3.5% (MBS, ABS, CMBS) to 7.3% (junk). With equity markets up 9-10% through May, bonds are, to use horse racing vernacular, holding pace and stalking. But the monthly total return data does not tell the whole story as we shall see.

To start with an important backdrop for all asset classes, the decline in yields during May was eye-catching and most notable was the sharp inversion of the 3-month to 10-year curve spread. The table below highlights yield changes for May and the curve inversion.

The graph below shows the yields on the 3-month T-bill and the 10-year Treasury note as well as the yield spread between the two. Past inversions of this curve have tended to signal the eventuality of a recession, so this is a meaningful gauge to watch.

To reference the lead quote above, we maintain that spread tightening has most likely run its full course for this cycle and performance will largely be driven by carry. That said, we offer caution as the risk of spread widening across all credit sectors is high, and May might be offering clues about what may yet come.

The first four months of the year highlighted excellent risk-on opportunities. However, with Treasury yields now falling dramatically, they seem to signal bigger problems for the global and domestic economy than had previously been considered. The Treasury sector handily outperformed all others in May and higher risk categories (Junk and EM) were the worst performers. This is a reversal from what we have seen thus far in 2019.

Summer winds are blowing in trouble from the obvious U.S.-China trade dispute but also from Italy, Brexit, Iran, and Deutsche Bank woes.

To highlight the relationship between the historical and recent month-over-month moves in the S&P 500 returns and those of investment grade and high yield bonds, the scatter chart below offers some compelling insight. The green marker on each graph is the month of April, and the red marker is May.

Investment grade bonds have less sensitivity to equity market moves (trendline slope 0.124) and, as we should expect, high yield bonds have return characteristics that closer mimics that of the stock market (trendline slope 0.474). The scales on the two graphs are identical to further stress the differences in return sensitivity.

Finally, when looking at the spread between 5-year Treasuries and investment-grade bonds (similar duration securities) versus the spread between 5-year Treasuries and high-yield bonds, the spread widening since the end of April has been telling.

The investment grade spread to Treasuries widened by .019% (19 bps) and .82% (82 bps) against junk. Netting the risk-free interest rate move in Treasuries for May reveals that the pure excess return for the investment grade sector was -1.39% and for high yield it was -2.49%.

The month of May offered a lot of new information for investors. Most of it is highly cautionary.

All Data Courtesy Bloomberg and Barclays

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.

Monthly Fixed Income Review – February 2019

The rebound in credit markets has been remarkable since the Christmas eve lows however it appears as though the fuel for the rally, optimism of a softened stance by the Federal Reserve (Fed) and a pending trade deal with China, is being priced in multiple times over. Every time a new headline about a trade deal, or dovish Fed-speak hits the wire, the market spikes (we probably have the genius of artificial intelligence and computer-driven algorithmic traders to thank for that).

Since late December, the Fed has clearly eased their outlook for future rate hikes and balance sheet reduction but they have yet to formalize a new stance. That may be coming in two weeks, as it appears likely that at the March 20th FOMC meeting a schedule for eliminating QT will be discussed.

As things stand now, the data on which the Fed claims to be dependent, says unemployment is at a historical low 4% and inflation is hovering around their 2% target. As an aside the deflationary ghost that seems to justify the Fed’s lust for more inflation has not been seen since the 1930’s.  “Crosscurrents” that also concern the Fed as mentioned by Powell in last week’s testimony likely include the usual suspects of China and Europe.

In the month of February, similar to what we saw in January, riskier fixed-income categories outperformed higher-quality categories. The best performing categories were high yield and emerging markets. Meanwhile, treasuries and mortgages posted a negative total return for the month.

With the exception of the investment grade corporate sector, ETF performance was generally in line with the indices.

In the name of prudence, it should be obvious that the levels at which riskier credits are trading should not be compelling to discerning investors, especially as economic data and earnings guidance points to the possibility of a further slowing of the U.S. economy.

As discussed in the past, the investment grade (IG) universe is becoming more and more heavily concentrated in the BBB credit category.

This weaker credit characteristic of the investment grade universe is bearing out in its performance. In the chart below, the dark blue line shows the difference between high yield (HY) and IG option-adjusted spreads. The light blue line is the difference between HY and IG credit default swap (CDS) pricing. CDS spreads are important because these are the instruments most heavily used by broker-dealers and other institutional accounts to hedge their corporate bond holdings. The chart shows HY spreads in both cases widening by more than IG which is to be expected. However, since October 2018 when turbulence hit the markets, if we look at the CDS ratio (HY CDS divided by IG CDS), IG underperformed high yield as credit spreads widened (red line). In other words, as HY CDS (the numerator) rose through December, IG CDS (the denominator) rose comparatively by more causing the ratio to drop from 5.6 to 5.1 (see table below).

This behavior is atypical as better credit quality generally outperforms weaker credits in a spread widening environment.  Higher credit quality should widen by comparatively less keeping the ratio somewhat stable.

Since year end, IG has outperformed as the market recovered. As the table and ratio changes reflect, IG CDS is trading with a higher beta to HY CDS. How else to explain this except to observe that so much more of the index is perched dangerously close to junk ratings and at a greater risk of losing investment grade status.

Economic stagnation would likely send a sizable portion of the triple-B rated bonds into Junkville. That would then create a problem in the credit slums as a large amount of newly rated junk bonds would cause spread widening in a land that is highly sensitive given current valuations. This is our assessment as to why we have seen the recent elevated ratio volatility between IG and HY bond CDS spreads.

The bottom line is that with the uncertainty in the current outlook, the length of the current recovery and the sudden, almost irrational bounce off the Christmas Eve lows, does taking risk in the credit sector make sense? We argue no and recommend either liquidating at these valuations, moving up in credit, or sit patiently on cash. Now is not a time to acquire credit risk.

Monthly Fixed Income Review – January 2019

Blowing the Call

Before reviewing January returns in the fixed-income markets, we digress for a moment to raise important questions about the character and integrity of financial markets nudged and cajoled by Federal Reserve (Fed) officials.

In the recent National Football League (NFL) playoff games, there were several occasions where poor or missed calls by the referees influenced the outcome of the game. Despite all of the technology, cameras, camera angles and new “Play Review” rules, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged a significant and obvious missed call in the Rams-Saints game but said the game is, after all, “officiated by humans”. Fans and announcers, outraged at the errors, charged Goodell with avoiding the important issues on the matter and some have gone so far as to say Super Bowl LIII was “tainted”.

And yet in financial markets, we continually speak of the referees at the Fed as an omnipresent force that needs to be called upon to influence outcomes. In doing so, the Fed regularly chooses winners and losers in the capital markets with obvious intent. Is there a difference between the NFL referees and the Fed? Yes, of course, the economy and the welfare of the nation is infinitely more important than a football game. Is it proper? Legal? Most investors assume so since it is carried out at the Fed on a daily basis just as enthusiastically as it is at the Peoples Bank of (communist) China. Now for the hard question: Is it in the best interest of the public? The answer: No, it is not.

The January edition of our fixed income review reveals just as much about these nefarious interventions by the Fed in bond markets as we observed in equity markets over the past month. Our perspective and characterization of those interventions is out of consensus as most people see no harm (and great help) in the outside influences brought to bear. The problem is that whether immediately recognized or not, the Fed’s involvement in manipulating outcomes to their preference similarly damages their integrity and that of our markets and economy.

The difference is that the NFL, although not entirely owning up to the problem publicly, understands what is at stake and will likely take corrective action to minimize these issues in the future. The Fed does precisely the opposite delving ever deeper into the business of manipulating economic outcomes as if it is their obligation. For the Fed, their tone-deaf perspective presents far bigger problems for the dollar, interest rates, the deficit and a multitude of other matters that will reveal themselves gradually – and then suddenly – over time.

January Performance Overview

The change in the Fed’s policy posture between the December 19, 2018 and the recent January 30th FOMC meeting is stark. They went from a Fed intent on raising rates two to three more times in 2019 and having balance sheet normalization on “autopilot” to implying that they will remain on “hold” in terms of rates hikes and moderating the pace of balance sheet reduction. The dovish shift appears to have put to rest any concerns of overtightening, the primary narrative behind fourth quarter turbulence. Markets clearly started to believe in the Fed shift in later December and the positive momentum in risk sentiment carried markets through January.

For the month of January, every credit sector posted positive returns led by the riskiest categories of high yield, emerging markets and investment grade.

The story was the same for ETFs but with a few large variances from index performance owing to the uneven nature of flows quickly re-entering the riskiest classes.

January Market Move

A lot was made of the fact that December was the worst month of December for the stock market since the 1930’s. Using the same concept and to further highlight the strength of fixed income returns in January 2019, we compared last month with other Januarys over the past 30 years. Investment grade and high yield posted the third best month dating back to 1989 and emerging markets posted their fourth best since 1993 (earliest data available).

Drilling down a little deeper within the investment grade category, we chose to look at the spread tightening that occurred in the banking, technology and energy sectors in January. The chart below shows the three sectors with the broad aggregate IG option-adjusted spread. The black vertical line marks December 31, 2018.

Using similar context, the chart below highlights the price movements of the leveraged loan index since January 2016. Again, the black vertical line denotes December 31, 2018.

Summary

What the charts above reflect is the radical spread and price moves that took place as the Fed flipped their language and posture surrounding both future rate hikes and discussion about the pace of balance sheet normalization. What this suggests to us is not that the Fed is “data dependent” as they claim, but that they are entirely focused on assuaging market turbulence when it appears. Although anyone who watches sports cringes when a referee blows a call, no one is more humiliated than the referee himself. With the Federal Reserve, however, intentionally altering the game appears to be their daily objective.

All data courtesy: Barclays

Higher Rates Are Crushing Investors

There is an old saying that proclaims, “it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion of the ocean.” Since this is a family-friendly publication, we will leave it at that. However, the saying has a connotation that is pertinent to the bond market today. Much of the media’s focus on the recent surge in yields has been on the absolute increase in numerical terms. The increase in rates and yields, while important, fails to consider the bigger forces that can inflict pain on bond holders, or sink the ship. When losses accumulate and fear of further losses mount, volatility and other instabilities can arise in the bond market and bleed to other markets, as we are now beginning to see in the equity markets.

Since 1983, fixed-income investors have been able to put their portfolios on autopilot, clip coupons and watch prices rise and yields steadily fall. Despite a few bumps on this long path, which we will detail, yields, have declined gradually from the mid-teens to the low single digits.

In this piece, we discuss the effect that higher yields are having on debt investors today and compare it to prior temporary increases in yield. It is from the view of debt investors that we can better appreciate that the “motion” is much bigger today than years past.

The Motion of the Bond Ocean

As we alluded in the opening, the losses felt by bond investors cannot be calculated based solely on the amount that yields rise. For instance, if someone told you that yields suddenly rose by 1%, you have no way of estimating the dollar losses that entails for any investor or the entire universe of bond holders. For example, an investor holding a 1-month Treasury bill will have a temporary and inconsequential loss of less than 0.10%, but it will be erased when the bill matures next month. Conversely, a holder of a 30-year bond will see the bond’s value drop by approximately 20%. This example demonstrates why a bond’s duration is so important. In addition to duration, it is critical to know the cumulative amount of bonds outstanding to understand the effects of changes in yields or interest rates.

Comparing yield changes to prior periods without respect for duration and amount of debt outstanding is a critical mistake and has led to an under-appreciation of the losses already incurred by the recent rise in rates and the potential future losses if rates increase further. The importance of this analysis comes back to the central premise of an investor’s objective – wealth is most effectively compounded by avoiding large losses. In the end, we care less about the change in interest rates than we do the impact of that change on the value of a portfolio.

Amount of Debt Outstanding: Since 1993 total U.S. debt outstanding, including federal government, municipalities, consumers, and corporations have risen from about $14 trillion to nearly $60 trillion, a 318% increase as graphed below. The table below the graph compares the surge in outstanding debt among the various issuers of debt as well as the nation’s GDP.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Duration of Debt Outstanding: The duration of a bond is a measure of the expected change of a bond’s price for a given change in yield. For example, the U.S. Treasury 10-year note currently has a duration of 8.50, meaning a 1% change in its yield should result in an approximate 8.50% decline in price. Since it quantifies the price change of a bond for a given change in interest rates, it affords a pure measure of risk. For simplicity’s sake, we omit a discussion of convexity, which measures the second order effect of how duration changes as yields change.

Think of duration as a fulcrum as shown below.

As illustrated, an investor of these cash flows would receive the weighted average of the present value of all of the expected cash flows at the three year mark.

Duration is a function of the current level of yields, the nominal coupon of the security, and the time to maturity of the debt issued.

The following graph highlights that the weighted average duration of total U.S. debt outstanding (including Federal, consumer, municipal and corporate) has increased by approximately 1.30 years to almost 6 years since 1993. All else equal, a 1% increase in yields today would result in an approximate 6.0% loss across all U.S. debt versus a 4.7% loss in the early 1990’s.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table above shows the changes in duration for various classes of fixed-income instruments since 1993. Consumer debt includes mortgages, credit cards and student loans. As an aside, the increase in yields since 2016 has caused the duration of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to increase by over 3.0 years from 2.25 to 5.30 years.

Duration and Amount of Debt Outstanding

If we combine the duration and debt outstanding charts, we gain a better appreciation for how fixed-income risk borne by investors has steadily increased since 1993. The following graph uses the data above to illustrate the sensitivity of bond investors’ wealth to a 1% change in yields. For this analysis, we use the change in 5-year U.S. Treasury yields as it closely approximates the aggregate duration of the bond universe.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table below displays the way that the recent uptick in bond yields has been commonly portrayed over the prior few months.

Tables like the one above have been used to imply that the 2.13% increase in the 5-year U.S. Treasury yield since 2016 is relatively insignificant as three times since 1993 the trough to peak yield change has been larger. However, what we fear many investors are missing, is that the change in rates must be contemplated in conjunction with the amount of debt outstanding and the duration (risk) of that debt.

The table below combines these components (yield change, duration, and debt outstanding) to arrive at a proxy for cumulative dollar losses. Note that while yields have risen by only about two-thirds of what was experienced in 1993-1994, the dollar loss associated with the change in yield is currently about three times larger. Said another way, yields would have needed to increase by 9.73% in 1993-1994 to create losses similar to today.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Summary

We have often said that our current economic environment is much more sensitive to changes in interest rates because of the growth in debt outstanding since the financial crisis and the recent emergence from the ultra-low interest rate period that crisis produced. Although 5-year yields have only risen by 2.13% from the 2016 lows, losses, as shown above, are accumulating at a faster pace than in years past.

Furthermore, because of the difference between the amount of debt outstanding and the actual currency in the economic system, most of that debt represents leverage. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore those implications but, as illustrated in the table above, rising rates will decidedly reveal the instabilities we fear are embedded in our economy but have yet to fully emerge.

If we are near the peak in interest rates for this cycle, then unrealized losses are likely manageable despite the anxiety they have induced. On the other hand, if we are in the process of a secular change in the direction of rates and they do continue higher, then nearly every fixed-income investor, household, corporation and the government will be adversely impacted.