There has been growing consternation about the threat of a major meltdown in corporate debt. The Fed, in particular, has been very troubled by the amount of corporate debt in the economy, which has led to speculation by Wall Street that there could be a blow up. Goldman Sachs has been more sanguine, saying debt levels look healthy. Now the Fed appears to be taking a more mild view as well. In a speech this week, Chairman Powell said that the comparison to pre-Crisis debt levels are not convincing. “Most importantly, the financial system today appears strong enough to handle potential business-sector losses, which was manifestly not the case a decade ago with subprime mortgages.
FINSUM: Debt levels seems high, but profits are margins are good to. The question is what happens when the economy turns south. We are especially concerned about the BBB market.
China is beginning its retaliation against the US’ increasing intense trade policy. The country is unloading its holdings of US Treasuries at the fastest pace in two years alongside the big rupture with Washington over trade. Its US Treasury bond holdings are one of China’s arsenal of weapons to retaliate against the US’ tariff hikes. According to Deutsche Bank’s chief economist, “The sheer size of [China’s] reserves and that this is even becoming a conversation means the market should take it seriously”. The country owns $1.12 tn worth of Treasuries.
FINSUM: This is quite a risk for the US as someone would have to absorb all those sold assets, and if they flooded the market, it would cause major volatility and sharp yield rises.
Bond ETFs ae set to break a landmark record this year—$1 tn in AUM. The number is a big deal for bond ETFs, which got off to a slower start than their equity counterparts. In recent years, though, bond ETFs have seen huge inflows as they allow investors a more liquid option for both strategic and longer-term allocations. The market is also seeing a good deal of innovation, with more nuanced approaches spreading much like they have in equities.
FINSUM: Overall this is excellent news for investors. More AUM means more liquidity, more options, and lower costs. There are still some fears about a liquidity mismatch between the ETF and the underlying blowing up during a crisis, but those have never materialized.
Investors are currently worried about corporate bonds. On the one hand performance has been pretty good, especially for the riskiest bonds. But therein lays the problem—highly indebted companies have not been punished and there appears to be way too much corporate debt at the moment. This is the Fed’s view and many market participants, but Goldman has shared another—that the amount of corporate debt in the economy is just fine and corporate balance sheets look healthy. The bank says US companies are in an “unusually healthy position this deep into a business cycle expansion”. Goldman notes that companies are spending a smaller share share of their cash flow on interest than they were a decade ago, and that they are earning more than they are spending.
FINSUM: The corporate debt situation is all about perspective. Things look better than in the last crisis, but anyway you slice it, the debt burden looks at least somewhat daunting.
One of the most famous names in bonds, Jeffrey Gundlach, has just put out a bold statement. Gundlach thinks there is forthcoming trouble in markets and he thinks it is the Fed’s fault. Specifically, Gundlach thinks the bond market is set for a lot of volatility. “interest rates cannot maintain the low volatility they have maintained over the last eight years”. To be clear, Gundlach is not calling for a recession, but says “But I am starting to think it is much less of a lock that there won’t be a recession before the next recession”.
FINSUM: There are two conflicting ideologies here. The Fed thinks volatility is largely an extension of the economy and policy, both of which it feels it can control to an extent. Gundlach and many other investors think there are underlying forces in the economy and markets that can only be pacified for so long. We think they are both right to an extent.