If you look at some of the areas hardest hit by fears over the economy and the trade war, there is cautious optimism starting to show up. One of the best examples of this is the corporate bond market. Investors have been pulling money from the stock market and sticking it in bonds. They appear to be unworried about high debt levels or the possibility of default. In this move, there is an underlying faith that the US economy will stay solid, otherwise credit-worthiness would be seriously in question. Spreads to Treasuries are very low too, further reflecting the optimism.
FINSUM: It seems like the market is worried that stock valuations are tapped out, but that there may not be a significant downturn. In such a case, corporate bonds look like a good bet.
Ever since the stock market’s then peak in January 2018, bonds and stock have had a very close relationship. Equities have been tracking the performance of the investment grade bond sector. When yields rose late last year, stocks plummeted. The opposite is happening this year, and in that change lays a predicament for shares. Yields have fallen so deeply this year, and equity prices risen so high, that it appears unlikely stocks can rise much further as the benefits of lower rates have already been fully priced in.
FINSUM: While we are generally incredulous of these types of arguments, we cannot help but feel a confluence of circumstances (an earnings recession not the least of them) are coming together in such a way that equities seem likely to have a correction.
More some time now, bonds have been sending worrying signals to investors. The huge plunge in yields has been seen as a warning sign that the economy may be headed south. However, more recently, fixed income is sending more comforting signals. In particular, the recent narrowing of corporate bond spreads. Bond spreads had been rising for some time, but have leveled off recently, showing fixed income investors are not as worried about the economy and corporate performance. The overall spread is still well below where it was in the 2015-2016 growth scare.
FINSUM: The leveling off of spreads is a good sign that some stability is coming back to the market.
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.
The markets are gleeful right now. Stocks are up 25% since their bottom in December, and things on the economic and Fed fronts look rosy. However, Citi says investors need to get out of some assets before “rain spoils the picnic”. The bank is worried about the difference between asset prices and underlying economic conditions (when looking globally). Its biggest area of worry is in corporate bonds, which have seen spreads to investment grade narrow sharply, especially in high yields, which look overvalued. Investment grade debt is troubling too, as debt levels jumped by their biggest amount in 18 years over the last 4 months. Citi thinks companies are burning through way too much cash for the growth levels they are achieving.
FINSUM: So Citi thinks this is going to be a bond market reckoning (which would surely impact stocks too). That is different than the consensus, but perhaps a good way to view the situation.