It is finally happening—riskier junk bonds are seeing outflows as investors shy away from the lowest rated credits. Junk bonds have been coated in Teflon for the most part, with the riskiest bonds rallying for several months. But recently, alongside recession fears, investors have been more anxious about how such credits might fare in a downturn. Accordingly, spreads between CCC-rated bonds and BB-rated bonds have jumped to 8%, the highest level since 2016.
FINSUM: This makes a lot of sense, and is one of the more logical moves in the high yield market we have seen in some time.
On the one hand the market looks very healthy (new all-time highs every day), but if you look more deeply there are some signs of dysfunction that appear as though they may spill out into the biggest indexes. Demand for risk assets looks quite weak. Consider for instance that the Russell 2000 is hurting even as large caps rise. Similarly, junk bonds are not doing well despite the seeming risk-on environment. Both of those developments show that liquidity is lacking. “Small caps are more sensitive to liquidity issues, both good and bad”, says a market strategist.
FINSUM: The weakness is small caps and junk bonds shows that more investors are sitting on the sidelines right now, but that does not necessarily mean trouble more broadly.
One of the odd things about the recession fears since December is that spreads on junk bonds have not risen. Usually, junk bonds sell-off when there are recession fears, as they are the riskiest credits and likely to suffer the worst downturns. However, the opposite has happened in junk, with spreads to investment grade very tight. In fact, investors are picking up so little extra yield in junk bonds, that in many cases they are not even worth the risk. Spreads are tied for their narrowest since the Financial Crisis at just 60 basis points.
FINSUM: The last time spreads got this tight was last October, right before the market tanked. Warning sign.
It is time to get out high yield. The sector has been seeing heightened fears for months, and prices have performed so well in the first two months of the year, that there is little value left. High yields returned 6.4% in January and February after the market came to a virtual standstill at the end of 2018. Part of the reason for the outperformance is that investors are demanding less spread to Treasuries, a fact that has not carried over to the investment grade market.
FINSUM: The pendulum has swung too far, and investment grade bonds now appear a much better value than high yield.
High yield had a very bleak run to finish 2018. The asset class went over 40 days without a single sale as the junk credit market seized up. However, it has made a comeback in a major way. The first five weeks of 2019 saw a staggering 5.25% gain in the Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index. New issues were quite oversubscribed (more than double), and the general mood has completely shifted.
FINSUM: The Fed backing off on rates sure makes a difference! It is interesting the market reacted this sharply given that high yield is relatively more insulated from rates. In our view, the turnaround is largely a relief rally that the Fed won’t push the economy into a recession.