Bonds: Total Market
When the Republican tax reform package came out last year, there were fears that the changes could cause weakness in the muni market. However, while those potential long-term challenges remain, the reality is that the tax changes have helped the muni market considerably. The reason why is that the lack of SALT deductions means that many more investors have a strong inventive to buy muni bonds. This has kept yields low and demand robust, as for a high income couple in states like New York, a local muni bond yielding 3% is equivalent to a taxable corporate bond yielding over 6%.
FINSUM: Given the way that the new tax package heavily incentivizes muni income, we expect demand and prices to remain robust.
Anyone who pays attention to the bond markets will know that there has been an extraordinary run up in BBB rated bonds since the Financial Crisis. From just $700 bn worth of bonds in 2008, to a whopping $3 tn now. Using the metaphor that such bonds, which are just one rung above junk, are like the dead trees and limbs in the forest before a fire, Barron’s is predicting big problems. The trigger is likely to be the next recession, which would cause many BBB bonds to fall down into the junk category. This would spark mandatory selling by many funds, leading to sharp losses for investors. What’s worse, such bonds, at an average yield of 4.3%, are not compensating investors for this risk, as they have only a 60 bp spread to A rated bonds.
FINSUM: There are bound to be a lot of fallen angels and losses in the next economic downturn. As one analyst summed it up, “With all this dry tinder lying around, it wouldn’t take much to set off a raging fire”.
A lot of investors are worried about the potential for an inverted yield curve, and not just because of what it could mean for markets and the economy. If you are holding long-term bonds that will be yielding less than shorter-term bonds, you are likely going to be incentivized to reshuffle your holdings. Accordingly, Citigroup has come out with a first of its kind product that allows retail investors to fully redeem the principal on their bonds if the yield curve inverts. According to Bloomberg the “30-year constant maturity swap rate can sink as much as 10 basis points below the two-year rate before holders start incurring losses”. Continuing, “The products pay a coupon and return full principal as long as the spread remains greater than that level”.
FINSUM: This seems a bit sophisticated for most retail investors, but it is definitely an interesting product and potentially a good one for hedging.
It is no secret that credit has expanded mightily in the last several years. The investment grade corporate bond market has completely ballooned, but leveraged loans have been another important area of growth. And while the risk of IG corporate bonds is well understood, the risks of the latter are less apparent. Leveraged loans are popular right now because they have floating rates, but those rates are a big risk. The reason why is not in the extra payments themselves, but because most leveraged loans are issued to refinance existing debt. The issue is that when corporate borrowers come back to the market to refinance, they might find many less lenders and much higher rates. The is so because as rates rise, other safer asset classes become more attractive.
FINSUM: The whole corporate sector has been binging on low rates for years, and there is bound to be a reckoning. The scale of that reckoning is the big question.
This has been a week of divergent views on bonds. Earlier this week we ran a story arguing that there would be no bear market in Treasuries. It was a solid argument. However, now there is a contention out there that ten-years, specifically, might struggle. The reason why is that demand at auction has been falling for the bonds just at a time when the US needs to issue more and more to cover its deficit. In addition to excess supply, the other big issue seems to be that short-term Treasuries are yielding so much relative to ten-years, that there is little incentive to buy them.
FINSUM: In one sense this is bad, but in another good. The downside is that holders of ten-years (which are a huge component of fixed income indexes) will be hurt as yields rise. But on the positive side, this is exactly the kind of force that keeps the yield curve from inverting as longer-term yields rise alongside shorter-term ones.
With all of the bearish stories swirling around lately (us included), it was refreshing to find an alternative view today. Bloomberg has put out an argument that there will be no bear market in store for Treasuries. The story is from the top ranked bond strategist in the world, who points out that a decline in structured credit and related products means that Treasuries are a much higher component of overall fixed income indexes these days. This concentration is likely to keep rising over the next decade, which means indexes and benchmarks will need to buy Treasuries, a critical factor which will keep demand high. Another important point is that the stock market is losing its appeal compared to short-term Treasuries, as the yield of the latter is way ahead of the former and likely to stay that way.
FINSUM: This is excellent analysis from a highly reputably source. Our only addition would be to point out that US and global demography also reinforces the key points, as the aging of the world means there will be a higher demand for income investments over the next decade.