Bonds: High Yield
Remember when everyone was really worried about corporate bonds several months ago? A lot of that anxiety faded as yields tumbled. That led companies to once again issue mountains of debt this year. Now, we are circling back towards worries over a recession, and with that progression there is reason to worry about corporate bonds, especially the BBB variety. The big anxiety, as ever is that a whole section of the BBB bonds universe (the lowest rung of investment grade) will get downgraded to junk status in a recession, causing a massive selloff.
FINSUM: So these fears are not new, but the likelihood of a recession appears to be growing. Here is what really worries us—the BBB market is enormous, amounting to $3 tn in the US versus just $1.2 tn for the whole high yield bond market.
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.
High yield companies have been big beneficiaries of the tumble in yields this year. But not in the way one thinks, not in the form of a big rally. Instead, highly indebted borrowers have been using the tumble in yields as a way to refinance their debt and lengthen out maturities. The practice has been very widespread. According to one portfolio manager, “It’s a recipe for disaster in the longer term … As an investor, it means you are lending to fairly risky companies at fairly low rates at the end of the cycle. It might not be three months from now or six months from now, but at some point these bonds are going to be pretty challenged”.
FINSUM: Kick the can down the road for as long as you can. That has been the mantra of junk bond markets since the Crisis. When will the musical chairs stop?
American investors seem almost conditioned to ignore the rest of the world. Over the last decade that has been a pretty good plan as the US recovery and markets have had a Teflon coating that resisted global downturns. However, rates market in Europe is sending some grave warning signals. Try this on for size: several European junk bonds are now trading at negative yields. Yes, you read that correctly, investors are paying for the privilege of holding junk in Europe.
FINSUM: This is not some ultra-safe Germany sovereign bond that has negative yields. We are talking run-of-the-mill EU junk bonds having negative yields. That is a big warning sign.
The dovishness from the Fed has been bullish for most of the debt market, with sovereign yields falling and corporate debt getting a boost. However, the riskiest corner of the market, triple C junk bonds, have been left out, with the group falling by 1.5% since May. Triple B bonds, by comparison, were up. The odd part about the losses is that signs of an interest rate cut are usually very bullish for junk bonds because they would mean lower interest burdens for the companies. That said, anxiety about the economy is high enough that such benefits were negated.
FINSUM: This whole situation makes sense in that the downside risk of a sinking economy is greater than the upside of lower interest rates for this subsector. Thus, the bonds are losing. In other parts of the credit spectrum, the risk-reward balance is different.
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.