Bonds: High Yield
If the Fed isn’t stimulating high yield bonds, then they might be highly risky and extraordinarily overpriced. High yield bonds spreads have narrowed significantly versus Treasuries in recent months, a very odd move given the worries about the economy (which usually hurt junk bonds). Some think the Fed may be buying such bonds, which would drive prices up and yields down. Spreads are down 110 basis points this year.
FINSUM: If everyone was so worried about the economy—which would usually push Treasury yields down and junk bond yields up—then how could spreads have narrowed between the two? Something smells wrong here.
One corner of the bond market, or rather credit market, is having a tough time and it may be a negative sign for the rest of fixed income. CLOs, or collateralized loan obligations, which have been a star for several years, recent tumbled. In aggregate, CLOs dropped 5% in October, and those close to the market see more volatility to come. According to Citigroup “We think there’s more volatility coming … We recommend investors reduce risk and stay with cleaner portfolios and better managers”. CLOs are a key funder of the leveraged loan market, and weak demand there can flow through to boost borrowing costs to all corporates.
FINSUM: This is akin to a warning coming out of the high yield market, as what it reflects is worries about how leveraged companies might handle a downturn.
There is serious trouble brewing in the riskiest corners of the debt market. The lowest rated group of corporate bonds have seen their yields rise for months as a host of factors are causing losses. Whether it be the switch to ecommerce, poor energy prices and renewables, or prescription drug regulations, companies across multiple sectors have been getting hammered. The problem is that the issues hurting these CCC rated companies are not just isolated to them, the move in sentiment and selling is spreading to the broader high yield and speculative loan market. More companies are being downgraded too, and default rates are picking up.
FINSUM: Rather than a panic, this is a broad-based and fundamental move away from risky debt. It may not lead to huge losses—yet—but expect spreads to keep rising.
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?