Bonds: High Yield
While some are saying that we are in “TINA” mode with equities (i.e. there is no alternative), high yield bonds have been seeing a big influx of demand. Because dividends are drying up in the stock market, high yield bonds are becoming increasingly attractive, and Bank of America thinks they are going to do well. They point out that yields in some bonds are much higher than similar yields on equities in the same sector and they expect spreads to tighten in the coming quarter. “While the easy money was last quarter, we still see many tailwinds to nudge high-yield spreads tighter in Q3...Markets should be treated to plenty of positive data surprises now that economies are exiting their lockdown hibernation…an essential ingredient for leveraged credit to perform.”
FINSUM: This seems like a reasonable call, but we think the positive data surprises might be a stretch. That said, yield-hungry investors will likely keep the high-yield space humming along.
Big debt investors are pouring dollars into risky debt markets and products, such as CLOs and their subprime-backed assets. Why you may ask? (as anyone might right now) The answer is that the riskiest borrowers are surviving this downturn much better than anyone expected. Spreads between subprime-backed products and US Treasuries have narrowed sharply, while new deals have seen big demand. According to an analyst at Loomis Sayles “What is surprising is how strong credit performance has been … Fiscal policy is really keeping the subprime borrower afloat”.
FINSUM: Regardless of whether or not you are involved in this market, it is good news that the demand for these securities is actually being driven by fundamentals. It is both a sign of economic resilience, and also of market rationality.
Many have been wondering when junk bonds were going to start feeling pain. Despite the previous risk of recession, junk bonds did quite well over the last several months. However, since the big flare up over coronavirus, they have started to be seriously wounded. On Friday, junk bond spreads to Treasuries were at 366 bp—very low. As of yesterday, they were at 418 basis, a 50bp+ rise in two trading days, showing how much investors fear the economic impact of coronavirus.
FINSUM: We think these spreads are going to keep moving higher, even if stocks level out. Bond investors are a suspicious bunch and an economic slowdown would hit high yield companies harder than average.
The media is currently doing its level best to scare junk bond investors. There have been many analyst and media warnings lately about the pending fall of high yield bonds (some of which we have featured). Most argue that in an economic downturn, BBB bonds will suffer. Others says there has been no rise in underlying performance to justify the rise in prices. Others have focused on CCCs and their movements. Initially the worry was that CCCs had not rallied like the rest of the market, which was taken as a sign of deteriorating credit conditions. Now the media is warning (see Barron’s) that since they have rallied, it is again a warning sign.
FINSUM: Everything is a warning sign! Our own feeling is that we are generally moving toward a more risk-on environment and the trend for high yield is improving as the economic outlook does.
One of the biggest ratings agencies on Wall Street has just put out a stern warning on the junk bond market. Moody’s says that high yield debt may fall “significantly” after a big rally this year. In a quote that captures the general disbelief that has accompanied the junk bond rally this year, Moody’s economist John Lonski says ““High-yield bonds have rallied mightily despite the lack of any observable broad-based acceleration of either business sales or corporate earnings”. Moody’s thinks that if performance of the underlying companies in the space does not improve, then there will be a reckoning, saying ““If the anticipated improvement in the fundamentals governing corporate credit quality do not materialise, a significant widening of high-yield bond spreads is likely”.
FINSUM: Irrational exuberance?
There are some very worrying signals coming out of the high yield sector. In particular, stocks at the riskiest end of the market have been underperforming. Bonds rated CCC, CCC+, and CCC-, which are the three lowest rungs before default, have been underperforming all year and that weakness has now reached an “unprecedented size”. What is worrying is that very lowly rated bonds are usually the most influenced by economic perceptions, and it is unusual that with junk rallying so much this year that this cohort has not taken part.
FINSUM: So there are two options for what this could mean. Either it means investors are just being cautious, or much more negatively, that credit conditions are tightening, which would be a sign of a pending economic downturn.