Bonds: High Yield
While the stock market is getting all of the attention, the bond market is experiencing a lot of turbulence as well. The riskiest corners of the debt market, including junk bonds and loans, are on pace for their worst month since the US downgrade in August 2011. High yield’s spread to Treasuries has surged a whopping 110 basis points since the start of the month, and unlike in stocks, there aren’t signs of a rebound. The average yield on the index is 8%.
FINSUM: It is reasonable to be nervous about credit right now given the huge volume of issuance in recent years and the pending threat of a recession and accompanying earnings slowdown.
In many ways credit markets are a major bellwether for both the economy and the stock market. And right now, they are sending some poor signals. Investors are afraid of rate hikes and money managers are refusing to bankroll buyouts. As a gauge to how brutal the environment is, consider this: not one company has borrowed in the US high yield market this month! A strategist from Janney Montgomery Scott put the current market environment in perspective: “This is clearly more than year-end jitters … What we’re seeing now is pretty typical for end-of-credit-cycle behaviour”. Yields on junk bonds have climbed over 100 basis points since mid-September.
FINSUM: Junk bonds are likely feeling more heat from the worries about a recession and weakening of earnings (in light of high indebtedness) than they are interest rates.
How to protect against the next recession? This is a difficult question. Since it may be rate induced, it will be hard to hide out in Treasuries, and gold has not inspired much confidence. Well, SkyBridge Capital thinks the big money maker is to short high yields. “Our largest short position right now is in high yield, and it’s not because we think we’re going to make money this year or next year … It’s to protect against the eventual recession or [a] surprise recession”, says a portfolio manager there. “If you’re looking to put on [a] relative cheap short position, it’s hard to figure out how you lose money given how tight spreads are”.
FINSUM: High yield has seen a big expansion of credit and a decline in quality, and when the next recession rolls around there are going to be some big losses.
One of the best indicators of stock market performance is actually in bonds. Because they trade based on fundamentals, high yield bonds tend to be strong leading indicators of stock performance. With markets swinging all over the place, now might be a good time to see what junk bonds are doing. The answer is that the sector looks to be in good shape, with spreads holding steady and no real sign of concern.
FINSUM: Junk is probably not going to really worry until we get very near, or into an inverted yield curve, as a recession would be rough on the high yield market.
Something very ominous has been occurring in junk bond markets over the last week. The lowest tier of junk credits—which had been outperforming the market for much of this year—have been getting hammered. There has been a crash in CCC credits. According to Bank of America, since early October CCCs “have lost 3.25% in total and 3.50% in excess returns … effectively wiping out five months of performance”. That contrasts with the highest quality credits in the junk universe, which appreciated.
FINSUM: CCC had been doing quite well, so one can see this either as a normal return to earth, or early signs of trouble.
One of the most underappreciated areas of the bond market is in mortgage-backed securities. Anyone familiar with the Financial Crisis will instantly know why. However, the asset class itself offers many attractive advantages compared to other bonds. There are three main points of appeal: higher yields, liquidity, and low correlation to risk assets. MBS ETFs average 2.79% yields (much higher than Treasuries), have much greater liquidity than corporate bonds, and have the lowest correlation to risk assets of any fixed income instrument.
FINSUM: If you can get of the trauma that the acronym caused, MBS can be a very good asset class for many different market environments.