Italy looks like it is in bad shape. It is openly defying the EU’s budget rules by running an excessive deficit, and what’s worse, it looks likely to be downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies. Moody’s already downgraded the country to Baa3, its lowest investment grade rating and just one rung above junk status. Yields have been swinging wildly on the country’s bonds as a result.
FINSUM: We are quite worried about the implications if Italy gets downgraded to junk, as it could mean lots of funds need to sell the bonds because of their mandates. What kind of sell-off could that spark?
Barron’s ran an interesting article today chronicling the market views of famed investor Leon Cooperman. The legendary hedge fund manager argues that investors should stay away from bonds, but that stocks are “fundamentally cheap”. “My world is cash and stocks … I think bonds are the bubble”, says Cooperman. He argues that a big downturn in stocks is not in the cards because the economy “if anything, is too strong”.
FINSUM: This argument makes sense, bonds do seem overvalued. However, what if stocks and bonds are too pricey? That seems logical too.
Short-term bonds are looking like an ever better buy right now. Two-year Treasury yields are at 2.87%, up from 1.55% a year ago, and well over the 1.9% average yield of the S&P 500. That means the spread between the two- and ten-year notes is only about 28 basis points. Considering the latter has significantly more rate risk, two-year bonds like a good bet right now.
FINSUM: There are many ultra short-term bond funds out there to choose from. Actually, given the breadth of ETFs in the space, there has never been a better or cheaper time to play defense in this kind of rate environment.
This story is not getting much attention in the US, but we thought it too big to ignore. S&P Global, one of the world’s leading credit raters, just announced that a “debt iceberg with titanic credit risks”. S&P says that China has seen a massive rise in borrowing by its local governments, much of it hidden from view, and the the excessive borrowing poses grave risks. The ratings agency says there is between $4.3 tn to $5.8 tn of off-balance sheet debt held by local governments following “rampant” borrowing. The debt is hidden is what are called “Local government financing vehicles” (LGFVs), which were entities used to raise debt before local governments were allowed to issue bonds in capital markets.
FINSUM: This is a pretty scary story that only the FT seems to be covering. It makes one wonder if LGFVs will be the acronym at the center of the next crisis.
One of the big beneficiaries of all the geopolitical events of this year, as well as of rates hikes, has been small caps. Smaller companies tend to perform better in economic expansion, and they look more likely to hold up to foreign trade tensions as they have a more domestic focus. After hitting records in August, small caps are now in correction territory, having lost 10% from their high. They are now underperforming large caps for the first time this year as many see trade tensions easing.
FINSUM: Small caps sometimes suffer at the end of economic expansions, so this move makes sense. Still an almost 9% loss in the Russell 2000 this month is rough.
We have been running a lot of stories lately about the best investments for a rising rate environment. The reasons are obvious. However, instead of pointing out ETFs for allocation etc, we found a good piece interviewing money managers about how they are handling their portfolios. Some of those interviewed are relying on short-term bonds to minimize their rate risk. Since the yield curve is quite flat, you get almost no extra compensation for the rate risk of holding longer maturity bonds. One manager highlighted that bonds in the 2-5 year window were a sweet spot. Some also said the market is over-discounting inflation and that inflation linked assets were a good idea.
FINSUM: Short-term bonds seem a like good play, but we have also been impressed with the interest rate hedged ETFs out there, which often go long corporate bonds and short Treasuries to offset any losses. They seem to have performed well.