We look like we are on the brink of a big downgrade in bonds that could spread chaos across the fixed income markets. Big rating agencies have not taken concrete steps yet, but investors have been assuming they will, as yields on BBB rated bonds have jumped, with $300 bn now above the 6% threshold. Many high-yielding companies, like airlines and cruise lines, have seen their yields skyrocket. According to Wells Fargo, “As the probability of a recession rises, so does the potential for downgrades and defaults, leaving us unwilling to wave the white flag for corporate credit”.
FINSUM: The downgrades are inevitable at this point, but at least the market has already been adjusting, so it will be less chaotic when it happens.
Sudden downturns and crises have a knack for exposing underlying weakness in asset classes, and this coronavirus shock looks likely to expose corporate bonds. As investors will know, there are trillions of Dollars worth of bonds hanging on the lower cusp of investment grade at the same time as high yield issuance has surged in recent years. A quick reversal in economic fortunes could quickly cause soaring yields, delinquency, and bankruptcies. This would lead to a sharp drop in bond prices and potential economic disruptions.
FINSUM: Two key points to make on this story. Firstly, the corporate bond market is now worth $10 tn, 10x the size of 2001. Secondly, because many high yield bonds are illiquid and difficult to trade in periods of uncertainty, investors will try to offload other assets instead, which can spread the panic to other asset classes.
For many months there has been a great deal of fear about the threat of BBB bonds falling into the “junk” category. The whole fear is based on the idea that as the economy slows, this huge group of companies would get downgraded and there would be forced divestiture, sending bond prices strongly lower. However, the opposite has happened. Over the last few months, BBB bonds done nothing but strengthen. In fact, the spread between BBBs and Treasuries just hit a 52-week low, showing investors renewed faith in what is the largest segment of corporate bonds.
FINSUM: Unsurprisingly, the price growth has led to a bunch of new issuance. It is important to remember that though prices have risen, the risk of a recession and downgrades is still very much there.
If you look at some of the areas hardest hit by fears over the economy and the trade war, there is cautious optimism starting to show up. One of the best examples of this is the corporate bond market. Investors have been pulling money from the stock market and sticking it in bonds. They appear to be unworried about high debt levels or the possibility of default. In this move, there is an underlying faith that the US economy will stay solid, otherwise credit-worthiness would be seriously in question. Spreads to Treasuries are very low too, further reflecting the optimism.
FINSUM: It seems like the market is worried that stock valuations are tapped out, but that there may not be a significant downturn. In such a case, corporate bonds look like a good bet.
More some time now, bonds have been sending worrying signals to investors. The huge plunge in yields has been seen as a warning sign that the economy may be headed south. However, more recently, fixed income is sending more comforting signals. In particular, the recent narrowing of corporate bond spreads. Bond spreads had been rising for some time, but have leveled off recently, showing fixed income investors are not as worried about the economy and corporate performance. The overall spread is still well below where it was in the 2015-2016 growth scare.
FINSUM: The leveling off of spreads is a good sign that some stability is coming back to the market.
There has been growing consternation about the threat of a major meltdown in corporate debt. The Fed, in particular, has been very troubled by the amount of corporate debt in the economy, which has led to speculation by Wall Street that there could be a blow up. Goldman Sachs has been more sanguine, saying debt levels look healthy. Now the Fed appears to be taking a more mild view as well. In a speech this week, Chairman Powell said that the comparison to pre-Crisis debt levels are not convincing. “Most importantly, the financial system today appears strong enough to handle potential business-sector losses, which was manifestly not the case a decade ago with subprime mortgages.
FINSUM: Debt levels seems high, but profits are margins are good to. The question is what happens when the economy turns south. We are especially concerned about the BBB market.