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.
Investors are currently worried about corporate bonds. On the one hand performance has been pretty good, especially for the riskiest bonds. But therein lays the problem—highly indebted companies have not been punished and there appears to be way too much corporate debt at the moment. This is the Fed’s view and many market participants, but Goldman has shared another—that the amount of corporate debt in the economy is just fine and corporate balance sheets look healthy. The bank says US companies are in an “unusually healthy position this deep into a business cycle expansion”. Goldman notes that companies are spending a smaller share share of their cash flow on interest than they were a decade ago, and that they are earning more than they are spending.
FINSUM: The corporate debt situation is all about perspective. Things look better than in the last crisis, but anyway you slice it, the debt burden looks at least somewhat daunting.
A rising tide lifts all boats right? Well it also means credit scores get lifted alongside the economy. Goldman Sachs thinks this is a problem. The bank is arguing that credit scores have been artificially inflated by FICO, a dangerous development that could have implications for all sorts of lending. Goldman thinks that current FICO scores are not an accurate reflection of consumers’ ability to pay in an economic downturn, meaning there is much more credit risk sloshing around in the economy than is currently priced into the market.
FINSUM: The big risk here is really at the lower end of the lending spectrum. There are 15 million less consumers with scores of 660 or below than there were before the last Crisis. Therefore, the risk of borrowers in that area is probably being underappreciated.