One of the best ways to watch the damage to the economy is to monitor the performance of consumer debt. Auto loans, student loans and beyond give a clear indicator of the health of American finances. Right now, the data is looking bad, reinforcing why this might be a long and difficult recovery. According to the WSJ, “Americans have skipped payments on more than 100 million student loans, auto loans and other forms of debt since the coronavirus hit the U.S … The largest increase occurred for student loans, with 79 million accounts in deferment or other relief status, up from 18 million a month earlier. Auto loans in some type of deferment doubled to 7.3 million accounts. Personal loans in deferment doubled to 1.3 million accounts.” The total of deferments is triple the number from the end of April. Lenders, who have generally been accommodative to this point with borrowers, expect delinquency to soar later this year.
FINSUM: You cannot have 50m people—roughly a third of the US workforce—lose their jobs and not have any repercussions. This is the kind of data that makes stock indexes look rather ludicrous right now.
One of the aspects of this bear market that has really alarmed investors is the speed with which the market has rallied from its lows. Huge gains of well over 35% have shocked investors into feeling like indexes are bound to fall again. In some sense that sentiment makes sense since it has happened before, such as in the dotcom bubble. However, according to BlackRock, it is absolutely time to go risk-on, but with a twist. The asset manager says that sovereign bonds have very little upside or protection to offer right now, so instead investors should put their capital into credit and higher-quality equities. “Over the next six to 12 months, we favor credit over equities given bondholders’ preferential claim on corporate cash flows and prefer an up-in-quality stance in equities”.
FINSUM: We particularly like the argument about sovereign bonds not offer much right now. With central banks already at their zero lower bound and sovereigns priced very highly, there is just not much to gain and plenty to lose.
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.