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.
We don’t want to say that we told you so, but we have been broadcasting that bond markets had overreacted to the Fed’s change of tune. This week, bond investors have started to correct themselves as yields on the ten-year have jumped considerably on better economic news. With that in mind, limiting rate risk on bond holdings has taken on renewed importance. Accordingly, where better to be that in short-term, less rate-sensitive, bond funds. For options here, take a look at the Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF (BSV), yielding 2.8%, and the PIMCO Enhance Short Maturity Active ETF (MINT), yielding almost 3%.
FINSUM: We think there could be some significant yield volatility in the next few months, and therefore feel it is best to stay rate hedged/defensive.
The general understanding of markets is that bond investors are signaling that there is going to be a recession. Treasury yields have tumbled, and the Treasury yield curve has inverted, both signs of a coming downturn. However, the corporate bond market is sending a different signal, and it is worth paying attention to. The big sign of economic worry in the corporate bond markets is widening spreads between investment grade bonds and junk, but that is exactly the opposite of what is happening. The market is sanguine, and showing little of the concern that Treasury markets are. “Corporate spreads are extraordinarily narrow”, says Dan Fuss, vice chairman of Loomis Sayles.
FINSUM: This is a very good sign in our opinion. While it could turn out to be wrong, we do think this signals that Treasury investors may simply be overreacting.
Right now might not seem like the most important time to buy rate-hedged or short duration funds. The Fed is supposed to be on “pause” after all. However, in our view, now might be a critical time to have some rate hedged assets in the portfolio. The reason why is that yields have pulled back strongly from just a couple of months ago, including yesterday, but given the fact that it is almost purely the Fed which has caused the sharp reversal, rates could swing just as wildly higher if their comments, or economic data, changes. In other words, the bond market looks overbought right now because of Fed comments, but it could easily snap back to where it was in December in violent fashion.
FINSUM: We think this is a time for caution on rates and yields given how strongly the market has reversed over the last couple of months.
Bond investors are getting nervous, and not about the Fed or interest rates. Rather, they are worried about corporate credit. Most will be aware that corporate credit issuance surged over the last decade, especially in fringe investment grade BBB debt. Now, investors are fearing a “wall of maturities”. In the next three years, one third of all triple B rated US debt will come due, a huge test for the group of highly indebted companies. Companies will then need to refinance in this much-less-friendly environment. The Bank for International Settlements warns that in the next downturn, many BBB rated bonds will be downgraded to junk, which will cause fire sales.
FINSUM: Our big worry here is that many institutional investors have strict mandates to not hold junk bonds, so if a solid number of companies fall from the BBB level, there will indeed be huge fire sales in credit markets.
With all the newfound reticence of the Fed, one important fact remains—they could hike at any time. The Fed was hawkish for a long time, and as dovish as they have suddenly become, a position shift on rates could be quick. Accordingly, when considering income-focused investments, advisors need to be very mindful about rate risk. One way to earn good income while also hedging against rates is to look at short term bond funds. Zero and short duration bond funds have little to no rate/duration risk, which means they can earn income without the threat of big losses coming from movements in rates and yields. Some funds to consider are the ProShares Interest rate hedge family or the Fidelity Limited Term Bond (FJRLX), the latter of which yields 2.89% and has a duration of 2.4 years.
FINSUM: Short-term yields have come up so much that limited term bond funds now look like a great buy for stable income without so much capital risk.