Banks across the country are under pressure, and it is starting to show. Four US banks have failed already this year (three in the last month) compared to zero last year. The reasons why are many, but low interest rates and strong competition have been impacting the space. The four bank failures do not seem to be due to a particular asset class, but particular idiosyncratic circumstances. Still, as mortgages have seen lower rates, banks are more and more likely to move into more risky areas to boost yields.
FINSUM: In 2006 there were zero bank failures, in 2007 there were three, in 2008 it was very ugly. We do not think we are going down the same rode, but it is a sign worth noting.
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.
For many years Pimco was the undisputed leader in bonds. While that reputation may now be arguable given Bill Gross’ departure, Pimco is still undoubtedly highly respected. Therefore, their warning this week is worrying. The firm says it is shunning corporate bonds because of the big risk of a quick fall in prices. The firm’s CIO, Dan Ivascyn, says “The credit sector has been well behaved but if people begin to really fear recession, we can see underperformance quickly … this is the sector most prone to overshooting on the downside”. Pimco is also worried about Treasuries as they see no further room for a rally and instead are favoring agency MBS.
FINSUM: Total debt has grown hugely and a lot of it is of borderline credit quality, so a real downturn in economic expectations could lead to a lot of selling and downgrades. We tend to agree with Pimco here.
There is serious trouble brewing in the riskiest corners of the debt market. The lowest rated group of corporate bonds have seen their yields rise for months as a host of factors are causing losses. Whether it be the switch to ecommerce, poor energy prices and renewables, or prescription drug regulations, companies across multiple sectors have been getting hammered. The problem is that the issues hurting these CCC rated companies are not just isolated to them, the move in sentiment and selling is spreading to the broader high yield and speculative loan market. More companies are being downgraded too, and default rates are picking up.
FINSUM: Rather than a panic, this is a broad-based and fundamental move away from risky debt. It may not lead to huge losses—yet—but expect spreads to keep rising.
Remember when everyone was really worried about corporate bonds several months ago? A lot of that anxiety faded as yields tumbled. That led companies to once again issue mountains of debt this year. Now, we are circling back towards worries over a recession, and with that progression there is reason to worry about corporate bonds, especially the BBB variety. The big anxiety, as ever is that a whole section of the BBB bonds universe (the lowest rung of investment grade) will get downgraded to junk status in a recession, causing a massive selloff.
FINSUM: So these fears are not new, but the likelihood of a recession appears to be growing. Here is what really worries us—the BBB market is enormous, amounting to $3 tn in the US versus just $1.2 tn for the whole high yield bond market.