One of the odd things about the recession fears since December is that spreads on junk bonds have not risen. Usually, junk bonds sell-off when there are recession fears, as they are the riskiest credits and likely to suffer the worst downturns. However, the opposite has happened in junk, with spreads to investment grade very tight. In fact, investors are picking up so little extra yield in junk bonds, that in many cases they are not even worth the risk. Spreads are tied for their narrowest since the Financial Crisis at just 60 basis points.
FINSUM: The last time spreads got this tight was last October, right before the market tanked. Warning sign.
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.
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.
It finally happened. After dangling on the edge of an inversion for months, the US yield curve has just officially crossed into one. The gap between 3-month and 10-year Treasury yields is now negative. 10-year yields have been falling, recently hitting a low of 2.439%. Yield curve inversions are seen as the most reliable indicator of forthcoming recessions. Yields have been falling as a reaction to a highly dovish Fed and weakening economic data.
FINSUM: This is a reason to worry about he economy, but remember that there is often a long lag between an inversion and a peak in the stock market.
It is time to get out high yield. The sector has been seeing heightened fears for months, and prices have performed so well in the first two months of the year, that there is little value left. High yields returned 6.4% in January and February after the market came to a virtual standstill at the end of 2018. Part of the reason for the outperformance is that investors are demanding less spread to Treasuries, a fact that has not carried over to the investment grade market.
FINSUM: The pendulum has swung too far, and investment grade bonds now appear a much better value than high yield.