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 beware, the muni bond market has gone through some dramatic moves over the last year, and the market looks like it might be headed for a downturn. Changes to the US’ tax policy have caused massive inflows to muni bonds as investors try to minimize their taxes. This has caused yields to plunge and spreads to Treasuries to widen. The average ten-year muni yield is now just 1.965% versus 2.6% in 10-year Treasuries, the widest gap since at least 2009. Munis in high tax states have plunged even further, with a recent California issuance having a yield of just 1.73%. One portfolio manager warns investors that they need to be responsive, saying “The best place for investors to be is shorter duration, higher-quality credit, so when opportunities present themselves, they have the flexibility to take them … You can’t really set it and forget it”.
FINSUM: This is a hard situation to call. On the one hand, the rapid fall in yields is worrying and the market seems overbought, but on the other hand, you have somewhat artificial demand being created by the government, which makes the behavior less risky and more sustainable in our view.
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.