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5 Signs That the Bond Markets (rightly or wrongly) think the Eurozone Crisis is Over

Regardless of your opinion on the merit of the ECB’s policy, there is little doubt that the efficacy of Mario Draghi’s various statements and comments over the past 2 years has been radical.  Indeed there are several signs in the bond markets that investors believe  the crisis is over. Here are some examples:

1)      Spanish 10 yr yields have fallen to 3.2%, this is lower than at any time since 2006, well before the crisis hit, having peaked at around 6.9% in 2012. This is an impressive recovery, almost as impressive as …

Spanish 10 Year Government Bond Yields

2)      The fall in Italian 10 year bond yields, which have hit new 10 year lows of 3.15%, lower than any time since 2000. The peak was 7.1% in December 2011. To put this in context, US 10 year yields were at 3% as recently as January this year.

Italian 10 Year Government Bond Yields

3)      Last month, Bank of Ireland issued €750m of covered bonds (bonds backed by a collateral pool of mortgages), maturing in 2019 with a coupon of 1.75%. These bonds now trade above par, with a yield to maturity of 1.5%. The market is not pricing in any material risk premium relating to the Irish housing market.

4)      There is no longer any risk premium within the high yield market for peripheral European risk. The chart below (published by Bank of America Merrill Lynch) shows that investors in non-investment grade corporates no longer discriminates between “core” and “peripheral” credits when it comes to credit spreads.

Core vs. peripheral high yield bond spreads

5)      Probably the biggest sign of all, is that today Greece is re-entering the international bonds markets. The country is expected to issue €3bn 5 year notes with a yield to maturity of 4.95%.

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Stand up for your rights! Covenant erosion in high yield bond documentation

2013 saw a record year for new issue volumes in the European high yield market. A total of $106bn equivalent was raised by non-investment grade companies according to data from Moodys. Whilst this is beneficial for the long term diversification and growth of the market, there have been some negative trends. Given the intense demand for new issues, companies and their advisors have been able to perpetuate the erosion various bondholder rights to their own advantage. What form has this erosion taken and why are they potentially so costly for bondholders? Here we highlight some of the specific changes that have crept into bond documentation over the past 2 years and some examples that demonstrate the potential economic impact for investors.

1) Shorter call periods – high yield bonds often contain embedded call options which enable the issuer to repay the bonds at a certain price at a certain point in the future. The benefit for the issuer is that if their business performs well and becomes less financially risky, they can call their bonds early and re-finance at a cheaper rate. The quid pro quo for bond holders is that the call price is typically several percentage points above par, hence they share in some of the upside. However, the length of time until the next call is important too. The longer the period, the higher the potential capital return for any bond holder as the risk premium (credit spread falls). The shorter the call period, the less likely the issuer will be locked into paying a high coupon. Take for example the situation below: reducing the call period has an associated cost to the investor of 2.6% of capital appreciation.

Shorter call periods

2) 10% call per year at 103 – Similar to the example above, the ability to call a bond prior to maturity has the impact of reducing potential upside to investors. One innovation that favours issuers has been the introduction of a call of 10% of the issue size every year within the so called “non call” period, usually at a preset price of 103% of par. So assuming a 3 year “non call” period, almost 1/3rd of an issuers bond can be retired at a relatively limited premium to par. Take for example the counterfactual scenario below. Here we see the inclusion of this extra call provision has reduced the potential return to bondholders by 3.3% over the holding period.

10% call per year at 103

3) Portability – One of the most powerful bondholder protections is the so called “put on change of control”. This gives the bondholder the right but not the obligation to sell their bonds back to the issuer at 101% of face value in the event the company changes ownership. Crucially, this protects investors from the potential re-pricing downside of the issuer being purchased by a more leveraged or riskier entity. For the owners of companies, this has been a troublesome restriction as the need to refinance a complete capital structure can be a major impediment to any M&A transaction. However, a recent innovation has been to introduce a “portability” clause into the change of control language. This typically states that subject to a leverage test and time restriction, the put on change of control does not apply (and hence the bonds in issue become “portable”, travelling with the company to any new owner removing the need to potentially re-finance the debt). With much of the market trading well above 101% of par, the value of the put on change of control is somewhat diminished so some investors have not seen this as an egregious erosion of rights. The owners of the issuers on the other hand enjoy a much higher degree of flexibility when it comes to buying and selling companies. There are costs to bondholders, however. In particular, as and when bonds trade below face value, this option can have significant value. In the example below we see that the inclusion of portability has an associated cost of 2.4%

Portability

 

4) Conditional Restricted Payment Basket – Another protection for high yield bondholders has been the restrictions on dividends. This prevents owners of businesses from stripping out large amounts of cash leaving behind a more leveraged and riskier balance sheet. If a company was performing very well and the owners wished to take out a large dividend, they would usually be forced to re-finance the debt or come to a consensual agreement with bondholders to allow them to do so. Consequently, the call protections would apply and the bondholders would be able to share in some of the success of the issuer’s business. However, another recent innovation has been the loosening of this “restricted payments” provision to allow a limitless upstreaming of dividend cash out of the business subject to a leverage test. This limits the ability of owners to load up the balance sheet with debt at will, but without the need to re-finance the bonds bondholders loose some of their bargaining power and once more are likely to lose out in certain situations. In this example, we see an impact of 1.0%

Conditional Restricted Payment Basket

What can investors do to cope with these unwelcome changes? Some sort of collective resistance would probably be the most effective tool – bondholders need to be prepared to stand up for their rights – but this is difficult to maintain in the face of inflows into the asset class and the need to invest cash. Until the market becomes weaker and negotiating power swings back toward the buyers of debt rather than the issuers, the most pragmatic course of action is for investors to asses any change on a case by case basis, then factor these in to their return requirements. This way investors can at least demand the appropriate risk premium for these changes and if they deem the risk premium insufficient they can simply elect to abstain. In the meantime, the old adage holds as true as ever – caveat emptor.

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Tomlins’ guide for getting the best from High Yield in 2014

2013 was another decent year for returns in the high yield market. The US market returned 7.4%, with Europe a little way ahead at 10.3%. Bonds saw solid income returns, low default rates and a small capital gain as a tightening in credit spreads was enough to overcome weakness in the government bond markets. Once again this illustrated how high yield can be one of the few fixed income asset classes that can generate positive returns within a rising interest rate environment.

However, the dead hand of mathematics weighs heavily upon the prospects for the market in 2014. We still believe it will be a positive year for total returns, but expectations are for returns to be in the mid-single digits.

How then can we seek to potentially enhance these returns and reduce volatility in High Yield this year ? Here are five strategies that could help:

  1. “Clip the coupon and conserve your capital” – with lower return expectations, we think coupons (or rather income) will form the bulk of returns this year. On the other hand, with average bond prices above par, protecting the downside and lowering the volatility of capital returns will also be key.
  2. “Dodge duration” – one of the ways to lower the volatility of capital returns and protect portfolios from downside risk is to reduce exposure to volatility in the government bond markets, i.e. reduce the exposure to interest rate duration.
  3. “Financials are your friend” – recently we’ve been much more positive on the scope of financial high yield to enhance returns, especially in Europe. There are still many fundamental issues to be resolved, but the relative valuations and excess yields on offer to gain exposure to a sector that is essentially de-leveraging and de-risking are attractive in our view.
  4. “Learn to love liquidity” – if we do see opportunities to put capital to work at a later stage of the year, it’s important to have the liquidity on hand to take advantage. This may take the form of wider volatility and a sell off or indeed a rush of new issues hitting the market at the same time.
  5. “Don’t burn and certainly don’t churn” – keeping unnecessary transaction costs to a minimum will have a proportionally high impact when returns are expect to be more muted. Trading to try and capture a 10-15% upside is very different from trying to capture an additional 1-2% return when transaction cost can be anything for 50 – 100bps.
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A vintage year for high yield issuance?

Much like fine wines, we believe that the year in which a bond is issued is an important factor in shaping its inherent character. The right climate in the markets, like the right weather conditions in the Gironde, can influence the nature of a security for better or for worse. 2013 is already a record year for the new high yield issuance in Europe (see the chart below). But will 2013 be one of the great vintages, or will investors just end up with a bad taste in their mouth and a nasty hangover?

Record HY issuance already in 2013

First of all, let us consider the conditions in which the current crop of deals has been grown. By and large, it’s been fairly benign this year. With a brief hiccup in the summer, the market has enjoyed promises of excess liquidity from all the major central banks, the Eurozone has shown the first green shoots of stabilisation and default rates have remained low.  Happy days then? For issuers and their investment bank advisers, yes, but for investors looking for future returns this is not the case.  The perfect conditions for investors to invest capital is when the storm clouds are on the horizon, there is the sniff of panic in the air and only the juiciest of yields from the highest quality issuers can tempt people to part with their cash. In these times, the power rests with the buyers and the risk premiums extracted can be very attractive.

In contrast, we can see from the chart below that in today’s sunny climes a) the quality of issuance has been deteriorating (measured by credit rating and leverage) b) structural features such as weaker legal covenants*, optional coupons and subordination are becoming more common and c) given the market has been strong, the coupons and hence future returns investors can expect has greatly diminished. Valuation, as always, is at the heart of it all.

Debt/EBITDA of first-time rated HY companies continues to rise

Take for instance, the respective returns experienced by two bonds issued by German healthcare provider Fresenius (one issued in 2009, the other issued in 2013). The USD 9% 2015 bond issued in the vintage year of 2009 performed admirably over the first nine months of its life. In contrast, the EUR 2.875% 2020 bond issued in January 2013 has been far less fruitful for investors. Products of the same vineyard, but with some very different results.

Same vineyard, very different results

Of course we are not comparing like for like; 2013 is not 2009, but it illustrates the importance of market conditions and your starting point for valuations when it comes to assessing prospective returns.

There is a silver lining, however. The wave of new issuance is good for the long term development of the European high yield market. More bonds and issuers means more depth and more diversification. There is also greater scope for differentiation between different fund managers as the investment universe grows. The stock selection decision is becoming ever more important.

Nevertheless, whereas the quantity of the 2013 vintage is beyond dispute, we believe its quality is somewhat dubious. The 2013 crop is arguably more Blue Nun than grand Bordeaux.

*One new development has been the introduction of “portability”. A standard high yield covenant obliges the issuer to buy back all bonds at 101% of face value in the event the business is sold. This protects bondholders from an adverse outcome in the case of unexpected M&A. Exceptions to this are now being introduced into the legal language governing the bonds allowing issuers to be bought or sold without the obligation to redeem their bonds – allowing a so called “portable capital structure”. We do not like this dilution of bondholder rights.

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Interest rate duration or defaults – which is the lesser of two evils?

So far this year returns for the high yield market seem solid if unspectacular; 2.9% for the global index, 4.5% for Europe and 3.4% for the US. However, these overall numbers mask some interesting gyrations within the markets. It’s been a mixed year for government bonds but a solid year for credit spreads. Indeed, recent moves in the sovereign bond markets continue to focus investors’ minds on the haunting spectre of interest rate risk. The high yield market is not entirely immune to such fears but we need to remember that interest rates are only one driver of performance. High yield returns are also subject to factors such as changes in credit spreads, default rates and carry.

To illustrate this, we have two sets of bonds below: two long dated BB rated bonds (issued by German healthcare business Fresenius and US listed packaging group Owens Illinois) and two short dated CCC bonds (issued by the global chemicals company Ineos and another packaging group, Reynolds). The BB bonds carry relatively more interest rate risk than the latter due to their longer maturity, but less credit risk given the higher credit rating.

Price S&P Rating Moodys Rating Spread (bps) Modified Duration (yrs)
Fresenius 2.875% 2020 100.25 BB+ Ba1 162 6.1
Owens Illinois 4.875% 2022 102.6 BB+ Ba2 313 6.1
Ineos 7.875% 2016 101.25 B- Caa1 503 2.1
Reynolds 8.0% 2016 100.125 CCC+ Caa2 565 2.8

Source: Bloomberg,  M&G, August 2013

So how have these bonds fared over the past few weeks ? The chart below shows the relative price performance.

tomlins blog

The chart shows that none of the bonds were immune to the volatility we saw over the summer. Indeed this was a relatively rare period where interest rate duration and credit risk premia moved in tandem. However, what is clear is that the longer dated bonds suffered more during the correction. When we consider total returns, this becomes more stark. The table below shows the impact of the different coupons over the three months in question. Again, the shorter dated CCC bonds fare better.

Period 01/05/13 – 19/08/13 Price Return Income Return Total Return
Fresenius 2.875% 2020 -1.05% 0.85% -0.20%
Owens Illinois 4.875% 2022 -3.03% 1.37% -1.66%
Ineos 7.875% 2016 -0.18% 2.31% 2.13%
Reynolds 8.0% 2016 -0.10% 2.37% 2.28%

Source: Bloomberg, M&G, August 2013

The point here is that judiciously taking on more default risk in the form of a higher coupon and or spread whilst at the same time minimising your interest rate risk by focusing on short dated bonds, is one way that fixed income investors can ride out greater volatility within the government bond markets and still look to generate positive total returns. In this environment, default risk (as opposed to duration) really is the lesser of two evils.

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Monster Munch update – a victory for bondvigilantes.com

One of our most popular posts of all time was written back in 2011. The subject was not the US losing its AAA rating, the impact of the default of Lehman Brothers or any other weighty matter of great economic import, but rather a quick look at how packets of Monster Munch were getting smaller over time and the associated inflationary impact.

Hence my surprise when I went into a shop last weekend and saw that Monster Munch packets have now been restored to their old 40g size, replacing the measly and frankly unsatisfying 22g version of recent times.

Slide1

Further research on the manufacturer’s website revealed that

“ … The re-launch comes in response to growing consumer demand and will take Monster Munch back to the original retro pack design and old texture, flavour and crunchiness that consumers remember and love … Consumers have made it clear through both our own research and within online communities that they miss Monster Munch the way it used to be ..”

I like to think that our blog was the spark that lit the fuse of this virtual nostalgia-laden fast food insurgency. A resounding victory for bondvigilantes.com fighting in the name of consumer activism!

But wait, it gets better. Back in October 2011, the M&G coffee shop charged 45p for 22g, or 2.05 pence per gram. Today, the same shop charges 65p (RRP 50p) for a 40g packet, or 1.63 pence per gram. This is a fall of 20.5% in nominal terms. Put simply, you are also getting more for your money.

However, before we applaud the manufacturer for their largesse, let’s look at the main raw material. Back in October 2011, we pointed out that the headline cost of Monster Munch closely followed the corn price.

Slide2

Since October 2011 the corn future has fallen by around 28.5% in price to $4.64 per bushel, a rare case of deflation in recent times. In sterling terms, the fall is around 25.5%. Accordingly, the dramatic fall off in corn prices has allowed the manufacturer to pass on part of this benefit to consumers, reducing the headline per gram price, but at the same time retaining some of the benefit in the form of an enhanced profit margin.

So whilst we cannot claim all the credit for this victory, this is a rare piece of welcome news for the consumer of corn based snacks.

 

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Five reasons why the European high yield market is better value than its US cousin

Since the start of 2011 we have seen the onset of the Eurozone crisis, endemic political uncertainty, a return to recession and a de facto Greek sovereign default. Contrast this to the path the US has taken with aggressive QE, positive growth and a recovery in the housing market. The somewhat surprising fact is that in spite of all this, the European high yield market has outperformed its US counterpart, returning 29.0% and 24.8% respectively*.

There is little doubt that the US presents a more benign fundamental and macroeconomic environment for leveraged companies. Nevertheless, there are still compelling reasons to believe the European market offers the better investment opportunity. Here are 5 reasons why:

  1. Lower sensitivity to interest rates – since the genie of “Tapering” has been let out of the bottle this summer, investors have become acutely aware of the interest rate risk inherent in their holdings. The European high yield market has an effective interest rate duration of 3.2 years compared to 4.4 years for the US. Accordingly, the European market will be less sensitive to a further sell off in government bonds all other things being equal.
  2. Lower average cash price – European high yield bonds trade with an average cash price of 101.98 with the US at 102.92. This may seem like a small difference, but given the presence of call options in many high yield bonds, a cash price above 100 indicates limited scope for capital appreciation. The European market suffers from the same constraint, but with an extra 1% of headroom.
  3. Higher quality market – viewed through the prism of credit ratings, the European market is lower risk. BB rated bonds make up 67% of the market compared 42% for the US. Higher risk B rated bonds make up 23% and 41% respectively with the remainder within CCC’s. This means two thirds of the European market is rated just below investment grade, whereas over half the US market is well into “Junk” territory with a B or CCC rating.
  4. Higher credit spread – the European market as a whole trades with a credit spread over government bonds of 508bps compared to 471bps in the US. When controlled for credit rating, the difference is even more stark. European BB rated bonds trade at 410bps over sovereigns with US BB’s at 342. The numbers are 607bps and 454bps respectively for B rated instruments. We know the European economy is struggling but this is already factored into valuations.
  5. Lower default rate – According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch statistics for the public bond markets, the trailing last 12 month issuer weighted default rate for the European market is 1.2% compared to 2.1% for the US. There is little to suggest that this trend will dramatically change in the near future given low interest rates and supportive refinancing trends.

Of course there are always mitigating elements to this argument – the all-in yield of the European market , for example, is lower at 5.1% (US is 6.1%) – reflecting both the lower duration of the market, but also the divergence of European and US government bond market yields over recent months. Nevertheless, with lower interest rate risk, lower average cash price, higher credit quality, higher credit spreads and lower default rates, the investment case for the European market continues to look more compelling compared to its American cousin.

*BofA Merrill Lynch US and Euro High Yield Indices 31/12/2010 – 26/07/2013

 

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Caveat emptor – new deals in the high yield market

The volume of new bond deals in the European high yield market has been very strong this year. One (unscientific) measure of this has been the growing pile of bond prospectuses on the desk; already the 2013 pile is more than halfway up the 2012 pile after just three months.

An unscientific measure of new HY bond deals in 2013

A marginally more robust measure is the data below published by Morgan Stanley. The year to date number of €25.2 bn is running well ahead of last year as more and more companies take advantage of lower yields and looser financing conditions in the wider credit markets to term out their debt and reduce interest costs.

A scientific measure of new HY bond deals in 2013

Whilst this is generally good for the long term development of the high yield market in terms of depth and diversification, at this point in the cycle there are a few factors that are beginning to cause us to pause for thought.

In brief they are:

  1. Capital structure – in recent months we have seen the re-appearance of more equity like instruments being issued. This can take the form of deeply subordinated debt, or bonds that pay interest in the form of more bonds rather than cash (aka payment in kind notes). These instruments are typically used to fund dividends to the owners of businesses and can expose bond investors to equity like downside.
  2. Covenants – less of an issue for the bond market, but several leveraged loans in recent months have been issued on so called “cov-lite” terms (i.e. with significantly looser legal restrictions)
  3. Quality of issuer – looser conditions in the credit markets make it easier for riskier issuers to refinance their debt. In early 2012, the market was largely closed to cyclical or more challenged southern European issuers. This is no longer the case.
  4. Pricing – all the factors above are acceptable as long as buyers of the bonds are being compensated for the inherent risks. However, given that these deals are being priced in a market with an average yield of 5.6%*, the general prospects for attractive returns are more limited.

We believe that on a case by case basis there are still some attractive opportunities. Nevertheless this is very much a seller’s market. The terms are arguably more attractive for the issuers of bonds rather than the buyers. Accordingly, when looking at new deals, now is the time for a healthy dose of cautious discrimination – caveat emptor.

*B of A Merrill Lynch Euro High Yield Index yield to maturity 02/04/13

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The Real Income Enigma

“The question isn’t at what age I want to retire, it’s at what income.”

George Foreman

The carry trade, the grab for yield – call it what you will, but this has been a persistent fact of life in today’s investment climate, especially as larger cohorts of the developed world join the ranks of the retired. As Mr Foreman points out above, the financial aspect of retirement isn’t really dominated by how much capital you might have, but how much income can be generated from your savings and various entitlements. Furthermore, safeguarding this income from the rapacious grasp of inflation is crucial. Real income is the goal.

While there is plenty of demand for real income, the supply of assets that can provide this is now dwindling. The chart below is a very simple one (and arguably too simplistic), but it paints a stark picture for income hungry investors. On the left hand side is the nominal income yield from various asset classes (dividend yield in the case of equities, yield to maturity for fixed income). The right hand side merely takes away the last inflation number to give you a snapshot of real income yields. This does not take into account the possibility of earnings and dividend growth from the equity markets (an important aspect) or indeed any changes in the inflation rate. For any income orientated investor, this essentially gives you the menu of options for generating inflation beating income in the here and now.

Comparing real yields across asset classes

One thing that should come as no surprise is that cash and government bonds offer negative real returns on a buy and hold basis, but what is less obvious perhaps is that the number of asset classes that offer a positive real return has shrunk dramatically. Indeed, only high yield bonds offer a significant pick up above and beyond the inflation rate. (This pick up is there in part to compensate investors for the risk of default, volatility and lack of liquidity). Whilst we do not expect dramatic capital gains from high yield in the near future, absent a major negative shock for risk appetite, this context provides very powerful structural and technical support for the asset class. Investors, particularly those seeking income, ignore this at their peril.

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High yield – it’s pickin’ time

It’s fair to say that we have been toning down our view on the high yield market of late. We could well see returns in the high single digits for 2013, but the potential for more substantial capital gains is less apparent in today’s context.

This does, however, ignore quite a powerful feature of the current high yield environment – the scope for exploiting opportunities and pricing dislocations within the market itself. To use a more technical term, spread dispersion within the market is very elevated. What do we mean by this?

Here is a snapshot of the European high yield market back in 2007 with credit rating plotted against credit spread. As credit risk increased, you got paid incrementally more credit risk premium. This produced a gentle upward sloping curve. The market was fairly efficient and the level of spread dispersion within a credit rating category was fairly limited.

European high yield spreads June 2007

Compare this to a snapshot of today’s market below: not only is the average risk premium significantly higher than in 2007, but more importantly, there is a much higher range of spreads within each rating category.

European high yield spreads January 2013

How can this obvious dislocation be exploited? If you can correctly assess credit risk independent of the ratings agencies, then you can start to pick and chose the bonds that are mispriced. Furthermore the reward for getting this “stock selection” correct can be meaningful. If for example you purchase Bond X at a credit spread of 750bps and sell Bond Y at 250bps, this is a 500bps difference. Let’s say that this difference moves to zero over time with both Bond X and Bond Y converging to a credit spread of 500bps, with a duration of 5 years. This is a relative price performance of 25% (a capital gain of 12.5% for Bond X, and avoiding a 12.5% capital loss for Bond Y).

If an active manager can realise even a small element of these sorts of opportunities across a portfolio, then the additional returns can be meaningful. It’s (stock) pickin’ time.

It's Pickin' Time

 

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