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Seeking relative value in USD, EUR and GBP corporate bonds

In terms of investment grade credit, it has been a common theme for global fixed income investors to think of EUR denominated credit as relatively expensive versus USD credit. Conversely, many see GBP corporate bonds as relatively cheap. But can it really be as simple and clear-cut as this? To answer this question, I have compared monthly asset swap (ASW) spreads of IG credit, issued in these three currencies, both on an absolute spread and a relative spread differential (EUR vs. USD and GBP vs. USD) basis.

At first, I looked at the three BoAML corporate master indices for publicly issued IG debt, denominated in USD, EUR and GBP. As shown below, until the onset of the financial crisis in the middle of 2007, USD IG credit was trading at spread levels of around 50 bps, which is almost exactly in line with GBP and on average only 15 bps wider than EUR IG credit. During the financial crisis, USD spreads widened more dramatically than EUR and GBP spreads. At peak levels in November 2008, when USD spreads reached 485 bps, EUR and GBP credit spreads were significantly tighter (by 215 bps and 123 bps, respectively). Subsequently, GBP IG spreads surpassed USD spreads again in May 2009 and have been wider ever since.

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In contrast, EUR IG credit spreads have been consistently tighter than USD spreads. Even at the height of the Eurozone crisis in late 2011, the EUR vs. USD credit spread differential was negative, if only marginally. Over the past three years, USD IG credit has been trading on average at a spread level of 166 bps, i.e., nearly 30 bps wider than EUR IG credit (137 bps average spread) and c. 50 bps tighter than GBP IG credit (215 bps average spread). Hence, when only looking at an IG corporate master index level, it is justified to say that subsequent to the financial crisis EUR credit has been looking relatively expensive and GBP credit relatively cheap compared to USD credit.

Taking only headline master index spreads into consideration is an overly simplistic approach. A direct comparison between the USD, EUR and GBP corporate master indices is distorted by two main factors: index duration and credit rating composition. As shown below, there are substantial differences in terms of effective index duration between the three master indices. Over the past ten years, the effective duration of the USD master index has been on average 6.2, whereas the EUR and the GBP indices exhibited values of 4.4 and 7.3, respectively. Currently, index duration differentials account for -2.1 (EUR vs. USD) and 1.4 (GBP vs. USD).

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These significant deviations in duration, and thus sensitivity of bond prices towards changes in interest rate, render a like-for-like index comparison problematic. The same applies to differences in credit rating composition. Take, for example, the rating structures of the USD and the EUR master indices in March 2010. Whereas the USD index hardly contained any AAA (below 1%) and only c. 18% AA rated bonds, the EUR index comprised nearly 6% AAA and c. 26% AA bonds. In contrast, the ratio of BBB bonds was significantly higher in the USD index (almost 40%) than in the EUR index (c. 22%). The credit quality on that date was distinctly higher for the EUR index than for the USD index, and directly comparing both indices would therefore be a bit like comparing apples to… well, not necessarily oranges but maybe overripe apples, for lack of a more imaginative metaphor.

Duration and credit rating biases can be removed from the analysis – or at least materially reduced – by using bond indices with narrow maturity and credit rating bands. As an example, I plotted relative spread differentials (i.e., EUR vs. USD and GBP vs. USD) for the past 10 years, based on the respective BoAML 5-10 year BBB corporate indices. To add another layer of complexity, this time I did not use headline corporate index level spreads but differentiated between financials and industrials instead. As only relative spread differences are shown, positive values indicate relatively cheap credit versus USD credit and, conversely, negative values signal relatively expensive credit.

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Until October 2010, the graphs follow a very similar path, EUR and GBP credit spreads trade fairly in line with USD spreads up to the financial crisis, when USD spreads widen more strongly than both EUR and GBP spreads, pushing spread differentials temporarily into deeply negative territory (below -220 bps in the case of financials). Then things got more interesting as spread differentials seem to decouple to a certain extent from October 2010 onwards. At this level of granularity it becomes clear that it is an inaccurate generalisation to refer to EUR credit as expensive and GBP credit as cheap versus USD credit.

In terms of 5-10 year BBB credit, EUR financials have in fact been trading consistently wider than USD financials, although the spread difference has been falling considerably from its peak Eurozone crisis level of 201 bps in November 2011 to currently only 10 bps. EUR industrials have been looking more expensive than USD industrials since early 2007 (c. 35 bps tighter on average over the past 3 years). The trajectory of GBP financials spread differentials has been broadly following the EUR financials’ humped pattern since late 2010, rising steeply to a maximum value of 259 bps in May 2012 and subsequently falling to current values at around 115 bps. GBP industrials have been looking moderately cheap compared to USD industrials since late 2010 (c. 37 bps wider on average over the past 3 years), but the spread differential has recently vanished. Hence, regarding 5-10 year BBB credit, currently only GBP financials are looking cheap and EUR industrials expensive versus the respective USD credit categories, whereas GBP industrials and EUR financials are trading in-line with USD credit.

To sum things up, when comparing USD, EUR and GBP IG credit, headline spreads are merely broad-brush indicators. To get a greater understanding of true relative value, it is worth analysing more granular data subsets to understand the underlying dynamics and the evolution of relative credit spread differences.

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High yield: bullish or blinkered?

I recently attended JP Morgan’s annual US high yield conference. It’s one of the best conferences around: well attended, and with more than 150 companies, panel discussions and specialist presentations. As such, the topics covered give a good flavour of the market’s latest thinking.

Unsurprisingly, many of the well-rehearsed arguments in favour of high yield resurfaced once again, with presentations focused on the following:

  • The structurally low default rate (see chart below), largely a function of accommodative central bank policy, limited refinancing risk and growing investor maturity, with spreads over-compensating as a result.

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  • Projections that US high yield will outperform other fixed interest asset classes in 2014, returning 5%-6% (leveraged loans likely to deliver 4.5%).
  • Room for spreads to tighten further given that they remain over 100+ bps back of the lows in 2007. Currently 378bps vs 241bps in May 2007.
  • How refinancing, rather than new borrowing, is driving the majority of issuance in the US. Refinancing accounted for 56% of issuance in 2013, though down from 60% in 2012.
  • The need for income in a low interest rate world is providing a strong technical support, evidenced by $2bn+ of mutual fund inflows into the US high yield market year to date. Significant oversubscription for the vast majority of new issues has also been a notable feature of the market for some time now.
  • The short duration nature of the asset class – particularly attractive in an environment of potentially rising rates. Modified duration for US and European high yield is 3.5 years and 3 years respectively. This compares to 6.5 and 4.5 years for the investment grade equivalents.

Now these are all relevant arguments in favour of the asset class, and indeed I believe that US high yield will likely be one of fixed income’s winners in 2014. What did surprise me, though, was the almost total absence of discussion around some of the headwinds that it faces.

For example, presentations seemed to gloss over the fact that much of the good news, from the perspective of default rates at least, has arguably already been priced in. The market is unlikely to be surprised by another year of sub-2% defaults, rather the risk lies in an outcome that sees a higher default rate than anticipated by the consensus, even if that is difficult to envisage right now.

Other challenges are presented by liquidity (while this has improved since the immediate aftermath of the credit crunch, investment banks are still reluctant to offer liquidity given the high capital charges they face and the low yields currently on offer); by the lack of leverage available to end investors compared to 2006-7, when banks had the ability, strength and desire to lend to those investors on margin; and by the increasing negative convexity the market faces at the moment.

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With US high yield paper already trading at an average price of 105 and as high as 107 in Europe (see chart above), the threat of bonds being called will act as a cap on further capital appreciation. And, of course, the flip side of these high prices is low all-in yields. With these standing around 3.8% on the European non-financial high yield index and 5.2% on the US high yield index, investors can only question how much lower they can go.

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Perhaps in this environment, with inflation ticking along comfortably below 2%, investors should accept that a nominal return of 5-6% looks decent. That said, returns this year are likely to be driven by income rather than capital appreciation, and may well look skinny versus previous years. As I said before, I’m still constructive on high yield, but after the stellar returns in the past few years, we must be careful to avoid being blinkered.

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A quick look at Asia: corporate fundamentals and credit tightening

As Mike just reported, we remain concerned with a number of internal issues as well as external vulnerabilities facing emerging markets. With economic growth fuelled by excessive credit growth, deteriorating current account balances and potential contagion risk if the Fed tightens monetary policy (leading to capital flows back to the US and Europe), another big sell-off can certainly not be ruled out. Combining the above with what are now fairly unattractive valuations, the overall macro EM story continues to be a none too compelling one for us.

However, what do we think of the situation at the company level? As a counter-argument to our cautious macro-economic outlook, a number of EM companies possess solid balance sheets despite their home country’s economies often being stuck in quicksand. Why not invest in solid EM-based multinationals if they have strong balance sheets, solid cash flows, sizeable global market share in their segment and an ability to diversify their revenues internationally? Let’s take a closer look.

Focusing on the Asian corporate world specifically, this last “stronghold” seems to be collapsing as corporate fundamentals have sharply deteriorated. A worsening economic outlook, slower growth and tighter credit availability from the banking system will create challenges. Leverage has picked up as companies have both taken on more debt and burnt cash (a trend most evident in high yield issuers compared to investment grade). A number of Asian corporates have leveraged up in foreign currencies (mainly USD) while having revenues in local EM currencies, thus becoming increasingly vulnerable (where FX is not hedged) to a potential strengthening of the US Dollar. Operating margins (EBITDA) are flat, and capex has sharply decreased. While reduced capex may be good news for creditors in the short term (other things being equal) as more resources become available to pay back debt, it is not a great foundation to build a company’s future: how do you sustain a business over the long term if you don’t invest? On the other side of the coin, this trend of reduced capex does at least provide some evidence of emerging balance sheet discipline after years of easy credit.

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Across EM as a whole, bank loan growth has been broadly unaffected by the crisis in the summer. It was running at a pace of USD 160bn per month in July and August (according to JP Morgan data), the same rate as earlier in the year. However, looking at Asia specifically this is not the case. Despite financial conditions still being in accommodative territory (apart from India and Indonesia, no other Asian EM has hiked rates since mid-2011) a problem of over-leverage – driven by China – is pushing a number of Asian banks to close their wallets. Credit availability via official bank loans (and importantly the shadow banking system in China as well) has not been an issue so far, but corporates will have to rely on bond markets to a greater extent going forward. However, will domestic and international bond investors support deteriorating balance sheets in weakening economies? If not, we should expect to see more defaults next year, bearing in mind that Asian high yield defaults have already increased from an annual rate of 0.8% in early 2013 to 1.8% recently.

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Is it only bad news then? Not entirely. Some EM companies will benefit from a stronger USD (exporters specifically) as they will gain competitiveness through being able to offer cheaper goods to the US and Europe, which are expected to grow in the coming years. Also, company specific factors including improving liquidity, stronger cash flows and stabilising balance sheets, especially in the investment grade space, may mitigate some of these concerns. And at the end of the day everything has a price in the market. We think many of the concerns we have highlighted here have been priced in to a certain degree, and while EM corporate spreads have compressed back toward US and EUR corporate spreads since the end of August, they remain well off the pre-May levels. Stock-picking and a clear differentiation between good EM and bad EM, good companies and bad companies, will be the main determinant of performance next year.

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Small business, big deal – a look into peripheral SMEs

It should come as no surprise to any investor that European banks are still too large. Despite having reduced their balance sheets by around €2.4tn since 2011, they continue to have the world’s largest asset base, with an aggregate balance sheet size circa 3.3x the Eurozone’s GDP. Further balance sheet contraction can be expected in the coming years as the European banks strive to recapitalise their balance sheets to conform to stricter Basel-III norms.

Whilst the ECB’s LTRO (long-term refinancing operation) liquidity injections and OMT (Outright Monetary Transactions) programme have arguably suppressed interest rates and helped debt capital markets, they have also anaesthetised bank lending to corporates, particularly in peripheral economies where the transmission mechanism of current accommodative policy continues to be broken.

Small and medium businesses are crucial to the European economy. However, SMEs are facing severe financing problems of late, particularly those in peripheral Europe. Not only has credit availability dried up for these companies in the last five years, but those lucky enough to get access to credit are doing so at a significantly higher cost. As shown in the chart below, southern European companies are paying a 2-3% interest premium over their continental peers.

SME blog_31Jul

Looking at countries like Spain or Italy, the situation becomes particularly acute. To understand the scale of the problem we should look at the importance of small and medium sized firms in these countries. Italian or Spanish SMEs are responsible for 75-80% of job creation, compared to 50% in the US and 59% in the UK. Furthermore, SMEs and micro companies in these countries represent 99% of total national businesses and generate around 60% of GDP. However, their lack of access to capital markets makes them reliant on banks for borrowing.

ECB interest rates are currently as low as they have ever been. Yet, Spain is one of the European countries with the most punitive corporate financing costs. This is a problem that has often been described as the “diabolical loop” between the Sovereign and corporate sector.

We have previously discussed how the Spanish government is dangerously indebted and accumulates a high fiscal deficit. Such a situation naturally has important consequences for Spanish banks – investors know that if loan delinquencies start to rise, banks have a slim chance of being bailed out by their sovereign. A risk premium is therefore warranted, which is also passed on to the corporate sector in the form of higher financing costs.

The Spanish economy is undergoing a painful recession and the state of its corporate sector is a clear reflection of this. SMEs are deteriorating rapidly, as credit taps are running dry, companies have stopped hiring and have been forced into restructuring their businesses in order to remain competitive vs their continental European peers. As delinquency rates rise, banks’ risk premiums continue to soar and the economic situation deteriorates further. Reduced corporate activity diminishes fiscal revenues for the sovereign, worsening the country’s fiscal deficit and we are then back to square one. The diabolical loop starts again.

Whilst the UK launched the FLS scheme last year aimed at stimulating lending to the real economy, Spain could be running short on time to deal with a problem of potentially larger consequences. Spanish SMEs are the true back-bone of the economy; they are primarily responsible for the country’s wealth and economic growth. Therefore, reinstating credit access while allowing banks to re-size and heal is critical for economic stabilisation. Until this happens, it will be difficult for Spain and other peripheral countries to exit recession.

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Heinz: Beans, Buffett and the return of animal spirits

After years of inactivity, the combination of strong corporate balance sheets and cheap funding has sparked demand for takeover deals. The largest and highest profile deal this year has been the acquisition of H.J.Heinz by 3G Capital and Berkshire Hathaway. It is exactly the type of business that Berkshire Hathaway’s Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett typically goes for: profitable growth; a very recognisable brand; and years of emerging market growth forecast in the future.

Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital are buying Heinz for $72.50 per share, a 19 percent premium to the company’s previous record high stock price at the time the deal was announced in mid-February. Including debt assumption, the transaction was valued at $28 billion. Berkshire and 3G will each put up $4.4bn in equity for the deal along with $12.2bn in debt financing. Berkshire is also buying $8bn of preferred equity that pays 9%.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s a great company. The business has seen thirty one consecutive quarters of organic growth, stable EBITDA margins, owns a number of globally recognised brands and should be well positioned for future emerging market led growth. Despite this, some are questioning whether Buffett is overpaying for Heinz. So is the price of the deal justified?

The answer, at least in part, lies with cost of debt. The pro-forma capital structure (per the offering memorandum) looks like this:

PF Capital Structure Sources ($m) Net Debt/PF EBITDA
Cash -1,250
1st Lien 10,500 3.87 x
2nd Lien 2,100 4.75 x
Rollover Notes 868 5.11 x
Total debt 12,218 5.11 x
Preferred Equity 8,000 8.46 x
Common Equity 8,240
Total 28,458

Current price talk on the first lien debt sits at $ Libor + 2.75% (floored at 1%) with the second lien at 4.5%. If this is finalised, the company will see an approximate blended interest cost of 3.9% on its new debt securities. Prior to the transaction, Heinz was rated as a solid investment grade business attracting a Baa2/BBB+ rating. Assuming the deal goes through, its new second lien notes are expected to be rated B1/BB-, some five notches lower than Heinz’s current rating, reflecting the much higher financial leverage and structural subordination.

It’s worth noting that through last year Heinz’s 6.25% 2030 bonds traded in a range of 4–5%, despite the much higher rating and lower financial leverage at the time; albeit some term premium is warranted given the longer dated nature of the debt. The bonds have since sold off in recognition of the greater risk – as things stand they will remain in place.

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Now let’s compare the price action of the proposed debt financing to the preferred equity to be owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Whilst the paper is structurally subordinate to all other debt, it still sits ahead of some $8,240bn of common equity and attracts a cash coupon (which can be deferred) of 9% vs the 3.9% weighted average above. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the transaction has been structured to encourage the preferred equity to be retired, at least in part, ahead of both the first and second lien debt, potentially leaving bondholders with significantly less subordination than at day one. I’d argue that this is by far the most attractive (quasi) debt to invest in within the structure, though that is hardly surprising given that unlike Buffett, few of us can write a cheque of this magnitude.

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As animal spirits return and the leveraged finance community falls over itself to lend to well known companies, the likely winners in the space will be the private equity community. Whilst we are nowhere near the levels of the great private equity binge of 2004-07, the value of takeovers in 2013 is already running well ahead of 2012. After years of corporate deleveraging, we may now be entering into a period of increased M&A activity. Company managers may find that if they aren’t willing to start leveraging up given the environment of extremely low borrowing costs, then investors like Buffett will do it for them.

The Heinz deal has been another recent shot across the bows of the bond market. Rising leverage has a longer term implication for credit markets, in that it is bad for credit quality. Bigger and bigger companies are clearly in play and this is something we will be keeping a very close eye on.

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If China’s economy rebalances and growth slows, as it surely must, then who’s screwed?

OK so that wasn’t the exact title of the IMF’s paper from the end of last year – it was Investment-Led Growth in China: Global Spillovers – but you get the gist.

First a little preamble.  Many people who were China bears last year have become less bearish or even outright bullish, no doubt on the back of an improvement in Chinese economic data and a corresponding rally in China’s equity markets.  But I don’t think the better data (if you believe the data) should inspire confidence, and you could actually argue the opposite; the growth rebound in China is likely due to yet more government-encouraged unproductive and unprofitable lending.  The quality of China’s growth has become increasingly poor, and the rate of growth is utterly unsustainable.  The bigger the bubble, the bigger the eventual bust.

Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week about how China’s total and private debt has exploded to over 200% of GDP, and how the Bank of International Settlements has previously found that ‘if private debt as a share of GDP accelerates to a level 6% higher than its trend over the previous decade, the acceleration is an early warning of serious financial distress. In China, private debt as a share of GDP is now 12% above its previous trend, and above the peak levels seen before credit crises hit Japan in 1989, Korea in 1997, the US in 2007 and Spain in 2008′.  There’s reference to this article among others in a good summary of China’s near unprecedented credit binge at FT Alphaville here.

The IMF has long been warning of the threat posed to global financial stability by the great Chinese credit bubble, and their study on global spillovers referenced above makes interesting reading.  They estimate that for each percentage point deceleration in China’s investment growth, 0.5-0.9% is subtracted from GDP growth in regional supply chain economies such as Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia.  Commodity producers such as Chile and Saudi Arabia are also likely to suffer substantial growth declines while countries such as Canada and Brazil would experience ‘somewhat significant output loss and slowdown’.  There would be ‘a substantial impact on capital goods manufacturing economies such as Germany and Japan’, and one year after the shock, commodity prices, especially metal prices, could fall by 0.8-2.2% from the baseline levels for every 1% drop in China’s investment rate.

So what kind of correction in China’s investment growth rate is likely?  China’s growth in fixed investment from 2002-2011 was 13.5% per year, a rate that greatly exceeded China’s GDP growth rate and meant that fixed investment is now running at about 50% of China’s GDP.  No major countries have sustained such a high investment rate as a percentage of GDP – since 1960, the only countries to have managed a ratio of more than 50% for at least two consecutive years are Republic of Congo 1960-61, Botswana 1971-73, Gabon 1974-77, Mongolia 1981-87, Kiribati 1982-83 and 1985-90, St Kitts & Nevis 1988-90, Lesotho 1989-97, Equatorial Guinea 1994-98 and 2000-01, Bhutan 2001-04, Azerbaijan 2003-04, Chad 2002-03, and Turkmenistan 2009-10.

Judging by other countries at China’s stage of development, a more reasonable investment/GDP ratio is maybe 30-35%.  Achieving this ratio will require a sharp drop in China’s investment growth rate to perhaps mid single digits, and if China’s slowdown proves to be hard rather than soft, then the investment rate will likely fall even further (taking two other post bubble economies in the region,Japanese investment growth has been negligible since the early 1990s, while Korean investment growth has averaged low single digits since the mid 1990s).  According to the IMF’s model then, a drop in Chinese investment growth from 13.5% to 4.5%  implies a 4%-7.2% hit to the GDP of countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia.  Some commodity prices would fall almost 20%.  Ouch.  And if you want to get extra gloomy, you can also consider that such a large economic shock would also be accompanied by a reversal of the huge decade-long EM equity and bond inflows to the region, which is something else that the IMF has repeatedly warned about (eg see page 70 and Fig 2.51 of this report).  It’s quite easy to see how a Chinese rebalancing and slowdown can develop into an Asian/EM financial crisis.

Finally it’s worth reproducing a chart I used in a note from last year demonstrating what happened to Japan’s GDP growth rate as it rebalanced away from an investment-led model and towards more of a consumption based model in the 1970s-80s (countries such as Thailand and Korea followed a very similar path 20 years later).  When investment as a percentage of GDP falls, then the GDP growth rate falls too.  Everyone accepts that China must reduce investment and increase consumption, but few people acknowledge that this means that China’s GDP growth rate will slow considerably.

China will turn Japanese

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Chinese housing market, not so magic – will the dragon run out of puff?

‘The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.” – Ashanti proverb

In the last ten years, around the world, we’ve seen a series of housing led credit booms inflict heavy recessions on economies. We seem to be seeing the same thing happening today in parts of China.

Deutsche Bank’s excellent economist Torsten Slok has produced the following graph; which clearly shows how unaffordable house prices are becoming, relative to incomes, in some major Chinese cities.

While property prices in the rest of the world continue to adjust towards more fundamental valuations, China’s credit boom is allowing the opposite to happen.

Current property prices in major Chinese cities are unsustainable. Either they adjust (a bursting of the bubble) or real wages have to catch up (massive inflationary pressure).

The currently inflated dragon is unlikely to survive in its current form.

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Another year over – 2012 returns in fixed income markets

It’s been another massive year for the global economy. Europe saw LTROs, Greece got a haircut, sovereign downgrades and record high unemployment rates. The peripheral European nations attempted to implement austerity measures with limited success. The US re-elected President Obama and the focus quickly shifted to the upcoming fiscal cliff. In the UK, an Olympics induced bounce in growth was the sole bright spark for an economy which appears to be stuck in quick sand and may well lose its prized AAA rating in 2013.

The IMF, being unusually succinct, probably summed up the state of the global economy the best by entitling their latest World Economic Outlook “Coping with High Debt and Sluggish Growth”. The advanced economies account for around two-thirds of global GDP and if they are sluggish then global growth will be sluggish too.

With all this uncertainty and risk in 2012, how have fixed income markets performed? Surely government bonds will be the safe haven of choice?

In absolute and local currency terms, it’s been another great year for the markets with everything generating a positive return except UK linkers. It’s been a fall in grace for UK linkers, which were actually one of the best returning asset classes of 2011. The UK linker market was buffeted in 2012 by weak growth expectations and uncertainty surrounding proposed changes to the RPI calculation.

But looking elsewhere, investors had the opportunity to secure some excellent returns in 2012 by taking some risk. The best performing asset class of our sample was European subordinated financial debt which registered a return of 29.5%. European high yield wasn’t far behind with a return of 27.1%, followed by Sterling banks which returned 23.0%.

ECB President Mario Draghi and the ECB’s measures to support the Eurozone also had a positive effect of debt investors in peripheral Eurozone debt, with an index made up of bonds from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain government bonds up 18.7%. Not a bad return for investors considering the question marks hanging over the ability of these nations to service their respective debt obligations in an environment of political uncertainty and recessionary levels of growth.

Other highlights include global high yield (up 18.7%), European peripheral financials (up 17.0%) and US high yield (up 15.6%). At the less risky end of the spectrum, European investment grade corporates returned 12.8% and US investment grade corporates returned 10.2%. Emerging market debt also did well, with EM sovereigns debt posting a fantastic return of 21.4%.

The dash for trash – YTD total returns in fixed income

As outlined earlier, it appears that the global economy faces some substantial fundamental headwinds. So how was it that the riskiest asset classes in fixed income have performed the best? Three little words – “whatever it takes”. Mario Draghi’s speech in late July supercharged returns for the riskiest asset classes and stimulated the “dash for trash”. “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough”.

Well Mr Draghi, the markets have certainly believed you. For example, an index of government debt issued by Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal had up until the speech date generated a return of around 5%. The index ended up generating a 17% return, with investors comforted by Mr Draghi’s comments.

Super Mario to the rescue

It seems to us that the Ostrich effect (the avoidance of apparently risky financial situations by pretending they do not exist) had a significant impact on markets in 2012. And in a world of ultra-low interest rates and negative real returns in cash, investors must take on risk. It is precisely what central banks are encouraging us to do. But uncertainty breeds volatility and in order to generate higher returns investors must face this volatility head on. It will be a feature of the market in 2013.

About the only thing we can say for certain is that it is unlikely that fixed income will continue to generate excellent returns across the spectrum from government bonds to high yield. For example, double-digit returns in European investment grade are not normal and has occurred only three times in the last seventeen years. On the other hand, the asset class has posted a negative return in only two of those seventeen years, with the largest loss being -3.3% in 2008. In US high yield, the consensus amongst analysts is that high yield markets will generate a return of around 4-6%, the result of coupon clipping. Analysing returns for the asset class shows that a coupon-clipping year has occurred only once in the past twenty-five years.

We posted our bond market outlook last week. It looks like the US may experience a housing induced growth spurt, Europe will eventually get round to dealing with its issues and the UK has a long way to go to secure economic growth. We like non-financial corporates, are worried about EM debt valuations and remain confident that there are still attractive investment opportunities in several areas of the fixed income universe. For an expansion of these views and more, please see here.

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How much of the “improvement” in peripheral EZ sovereign creditworthiness is actually due to the CDS short selling ban?

Since the middle of this year, credit spreads on peripheral sovereigns have narrowed considerably.  Having been as wide as 600 bps, Spanish 5 year CDS is now around 300 bps, Italy is down from 500 bps to 250 bps.  Ireland now trades at just 200 bps.  Now at least part of this performance can be put down to Draghi’s speech in July in which he said “within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough”. And after the “whatever it takes” speech, Draghi eventually followed this up in September with the announcement of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme in which the ECB would buy short dated government bonds of Eurozone members where bond spreads reflected too high a breakup premium (but with some conditionality attached in return).  So is the improvement in credit sentiment a reflection of conviction in the European authorities to “save” peripheral bond markets?  Perhaps.

European sovereign CDS spreads have tightened ahead of the short selling ban

The other dynamic over the past few months might be just as powerful – a growing realisation amongst hedge funds and other asset managers that the EU Regulation on Short Selling and Sovereign Credit Default Swaps, finally published in April, might well force them to close out short positions in the troubled sovereigns. The Regulation states that uncovered (“naked”) sovereign CDS shorts on European Union (not just Eurozone) nations will not be permitted, and must be closed out by 1st November 2012.  “Naked” broadly means not hedging an underlying government bond exposure – it covers bearish trades on government creditworthiness. The short can be closed out by either using an opposing CDS contract, or by buying underlying government bonds to the same value.  Whilst there is an exemption for positions initiated in a period before the Regulation was published, any short positions put on since then have to be closed out, whether this is a single name CDS or even an index which includes an EU member (for example the iTraxx Sovx CEEMEA index, a CDS index consisting of 15 sovereigns from Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, includes Poland, and so a naked short position in the index would be banned). The Regulation is global in its reach and so should forbid even, for example, a Singaporean bank dealing with a US insurance company out of an office in Chile.

So as November approaches, the market is one-way. Whilst there is likely to be some sort of market maker exemption for having short positions (nobody seems entirely sure), there is no longer any willing counterpart to take the short risk positions off the Eurozone bears’ books.  So they are forced to cover these positions at increasingly penal levels, and in doing so exacerbate the squeeze.

You can see that the impact is wider than just the Eurozone nations – UK CDS has fallen to 30 bps, despite deteriorating growth and fiscal conditions (and the chance of a AAA downgrade in the next few months).  You can see a similar impact in the US, and also a very strong correlation with European sovereign CDS and European banks, and even high yield (the Itraxx Xover index on the chart). In other words, might the general rally in bond risk assets in the past few months be at least partly linked to this short CDS ban?  Might the Regulatory deadline date at the start of November trigger the end of this trend? And given the high interdependency between the sovereigns and the banking sector in Europe, will short positions in future go into banks if investors are not allowed to short European sovereigns anymore?

Strong correlation between bank CDS and sovereign CDS

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Competition: the 10 winners of the book are…

First the the answer. Denmark cut official interest rates on its certificates of deposit to MINUS 0.2%. We now have negative nominal interest rates on short dated government bills or bonds in several countries – including Switzerland, Finland, France, Denmark, and Germany.

We had 167 correct answers, and out of the hat came the following 10 winners who each get of a copy of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber. And yes, we are aware that David Graeber isn’t the greatest fan of capitalism and markets – but even bond fund managers sometimes need to take a break from reading “Atlas Shrugged” and Milton Friedman.

Richard Cavey (The Chester Partnership Ltd), Mark Wharrier (Newsmith), Robert Harper (Brewin Dolphin), Paul Wilson, Stephen Buckle (Kingsfleet Wealth Ltd), David Thornton (Premier Asset Management), Andrew Wilson (Brooks Macdonald), Gary Laing (Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management), Tom Winstanley, Edward Fane (Thesis Asset Managment plc)

We’ll be in touch with the winners for your contact details and your books will be with you shortly. Congratulations and thanks for all the entries

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Please note the content on this website is for Investment Professionals only and should be shared responsibly. No other persons should rely on the information contained within this website.

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