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jamestomlins_100

A tool for a rising rate environment: high yield floating rate notes

We are entering a new era for interest rates in the developed world. The extended period of ever looser monetary policy is starting to draw to a close. In the wake of the tapering of quantitative easing (QE) from the Federal Reserve (Fed), investors now expect to see the first interest rate hikes in many years, initially in the UK and shortly afterwards in the US. The principal focus of the debate is over the questions of “when?” and “how fast?” interest rates should rise, not “if?”. For bond investors in particular, this transition has thrown up a lot of difficult questions. Having benefited greatly from falling yields and tightening credit spreads, the move to a more hawkish cycle will create many more headwinds and challenges when it comes to delivering returns for many fixed income asset classes.

Consequently, any instrument that can help investors navigate this environment has rightly been receiving a lot of interest and attention. In the latest in our series of the M&G Panoramic Outlook, we will focus on one such instrument, the high yield floating rate bond. In recent years, this instrument has gained popularity with many issuers and the market has grown to a total US$44 billion.

A high yield floating rate note (FRN) has two key defining features: (1) a floating rate coupon that is automatically adjusted in line with changes in interest rates; (2) a relatively high credit spread that reflects the additional credit risk of a non-investment grade issuer.

It is the combination of these two features which not only enables investors to receive an attractive income stream now, but also allows them to benefit from higher coupons should interest rates increase with no associated loss to capital. This last element, the lack of a hit to capital in a rising interest rate environment, is the key difference to the traditional universe of fixed coupon bonds which suffer from price declines as yields move up.

In this issue, we will take an in-depth look at the characteristics and make-up of the high yield floating rate bond market. We will also consider the key drivers of returns, as well as some of the risks and how these can be managed.

ben_lord_100

Not all change is bad: coming reforms to credit default swaps

There is a lot of analysis and conjecture about how much impact the financial crisis has had on the global economy and financial markets. There has been considerably less analysis around the impact of the crisis on bond fund managers. In a small attempt to quantify these impacts, we have dug out a few old photos of members of the M&G bond team pre and post-crisis. The photos show clearly where change has been bad.

2008-08 ben

There is, though, good change. In September there are changes taking place to bank CDS contracts that represent clearly positive progression.

The CDS rules and definitions of 2003 state that there are 3 different credit events that will trigger corporate and financial CDS contracts: 1. failure to pay 2. bankruptcy, and 3. restructuring (this means that a company can’t modify the conditions of debt obligations detrimentally as far as investors are concerned). If any of these are determined to have occurred, then buyers of protection receive par from sellers of protection (and sellers of protection pay out par minus the recovery value of the defaulted bonds, so are in the same situation as if they owned the defaulted bond). In the event of one of these events being triggered, buyers of protection are ‘insured’ against the losses incurred on the bonds.
However, whilst the above works well in most cases of corporate defaults, we have seen several examples in the last few years in terms of banks in which the outcomes have left buyers of protection in effectively defaulted bonds none the better off. For purposes of succinctness and relevance, I would like to mention two of the more recent such cases so as to bring out the flaws of the existing financial CDS contracts, and to highlight the improvements we will soon see.

In early 2013, the Dutch government expropriated the subordinated debt of SNS Bank, which had got into serious difficulties. Bondholders would therefore no longer receive coupons or principal, and so the determinations committee ruled, quite simply, that a restructuring event had occurred. However, the buyers of protection had to deliver defaulted bonds to the sellers, and there being no subordinated bonds left, had to deliver senior bonds, whose value was around 85p in the pound. This meant that they ‘owned’ bonds worth zero, and were being paid out 15p as a result of the protection they had bought!

The most recent example of subordinated CDS not working is still on-going, being the case of Banco Espirito Santo. This bank has seen all the good assets, deposits and senior debt transferred to a new, good, bank, and all the bad assets, subordinated debt and equity stay with the old, bad, bank. So subordinated debt will very likely get a very low recovery (the sub bonds are today trading at around 15 cents). Subordinated bank debt is now, in practical terms, able to take losses and be written down in European banks. Senior bank debt will also become write-down-able at the start of 2016, but as yet legislators and regulators are showing the continued desire to make senior good. In BES’ case, though, with all the deposits and senior debt moving to the good bank (and with a very thin layer of subordinated debt), more than 75% of the liabilities will go to the new entity. In CDS terms, this means that the contracts move to the new entity. So, again, buyers of subordinated protection in BES are left with significant losses on their bonds, but will have to deliver senior bonds which are trading close to and in some cases above par. Not the outcome that the owners of protection wanted or expected. And, frankly, not the right outcome.

So the existing rules around financial CDS are unfit for purpose. Starting in September, new rules will come into place that will vastly improve the economics of these contracts, and in simple terms will make them behave far more like senior and subordinated bonds, which after all is what they are meant to do. The major differences can be summarised into two: a new, fourth, credit event trigger called Government Intervention will be added; and the removal of the cross default provision. The Government Intervention trigger will mean that in instances such as SNS, when governmental authorities impair debt, CDS contracts will be triggered, and in the same case, owners of subordinated protection would have delivered a claim on the Dutch government that was worth zero, through the expropriation, and would have received par from sellers of protection. In terms of the second major reform to financial CDS contracts, current contracts mean that a credit event on subordinated CDS also results in a credit event on senior. This clause will be removed, meaning that in the Banco Espirito Santo on-going case, subordinated CDS contracts would travel with the subordinated bonds, and senior with senior. Unlike the changing faces of the Bond Vigilantes, the changes soon coming in CDS are ones we think are positive.

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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.

Wolfgang Bauer

How to find relative value in EUR and USD investment grade credit using CDS

There is more than one way to skin a cat for credit investors. Those looking for credit exposure can do so through either owning the debt issued by an issuer or by selling credit default swap (CDS) protection for the same issuer. The differential in price between the corporate bond and CDS contract can mean the difference between outperforming and underperforming in a world of tight credit spreads and low yields. Additionally, it is possible to do this for the whole investment grade or high yield market, allowing bond investors to gain credit exposure in their preferred geographical region (for example, the U.S., Europe, or Asia). U.S. and European credit spreads have compressed substantially and are now at levels last seen before the Lehman Brothers collapse. Given this convergence, the question for global IG bond investors today is which market is relatively more attractive from a valuation perspective?

Let’s first take a look at EUR versus USD credit. The easiest way to do this is by using two credit default swap indices. These indices (also known as CDI) represent 125 of the most liquid five-year credit default swaps on investment grade (IG) entities in Europe (iTRAXX EUR 5Y) and North America (CDX IG 5Y). Looking at the historical performance of both indices, the differential between both index levels remained basically flat until the onset of the financial crisis in the second half of 2007. During this period, iTRAXX EUR traded around 10-15 basis points (bps) tighter than the CDX IG. During the crisis, the absolute levels of both indices increased substantially but iTRAXX EUR outperformed CDX IG, with the North American index moving up to a peak level of around 230bps in late 2008. In the following three years, with the easing of the U.S. recession and the emergence of the Eurozone crisis, CDX IG outperformed iTRAXX EUR by around 120 bps.

Starting from its minimum of -64 bps in November 2008, the index differential turned positive in May 2010 and reached its peak value of 57 bps in November 2011. With the Eurozone crisis calming down, iTRAXX EUR has once again outperformed CDX IG. Today the index differential has virtually disappeared (4 bps), and both indices have tightened to around 65bps by the end of May, a level not seen since the end of 2007. iTRAXX EUR continued to tighten in June and temporarily traded through CDX IG for the first time since March 2010.

CDS indices: EUR vs. USD IG credit

Selling CDS protection for a company creates a credit risk exposure that is essentially equivalent to buying a comparable bond of the same issuer. Hence, from a fixed income investor’s point of view, it is worth comparing the CDS spread and the credit spread of the cash bond. The difference between these two is often referred to as the CDS basis. Positive values (i.e., CDS spread > bond Z-spread) indicate a higher compensation for taking the same credit risk through the CDS of a company rather than owning the bond of a company, and vice versa for a negative basis.

Drawing a direct like-for-like comparison between CDS and corporate bond indices can be tricky. For example, it is impossible to find appropriate outstanding cash bonds for all the companies that are in the CDS indices. Furthermore, CDS indices comprise contracts with a certain maturity (e.g., five years) and roll every six months, whereas cash bonds approach a predefined maturity and are eventually redeemed, assuming they don’t default or are perpetual instruments.

We approached the problem by constructing our own equally-weighted non-financial CDS and cash bond indices, both for U.S. and Eurozone issuers. In terms of EUR issuers, we started from the current iTRAXX EUR roll, ranked the constituent entities by total debt outstanding and selected the top 20 Eurozone non-financial issuers with comparable outstanding bonds (c. five years until maturity, senior unsecured, vanilla, reasonable level of liquidity, etc.) for our CDS and bond indices. We then compared the year-to-date evolution of weekly CDS and cash bond spreads as well as the CDS basis, averaged over the 20 index members. For our USD indices we applied the same strategy, selecting a subset of 20 US non-financial issuers from the current CDX IG roll.

The chart below shows CDS spreads, bond Z-spreads and CDS bases both for our EUR and USD indices. Throughout the year, all four non-financial IG index spreads have been grinding tighter. The CDS basis for USD non-financial IG credit has been consistently negative (-19 bps on average). In absolute terms the negative USD basis has receded, moving from between -30 and -20 bps in January to -11 bps in the first week of July. In contrast, except for the first week of January which might be distorted by low trading volumes, the EUR non-financial IG CDS basis has been positive (+12 bps on average) and amounts to +11 bps for the first week of July.

CDS basis: EUR vs. USD non-financial IG credit

Several reasons have been put forward to explain the contrast between EUR and USD CDS basis values, including supply/demand imbalances within European cash bond markets adding a scarcity premium to bond prices and thus suppressing bond spreads. It has also been argued that in Europe CDS contracts were predominantly used for hedging purposes (i.e., to reduce credit exposure by buying the CDS contract) driving up CDS spreads, whereas the use of USD CDS contracts was more balanced between increasing and decreasing credit risk exposure.

In the current market environment characterised by low yields and tight credit spreads, CDS basis values do matter. The choice between a cash bond or a credit derivative is another lever fixed income investors can use to exploit relative value opportunities. By carefully selecting the financial instrument, cash bond vs. CDS contract, a spread pickup of tens of basis points can be realised for taking equivalent credit risk. A positive basis indicates that the CDS looks cheap relative to the cash bond, and vice versa for a negative basis. For instance, at the moment it often makes a lot of sense for us to get exposure to EUR IG credit risk through CDS contracts rather than through cash bonds, when we see attractive positive CDS basis values.

jamestomlins_100

Burrito Bonds – an example of the retail bond market

One of our local burrito vendors has been advertising a new 8% bond to its customer base. The company, Chilango, wants to raise up to £3m to fund expansion of its chain in central London. This will be done via a crowd sourced retail offering that’s already drawn some interesting coverage in the financial press. Having performed some extensive due diligence on the company’s products as a team, we can safely say they make a pretty good burrito. However, when we compare the bond to the traditional institutional high yield market, we have some concerns that investors should be aware of.

  1. Disclosure – a typical high yield bond offering memorandum (the document that sets out the rules of the issue, its risk and all the necessary historical financial disclosure) can be several hundred pages long. Producing this is a very time intensive and expensive process, but a valuable one for producing a host of useful information for potential investors. Additionally, a law firm and an accounting firm typically sign off on this document, effectively staking their reputation and incurring litigation risk based on the veracity of the information disclosed.

    In contrast, the Chilango’s document is 33 pages long, with some fairly superficial financial disclosure. The photo below illustrates this comparative informational disadvantage and the relative lack of depth in financial information compared to a recent institutional high yield bond offering from Altice.

    Slide1

  2. Financial Risk – there are two big potential concerns here. Firstly, the starting leverage for the bonds is potentially quite high. Using some admittedly finger in the air assumptions regarding the potential cash flow of each new outlet opened (a necessary approach given poor disclosure), leverage could be around 6.0x Net Debt/EBITDA in 2015. This is certainly at the riskier end of the high yield spectrum. The second major concern is that we don’t know for certain how much debt the company will raise. Chilango state that they target at least £1m in this issue, but are willing to raise up to £3m, leverage is likely to be north of 10x (again this is a best guess). All this means the bonds would in our opinion get at best a CCC rating, right at the riskiest end of the credit rating spectrum for sub-investment grade bonds.Slide2
  3. Security – Chilango state very clearly that these bonds will be unsecured instruments. This means that in the event of a default, the creditors will rank behind any secured creditors. There appears to be limited existing secured creditors, but we see nothing in the documentation to prevent a layer of new secured debt being raised ahead of these notes (something that is a common covenant in institutional bonds deals). Consequently, it’s prudent to assume that in a default situation the recovery value of the bonds is likely to be significantly below face value. This equity-like downside means investors should demand an equity-like return in our view.
  4. Call Protection – these bonds are redeemable at the option of the issuer at any time. Consequently, investor returns could be materially curtailed due to the lack of call protection. Call protection is the premium over face value the investors get when the issuing company redeems the debt early (their call option). Thus some of the benefit also accrues to the bondholder. Take the following return profile:
    8% Bond, Callable at Par
    Years Outstanding Total Return
    1 8%
    2 17%
    3 26%
    4 36%

    If the plan to open new branches goes well, the bond investor should be happy right? Wrong. If this happens, the company may well look like a less risky prospect and will be able to raise debt finance more cheaply. Let’s say a bank offers them a loan at 5%, they could then redeem the 8% bond early, diminishing the total return to bondholders (as per above), and save £90,000 a year on interest costs per year (assuming they issued £3m bonds). Again, call protection is a common feature of the institutional high yield market which protects investors in these situations.

  5. Liquidity – these are non-transferrable bonds. This means that a) the company does not have to file a full offering memorandum hence the lack of disclosure and b) it will not be possible to buy or sell the bonds in a secondary market. This is more akin to a bilateral loan between an individual investor and the company, with the investor in it for the long haul. Consequently, an investor will neither be able to easily manage their risk exposure nor will they be able to take profits should they so wish before the bond is redeemed.
  6. Value – we can see that there are many risks – but to be fair that is the nature of high yield investing. So the real question is, “is 8% sufficient compensation for this risk”. The good news is that this bond has a unique bonus coupon in the form of a free burrito a week for anyone prepared to invest £10,000. At current prices, this equates to 3.63% additional coupon (a steak, prawn or pork burrito with extra guacamole is £6.99), so an all-in coupon of 11.63% (8% cash + 3.63% burrito).We’d argue that a “burrito fatigue factor” should be applied, simply because you may not want a burrito every week and you will probably not be physically near a Chilango every week to cash in this extra coupon. A 75% factor feels about right, which reduces the burrito coupon to 2.72% and the all-in return to 10.72%. So is 10.72% a fair price? To get a sense of this we can look at some GBP dominated CCC rated institutional bonds in other asset light industries
    Bond Price Yield
    Phones 4 U 10% 2019 90.5 12.7%
    Towergate 10.5% 2019 98.5 10.9%
    Matalan 8.875% 2020 101.5 8.5%
    Average: 10.7%

    By coincidence, the all in coupon of 10.7% is bang in line with the average of this (very limited) group of comparable bonds. However, I’d argue that the Chilango bonds should be significantly cheaper than the bonds above due to higher leverage, no liquidity, no call protection and the lack of disclosure. What should this differential be? Again, there is no scientific answer, but our starting point would probably be in the 15-20% range, and only then with some more certainty around the potential maturity of the bond and the ability to share in the future success of the company.

So, much as though we would all enjoy the tasty weekly coupons, our view is that like many of the so-called “retail” or “mini” bond offerings, the Chilango burrito bonds stack up poorly against some of the current opportunities in the institutional high yield market.

M&G has no financial interest in seeing this issue succeed or fail, either directly or indirectly.

anthony_doyle_100

Sell in May and go away – does it work for European fixed income?

As is usually the case on 1 May, there was a plethora of articles and commentary on the “sell in May and go away” effect. If you are unfamiliar with this highly sophisticated trading strategy, it involves closing out any equity exposure you may have on 30 April and re-investing on 1 November. Historically, U.S. equities have underperformed in the six-month period commencing May and ending in October, compared to the six-month period from November to April. No one knows why this seasonal pattern exists, but some theories include lower trading volumes in the summer holiday months and increased investment flows when investors come back from holidays.

With this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to see if the same effect exists in European fixed income markets. In order to identify the sell in May effect, we generated total returns on a monthly basis for a portfolio of European government, investment grade and high yield bonds. We then generated a total return for a portfolio that was invested between the months of November and April and compared this with a portfolio that was invested between the months of May and October. In order to generate the maximum number of observations possible, we went back to the inception of the respective Merrill Lynch Bank of America indices. The results are below.

Slide1

There appears to be a seasonal effect in European high yield markets. This is the fixed income asset class that is most correlated to equity markets, and the analysis shows that a superior return was generated by only being invested between the months of November and April (199% total return). In fact, this strategy substantially outperformed a strategy of being invested over the whole period (1997 – April 2014). If an investor chose to only invest between the months of May and October, they would have suffered a 21% loss over the past 16 years.

Slide2

The natural extension of this analysis is to gauge how a trading strategy that was fully invested in European government bonds between the months of May and October and fully invested in European investment grade between November and April would have performed over the past 18 years. We can then assess how this strategy would have performed relative to portfolios that were fully invested in European government bonds, European investment grade corporate bonds and European equities only. The results show that a strategy of selling investment grade assets in May and buying government bonds has produced superior returns equal to 5.9% per annum, outperforming European equities by 56% in total or 2.5% p.a.

Slide3

The above chart shows the same analysis, this time looking at how the strategy would have performed in total return terms but we have replaced European investment grade exposure with European high yield. Following this strategy would have generated an annualised return of around 10.5% or 391% over 16 and a bit years. This is far superior to the returns on offer in the European high yield and European equity markets over the same time period, which were 155% and 43% respectively.

Our analysis shows that there is a strong seasonal effect evident in European high yield markets, where returns are more volatile and there can be large upside and downside contributions due to fluctuations in the capital value of high yield bonds. However, it should be acknowledged that the results have been biased by the fact that major risk-off events (like Lehman Brothers, the Asian financial crisis and the Russian financial crisis for example) have generally occurred between the months of May and October. Nonetheless, historical total returns suggest that there is a seasonal effect in European high yield markets that investors should probably be aware of. Ignoring transaction costs or tax implications which would eat into any total returns, a strategy of selling investment grade or high yield corporate bonds in May and buying government bonds until November would have produced superior returns relative to European government bonds, investment grade corporate bonds, high yield corporate bonds and European equities.

Whilst it is always dangerous to base a trading strategy around a nursery rhyme, based on historical total returns there does appear to be a bit of sense in selling risk assets in May, retreating into government bonds which would likely benefit most in a risk-off event, and adding risk back into fixed income portfolios in November. But of course, another old saying still rings true – past performance is not a guide to future performance.

Nicolo_Carpaneda-100

Video – some thoughts on emerging markets from Hong Kong and Singapore

I recently visited Hong Kong and Singapore to attend some conferences and meet clients in the region. While travelling, I put together a short video to share some of our views on Asian emerging economies and emerging markets in general.

As recently reported in Claudia’s Panoramic outlook here, following both the 2013 sell-off and the recent EMFX volatility experienced earlier this year, investors’ attitudes towards emerging markets have changed. Volatile capital flows, unsustainable growth models, a deterioration in current accounts, excessive credit growth and currency depreciation are key concerns for local and global investors. Some trends have become unsustainable and a rebalancing process has started. Emerging market economies will need to adjust to lower capital flows, with this adjustment taking place on various fronts over several years.

While adjustments take place, new opportunities present themselves. But not all emerging markets are equal. As emerging economies are on diverging paths, especially in Asia – some are deteriorating (eg China) while others are improving (eg Philippines or Sri Lanka) – asset allocation and stock selection will be key. Watch the video to find out our preferences.


Wolfgang Bauer

The Great Compression of peripheral to core European risk premiums

Are investors still compensated adequately for investing in peripheral rather than core European debt, or has the on-going convergence eroded debt valuation differentials altogether? In his latest blog entry, James highlighted five signs indicating that the bond markets consider the Eurozone crisis resolved. Inter alia, James pointed out that risk premiums for peripheral vs. core European high yield credit had essentially disappeared over the past two years. Here I would like to extend the periphery/core comparison by taking a look at investment grade (IG) credit and sovereign debt.

First, let’s have a look at the spread evolution of peripheral and core European non-financial (i.e., industrials and utilities) IG indices over the past 10 years. In addition to the absolute asset swap (ASW) spread levels, we plotted the relative spread differentials between peripheral and core credit. The past ten years can be divided into three distinct phases. In the first phase, peripheral and core credit were trading closely in line with each other; differentials did not exceed 50 bps. The Lehman collapse in September 2008 and subsequent market shocks lead to a steep increase in ASW spreads, but the strong correlation between peripheral and core credit remained intact. Only in the second phase, during the Eurozone crisis from late 2009 onwards, spreads decoupled with core spreads staying relatively flat while peripheral spreads increased drastically. Towards the end of this divergence period, spread differentials peaked at more than 280 bps. ECB President Draghi’s much-cited “whatever it takes” speech in July 2012 rang in the third and still on-going phase, i.e., spread convergence.

As at the end of March 2014, peripheral vs. core spread differentials for non-financial IG credit had come back down to only 18 bps, a value last seen four years ago. The potential for further spread convergence, and hence relative outperformance of peripheral vs. core IG credit going forward, appears rather limited. Within the data set covering the past 10 years, the current yield differential is in very good agreement with the median value of 17 bps. Over a 5-year time horizon, the current differential looks already very tight, falling into the first quartile (18th percentile).

Peripheral vs. core European non-financial IG credit

Moving on from IG credit to sovereign debt, we took a look at the development of peripheral and core European government bond yields over the past 10 years. As a proxy we used monthly generic 10 year yields for the largest economies in the periphery and the core (Italy and Germany, respectively). Again three phases are visible in the chart, but the transition from strong correlation to divergence occurred earlier, i.e., already in the wake of the Lehman collapse. At this point in time, due to their “safe haven” status German government bond yields declined faster than Italian yields. Both yields then trended downwards until the Eurozone crisis gained momentum, causing German yields to further decrease, whereas Italian yields peaked. Once again, Draghi’s publicly announced commitment to the Euro marked the turning point towards on-going core/periphery convergence.

Italian vs. German government bonds

Currently investors can earn an additional c. 170 bps when investing in 10 year Italian instead of 10 year German government bonds. This seems to be a decent yield pick-up, particularly when you compare it with the more than humble 18 bps of core/periphery IG spread differential mentioned above. As yield differentials have declined substantially from values beyond 450 bps over the past two years, the obvious question for bond investors at this point in time is: How low can you go? Well, the answer mainly depends on what the bond markets consider to be the appropriate reference period. If markets actually believe that the Eurozone crisis has been resolved once and for all, not much imagination is needed to expect yield differentials to disappear entirely, just like in the first phase in the chart above. When looking at the past 10 years as a reference period, there seems to be indeed some headroom left for further convergence as the current yield differential ranks high within the third quartile (69th percentile). However, if bond markets consider future flare-ups of Eurozone turbulences a realistic scenario, the past 5 years would probably provide a more suitable reference period. In this case, the current spread differential appears less generous, falling into the second quartile (39th percentile). The latter reading does not seem to reflect the prevailing market sentiment, though, as indicated by unabated yield convergence over the past months.

In summary, a large portion of peripheral to core European risk premiums have already been reaped, making current valuations of peripheral debt distinctly less attractive than two years ago. Compared to IG credit spreads, there seems to be more value in government bond yields, both in terms of current core/periphery differentials and regarding the potential for future relative outperformance of peripheral vs. core debt due to progressive convergence. But, of course, on-going convergence would require bond markets to keep believing that the Eurozone crisis is indeed ancient history.

Wolfgang Bauer

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.

Slide1

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).

Slide2

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.

Slide3

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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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.

stefan_isaacs_100

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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Nicolo_Carpaneda-100

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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