The Education of a Corporate Bond Manager, Part I

In 2001, I became a corporate bond manager by accident.  I had been the mortgage bond manager and risk manager of a unit managing the assets of a medium-to-large life insurer, when the boss left to take another job in the midst of a merger.

The staff and I got together, and the credit analysts told me that I should lead the organization during the merger.  When I asked why, they said they trusted me, appreciated my growing bond skills, that I was the only one who understood the client, and said that I had a better call on credit than the boss had.  I was surprised by that last comment, but upon meeting with the management of our parent company that was selling us, along with the life insurance company that we managed, they told me that yes, I should lead the unit until the merger closed, but rely on the high yield manager in our group to advise me for the duration, which was going to be three months.

The first thing that I did was a bond swap, trading away an older bond of a company for a new issue.  There was some hurry in the matter, so I entered into the swap before I could consult the high yield manager.  After I could talk with him, he pointed out that I had offered terms more favorable than I should have.  On a $5M swap, I ended up losing $20K.  We worked through the swap a number of different ways, which solidified my knowledge of corporate bond pricing.  I did not make that error again.

In the corporate bond market, new deals come frequently.  My former boss would do almost all of his bond buying on new deals, and almost never in the secondary market, because he knew that new deals almost always came cheap.  There is a price to be paid by corporations to gain liquidity.  The life company that I managed money for was growing like a weed (their products were perpetually underpriced), so I had a lot of money to put to work.

But, I already had a large portfolio of corporate names.  I was familiar with many of them to some degree because of my stock investing.  How could I go through the whole portfolio to look for bombs that might be lurking? Ask the credit analysts to give me a review on every name?  I did not want to kill them, or me for that matter.

I took the idea home , and thought about it, and then it struck me.  Thinking of bonds as having sold a put option to the equity, why not look at the amount that the stocks of the companies issuing the bonds had fallen in price since issuance of the bonds?  I set a threshold of 50%, and that gave me a list of about 30 names to hand to the analysts.  Manageble.  Cool.  (Oh, and tell me briefly about these 20 private bonds where there is no stock price.)

The analysts came back with their opinions, and surprisingly they advised selling half of the bonds and keeping the other half.  That was more than I expected.  But I started selling away, and began to learn the art of price discovery.  When you want to sell a bond, you first have to look at what investment banks ran the books of the deal.  There is an unwritten rule that if they play that large role in origination, they have to make a market in the bonds thereafter.  So, I consulted the various investment banks and inquired about levels, and then said something to the effect of, “If there is a reasonable bid (naming the spread over Treasuries) we would be interest in losing a few million bonds.  If there is an aggressive bid, we could be induced into selling a few more.  We might even be willing to sell the whole wad if they make us the offer that we can’t refuse.”

If there were multiple banks that traded the bond, I would set the above up with just one bank.  You never wanted to make it look like there were two sellers out there, or bids would vanish.  Beyond that, it was bad etiquette to employ two banks without telling them that they were in competition with each other.  If not. you could end up with two orders to buy your bonds, and you would have a moral obligation to meet both orders, even if that was against your interests.

Usually the broker would ask for the total size of the wad available for sale.  The idea was to get the buyers to think economically.  Yes, they could get a small amount of bonds if they met the spread, but was it worth it to bid for more?  Also, if they bought the wad, they would know that there were likely no more bonds on offer, the selling pressure would be gone, and the bonds would likely trade up from there.

I sold away a decent amount of the bonds that the analysts wanted gone, and then 9/11 hit.  What a day.  Since we worked inside the insurance company that we manager money for, and we had two TVs on the corners of our trading floor, all of a sudden our area was flooded with people staring at the spectacle.  I almost felt like Crocodile Dundee as I had to maneuver my way around and over them.

I gathered my staff and told them to look at their portfolios, and e-mail me threat reports so that I could inform our client.  After that, take the rest of the day off, as there is nothing to do here; many of them wanted to mourn friends that might be dead (I lost two acquaintances).  I summarized the threat reports, and submitted them to the client by 4PM.  We repeated that process for the next eight business days, until the crisis was past.

I had worries over One Liberty Plaza, next to the former World Trade Center, which seemed to be leaning, and might fall.  We owned the AAA portion of the CMBS that contained the loan for that building.  As I scoured the web, I concluded there was no danger, the building only looked like it was leaning; the dark coloration was deceptive.

Eventually trading resumed.  If you remember Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.  Well, after 3 days, 2 of 12 major brokers were running, which meant that there was no trading.  After 4 days, 6 brokers were up, so I made an offer on some AA Manufactured Housing ABS, deeply below where there market was prior to the crisis.  I got hit, and I owned the bonds.  Some said to me, “Why not wait?  Why offer liquidity now?  I said that some had to make some bids to restart the market; my client had ample liquidity, and I was offering liquidity at a price; if someone was that desperate for liquidity, they could have it at my price.

After 5 days 8 of the 12 were up, and after 6, 10 of 12.  The last two took a while to re-emerge, but were back after 10 days.  Even so, things seemed sluggish.

I began to do the same with corporate bonds, doing a large auction offering liquidity, specifying bonds that I wanted at certain levels, and the amounts.  I ended up buying half of my list, and still my client had ample liquidity.  What a high quality problem to have.  More in my next segment.