A Few Notes on Bonds

My comments this evening stem from a Bloomberg.com article entitled Bond Market Has $900 Billion Mom-and-Pop Problem When Rates Rise.  A few excerpts with my comments:

It’s never been easier for individuals to enter some of the most esoteric debt markets. Wall Street’s biggest firms are worried that it’ll be just as simple for them to leave.

Investors have piled more than $900 billion into taxable bond funds since the 2008 financial crisis, buying stock-like shares of mutual and exchange-traded funds to gain access to infrequently-traded markets. This flood of cash has helped cause prices to surge and yields to plunge.

Once bonds are issued, they are issued.  What changes is the perception of market players as they evaluate where they will get the best returns relative expected future yields, defaults, etc.

Regarding ETFs, yes, ETFs grow in bull markets because it pays to create new units.  They will shrink in bear markets, because it will pay to dissolve units.  That said when ETF units are dissolved, the bonds formerly in the ETF don’t disappear — someone else holds them.

But in a crisis, there is no desire to exchange existing cash for new bonds that have not been issued yet.  Issuance plummets as yields rise and prices fall for risky debt.  The opposite often happens with the safest debt.  New money seeks safety amid the panic.

Last week, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said she didn’t see more than a moderate level of risk to financial stability from leverage or the ballooning volumes of debt. Even though it may be concerning that Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data shows yields on junk bonds have plunged to 5.6 percent, the lowest ever and 3.4 percentage points below the decade-long average, the outlook for defaults does look pretty good.

Moody’s Investors Service predicts the global speculative-grade default rate will decline to 2.1 percent at year-end from 2.3 percent in May. Both are less than half the rate’s historical average of 4.7 percent.

Janet Yellen would not know financial risk even if Satan himself showed up on her doorstep offering to sell private subprime asset-backed securities for a yield of Treasuries plus 2%.  I exaggerate, but yields on high-yield bonds are at an all-time low:

Could spreads grind tighter?  Maybe, we are at 3.35% now.  The record on the BofA ML HY Master II is 2.41% back in mid-2007, when interest rates were much higher, and the credit frenzy was astounding.

But when overall rates are higher, investors are willing to take spread lower.  There is an intrinsic unwillingness for both rates and spreads to be at their lowest at the same time.  That has not happened historically, though admittedly, the data is sparse.  Spread data began in the ’90s, and yield data in a detailed way in the ’80s.  The Moody’s investment grade series go further back, but those are very special series of long bonds, and may not represent reality for modern markets.

Also, with default rates, it is not wise to think of them in terms of averages.  Defaults are either cascading or absent, the rating agencies, most economists and analysts do not call the turning points well.  The transition from “no risk at all” in mid-2007 to mega-risk 15 months later was very quick.  A few bears called it, but few bears called it shifting their view in 2007 — most had been calling it for a few years.

The tough thing is knowing when too much debt has built up versus ability to service it, and have all short-term ways to issue yet a little more debt been exhausted?  Consider the warning signs ignored from mid-2007 to the failure of Lehman Brothers:

  • Shanghai market takes a whack (okay, early 2007)
  • [Structured Investment Vehicles] SIVs fall apart.
  • Quant hedge funds have a mini meltdown
  • Subprime MBS begins its meltdown
  • Bear Stearns is bought out by JP Morgan under stress
  • Auction-rate preferred securities market fails.
  • And there was more, but it eludes me now…

Do we have the same amount of tomfoolery in the credit markets today?  That’s a hard question to answer.  Outstanding derivatives usage is high, but I haven’t seen egregious behavior.  The Fed is the leader in tomfoolery, engaging in QE, and creating lots of bank reserves, no telling what they will do if the economy finally heats up and banks want to lend to private parties with abandon.

That concern is also revealed in BlackRock Inc.’s pitch in a paper published last month that regulators should consider redemption restrictions for some bond mutual funds, including extra fees for large redeemers.

A year ago, bond funds suffered record withdrawals amid hysteria about a sudden increase in benchmark yields. A 0.8 percentage point rise in the 10-year Treasury yield in May and June last year spurred a sell-off that caused $248 billion of market value losses on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. Corporate and High Yield Index.

Of course, yields on 10-year Treasuries (USGG10YR) have since fallen to 2.6 percent from 3 percent at the end of December and company bonds have resumed their rally. Analysts are worrying about what happens when the gift of easy money goes away for good.

With demand for credit still weak, it is more likely that rates go lower for now.  That makes a statement for the next few months, not the next year.  The ending of QE and future rising fed funds rate is already reflected in current yields.  Bloomberg.com must be breaking in new writers, because the end of Fed easing is already expected by the market as a whole.  Deviations from that will affect the market.  But if the economy remains weak, and lending to businesses stays punk, then rates can go lower for some time, until private lending starts in earnest.

Summary

  • Is too much credit risk being taken?  Probably.  Spreads are low, and yields are record low.
  • Is a credit crisis near?  Wait a year, then ask again.
  • Typically, most people are surprised when credit turns negative, so if you have questions, be cautious.
  • Does the end of QE mean higher long rates?  Not necessarily, but watch bank lending and inflation.  More of either of those could drive rates higher.

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