Corporate Bond investors are compensated for two risks; interest rate risk and credit risk. The first, interest rate risk, is approximated by US Treasury yields. The second, credit risk, is the remuneration for the business risk of the underlying company; this remuneration is expressed as the premium received in excess of the US Treasury yield. In our experience, investors spend a large portion of their time focusing on the risk they can’t control – interest rate risk, and very little time on the risk that can be controlled – credit risk. We as a manager believe that we can provide the most value in terms of assessing credit risk. In our view, the key to earning a positive return over the long-term is not dependent on the path of interest rates but a function of: (1) time (a horizon of at least 5 years), (2) an upward sloping yield curve – to roll down the yield curve, and (3) avoiding credit events that result in permanent impairment of capital.
The third quarter of 2016 saw a small increase in Treasury yields as they generally trended higher throughout the quarter. Offsetting the higher yields in Treasuries, credit spreads continued their persistent tightening since the mid-February widest levels of the year and ended near the tightest levels of the year. Specifically, the 10 Year Treasury began the quarter at 1.47% and ended at 1.60% (up 13 bps), the A Rated Corporate credit spread tightened from 1.24% to 1.12% (down 12bps), and the BBB Rated Corporate credit spread tightened from 2.05% to 1.78% (down 27bps). These two factors together have added up to stable or slightly lower yields for Investment Grade corporate bonds.
From a performance perspective, this relatively benign move higher in interest rates was more than offset by the tightening in credit spreads. This allowed our portfolios to collect coupon and benefit from the tightening of credit spreads. Our Investment Grade Corporate Bond composite provided a gross total return 0.99% as compared to the 1.41% move higher for the Barclays US Investment Grade Corporate Index. Since the source of excess returns this quarter was primarily due to credit spread tightening, we need to analyze how the credit quality of our strategy influenced the performance of our portfolios relative to the benchmark. The Barclays US Investment Grade Corporate Index is comprised of approximately 53% BBB rated bondsi while our strategy caps our exposure to BBB rated bonds at 30%. This cap causes our portfolios to have a higher average credit quality relative to the benchmark and this underweight to BBB bonds was the primary reason we lagged the index in performance for the quarter.
As the third quarter progressed, there were several prevailing trends in the corporate bond market that continued:
- tightening credit spreads provided buoyant returns
- investor interest in the asset class provided new capital to be put to work
- new corporate bond issuance has been robust providing the supply for investor demand
Since we just discussed the impact of tightening credit spreads on the performance of our strategy and the Barclays Index, we will examine the other noted trends and how they may influence future returns in the asset class. There is no denying the insatiable desire of investors to search globally for an attractive, and positive, yield on their investments. Whether it is insurance companies from Europe, pension funds from Japan or individual investors from the US, the search for yield has never been stronger than we see today. Foreign-based institutional investors, which represent approximately 40% of the buyers in the marketplace todayii, have been forced to look at the US fixed income markets for positive yielding investments as negative yielding bonds dominate their local markets. It is not known how long this influx of foreign capital will continue to support the US corporate bond markets, but it may continue for a period of time. Monitoring the state of yields in their local markets may provide some insights as to when this flow of funds subsides. Since the Federal Reserve Bank made it their policy to suppress interest rates to, amongst other reasons, force investors to take more risks via the “portfolio balance channel theory”iii, individual investors have been forced to buy securities with higher risks than they may have desired to obtain yields they once received on “low” to “no-risk” investments. Investment Grade corporate bonds, which carry both duration and credit risk, have been a primary beneficiary of this shift in investor risk preferences and the buying by individual investors continues to this day. While the Fed maintains a low interest rate policy, it is not a stretch to believe these individual buyers will remain significant buyers of corporate bonds, especially retirees who are in the desperate need of interest income to meet living expenses.
These robust sources of demand have allowed companies to supply this demand and issue a great deal of debt in the US Investment Grade markets at very low coupon rates. The issuance for 2016 has already surpassed $1.07 trillion, which is the 5th consecutive year that issuance has surpassed $1.0 trillion iv. This issuance has more than doubled the size of the US Investment Grade corporate bond market since 2008 as figure 1 below highlights.
While these trends remain firmly in place for the time being, we remain cautious with respect to any complacency regarding the concept of a “new normal” as it pertains to the pricing of corporate credit. The dynamics of tightening credit spreads that are diverging from underlying credit metrics, such as elevated leverage ratios v, should not be assumed as a “given” that will continue in perpetuity. One of two things has to happen to alleviate strains in these metrics, either growth of corporate debt has to slow down or company fundamentals (revenues and earnings) have to improve to bring down these ratios.
As an investment manager solely focused on assessing credit risk of the individual companies we own, we monitor these risks on an ongoing basis for all of our clients’ portfolio holdings.
In this environment, where strong demand has tightened credit spreads fairly indiscriminately, credit quality and issuer selection becomes more important than usual – because when this indiscriminate demand abates, US corporate bonds will be valued based more on the merits of the company’s ability to pay its interest and principal and less on the insatiable global demand for yield.
This information is intended solely to report on investment strategies identified by Cincinnati Asset Management. Opinions and estimates offered constitute our judgment and are subject to change without notice, as are statements of financial market trends, which are based on current market conditions. This material is not intended as an offer or solicitation to buy, hold or sell any financial instrument. Fixed income securities may be sensitive to prevailing interest rates.
When rates rise the value generally declines. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Gross of advisory fee performance does not reflect the deduction of investment advisory fees. Our advisory fees are disclosed in Form ADV Part 2A. Accounts managed through brokerage firm programs usually will include additional fees. Returns are calculated monthly in U.S. dollars and include reinvestment of dividends and interest. The index is unmanaged and does not take into account fees, expenses, and transaction costs. It is shown for comparative purposes and is based on information generally available to the public from sources believed to be reliable. No representation is made to its accuracy or completeness,
i Bloomberg Barclays Indices: Global Family of Indices September 2016
ii Wells Fargo Securities: Corporate Credit Outlook Q4 2016
iii Jackson Hole speech by then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke August 31, 2012; http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20120831a.htm
v Morgan Stanley Research, Bloomberg http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-09/leverage- soars-to-new-heights-as-corporate-bond-deluge-rolls-on