Q1 2017 High Yield Commentary
The High Yield Market returned 2.70% during the first quarter of 2017, continuing, although at a slower pace, the robust 2016 performance (+17.13%) which was the best since the 2009 recovery performance of 58.21% (Bloomberg Barclays Indices). As was the case for all of 2016, Q1 performance was characterized by outsized performance of the weakest credit sectors within the Index, i.e., the CCC and lower rated credits, which currently account for approximately 15% of the high yield universe. These lowest rated credits returned slightly less than 5% during Q1 (they returned over 30% during 2016). In fact, if we were to exclude the CCC rated credit sub‐sector, the Index would have posted a 1.44% return, lower than our gross return performance of 2.00%. It is important to note that during 2008 and 2015, that lowest rated credit subsector recorded negative returns of 49.53% and 12.11%, respectively. We highlight these returns to point out that with outsized positive returns come outsized possible losses, and the volatility of that credit subsector may not be appropriate for many clients’ risk profile and tolerance levels.
Unlike calendar 2016’s performance that was, in great measure, attributable to the robust recovery of the Energy Sector, Q1 witnessed positive performance by all Sectors, led by the Utility Sector, which was up 4.37%. That Sector accounts for less than 2.76% of the Index, so its performance had a positive impact on the Index performance, but clearly not the significant impact that Energy played during 2016 (The Energy Sector was up over 37% during 2016 and comprised approximately 15% of the Index at year end.) In fact, Energy’s 3.0% return approximated the overall Index as oil traded in a $50‐$55 range for most of the quarter, although it did drop to a low of $47.34 late in the quarter.
The performance of the least credit‐worthy within the high yield universe represented the continuing “search for yield” that we have witnessed for several years as interest rates on Treasury bonds, in general, fell to their lowest levels in a decade during July ‘16 and then increased to a level at year end (2.45%) that was only marginally higher than where it began the year. After the FOMC increased the Federal Funds Target Rate by 25bps in December, the 10‐year Treasury yield declined from 2.60% mid‐December ’16 to 2.39% at March 31. (This search for yield has also been observed in the investment grade universe where the lowest credit rated debt has outperformed the investment grade index as a whole.) The result of this “search” has been the tightening of spreads, i.e. the premium yield of bonds relative to the risk free Treasury rate. At year‐end 2015, the premium yield on BB, B, and CCC rated bonds was 417, 654, and 1,351 basis points, respectively. We ended 2016 with those premia at 270, 382, and 807, respectively; and by March 31, spreads had tightened even more – to 252, 375, and 692, respectively. So, while Treasury rates over the first 3 months of 2017 declined, the premium demanded by the investor for “risk compensation” continued to fall considerably. We make note of this only to inform the investor of the market dynamics surrounding both yield movement (up and down) and premia movement: both impact bond prices.
The demand for yield was met by $98.7BB in new issuance during Q1 2017; total 2016 issuance was $286BB. The Energy and Metal & Mining Sectors were the largest issuers, accounting for 13% and 10% of total volume, respectively. It is interesting to note that the several years prior to 2015, 17‐19% of new issuance came from the lowest rated credits, and that percentage declined dramatically during 2015‐2016, to just over 10% in 2016. However, Q1 2017 saw that percentage increase to almost 16%.
Given that Cincinnati Asset Management does not buy CCC rated securities, it is easily understood that our performance trailed that of the Index for 1st Quarter (2.00% gross total return vs. 2.70%). We have remained cautious in our investment strategy, maintaining higher than normal cash balances as we become more selective (higher credit quality) in our security purchases. Given the market performance, these cash balances served as a drag on our performance as well.
Further addressing the issue of performance by credit sub-sector, the following table highlights the impact of the performance of the several credit sub‐sectors in the high yield universe on the aggregate high yield performance:
With respect to 2017, we continue to be cautious. Many potentially positive factors could favorably impact corporations in the high yield space (changes in the tax code, relaxed and fewer regulations, etc.); however, the impact of changes in trade agreements and the health of the global economy need to be carefully monitored. Defaults, excluding Energy, have remained lower than the long‐term average default rate – a positive sign with respect to the current health of the asset category. On the other hand, the “shrinking” spreads (i.e., premium to Treasury bonds) is of concern given that the “search for yield” may have resulted in an overvalued market. While CCC spreads have tightened considerably, BB and B spreads remain modestly tighter on the year, although they had tightened considerably during 2016. The tightening of spreads implies the expectation of a robust recovery in corporate performance. In this uncertain environment, it is important to focus on credit research and to attempt to buy bonds of corporations that we believe can withstand economic headwinds and can enjoy improved credit metrics in a stable to improving economy.
Cincinnati Asset Management’s High Yield Strategy remains conservatively positioned. The construction of the portfolio is driven by our bottom‐up analysis and our restriction from CCC‐rated securities adds an additional level of conservatism.
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.