Q3 2017 High Yield Commentary
During the third quarter of 2017, albeit at a slower pace, the High Yield Market continued the positive return trend of the first and second quarters. The Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index return was 1.98% for the third quarter. Positive returns of 2.70% and 2.17% were posted for the first and second quarters of 2017, respectively. Year to date the Index has returned 7.00% which leads many asset classes in the fixed income world. As seen in the first quarter of 2017, the lowest quality cohort of CCC rated securities once again outperformed their higher quality counterparts. The widely discussed reach for yield was once again on display. It is important to note that during 2008 and 2015, the lowest quality cohort of CCC rated securities 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 the CCC rated cohort may not be appropriate for many clients’ risk profile and tolerance levels. While the 10 year US Treasury finished the quarter essentially where it started, the Index spread tightened 17 basis points moving from 364 basis points to 347 basis points over Treasuries. While the Index spread continues to grind tighter toward the multi‐year low of 323 basis points reached in 2014, it is still a ways off from the 233 basis points reached in 2007. Each quality cohort participated in the spread tightening as BB rated securities tightened 21 basis points, B rated securities tightened 21 basis points, and CCC rated securities tightened 33 basis points.
The Energy Sector was back to its winning ways of 2016 during the third quarter of 2017. The Independent Energy and Oil Field Services Industries provided the tailwind that the Energy Sector needed after the negative returns posted in the second quarter. The Transportation, Utility, and Industrial Sectors were other top performers. The Communications Sector had a bit of tough time during the quarter as the Wireline Industry was the major drag on performance. Finally, the Consumer Non‐Cyclical Sector was one of the bottom performers as Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods injected much uncertainty into the future landscape of the Supermarket Industry. Additionally, the Healthcare Industry saw more credit specific weakness in some of the hospital operators.
During the third quarter, high yield issuance continued to be fairly robust at $79.8 billion versus $98.7 billion and $77.2 billion during the first and second quarters, respectively. For the third quarter, issuance by broad rating category was essentially divvied up in line by market size of each broad rating category. Year to date issuance stood at $255.6 billion. This pace is very likely to exceed 2016’s total issuance of $286.2 billion.
Even as the Federal Reserve has increased the Federal Funds Target Rate twice this year, yields on intermediate Treasuries have declined with the 10‐year Treasury at 2.33% at September 30, roughly flat from 2.31% at the beginning of the quarter and down from 2.45% at the beginning of the year.
Intermediate term yields more often reflect GDP and expectations for future economic growth and inflation rather than actions taken by the FOMC to adjust the Target Rate. Although the revised second quarter GDP print was 3.1%, the consensus view of most economists suggests a GDP in the 2% range with inflation expectations at or below 2%. It is easy to understand that the “search for yield” that we have witnessed continues and that the high yield market is benefitting from that search.
The most recent FOMC meeting was on September 20th 2017. While the Committee voted to maintain the current Fed Funds Target Rate, they did note that they will initiate a balance sheet normalization program in October i. We expect the program to be a very long and slow process as to best mitigate the risk of riling the markets. The Fed’s current “dot plot” is projecting one hike in December and three additional hikes in 2018. While not all of the projected hikes might come to fruition, the Fed continues to move in the direction of easing up on the accelerator. This is unique relative to the other major central banks. The ECB, BOE, and BOJ have all continued to increase their balance sheets since 2015.
As we have discussed previously, high yield spreads continue to tighten at the same time the restrictive covenant protections contained in the indentures became more relaxed. The weakening of covenant protections has made its way to the loan market as large companies are increasingly able to finance their business with covenant‐lite terms ii. Additionally, weakened covenants are not simply a US phenomenon. International debt deals are increasingly covenant‐lite as well iii. This type of activity is not without consequences. J.Crew Group took advantage of covenants in their indenture to remove collateral value from some creditors. This type of activity is not happening across the board. Some creditors are successful in pushing back against companies while other creditors are not as lucky iv. More and more, a professional manager is needed to select bonds of quality – bonds that compensate the investor for the risks he undertakes in a high yield portfolio.
Being a more conservative asset manager, Cincinnati Asset Management remains significantly underweight CCC and lower rated securities. This underweight contributed to our High Yield Composite performance lagging the return of the Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index (1.66% versus 1.98%) during the third quarter. Over the quarter, we continued to be cautious in our investment strategy, maintaining higher cash balances as we become more selective in our security purchases. Given the positive market performance, these cash balances served as a drag on our performance. We were also underweight the Energy Sector which was the best performing sector for the third quarter. On the other hand, some top contributors of our performance were our credit selections across the Capital Goods Sector as well as the Technology Sector.
The Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index ended the third quarter with a yield of 5.45%. This yield is an average that is barbelled by the CCC rated cohort yielding about 8.5% and a BB rated cohort yielding about 4%. These yields are being earned in an environment that is fairly attractive. There has been a significant amount of central bank stimulus. High Yield has displayed a fundamental backdrop that is stable to improving. The default rate of 1.27% is significantly below the historical average and expected to remain low over the next year. Additionally, the default volume during the third quarter was the lowest amount since the fourth quarter of 2013v. Due to the higher income available in the High Yield market, it is still an area of select opportunity relative to other fixed income products.
Over the near term, we plan to be rather selective. Changes to the Affordable Care Act are on the back burner at best, but tax reform is now front and center. Tax reform does have the ability to be a positive factor for the High Yield Market. That said, the continued tightening of credit spreads needs to be carefully monitored to evaluate that the given compensation for the perceived level of risk remains appropriate on a security by security basis. It is important to focus on credit research and buy bonds of corporations that can withstand economic headwinds and also enjoy improved credit metrics in a stable to improving economy. As always, we will continue our search for value and adjust positions as we uncover compelling situations.
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 FOMC Statement September 20, 2017
ii Bloomberg September 26, 2017: “That Junk Loan is Now Basically a Junk Bond”
iii Bloomberg September 29,2017: “High Yield Investors Sweat for Return in Europe Sellers Market”
iv Wall Street Journal September 21, 2017: “Deal to Save J.Crew from Bankruptcy Angers High Yield Debt Investors”
v J.P. Morgan October 2, 2017: “Default Monitor”