Q4 2017 High Yield Commentary
During the fourth quarter of 2017, albeit at a slower pace, the High Yield Market continued the positive return trend of the first three quarters. The Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index return was 0.47% for the fourth quarter. For the year, the Index returned 7.50% which leads many asset classes in the fixed income world. The lowest quality cohort, CCC rated securities and lower, once again outperformed their higher quality counterparts. The widely observed reach for yield continues unabated with highest risk, Ca‐D, followed by Caa‐rated bonds returning 13.76% and 10.38%, respectively, the highest returns of all high yield rating categories1 . 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 and year essentially where it started, the 5 year US Treasury was noticeably higher on the quarter and year. The 5 and 10 year US Treasury ended 2016 at 1.928% and 2.447%, ended 3Q17 at 1.920% and 2.327% and finished 2017 at 2.210% and 2.411%, respectively. Offsetting the 29 basis point higher 5 year US Treasury during the fourth quarter was 3 basis points of tightening of spreads in the high yield index, suggesting much of the return was attributed to coupons. For the year however, the 28 basis point rise in the 5yr US Treasury was more than offset with 66 basis points of tightening in spread. While high yield spreads (343 basis points at year end) continue 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 20071,2. Each quality cohort behaved in a similar fashion.
For the year, the U.S. High Yield Index generated a total return of 7.50% leading many other fixed income markets. This compares to a 10‐year U.S. Treasury return of 2.14%. Also, the Investment Grade Corporate Bond Index return was 6.42% with spreads tightening 30 bps over the year 1.
To consider the high yield performance in a broader context, a comparison to the total returns of other major asset classes is in this chart. (The returns may differ slightly due to the publisher’s selection of indices.) Equities delivered spectacular returns. Riskier classes outperformed, while the least risky asset classes lagged. Omitted is the frequently overlooked performance of gold, which rallied 14% in 20174. Intensifying geopolitical risks may be the catalyst. North Korea’s unbridled nuclear ambitions and Iran’s similar pursuits, as recently exemplified in its test launches of medium range ballistic missiles, are grave concerns. Both paths are troubling: forcing a change in behavior may be achieved only through armed conflict and the development of nuclear arsenals by these two rogue regimes and how they might eventually be deployed in light of their rhetoric is unimaginable. Considering the importance to the proper functioning of the global economy of oil exports from the Middle East, the threat of political instability and armed conflict is a major factor driving investment behavior.
Industry sector analysis reveals the top three 2017 performers in descending order were utilities, chemicals and gaming/leisure. The worst performer was retail followed by telecommunications and then consumer products (source: JP Morgan 1/2/18).
Moody’s reports that 18% of rated debt of retailers is rated Caa and lower, exceeding that during the “great recession” of 2007 – 2009. They estimate the speculative grade default rate of retailers to peak at 10.5% in March 2018, up from 8.9% at year‐end 2017 5. High profile retailers, Toys‐R‐Us filed in October and Sears Canada filed in December. Very weak retailers include luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, Sears Holdings and JC Penny. The seminal shift to online retailing will continue to cause disruptions across the “brick and mortar” retailing industry and related real estate industry.
High yield issuance (excluding emerging markets) continued to be fairly robust at $282.4 billion across 525 deals, versus $226.8 billion across 359 deals in 2016. For the third quarter, issuance by broad rating category was essentially divvied up in line by market size of each broad rating category. Issuance from emerging markets based entities added $81.7 billion and 147 more deals. This was up significantly from 2016’s emerging markets’ $46.2 billion across 75 deals. The largest deals included $3.25 billion by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, $1.5 billion by Hilton Worldwide Holdings, $2.2 billion by Community Health Systems and $1.25 billion by Equinix 6. Most dealers interviewed by Prospect News expect high yield issuance to increase in 2018.
Even with the Federal Reserve’s third 0.25% rate increase in the Federal Funds Target Rate on December 13, yields on intermediate Treasuries are slightly changed with the 10‐year Treasury at 2.41% at the end of 2017, roughly flat from 2.44% at the beginning of the year 7. The 10 year Treasury was the “pivot point” as the yield curve flattened as the FED raised the Fed Funds Target Rate with the 30‐year bond yield falling from 3.07% to 2.74%, while the 2‐year note yield climbed from 1.19% to 1.88% and the 5‐year note rose from 1.93% to 2.21% 8.
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 third quarter GDP print was 3.2% following the second quarter’s 3.1%, the consensus view of economists reported in The Wall Street Journal, forecasts a GDP of 2.7% for 2018 up from 2% at the end of September ( with Wall Street Journal’s consensus estimate of economists 12/1/2017 inflation expectations at 2.2% for 2018). 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.
Top of mind for bond investors is the tax bill recently signed into law. S&P’s analysis concludes, “the details of the proposal suggest the legislation will be a positive for overall credit quality, although less so for highly
leveraged speculative‐grade issuers”9.
The recently signed tax bill has significant changes that affect corporate earnings. The major elements impacting the majority of high yield issuers are: 1. The decline in the income tax rate from 35% to 21%, 2. The interest expense deductibility limit of 30% of adjusted taxable income (defined as EBITDA through 2021 and EBIT thereafter) and 3. The full expensing of qualifying capital expenditures. The chart to the left by S&P estimates that the new tax bill will have at most just slightly negative impact on companies with lower interest coverage ratios (those with more debt), “as the negative effect of lower interest deductibility would offset the positive effect of lower tax rates and the full expensing of capital expenditures” 10.
The chart below on the left shows the percentage of investment grade and high yield issuers impacted to any degree by the new law’s limit on interest expense deductibility. Logically, a larger proportion of high yield companies are impacted, however, the impact in most cases is entirely manageable, as the chart above illustrates. Also, the percentage of high yield companies adversely impacted increases after 2021 with the change in the definition from EBITDA to EBIT, as shown in the chart below on the left. Furthermore, the chart below on the right shows the percentage of rated companies impacted by leverage ratio. The higher the leverage ratio, the greater the number of companies impacted.
Being a more conservative asset manager, Cincinnati Asset Management remains significantly concentrated in less leveraged high yield companies. We limit our purchases to those companies rated single‐B or better, so we are underweight CCC and lower rated securities. So the changes in the tax law will have less of an impact on our portfolios than those of the broader high yield market, in which approximately 15% are rated CCC and lower11. This underweight contributed to our High Yield Composite performance lagging the return of the Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index (6.86% gross versus 7.50%) in 2017. Over the year, 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.
The Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate High Yield Index ended 2017 with a yield of 5.72%. This yield is an average that is barbelled by the CCC and lower rated cohort yielding about 8.5% and a BB rated cohort yielding about 4.4% 12. These yields are being earned in an environment that is fairly attractive. S&P forecasts that the trailing 12‐month default rate of 3.0% as of 12/31/17 will fall to 2.7% by September 2018, significantly below the 36‐year historical average of 4.1%. S&P also observed that “nearly all market‐based measures of future default pressure are now at benign levels” 13. 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.
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.
1.Bloomberg, Bloomberg Barclays Indices
2.Wall Street Journal historical US Treasury rates
3.Credit Sights 1/1/2018
4.Wall Street Journal 1/2/2018
5. Moody’s Investor Service, U. S. Retail, Apparel, Restaurants:2018 Outlook 12/14/2017
6.The Prospect News, High Yield Daily 1/2/2018 Bloomberg Barclay’s Indices Statistics
8.S&P Global Ratings, U.S. Tax Reform: An Overall (But Uneven) Benefit For U.S. Corporate Credit Quality
9. S&P Global Ratings, U.S. Tax Reform: An Overall (But Uneven) Benefit for U.S. Corporate Credit Quality 12/18/2018
11. Bloomberg Barclays
13. S&P Global Ratings 11/14/2017