Q4 2017 Investment Grade Commentary
As the fourth quarter of 2017 came to a close, investment grade corporate bond spreads narrowed to the tightest levels of the year, and the lowest since 2007i. The Bloomberg Barclays US IG Corporate Bond Index OAS started the year at 1.22% and finished at 0.93%, which means that, on balance, credit spreads for the index tightened 29 basis points throughout 2017. During 2017, BBB credit spreads tightened more than single‐A spreads by 8 basis points. BBB spreads tightened 36 basis points in 2017, after starting the year at 1.60% and finishing at 1.24%, while A‐rated spreads tightened 28 basis points after starting the year at 1.01% and finishing at 0.73%.
At CAM, our market reconnaissance, observance and experience told us that the insatiable demand for yield and income by both foreign and domestic investors drove the 2017 outperformance of lower quality investment grade credit relative to higher quality investment grade credit. Additionally, the composition of the investment grade universe has changed since the financial crisis ‐‐ in 2007, less than 35% of the Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate Index was BBB‐rated, while today nearly 50% of said index is BBB‐rated.
Source: Barclays Bank PLC
At CAM, we believe that now, more than ever, it is prudent for us to populate our portfolios with credits that we believe have the durability and financial strength to make it through a downturn in the credit markets. We continue to limit our exposure to BBB‐rated credits at 30%, a significant underweight relative to an IG universe where nearly 50% of credits are BBB‐rated. We are focusing on sectors that we believe will behave more defensively if the credit cycle turns, or if spreads go wider. For example, we would rather forego a modest amount of yield and purchase a single‐A rated regulated utility operating company as opposed to a single‐A industrial with cyclical end markets. We continue to take appropriate risks within the BBB‐rated portion of our portfolios, but only if the individual credit is trading at a level that provides appropriate compensation for the risks. We intend to maintain a significant relative overweight to EETC airline bonds, which are highly rated bonds that are fully secured and offer excess compensation relative to what we are finding elsewhere in the market. As always, we are diligent in screening for and avoiding credits that are at risk for shareholder activism, as we attempt to steer clear of situations where shareholders are rewarded at the expense of bondholders. Simply put, we are loath to change our conservative philosophy against the backdrop of exuberant credit markets. The principal decision makers on our investment grade team measure their experience in decades, not years, so we have seen the cycles come and go. Thus, we believe skepticism and caution are the prudent courses of action, and our portfolios will be positioned accordingly. We believe our core differentiator is our credit research and bottom up process that allows us to populate our portfolios with individual credits with a goal of achieving superior risk adjusted returns over the longer term.
The passage of a sweeping tax bill has generated some inquiry from our clients who would like to know what impact tax reform may have on the credit markets in 2018 and beyond. For investment grade corporate credit, we believe the impact will be relatively muted. There are two issues that could affect credit markets, interest deductibility and repatriation. Interest paid on debt is tax deductible, so as the corporate tax rate is lowered from 35% to 21% it makes debt issuance somewhat less attractive due to a lower overall tax burden. As far as repatriation is concerned, the repatriation tax rate on liquid assets held offshore will fall from 35% to 15.5%, so it is likely that some companies will bring some offshore cash back to the U.S. but we expect only a modest impact on investment grade credit. Of the $1.4 trillion that is held offshore by non‐financial U.S. companies, over 42% of that cash is controlled by just 5 large technology companiesii. While some companies will repatriate cash to pay down debt or to avoid taking on more debt, there will be others that repatriate cash for shareholder rewards and for M&A. Overall, we believe that tax reform will have a very modest impact on investment grade credit and that effect is most likely to be felt in 2018 investment grade new issuance. 2017 was a robust year for corporate bond issuance, with $1.327 trillion in gross issuance, 1% less than the amount of issuance that came to market in 2016iii. Even if tax reform does incent some companies to issue fewer bonds, the M&A pipeline remains robust with pending deals and potential deals, so we at CAM are expecting an issuance figure similar to the last two calendar years.
2018 should be another interesting year at the Federal Reserve. Jerome Powell will be the next Chair of the Federal Reserve, pending a confirmation vote by the full Senate. There is some belief that the Fed may turn more hawkish in 2018, as inflation is slowly creeping back into the picture and the labor market is showing signs of tightening, though wage growth remains relatively subduediv. The Fed continues to target three rate hikes in 2018, but what does this mean for the corporate bond market?v Though the first Fed rate hike of the current cycle occurred in December of 2015, the impact on the 10yr treasury has been relatively muted compared to the front end of the yield curve.
In 2017 we experienced a flattening of the treasury curve. The 5/10 treasury curve started the year at a spread of 51 basis points and ended 2017 at 20 basis points. It is important to note that, even if the treasury curve were to flatten completely, or even invert, there would still be a corporate credit curve that would afford extra compensation to investors for owning 10yr corporate bonds in lieu of 5yr corporate bonds. Corporate bond investors are compensated for two risks; interest rate risk and credit risk. 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 (not only the treasury curve but also the credit curve) ‐ to roll down the yield curve, and (3) avoiding credit events that result in permanent impairment of capital. Understanding and assessing credit risk is at the core of what Cincinnati Asset Management has provided their clients for nearly 29 years.
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 December 27, 2017 “Surging Demand Sends Investment‐Grade Bond Spread to 2007 Levels”
ii Moody’s Investor Service November 20, 2017 “Corporate cash to rise 5% in 2017; top five cash holders remain tech companies”
iii Bloomberg December 14, 2017 “Investment Grade Issuance Total for December 14, 2017”
iv Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta December 26, 2017 “Wage Growth Tracker”
v Bloomberg Markets December 13, 2017 “Fed Raises Rates, Eyes Three 2018 Hikes as Yellen Era Nears End”