Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

Junk Bonds are Going to Kill Us All

The Macro View

A few years ago I was on Bloomberg one morning and said something like, stocks looked overly expensive and should be due a correction if it wasn’t for the support they were getting from company buybacks and the low relative yields on bonds. The programme host asked me if I meant stocks were going to collapse, so I joshed with her – confidently predicting some random date like October 12th as the day the global stock market would tumble out of bed. I spun some yarn about my high degree of confidence that 10.30am that day would see a crash nailed on. I figured anyone sensible watching would see I was joshing. I should have given the host a verbal sarcasm warning – I think the newscaster took me seriously… So, now I try to hedge a bit when its blindingly obvious we are poised on the edge of a precipice about to take a big step forward.

We are in the middle of a deeply unconvincing market, but this time it’s not stocks that scare me.

Yesterday’s stock market action turned out mildly positive on the back of numbers being better than expected. The big event today will be the US Non-Farm Payrolls data – expected around 160k. Yet, despite a continuing long-term strong employment trend, rising wages and no real tension, the market buys the notion that a global recession is 30-40% likely, but also that Fed Chairman Powell stands ready to deliver another bout of easing later this month – The Powell Put. That’s the stock market we’re in – reacting to daily news on trade wars and looking to be bailed out.

Fundamentally, should we be scared? Yes, be a little concerned.

Meanwhile, the short-end of the US Bond market tightened as expectations of further easing rose… (At this point please start humming the underwater menace theme from Jaws, and imagine a large shadowy shark-like form is below the boat.)

I’ve spent most of my career in the fixed-income markets. What I see today scares the solids out of me. 

We are looking at 2% yields on the 30-year US T-Bond. That’s the highest bond yield in the whole developed world sovereign bond market! And the market thinks it’s a bargain because US rates are inevitably going to zero and beyond! That is not good. It really is not good. It’s not normal. It means something is very very wrong.   

Yet, investors can’t get enough of it… delicious, yummy sub-zero percent yielding bonds. September was a record month for corporate new issuance – more than $300bn of issuance. (When I started in the market back in the 1980s, a record month would be a couple of billion!) We’ve now got governments around the globe talking about fiscal reflation and borrowing more – why not? Yields are so low a few trillion more in debt can’t hurt… can it? Of course not – fill yer boots.

As bond yields continue to fall, the investment banks are churning out new deals as fast as they can type out the term sheets. Its even more manic in High Yield. Investment banks make higher fees from junk issues – so guess what… the market is flooding with paper. And investors are hoovering them up – they just love the yield (i.e. positive), the investment bank analysts are telling them to buy, and they figure that because there is a global recession coming and Central Banks will ease rates, then why not ride the next leg of the Great Bond Rally?  

Whoa. Stop. Think. There is a little word…. Risk. 

Remember Blain’s Market Mantra Number 1: “The Market has but one objective – to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the maximum number of participants.”

If there is a global recession…. What happens to bonds in recession? Sovereign bonds and most investment grade bonds tighten. Tick. (Well, they would tighten if they weren’t stupidly tight already..) High Yield Issuers go bust. Big X. (Consider that Lesson 1 this morning. At this point you should be thinking about the need for a bigger boat…)

One of my European chums was amazed a BB junk French laundry firm he’s never heard of, Elis, was able to raise 5-year debt at 1% last week.  This would be the same company no one had previously ever heard of that caused some eyebrow raising earlier this year when it launched a covenant-lite junk bond. This time around no one even blinked. The reality is issuers are getting deals done with less investor protections and lower yields than ever. 

(It’s a curious psychological thing, but those of us of a certain market cohort are very aware that the more complex you make a deal, the more you can weaken the protections, and the more likely it is investors will simply scan the docs with a once-over and accept worse terms. People like to look clever and pretend they understand difficult stuff… I was a really good bond salesman in my day.)






The Macro View, zLead Article, zNewsletter

About Bill Blain

Bill Blain

Bill Blain is Strategist for Shard Capital, a leading investment firm. Bill is a well known broadcaster and commentator, with over 30-years experience working for leading investment banks and brokerages at senior levels. He's been closely involved in the growth and development of the global fixed income markets, and pioneered complex financial products including capital, asset-backed securities and private placements. Increasingly, he's involved in the Real and Alternative Assets sector seeking to explain their complexity, how to generate decorrelated returns, and create liquidity in non-listed assets. Bill is a passionate sailor, talentless painter, plays guitar badly, is learning the bagpipes, and built a train-set in his attic.

Articles by Bill Blain

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