Avoiding a corporate bond liquidity squeeze

Corporate Bonds

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, aging developed-world populations, record low deposit interest rates and quantitative easing by the world’s major central banks have driven a global ‘search for yield’ by investors. For many years, this drove asset yields lower across the risk spectrum. However, since the start of 2018 the investment backdrop has shifted, causing us to re-evaluate our asset allocation positioning within fixed income markets.

The Federal Reserve (Fed) began normalising its monetary policy stance in December 2015. As the US economy has performed strongly, it has since raised the Federal Funds Rate target range nine times, with the upper bound increasing from 0.25% to 2.50%. Commensurate with this, ten-year treasury yields have risen since bottoming out in the middle of 2016, with some investors asserting that the multi-decade bond bull market that began in the early 1980’s may have now ended.

As treasury yields rose between 2016 and 2017 corporate bonds outperformed and spreads, which represent the additional compensation investors demand for lending to companies rather than governments, tightened to cyclical lows at the start of 2018. At that time, corporate bonds had reached their most expensive level relative to government bonds in the current cycle. This was largely because of investors’ high expectations for economic growth and corporate performance.

Since the start of 2018, cyclical headwinds have begun to appear within the US economy and the Fed has started to slowly withdraw liquidity from asset markets by reducing the size of its balance sheet. This combination of weaker growth and lower liquidity caused a shift in sentiment within fixed income markets, with corporate bond spreads beginning to increase amid episodes of heightened volatility.

There are reasons to be concerned about liquidity

Since the global financial crisis, regulatory changes have meant that investment banks have reduced their participation in corporate bond markets (via making activity). This has occurred as leverage has risen to record levels among small and mid-cap US companies. The market effects of this have so far been limited, as bond demand has remained buoyant amid the positive growth and accommodative policy backdrops. However, we hold concerns that the reduction of a major source of bond demand during times of volatility could exacerbate volatility if (and when) the macroeconomic backdrop deteriorates further. This is not to say that investor demand for yield producing assets will dry up, but there could be a re-pricing of risk within the market if investors anticipate a liquidity or growth regime change.

At the same time, there has been a decline in the average quality of issuance within corporate bond markets, with over half of the global investment-grade index now rated at BBB or lower. This means that in the event that growth slows, financing costs rise and corporates’ financial positions deteriorate, there is now less room for downgrades before issuers lose their ‘investment grade’ status. If this occurs, certain constrained fixed income investors will become forced sellers, which could cause a liquidity crunch in riskier areas of the asset class.

Recent developments have presented an attractive adjustment opportunity

Since December 2018, US policymakers have shifted away from a tightening bias to a more data-dependent policy stance. This includes a provision to consider reducing or halting the pace of balance sheet reduction in the event that it is putting unnecessary upward pressure on yields. Together with the perverse fact that the US government shutdown acted to support liquidity by reducing the rate of treasury issuance, this improved the market liquidity backdrop, thereby having a positive effect on risk appetite and causing corporate bond markets to rally.

Nevertheless, the economic cycle is maturing and we expect global growth to slow over the course of 2019. Depending on the effect that this has on corporate performance, it could cause corporate bond markets to underperform later in the year. As such, we are opportunistically using the improvement in sentiment to address our fixed income positioning, particularly in areas where liquidity is lower or could deteriorate, such as smaller companies, sterling investment grade and US high yield.

Convertible bonds: an alternative solution

‘Convertibles’ are corporate bonds that can be converted into the underlying issuer’s equity, under predetermined conditions, usually at the discretion of their holder. As an asset class, they fall between fixed income and equities. Their characteristics mean that they can offer investors ‘convexity’ of returns, i.e. the chance for equity-like returns in rising markets and bond-like downside protection if markets fall.

As key interest rates have been rising in the US corporate borrowing rates have increased, convertibles have become a more attractive financing option for companies. As such, issuance has begun to rise, presenting investors with a broader range of investment options. It is true that financially-weak companies often turn to convertibles to lower their interest burdens, but this is not always the case and the rise in issuance is beneficial to active investors who are able to apply stock-picking skills to uncover value in what is often an under-researched asset class.

There are a number of risks to the outlook and we are cognisant that the US economic cycle is maturing. However, there is a possibility that it could extend longer than markets currently anticipate. Significant uncertainty also surrounds the path of US monetary policy and we cannot rule out that the Fed will conclude its balance-sheet reduction programme more quickly than expected in the face of rising government debt issuance and pressure from President Trump. As such, we see potential for asset markets to react to the up or downside in the coming months, depending on developments with these and other key market drivers. This uncertainty creates an ideal environment for the use of convertibles and we currently hold a positive view on active exposure to the asset class.

 


This article was first published by Brookes MacDonald on 22nd February 2019.