As we have been highlighting for a few weeks, something is rotten in high-yield credit markets. This week, the mainstream media is starting to catch on as major divergences in performance (high-yield bond spreads are 30-40bps off their cycle tights from just prior to MH17 even as stocks rally to new record highs) and technicals weaken. However, as BofA warns, flows follow returns and this week saw the biggest outflows from high-yield funds in more than a year. Investment grade bonds saw notable inflows as investors chose up-in-quality, rather than reach-for-yield, for the first time in years: equity investors, pay attention.
On Tuesday, analysts at Ned Davis Research recommended that investors begin to sell high-yield bonds, partly because they look pricey and partly because performance has been flagging. "Investors are no longer being compensated for the additional risk in high-yield bonds," they wrote.
High yield credit markets are majorly diverging from stocks...
"Geopolitical risk is causing a pause," said Frank Ossino, senior portfolio manager at Newfleet Asset Management in Hartford, Conn., which oversees $12.9 billion. Investors tend to flee riskier assets during times of turmoil.
High yield credit markets are suffering major outflows...
Outflows from high yield funds and ETFs accelerated last week to $2.46bn following a sizable $1.85bn outflow in the prior week. Both of these outflows are the largest since the “taper tantrum”episode in the summer of last year.
"We're not seeing massive outflows yet, but at some point that's going to change," warned Phil Blancato, chief executive at Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management, which oversees about $2 billion.
He said he is steering clear of high-yield exchange-traded funds in large part due to concerns about how they will fare in a downturn.
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Between a sudden shift to a preference for "strong" balance sheet companies over "weak" balance sheet companies (the end of the dash for trash trade), and this rotation from high-yield to investment-grade, it is clear that investors are positioning defensively up-in-quality ending the constant reach-for-yield trade of the last 5 years.
Why should 'equity' investors care? The last few years' gains in stocks have been thanks massively to record amounts of buybacks (juicing EPS and also providing a non-economic bid to the market no matter what happens). This financial engineering - for even the worst of the worst credit - has been enabled by massive inflows into high-yield and leveraged loan funds, lowering funding costs and allowing CFOs to destroy/releverage their firms all in the goal of raising the share price.
Simply put - equity prices cannot rally for long without the support of high-yield credit markets - never have, never will - as they are both 'arbitrageable' bets on the same capital structure. There can be a divergence at the end of a cycle as managers get over their skis with leverage and the high yield credit market decides it has had enough risk-taking... but it only ends with equity and credit weakening together. That is the credit cycle... it cycles.