The financial stress caused by Covid-19 is far from over. Investors should brace for non-payments to spread far beyond the most vulnerable corporate and sovereign borrowers, in a reckoning that threatens to drag prices lower...
There is still time to get ahead of this trend. Rather than buying assets at valuations stunningly decoupled from underlying corporate and economic fundamentals, investors should think a lot more about the recovery value of their assets and adjust their portfolios accordingly.
So far, despite signs of rising stress on corporate and public balance sheets, non-payments have been largely contained to certain badly affected segments.
But the sense that the worst did not come to pass has fed complacency among investors of all stripes. A new generation of retail investors has emerged, helping stocks on their relentless march higher.
Contrast investors’ optimism with companies’ circumspection. While many central governments are focused on reopening economies that were locked down to contain the virus’s spread, most businesses have remained cautious. Many are still looking to further reduce their spending.
The wariness has been encouraged by the resurgence of infections around the world. In the US, a majority of states have now opted to halt or reverse their lockdown easing plans. And there is every reason for businesses and investors to tread carefully. Health experts warn us about over-optimism on a vaccine and, judging from the most affected areas, too many people are yet to properly take on board the infection threat and align their behaviours with the risks facing society.
Such a weak and uncertain economic backdrop reduces borrowers’ willingness and ability to meet contractual obligations. This is particularly the case in vulnerable sectors such as hospitality and retail, and in developing countries with less of a financial cushion and limited room for policy flexibility.
There are already plenty of worrying signs:
a record-breaking pace for corporate bankruptcies;
job losses moving from small and medium-sized firms to larger ones;
lengthening delays in commercial real estate payments;
more households falling behind on rents and continuing to defer credit card payments;
and a handful of developing countries delaying debt payments.
Yet, judging from a range of market indicators, investors are showing insufficient concern. Some continue to expect a sharp, V-shaped recovery in which a vaccine, or a build-up of immunity in the population, allows for a quick resumption of normal economic activity. Others are relying on more backstops from governments, central banks and international organisations.
But policymakers’ support actions have already been extensive, including payment deferrals, direct cash transfers, covenant relief, rock-bottom interest rates and corporate bond purchases. The G20 group has agreed a “debt service suspension initiative” for the poorest developing countries.
While notable, such measures will not protect investors from sharing some of the capital losses, whether that is due to companies going bankrupt, or developing countries needing more than exceptional funds from bilateral and multilateral sources. Many have already made it clear that they expect “private sector involvement”. That is likely to mean, at the minimum, the short-term suspension of interest and principal payments.
As neither a quick income recovery nor more financial engineering is likely to avert a rise in non-payments, the best that can be hoped for in a growing number of cases may well be orderly, voluntary and collaborative restructurings, such as the one announced last week in Ecuador.
The complicated negotiations between Argentina and its creditors demonstrate that such deals are far from easy, especially given the lack of cohesion among creditors. But the alternative — a messy default — destroys even more value for debtors and investors.
The potential damage is not limited to finance. Disruptions in capital markets could also undermine the already sluggish economic recovery by making consumers more thrifty, as they worry about their job prospects, and by encouraging companies to postpone investment plans pending a clearer economic outlook.
The investing challenge may well shift in the months ahead from riding an exceptional wave of liquidity, which lifted virtually all asset prices, to steering through a general correction in prices and complex individual non-payments.
No wonder, then, that an increasing number of asset managers are raising funds in the hope of deploying a dual investment strategy.
The first involves waiting for a correction to buy rock-solid companies trading at bargain prices.
The second involves engaging in well-structured rescue financing, debt restructurings and collateralised lending as countries, and some bankrupt companies, seek to reorganise and recover.
Liquidity-driven rallies are deceptively attractive and tend to result in excessive risk-taking. This time, retail investors are front and centre. But it is the next stage that we should already be thinking about. That requires much more careful scrutiny from investors than the past few months have demanded.