Last week we asked (rhetorically) if "something just blew up in junk?" We have the answer today, as triple-hooks (CCC-rated debt) in the junk bond market have crashed through the worst levels of 2011 and are now at the highest yields since July 2009. Amid this complacency still reigns in the equity market (just as it did when the last credit cycle turned).
As bas it's been...
As we detailed previously, copmplacency today about the risks of contagion from the weakest segments of high yield to the rest of the corporate credit markets is strongly reminiscent of the complacency about contagion risks from subprime in mid-2007. At that time, investors and regulators realized that the sharp increase in subprime delinquency rates was an issue, but believed that losses would be contained to that sector. Even though housing leverage was at all-time highs and home prices had peaked a year prior, markets did not believe that other sectors were at risk. Today, with corporate leverage ratios at all-time highs and a year after corporate profits have peaked, markets are again largely ignoring the risks of contagion from the most distressed sectors of high yield to the rest of the corporate credit sector.
There is a silver lining to all this doom and gloom. Despite all of these warning signs, the window of opportunity is still wide open, with market prices and implied volatilities now back around where they were before the market swoon during August and September.
Like most turns in the credit cycle, it is uncertain exactly when the bottom will fall out of corporate credit markets, but the catalyst is likely to be an unexpected major event, perhaps even a single company getting into trouble. While we have been bearish on high yield for over a year now, we didn't think the conditions were yet ripe for a collapse. Now they're ripe.
As corporate leverage unwinds, distortions that have been magnified in credit index tranches are set to dissipate and eventually reverse. Yield-seeking investors can obtain leverage by buying equity and mezz tranches of the CDX HY and IG indices, compressing spreads at the bottom of the capital structure. We think the 0-35 tranche of CDX HY has the potential to be completely wiped out - not unlike the mezzanine mortgage bonds (subprime BBB through AA) that eventually got wiped out in the GFC. Banks, which have been slapped with onerous capital charges on low-spread synthetic instruments, no longer provide the bid for the top of the capital structure that they used to. In order to complete the capital structure, banks must now find a buyer for the senior and super-senior tranches that yield-hungry investors don't want. This double-whammy of spread compression at the bottom and spread widening at the top presents capital structure opportunities that we have profited from in recent years. As the credit cycle turns, we expect these opportunities to change and likely become more compelling.
Opportunities Using Single-Name CDS
Different markets are telling us very different things about the price of credit risk today. As shown in Figure 23, the S&P LSTA Leveraged Loan 100 Index, which is a total return index designed to track the performance of the largest institutional leveraged loans, has declined almost 5.9% since June, while the CDX HY S24 index has declined by only 0.1%. These indices, which measure similar risks, tend to move in tandem. Most of this divergence has taken place since late September. In October alone, CDX HY S24 returned 3.5%, compared to -0.6% for the S&P Leveraged Loan 100 Index. This outperformance coincided with by far the strongest month ever for high yield ETF flows.
Using single-name CDS data, we are able to separate out the components of this outperformance since June to better understand whether we think it will revert. Nearly a third of this outperformance (1.23% of the 4.05% didifference) is a move in the basis between the CDX HY index and its constituents. This move is purely technical, reflecting an unusually large premium at which CDX HY currently trades to its constituents. Moreover, this basis has historically mean-reverted, especially when the basis is greater than 1% of NAV (today it is closer to 2%). The conclusion we make from the graph below is that two factors are at work: not only has single-name CDS outperformed the leveraged loan market, but the CDX HY index has outperformed single-name CDS. The price differential creates a large wedge between CDX HY and leveraged loans, which supports our thesis that synthetic corporate credit is especially overpriced today.
Opportunities in Corporate Credit ETFs
Perhaps the scariest corner of the corporate credit market today is the market for corporate bond ETFs and open-ended mutual funds. These funds, such as the LQD, HYG, and JNK ETFs, provide daily liquidity to investors where the underlying collateral is much more illiquid corporate bonds. These funds are scary because liquidity has been tested in only one direction. Fund flows have been mostly one-sided over the past 5-6 years. Retail investors and institutions have been buying fixed income ETFs at a record pace in their search for yield and liquidity.
Who will take the other side when these massive flows reverse? The answer before the crisis would have been the banks. Now the answer is much less clear. The spate of recent failed placements in distressed loan markets is symptomatic of a liquidity vacuum. Not only have banks reduced their own market-making activities in corporate bonds due to new onerous bank capital requirements, but banks have also wound down their repo financing businesses that are the lifeblood of cheap financing for non-banks to provide liquidity in corporate bonds.
Fixed income ETFs provide daily liquidity to investors by allowing authorized market participants to create or redeem ETF shares in exchange for the underlying corporate bonds at a NAV quoted using the bid prices of the underlying collateral. These authorized participants can therefore make a profit if ETF prices deviate sufficiently far from fair value, a mechanism that keeps these ETFs trading very close to NAV.
However, if flows are large enough to overcome the balance sheet capacity of these authorized participants, ETF prices could theoretically diverge significantly from NAV, and market-makers could be forced to liquidate their positions in the cash bond market. This divergence occurred during the GFC and to a lesser extent during the Euro crisis of 2011.
It is this sudden rush to the exits that concerns us most, in part because it will be hard to see coming. If a large group of investors suddenly decides to sell, there may not be enough market-maker capacity to take the other side. When these ETFs become rich to NAV or when the cash-synthetic basis gets very tight, we can use corporate bond ETFs as a tail hedge or as a source of alpha. The cost of these tail hedges is often surprisingly low.