The Cracks Appear: A Record $90 Billion A-Rated Bonds Downgraded To BBB In Q4

Having written about it for over a year, it sometimes feels like the topic of "fallen angel" bonds, and the danger they present to the broader credit market and overall economy has been beaten to death (see most recently"The $6.4 Trillion Question: How Many BBB Bonds Are About To Be Downgraded").

But what if the market is focusing on the wrong tier when it comes to the upcoming downgrade deluge? What if instead of BBB credits, whose downgrade risk is, or should be, largely priced in by now (although the recent plunges in GE and PG&E bonds put this assumption to doubt) the real risk is just above the pre-fallen angel tier?

That's the point made by Goldman Sachs overnight, which argues that while some of the "BBB risks" warrant close monitoring, the bank's credit analysts "continue to struggle to see any recent developments that would make BBB-rated bonds a canary in a coal mine." To support their claim that BBB is not the time bomb many others claim it is, Goldman shows that BBB spreads have moved largely in line with their A-rated peers, while demonstrating that BBB bonds have not been an outsized source of weakness in IG.

The bank's assessment is that in the absence of a full-blown recession, downgrade risk among BBB-rated issuers is likely to remain  contained to structurally and cyclically challenged sectors and firms. As a result, Goldman's credit analysts view the risks as most pronounced in sectors including Food and Beverage, Retail/Consumer, and Autos. Meanwhile, they see value in other BBB-heavy  sectors such as Banks and Telecom.

In any case, the bottom line is that according to Goldman at least, investors should not be worried about BBB (that said, on Nov 1 Goldman told clients to buy oil; what followed next was the worst month for oil in 10 years).

So if not BBB, then where is the biggest credit risk in the investment grade space?

According to Goldman, the more pronounced risk facing IG investors, is a wave of downgrades among firms rated A and AA.

In our view, these companies are more likely to use their debt capacity for shareholder returns and/or M&A to diversify their businesses. In contrast, firms at the cusp of HY ratings should be inclined to manage their balance sheets more conservatively.

Is Goldman right this time? Who knows, but recent rating actions suggest that the bank may have a point: in the fourth quarter alone, a record $90 billion worth of "pre-fallen angel" were downgraded to BBB from A, and Goldman adds that the risk "remains skewed towards further negative actions."

But while rating agencies are clearly adding to the pre-fallen angel camp, there is no denying that the big threat is what happens if and when the BBB downgrade deluge begins. As Deutsche Bank calculated last week, when looking at those bonds most at risk of getting junked, $150bn of the $736bn of BBB- bonds are currently on negative watch/outlook with at least one rating agency, and in danger of imminent "junking."

And while Goldman remains clearly complacent about the BBB space at least until a recession hits, as Deutsche Bank warned last week, even before we get to an economic slowdown - some time in 2020 - or even before the market start pricing the slowdown in, "it feels like the tide might be turning and we start to see fallen angels outpace rising stars over the next year."

So there you have it: for those who believe a recession is either imminent or will soon be priced in, keep shorting the BBB space. Meanwhile, those who think it will take some more time before the rating agencies filter out the noise, the best place to be short is those "pre-fallen" A bonds who will first become BBBs, before they too join the deluge into the junk space some time around late 2019/early 2020.