The 10-Year Treasury note recently pierced below the all-important psychological 2% level (1.97%), which has confounded many investors, especially if you consider these same rates were around 4% before the latest mega-financial crisis hit the globe. Some of the rate plunge can be explained by sluggish global growth, but the U.S. just logged a respectable +5.0% GDP growth quarter; corporate profits are effectively at all-time record highs; and the economy has added about 11 million private sector jobs over the last five years (unemployment rate of 10.0% has dropped to 5.6%). So what gives…why such low interest rates? Well, as I noted in a recent article (Why 0% Rates?), there is a whole host of countries with lower rates, which acts like an anchor dragging down our rates with them. Scott Grannis encapsulates this multi-decade, worldwide rate decline in the chart below:
It should come as no surprise to many that these abnormally low rates have had a massive ripple effect on other asset classes… including of course high-yield bonds (aka “junk bonds”). It doesn’t take a genius or rocket scientist to discern the effects of an ultra-low interest rate environment. Quite simply, investors are forced to hunt for yield. When a Bank of America (BAC) customer is forced into earning less than 1/10th of 1 cent for every dollar invested in a CD, you can easily understand why the smile in their CD advertisement looks more like a grimace. Rather than accept $8 in annual interest on a $10,000 investment, post-crisis investors frightened by the stock market have piled into junk bonds. If you don’t believe me, check out the analysis provided by the Financial Times (data from Dealogic) in the chart below, which shows about $1 trillion in U.S. high-yield debt issuance over the last three years. Europe has experienced an even more dramatic growth rate in junk issuance compared to the U.S.
Stretching High-Yield Band
A rubber band can only stretch so far before the elasticity forces it too snap. We are getting closer to the snapping point, as more complacent investors lend money to riskier borrowers and also accept more lenient terms from issuers (e.g., cov-lite loans). Although default rates on high yield bonds remain near decade lows (1.1% through November 2014), high-yield investors keep on inching towards an ultimate day of reckoning. Thanks to a continually improving economy, Fitch Ratings is still projecting a benign default rate environment for high-yield bonds in 2015 – somewhere in the 1.5% – 2.0% range (see chart below). However, high-yield credit spreads did widen in 2014 with the help of crude oil prices getting chopped by more than -50% over the last year. Given the energy sector accounts for about 17% of the high-yield market (Barron’s), it would be natural to expect a larger number of energy company defaults to occur over the next 12-18 months, especially if crude oil prices remain depressed.
While it makes sense for you to hold a portion of your portfolio in high-yield bonds, especially for diversification purposes, don’t forget the power of mean reversion. The uncharacteristically low default rates will eventually revert towards historical averages. Stated differently, the increased risk profile of the high-yield bond market continues to stretch, so make sure you are not overly exposed to the sector because this segment will eventually snap.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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