The Rules, Risk Management, and Bond Yields

The Rules, Risk Management, and Bond Yields
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If businesses anticipate a flow of financing, they will depend on it.  Then a diminution or increase in the flow of investable funds will affect markets, even if the flow of investable funds remains positive or negative.

The Rules, Risk Management, and Bond Yields

Most of the sayings from the “rules” posts came from things I thought of while managing investment risk 1998-2004.  I think I wrote this one late in 2002, or early 2003.  I’ll apply this three ways — what I would apply this to now, then, and in-between.

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Then: the Fed funds rate was below 2%, and the yield curve was steeply sloped.  The corporate bond market had gone through an incredible bust, but almost all the companies that would fail had already failed, and a big rally was just starting.  Banks were still in good shape, with plenty of lending capacity, which was being applied to residential and commercial lending.  The securitization markets functioned and financing was easily available for residential & commercial mortgages, and many types of consumer lending.

In-between (1): Now I’m talking about 2006-7.  Fed funds rate was rising to an eventual 5.5%.  The curve is flat to inverted, and corporate spreads are very tight.  Issuance of low grade paper is rampant, and covenant protections are declining.  Risk is chasing reward, and gaining. Everything is overlevered.  Any attempts at prudence are financially punished.  That said, the securitization market slows; deal are harder to do.

In-between (2): Now I am talking about late 2008 to early 2009. Fed Funds had shifted to its current near zero state, but the Fed had not begun playing with the asset side of its balance sheet.  The yield curve was relatively wide but bull flattening.  Nothing was getting done in lending, and credit spreads were as wide as wide can be.  Securitization drops to near zero. Bank lending is non-existent, aside from buying Treasuries on credit provided by the Fed.

Now: The Fed funds rate is still in the gutter, and the Fed dreams that QE will do a lot for the economy.  (It works in theory! Stupid economists.)  Corporate credit spreads are wide, covenant protections are low, and yields relative to intrinsic risk are low.  Securitization markets are functioning at a reduced level, while banks aren’t lending much to the private sector.  Most housing loans are backed by the US government.

So here is the graph:


The point of this piece is to tell you not to look at the level of risky interest rates, but to look at the rate of change in risky interest rates. It tells a lot regarding future prospects of the stock and bond markets.  The rate of change matters a great deal, not the absolute level of rates.

So, the implication is watch for a sustained rise in in high-yield bond yields.  When those yields cross their 10-month moving average, it is time to be gone from risk assets.

By David Merkel, CFA of alephblog

Updated on

David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.
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