Many investors have taken on more risk in their quest for higher returns—especially as signs have pointed to interest rates staying stable until next year. But two key elements are often overlooked: default risk and underwriting standards.
The prolonged low interest-rate environment has continued to drive more investors toward high-yield securities. But all too often, they focus on interest rate risk, even though the high-yield sector has been fairly insulated from rising interest rates historically. Yield spreads—the extra yield above similar-maturity government bonds—often decline as rates rise, providing a cushion against rate increases. Lower-rated bonds, such as CCC-rated debt, usually have the most cushion because their spreads are higher.
An Unsettling Complacency
Today’s low overall level of high-yield spreads means this insulation is getting thinner and high-yield’s interest-rate sensitivity is increasing. Still, it’s far lower than that of investment-grade bonds, and any losses due to rising rates are generally offset rather quickly by the passage of time as investors collect coupons, and as bonds roll down the yield curve.
The spread cushion in high-yield bonds has obviously drawn in investors worried about rising rates. But what’s being missed is that the spreads are compensation for the likelihood of default—and the market has begun to feel complacent about this credit-related risk. In our view, it’s important that investors focus on bond default risk and high-yield issuers’ underwriting quality in order to prepare for the next phase of the credit cycle.
Monitoring Default Risk
As we’ve mentioned before, myopically chasing yield can be a dangerous game. We still believe that it will be at least a couple of years before we’re in the phase of the credit cycle when bond defaults are a serious concern. But investors shouldn’t disregard this risk just because default rates remain low. Companies have defaulted in the past year, and the lower the credit quality, the greater the probability of default.
There are warning signs to watch for. Price declines have always preceded the default phase of the credit cycle by a considerable amount of time, and we’re beginning to see issuer-specific events occurring. These are a telltale sign of the coming shift in the credit cycle. For example, a major retailer recently saw its bond price fall by 15%, and its outlook for recovery doesn’t look positive.
Looser Underwriting Standards
As underwriting standards diminish and poor-quality junk bond issues surface, an increasing number of investors are putting money into questionable securities. And even for creditworthy issuers, there’s reason for concern. According to Moody’s Investors Service, North American high-yield bonds reached an all-time low in covenant quality in February, which means there were fewer—and weaker—contractual safeguards to protect investors’ interests.
In her recent testimony before the US Congress, US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen mentioned the loosening underwriting standards for high-yield bonds. Declining standards are a greater worry in the bank-loan market, but high-yield bonds aren’t exempt. And that means investors need to be selective.
Break Out the Books: Homework Is Key
Despite the current stable interest-rate environment and low default rates, we think it’s wise for high-yield investors to do their homework and research potential issuers carefully instead of simply jumping into high-yield bonds. Disciplined credit selection is more important than ever—arguably more important than investors’ focus on interest-rate risk—and in-depth research will determine success or failure for high-yield portfolios when the cycle turns.
Gershon Distenfeld, Director of High Yield at AllianceBernstein