Turning Japanese

Photo by Nicki Eliza Schinow on Unsplash

The Fed’s response to COVID will zombify corporate America for a generation

Written June 21, 2020

In “The L-Shaped Recovery“, we predicted that a combination of demand destruction, job market uncertainty, rising debt, and a shift in consumer behavior would hinder the economy from achieving a rapid recovery from the COVID pandemic.

Since that writing, the Fed has taken the unprecedented step of intervening directly in support of the credit markets, producing a spectacular V-shaped rebound in the financial markets. But as we all know, the market is not the economy.

The economic template that the current public health crisis is most often compared to is the Great Depression of the 1930s, but a more instructive precedent for what the future holds might be that of Japan, which is still trying to shake off the effects of the financial market bubble that popped in 1989.

To put the excesses of 1980s Japan in context, it was said that the 280 acres of land within the walls of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo was worth more than the entire state of California. At the time, this became the benchmark against which all other insane real estate and lending valuations were linked. When it inevitably crashed, Japan, Inc. tried borrowing their way out of trouble. More than 30 years later, and after racking up an eye-watering debt-to-GDP ratio of 279%, they’re still trying to find a way out.

In Japan, bankruptcy is not seen as a financial tool deployed to clear the decks of bad debt but rather as a cultural stain, one of humiliation and loss of face. So corporate Japan, and the country itself, stumbles onward like a zombie, burdened by mountains of legacy debt, unable to reap the benefits of innovation that leaner balance sheets would enable. This interminable trap is so ubiquitous that it even has its own name: Japanification.

Unfortunately, the Fed is headed down a similar path. Not only by backstopping the credit markets but by actively pushing prices higher, the Fed has allowed almost every corporation access to cheap money. It may be necessary, but just like the never-ending policy of quantitative easing destroyed the price discovery function in the equity markets, the unintended consequence of credit intervention is doing the same to the bond market. Normally where good corporate governance is rewarded and bad decisions are punished, everybody now gets a trophy.

In my day job as an editor for a financial news service, I spend a large portion of my time reading press releases from companies tapping into an almost unlimited supply of liquidity in the credit markets, with most of it going to refinance revolving bank debt incurred during the pandemic. Borrowing is literally exploding.

While this widespread refi effort is tactically beneficial in the near term to bridge the gap in cash flow created by the virus lockdown, the long term risk is that it will allow bad capacity to remain on the books, keeping unproductive companies alive and leaving little room for innovation and for fresh entities to thrive.

Corporate America was already running record levels of debt and leverage before the pandemic hit. Half of the investment-grade bond market is precariously rated BBB, just one notch above junk. Wide-scale bankruptcies and credit downgrades are indeed a systemic threat in a weakened economy, and it is forcing the Fed’s hand to prevent the entire system from snowballing downhill and out of control. But, like Japan, the unintended consequence of today’s policies will be a debt burden that will take years, if not decades, to climb out from under.

In a note to clients last week, Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio warned of a “lost decade” for the equity markets as profit margins get squeezed by debt servicing costs. See here https://bloom.bg/3hMBVtC.

We tend to agree and would use this recent rebound in financial markets to reduce risk exposure while sticking with core long positions in the US dollar, short-term treasuries, and gold.

Debt explosion (courtesy Federal reserve bank of St. Louis)
Sharp rise in unproductive debt (courtesy Deutsche Bank)

Powell Plays for Time

The Fed’s unspoken hope is that lower rates will keep the credit market from crumbling.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

July 15, 2019

Something doesn’t add up. Last week the Fed chairman Jerome Powell went before Congress to say that while the economy remains on “solid footing” it might need some assistance in the form of lower interest rates. It was barely six months ago when he was using similar language to advocate for higher rates. It makes no sense to pitch for easier monetary policy amid a hot labor market and record highs stock prices, but that’s exactly what Powell did.

The Fed chairman referred to economic headwinds blowing toward the US from abroad due to weakening global growth and disruptions in international trade. These pressures are real but hardly justifies the abrupt U-turn in Fed policy this year. It has to be something more than that.

Although Powell didn’t address it directly, the simplest explanation is growing concern over the state of the credit markets. As we wrote in “BBBe careful” one of the unintended consequences of easy money policies has been the explosion in debt, especially among weaker credits (lower-rated companies.) Despite a decade of massive monetary stimulus, the aggregate corporate credit profile has fallen well short of growth trends in the economy. In fact, half of the $5 trillion investment-grade bond universe is now rated just BBB, one notch above junk status.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an accident waiting to happen. It is quite literally a cliff edge, where even a handful of ratings downgrades could quickly create a feedback loop of forced liquidation by funds that are prohibited from owning junk, spreading outward and turning a simple economic slowdown to into a financial crisis.

The only option the Fed has is to play for time, massaging investor sentiment with the prospect of lower rates, maintaining ample liquidity and hoping (!) that growth will recover enough to feed through to corporate balance sheets. But considering that the current expansionary cycle is now already the oldest on record the odds are against it. Second-quarter corporate reporting season begins this week and will give us a look at whether the Fed-inspired exuberance in equities is matched by actual earnings.

Don’t underestimate the downside potential for interest rates. The Fed knows the credit market is the monster in the closet and is preemptively setting the stage for rate cuts despite the lack of any significant stress on the system. They are teed up to ease quickly and aggressively at the first outward sign of trouble. Whether the Fed has enough ammunition to alter the outcome under that scenario remains to be seen but given that the starting point on this next rate-cutting cycle begins with a policy rate at just 2.4%, we have our doubts. There is not much room between here and zero.

In April, we recommended owning short (2-3 year) treasuries. See “The dollar and deflation“. It’s still the best trade on the board and has much more to go.

HYG, the high-yield bond ETF. Despite a lot of heavy lifting from the Fed the bounces are getting smaller.

Time to BBBe Careful

May 27, 2019

One of the unintended consequences of the Fed’s policy over the last ten years was the explosion in USD-based borrowing and the inevitable deterioration in credit quality whenever easy money is on offer.  While this is not exactly new news, half of the $5 trillion investment grade bond market is now rated BBB, just one step up from junk. (See https://on.mktw.net/2MaGX7m .) Even if you don’t know anything about finance that statistic should be alarming, and easy to imagine what happens when these borrowers start to get squeezed. The implications are enormous. The obvious threat to the markets from here is one which a combination of slower growth and tighter financial conditions imposed by international trade tensions, weak investment, and declining dollar liquidity triggers rating downgrades, forcing the selling of newly-relegated junk credit as it becomes ineligible for inclusion in investment grade bond indices. Investors would inevitably turn to more liquid equity markets to hedge exposure, creating a negative feedback loop (or “doom loop”) of risk reduction and lower prices across asset classes.

The downgrading of General Electric debt last October brought the issue of corporate debt into sharper focus and was a factor in the broad market selloff late in the year. The plight of the formerly-iconic blue-chip name is providing a preview of what could happen on a wider scale and we’d be foolish not to take heed. (See https://on.mktw.net/2wuGIcZ and https://cnb.cx/2FWFlI9 .) Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan underscored this concern recently by saying that he’s more worried about businesses than consumers being the “front end” of the next economic downturn. He’s right.

The lasting impact of trade disruptions and a stronger dollar is still an unknown for macroeconomic and credit trends but almost certainly underappreciated is the sheer volume of investment grade debt perched on the edge of descent into junk. Credit spreads have widened in the past month as global growth slows, weighing on stocks and forcing investors into the safe haven of treasuries. The high-yield bond sector will be calling the tune that the markets dance to for the foreseeable future and ETFs like HYG or JNK are good benchmarks to keep tabs on the state of play in the sector. BBBe careful out there.