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.