“Fear and euphoria are dominant forces, and fear is many multiples the size of euphoria. Bubbles go up very slowly as euphoria builds. Then fear hits, and it comes down very sharply. When I started to look at that, I was sort of intellectually shocked. Contagion is the critical phenomenon which causes the thing to fall apart.” – Alan Greenspan

Looking at the very strong rally experienced so far this year in the high beta space nearly erasing the pain inflicted in the final quarter in 2018, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we reminded ourselves about “Dysphoria” being a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. In a psychiatric context, dysphoria may accompany depression, anxiety, or agitation, whereas the opposite state of mind is known as “Euphoria”. As well, this post is a continuation of our November 2016 conversation “From Utopia to Dystopia and back“, given the continuing reversal of the 1960s utopian revolutionary spirit towards a more populist and conservative political approach globally which we think will materialize even more in the upcoming European elections next month. But, from our much appreciated behavioral psychologist approach to macro and credit perspectives, we reminded ourselves the wise words of our friend Paul Buigues in his 2013 post “Long-Term Corporate Credit Returns“:

“Even for a rolling investor (whose returns are also driven by mark-to-market spread moves), initial spreads explain nearly half of 5yr forward returns.” – Paul Buigues, 2013

Returns are related to starting valuations and are more volatile during transitional states  regimes, this is a very important point for credit investors we think going forward:

“Benjamin Graham’s famous allegory of a “Mr. Market” who alternates between periods of depression and euphoria applies especially well to corporate credit investors. In addition to having a bipolar disorder, corporate credit investors are afflicted by a severe case of myopia, as they focus on current default rates, rather than trying to estimate realistic future default rates.

As a consequence, spreads themselves are a very good indicator of long-term forward returns, for both static and rolling investors.”  – Paul Buigues, 2013

Also, “dysphoric and euphoric” moves in markets are regular features we think in late cycles:

“Spreads moves between June 2007 and October 2008 (from 250bp to 2000bp in just 16 months) were a great illustration of this manic-depressive behaviour (which can also be related to Minsky’s model of the credit cycle). ” – Paul Buigues, 2013

Another great illustration of this manic-depressive behaviour from credit investors was the very significant rally in high beta credit during the second part of 2016 and in particular in the CCC bucket in US High Yield thanks to its exposure to the energy sector and to the rebound seen in oil prices at the time.

In this week’s conversation, we would like to look at the start of the deleveraging in US corporate credit and what it entails, a subject we already approached in January 2019 in our conversation “The Zeigarnik effect” as well as in April 2012 in our conversation “Deleveraging – Bad for equities but good for credit assets“.


  • Macro and Credit – Under reconstruction
  • Final chart – In the short term, clearly a dovish Fed marks a return of “Goldilocks” for credit markets
  • Macro and Credit – Under reconstruction

Given “Deleveraging” is generally bad for equities, but good for credit assets, one might wonder if indeed credit might in the near term start outperforming equities with CFOs become more defensive of their balance sheet. This would of course lead to less support to some US equities with reduced buybacks and even dividend cuts in some instances. Obviously buybacks have been highly supportive of the ongoing rally seen in US equities over the years thanks to multiple expansion. When companies turn conservative and start reducing debt, credit holders benefit and equity holders lose out, that simple.

An illustration of the above was pointed out by Lisa Abramowicz from Bloomberg on the 24th of April relating to AT&T:

“What’s good for AT&T’s bond investors is bad for its stock holders. The company is losing subscribers as it cuts debt, leading to a stock slump. Its bonds, however, are soaring.” – source Bloomberg

This is exactly the risks we highlighted back in January 2019 in our conversation “The Zeigarnik effect

“If there is indeed a slowly but surely rise in the cost of capital, yet at more tepid pace thanks to the latest dovish tone from the Fed, then indeed, this could be more supportive for credit, if companies choose the deleveraging route in the US to defend their credit ratings. In this kind of scenario, it would be more “bond” friendly than “equity” friendly from a dividend perspective we think.” – source Macronomics, January 2019

While the rally in high betas have been very significant so far this year with even the CCC bucket for US High Yield delivering around 8.8% return YTD, flows points towards “quality” (Investment Grade) over “quantity” (US High Yield) it seems as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow report from the 26th of April entitled “Reaching for quality yield”:

IG funds flows continue uninterrupted

Another week of the same it seems. Fixed income investors continue reaching for “quality yield” via high-grade paper, while reducing risk in the government bond market. With government bond yields still close to the lows, it comes as no surprise to us that investors are looking to source non-negative yielding instruments. At the same time the lack of clarity on global growth is deterring investors from adding risk in equities.

Over the past week…

High grade funds saw an inflow for an eighth week in a row, extending the longest streak of inflows since 2017. We note that the slower pace w-o-w could be attributed to the short week due to the Easter holidays. Should we adjust this week’s inflow (for only three business days) it is almost at the same level as the inflow seen a week ago.

High yield funds recorded an inflow last week, the third in a row. Looking into the domicile breakdown, European-focused funds recorded the bulk of the inflow followed by Globally-focused funds. US-focused funds saw an outflow.

Government bond funds registered an outflow for the second week in a row. We note that the pace (despite the short week) has more than doubled w-o-w. Money Market funds recorded a sizable outflow last week, the second largest ever recorded. All in all, Fixed Income funds enjoyed their sixteenth consecutive week of inflows.

European equity funds continued to record outflows; the eleventh in a row. Note that over the past 59 weeks the asset class has recorded only two weeks of inflows.

Global EM debt funds recorded a small outflow, only the second this year, reflecting the appreciation of the USD over the past couple of weeks. Commodity funds saw an outflow last week, the third in 2019.

On the duration front, even though there were inflows across the curve, mid-term IG funds saw the bulk of the inflow.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Back in early April in our conversation “Easy Come, Easy Go“, we pointed out to the return of “Bondzilla” the NIRP monster and the returning appetite from Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund GPIF and their friends Lifers, shedding hedging and adding more credit risk in their allocation process. Therefore it is not a surprise to us to see an increase in allocation to Investment Grade credit in terms of fund flows.

The appetite for foreign bonds for Japanese Lifers is indicated by Nomura in their Matsuzawa Morning Report from the 23rd of April entitled “Pension funds continue to build portfolios premised on an economic downturn”:

“Lifers continued to buy super-long JGBs at relatively high levels in March. Buying generally tends to increase in January-March, but the fact that they are continuing to buy even as yields drop significantly, suggests that their shift to other assets such as foreign bonds is not sufficient. Four of the nine major lifers had released their FY19 investment plans as of yesterday. They are divided on Japanese bond investments, with two lifers intending to increase and two planning to reduce Japanese bonds. Compared with last year, they are not in favor of hedged foreign bonds (particularly USTs). They mention shifting instead to unhedged foreign bonds and, even among foreign assets, moving out of government bonds to credit and alternative investments, but it is not clear how far these can go as substitutions. Most of the lifers forecast USD/JPY rates around 108-110 at end-FY19, with all expecting rates to be about the same as at present or JPY somewhat stronger. The lifers predict 10yr UST yields in a 2.30-2.70% range, anticipating neither a rate hike nor a rate cut. Given these projections for the overseas environment, we believe lifers are unlikely to reduce the amounts left idle in Japan for lack of other options compared with FY18, but they could increase these amounts.” – source Nomura

To repeat ourselves, like in 2004-2006 Fed rate hiking cycle, Japanese investors had the option of either increasing exposure to lower rated credit instruments outside Japan or taking on currency risk. During that last cycle they lowered the ratio of currency hedged investments to take on more credit risk.

Also something to take note is that as dispersion is rising (which is a late credit cycle feature) some investors are playing it more “defensive” hence the reach for “quality”. As well as pointed out by another Nomura Matsuzawa Morning Report from the 25th of April entitled “Flows return from EMs to US”, it is worth noting what is happening in Emerging Markets credit wise:

“Overseas markets were risk-off overall on Wednesday. While flows were concentrated in the US, it looked to us like money was being pulled out of EMs. In the FX market, DXY increased significantly for a second day and USD/JPY reached the 112 range. At the same time, JPY was strong across the board in cross pairs, indicating that the market’s risk sentiment is weak—emblematic of unfavorable USD strength. EM currencies were also weak. Germany’s IFO came in below forecast, forcing investors to unwind their trades made hastily on the premise of Europe’s economic recovery. This makes sense to us, but we do find it interesting that Australia’s weak CPI not only triggered an AUD sell-off, but devolved into a risk-off flow that spilled over into EM and Japanese markets as well. It seems to us that market sentiment on EMs and resource-rich countries is beginning to deteriorate, so that even a small factor causes a major response in the market.The CDS spread in EMs widened relatively significantly and reached the highest level since 3 January (Figure 2).

However, spreads on other instruments that act like canaries in a coal mine for the credit market, such as US high-yield bonds and European financial institutions’ subordinated bonds, are relatively stable, which leads us to surmise that these wide spreads can be attributed to an issue specific to EMs (supply/demand? fundamentals?) rather than to a risk-off flow in the entire credit market. In terms of supply/demand, we believe hedge funds locked in profits during the EM rally in January- March and are timing their return to the US to coincide with US companies’ strong earnings results. We see few factors that would prolong and deepen this flow, unlike the flows returning to the US due to the intensification of the US-China trade dispute last year. In terms of fundamentals, Chinese policymakers’ moves toward a more neutral policy stance could be having an impact. Yesterday, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) injected liquidity via a targeted medium-term lending facility (see the 24 April edition of Asia Insights). This is seen as an alternative to lowering the reserve requirement ratio, and after this supply was announced, additional easing expectations declined, causing short-term rates (SHIBOR) to rise and Chinese equities to fall. If the PBoC were to rush into a more hawkish stance at this point, we believe risk-off flows in EMs would intensify. In any case, during Japan’s 10-day holiday to mark the imperial succession, we expect EMs to be the focus. In addition to Japan’s holiday, China will have its May Day holiday on 1-3 May, and this could restrain the market’s movements. In addition, the release of China’s manufacturing PMI on 30 April could change economic sentiment.

Ironically, the concentration of flows in the US as economic conditions there improve has pushed down US bond yields as well, and the market reflects higher Fed rate cut expectations. In fact, Japanese investors seem to be playing a role in this, and the International Transactions in Securities released this morning show that they were major net buyers of foreign bonds for a second straight week in the most recent week for which data is available (week of 15 April; Figure 1).

Expectations for a Fed rate cut by end-2019 rose to 63% (56% on the previous day). Given that US economic sentiment has improved since April, it seems strange to us that a rate cut in 2019 should be part of the market’s main scenario, but as noted above, this can also be seen as a sign that investors are preparing for a credit event stemming from EMs during Japan and China’s national holidays. However, in this case, US bond yields would have room for a reactionary rollback once this period has passed without event.” – source Nomura

The overseas support from Japanese investors to US credit markets should not be underestimated. They provide significant support to US credit markets hence the importance of tracking their investment and flows from a credit and macro perspective. as per the chart below from Nomura FX Insights report from the 24th of April entitled “Lifers still look for foreign assets”:

– source Nomura

This is chart we think is very important we think from an allocation perspective as explained by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Market Strategist note from the 18th of April entitled “Party like it’s 2016”:

Party like it’s 2016

During the years 2015-2017 foreigners and bond funds/ETFs bought all net supply of US corporate bonds (Figure 1), creating excess demand and driving spreads much tighter starting in February 2016.

Then in 2018 the Fed engineered a disorderly rate hiking cycle and a yield shock, as they were the only major central bank hiking and at the same engaged in QT. As a result, the corporate bond market lost the foreign buyer and inflows to bond funds/ETFs plummeted – hence the big 112bps increase in corporate yields during 2018 was necessary in order to attract other buyers, specifically pension funds (the majority of which state and local).

Given the Fed’s capitulation on monetary policy tightening this year we think 2019 will look much like 2016 as far as corporate bond demand goes, with foreigners and bond funds/ETFs once again buying all net supply. While the outlook for demand this year thus is similar to 2016, we expect ~$250bn less net supply ($100bn less gross supply, $150bn more maturities). Hence, we are unable to escape thinking that demand-supply technicals will remain positive and supportive for spreads for a while. Just like in 2016, although spreads this time are tighter so the rally cannot continue as long (Figure 2).

2019 vs. 2016

Foreign buying – as reflected in negative net-dealer-to-affiliate volumes – has been running very strong this year at a pace matching what we saw in 2016 YtD (Figure 3).

Given that peak weakness in 2016 was on February 11, i.e. later in the year than the January 3rd wides this time, not surprisingly inflows to IG bond funds and ETFs are running well ahead of 2016’s pace YtD (Figure 4).

However, on adjusting for the difference in timing within each year clearly inflows this year following the wides is ramping up much faster that we saw following peak spreads in 2016. Finally gross new issuance is running at the exact same pace this year YtD as in 2016 (Figure 5).

For 2016 we originally forecast about $1.2tr of supply and ended up getting almost $100bn more ($1.289bn). For 2019 we are also forecasting about $1.2tr, and with the decline in yields and wide open markets, clearly the risk this year is again to the upside relative to our forecast first published in a very different environment in 4Q18. Should we again get about $100bn up upside, keep in mind that net supply will still be down $150bn this year due to more maturities.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Indeed, we could see a continuation of the “melt-up” at least in credit markets thanks to the strong technical support in conjunction with overseas interest from the likes of Japanese investors.

But, returning to our main story of “Deleveraging” by CFOs, this we think could provide even more support to credit markets and translate into more “sucker punches” à la AT&T as illustrated earlier in our conversation. This would favor even more credit investors over equities investors we think. So, yes we are “bullish” credit. On that very subject of “Deleveraging by CFOs, we read with great interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s take in their Credit/Equity Strategy note from the 22nd of April entitled “The Age of Balance Sheet Repair”:

A formula for growth in a low-growth environment

Low growth, low interest rates and low equity valuations in recent years have pushed US corporations to search for new drivers of financial performance. Many of them gravitated to a formula of tapping their balance sheet capacity to issue cheap debt and fund M&A and share buybacks. In only the last five years, companies repurchased $2.7trln of shares, paid $3.3trln in dividends, all while increasing their debt by $2.5trln. For some perspective, their combined capex budgets stood at $9.6trln during this time.

About 30% of EPS growth driven by gross buybacks

Buybacks have been seen as the savior of a lackluster profits cycle: US stocks (proxied by the Russell 3000 ex-Financials/Utilities/Real Estate) have seen EPS growth of 45% over the last five years, but gross share buybacks contributed 12ppt, ~30% of that growth (with the net buyback impact about half of that, or 6ppt). Over the same period, net debt doubled. An elevated equity risk premium and a low cost of debt encouraged debt-funded buybacks, and a scarcity of real revenue growth made this more compelling.

The age of balance sheet repair is here

Late 2018 was the turning point in this cycle of expanding debt balance sheets, buying growth and rewarding shareholders, in our opinion. Interest rates have risen and the market dislocation in Q4 played the role of a wake-up call to the largest bond issuers. This message was particularly loud and clear as it related to BBB issuers, many of whom saw their spreads north of 200bps, levels normally reserved for HY bonds. Given their sizes – many in excess of $20bn in bonds, higher than any existing HY issuer – the message was also critical: delever, or else expect material risk premiums if downgraded to HY. We include screens for largest BBB issuers, those with greater ability to delever and those with greater degree of dependence on capital markets.

Reset your expectations lower from here

Today, the game has changed. Three times as many investors want companies to pay down debt than to buyback stocks, and the cost of equity capital reflects this: the relative multiple of levered companies vs. cash-rich companies is now at a 7% discount to history. We expect a return to normalcy: recall that buyback-driven EPS growth was largely a post-crisis phenomenon, and pre- 2009, companies were mostly net issuers. Based on these and other considerations, our S&P 500 EPS forecast for 2020 of $180 (7% growth) incorporates no net buyback effect, and we see downside risk to per share growth going forward from dilution, not net share count reduction. Sectors where buyback activity is most likely to continue (Fins and Tech, where leverage is still historically low) may be unduly rewarded as the buyback theme grows scarce.

Strong balance sheets are good for all investors

The key takeaway here is that times are changing. After years of transferring value from bondholders to shareholders companies may now be forced to instead defend their balance sheets at the expense of shareholders. Our findings suggest that initial negative reaction in share prices is often short-lived, and eventually equities benefit from stronger balance sheets too.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

You have been warned, the fourth quarter was a wake-up call for many US CFOs and given the euphoria we have seen as of late in high beta, we would rather side with the “cowards” aka credit markets over “equities” in the second half of this year, particularly given Investment Grade is as well a far less volatile proposal.

The leverage “situation” is described in more details in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s note:

Low growth, low interest rates, low equity valuations

In the years that passed since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), many historical norms that were established over previous decades came into question. Economic growth has slowed with the trailing-10yr real US GDP growth bottoming out at 1.5% annualized in 2011-2018, a post-great depression low. This growth pattern also compares to 3.6% 10yr trailing average in the 2003-2006 cycle, and 4.2% in the mid-1990s. Inflation has also dropped to 60-year lows, as measured by core PCE. The Fed responded to this predicament by keeping real interest rates at negative levels for several years in a row.

For US corporations, this backdrop implied two new factors: their earnings were unusually difficult to grow organically, and their debt was unusually cheap (Figure 1).

Their managements have responded to this macro backdrop in a predictable way, by borrowing cheap debt and using its proceeds to buy back shares, thus improving EPS, and funding M&A (Figure 2).

Fast forward to today, and we are looking at corporate balance sheets that are carrying cyclically high levels of debt leverage, a development that usually happens after credit cycle turns and EBITDAs drop.

The large credit expansion over the last decade was supported by both strong demand and ample supply of corporate bonds. On the demand side investors were forced to reach for yield in US credit as a function of inability to achieve their income targets in other fixed income markets. On the supply side companies were put their balance sheets to use by borrowing at the historically low interest rates, while also satisfying the growing demand for their bonds.

While borrowing to enhance shareholder returns and acquire new businesses is not a new phenomenon, it has reached new highs over the past decade (Figure 2). Looking more broadly at US nonfinancial corporate business, corporate bond borrowing covered 58% of net spending on buying equities. This includes both share buybacks and M&A activity (Figure 3).

Reaching the limits of releveraging

The demand and supply dynamics are now turning less favorable to releveraging. On the demand side Fed’s hiking cycle in 2018 made it more difficult for foreign investors to buy US corporate bonds due to higher FX hedging costs. At the same time higher interest rates and the corresponding bond price declines weakened inflows to high  grade bond funds and ETFs. The result was a notable decline in demand for corporate bonds in 2018, although it has improved this year. In terms of supply, higher corporate bond yields mean borrowing costs have increased for US companies.

On top of that after years of cheap credit a number of issuers have reached their balance sheet limits. For US non-financial issuers leverage is currently around cyclical highs (Figure 4).

Based on BofA Merrill Lynch Global Fund Manager Survey, equity investors are now more focused on balance sheet repair that at any other point in this credit cycle (Figure 5).

Investors have grown disenchanted with buyback driven per share growth and are more interested in balance sheet improvement. Almost half (43%) of investors want excess cash used to improve balance sheets, a post-crisis high, compared to just 33% desiring increased capex and a paltry 16% desiring cash return to shareholders. The chart also shows strong cyclicality and previously has reached this level of credit-related concerns only in 2008 and 2002.

A preference for clean balance sheets is evident in valuations, where we find that levered companies within the S&P 500 have de-rated to trade a historical discount to cash-rich peers (Figure 6).

– source Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

If indeed equity investors are getting “Dysphoria” being a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction, and want companies to improve their balance sheets, then indeed it should lead to more “Euphoria” from credit investors we think.

Strong technicals on the back of overseas demand and a 2016 issuance level situation does indeed make us bullish for now on credit markets and in particular for US Investment Grade thanks to a dovish Fed as per our final chart below

  • Final chart – In the short term, clearly a dovish Fed marks a return of “Goldilocks” for credit markets

While a strong source of demand for US credit markets comes no doubt from “overseas” in general and Japan in particular, the dovish tilt from the Fed on the back of strong technicals such as issuance make it very supportive for credit markets for now as per our below chart displaying the fall in interest rate risk coming from Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Market Strategist note from the 18th of April entitled “Party like it’s 2016”:

“Crucial ingredient for the rally: Re-pricing the FedWe want to end by discussing the key sources of demand driving the present environment of strong technicals in IG – bond funds and ETFs and foreigners. The key development for both is this major shift in monetary policy expectations. The below chart shows that the Fed funds futures market went from pricing in three rate hikes over the coming twelve months to now pricing in about one ease (Figure 11).

There are two key consequences of this: 1) dramatic decline in interest rates and 2) a much more benign outlook for dollar hedging costs for foreign investors.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

So if indeed we have seen a lot of “Euphoria” in the rally so far seen this year particularly in the high beta space  with the start to year for the S&P since 1987 (+17%) , with Oil up 35%, Small Caps by 19% and High Yield up by 9% (HYG) and Investment Grade (LQD) up a cool 7%, given the current “Dysphoria” feeling about the level of leverage for US corporate balance sheet, rest assured that they are more potential for additional AT&T sucker punches being delivered. One would be wise to trade accordingly and rotate towards the credit part of any US issuer at risk but we ramble again…

“Indeed, bull markets are fueled by successive waves of prior skeptics finally capitulating as their fears fade. Eventually, fear turns to euphoria, and that’s the stuff of bubbles.” – Kenneth Fisher

Stay tuned!

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