It seems that bond king Jeffrey Gundlach and I are reading from the same playbook. In the Barron's Roundtable (registration required), he made his case for deeply-discounted closed-end bond funds and mortgage REITs. I've been bullish on both for over a year… and I've taken my lumps for it. But the values are there, and I'm collecting outsized payouts while I wait.
Some of Gundlach's comments are worth passing on:
A portion of the credit market has a safety cushion large enough to absorb another 200- or 300-basis-point widening in junk-bond spreads versus Treasuries. I'm referring to closed-end bond funds, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Closed-ends are one of the best plays on the Fed not raising interest rates…
Closed-end funds are leveraged, and investors have been afraid to own them because they fear that the Fed has launched a tightening cycle. Also, based on daily data going back 20 years, they have traded at a 2% discount, on average, to net asset value. Recently, however, the sector traded at a 10% to 12% discount to NAV. It has traded at such a steep discount only 5% of the time. In the past 20 years, the discount has been wider than that only during the financial crisis in 2008-'09…
If history is any guide, discounts would widen further only in a 2008-type scenario, which is possible, although doubtful so soon after the prior crisis. Under current circumstances, you have about two percentage points of downside, and 10 points of upside to return to the historical discount. That makes a basket of closed-ends attractive. If you bought a junk-bond-oriented closed-end trading at a 12% discount to NAV, some of the bonds would be trading at a 15% discount. This isn't a bad idea, but I prefer Brookfield Total Return (HTR). It is trading just as poorly as some other closed-ends, but is vastly safer.
Gundlach's firm, DoubleLine, is far too big to buy closed-end funds in any meaningful size. He'd end up single-handedly moving the market. But for individual investors, these may be the best option available these days. As Gundlach puts it, "If the S&P rises 10%, closed-ends could return 20%. If the stock market falls 30%, a decline is already priced into these funds. I look at closed-end funds as a good place to put your risk money."
I agree. Given the yawning discounts among closed-end bond funds, we have that all-important margin of safety in this space.
Moving on, Gundlach had some interesting things to say about mortgage REITs:
Fears that the Fed will raise rates significantly are overblown. This brings me to Annaly Capital Management (NYSE:NLY), one of the largest mortgage REITs [real-estate investment trust]. It has an $8 billion market cap and has been trading at a 25% discount to book value for some time…
It is selling for $9.41. A few years back, it sold for $18. These sorts of stocks have step-function moves. They don't move by a few percent; they go from $18 to $12 and from $12 to $9, and if the yield curve is inverted, and they have to cut their dividends, things get really bad. But a discount of 30% to book value is the widest ever for Annaly, and historically very wide for a mortgage REIT. Annaly is paying a dividend of 30 cents per quarter. It yields 12.75%. The environment for Annaly has improved… At today's discount, a lot of bad things are priced in. If the Fed doesn't raise interest rates much, the stock should go higher.
I'm not currently long Annaly. Rather than bet on a single mortgage REIT, I opted to buy a broader basket via an ETF. But my rationale was much the same. Across the sector, you have quality names trading at enormous discounts to their underlying portfolio values. The sector is worth more dead than alive.
The rationale move here would be for mortgage REITs to plow the proceeds from maturing and prepaid mortgage securities into buying back their own stock. An m-REIT yielding 10% and trading at 80 cents on the dollar is going to deliver a better return than the mortgage securities they're currently buying. Annaly, for one, has done exactly that, announcing over the summer that they intended to buy back about $1 billion in shares. At today's prices, that amounts to about 12% of Annaly's market cap.
Expect more of their peers to follow suit.
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