With borrowing costs about the lowest on record, and investors lending first and asking questions later, corporate finance officers are busy taking out loans. "My treasurer tells me always borrow when you can, not when you have to," says Shell CFO Simon Henry. "There are huge liquid pools at whatever tenor we need ... There's more capital out there than we can consume."
The average yield on corporate debt has fallen 61 basis points this year to 4.4%, nearing last year's pre-bond bear market low of 4.1%.
“The market is pretty hot,” says George Dessing, treasurer of Dutch business-to-business publisher Wolters Kluwer NV which raised 10-year money this month. “We have a preference for longer maturity and especially right now at these low costs it was a no-brainer.”
Maybe surprising to many, long-dated investment-grade corporate bonds are outperforming junk bonds this year, with total returns already of 7.48% vs. junk at 3.3%. It's a turnaround from 2013, when high-yield returned 7.42% vs. a loss of 1.57% for IG paper.
It's good news for institutional investors like pension funds and insurers, who have been big buyers of the bonds in recent months.
In other junk bond news, DoubleLine's Bonnie Baha says the firm's core fund has cut its high-yield exposure to 3% from 6%. High prices are the reason, says Baha, noting the average price of 104.5 cents on the dollar. Many issuers can force redemptions at 103 cents, and if they don't get called, in a low-rate environment there's extension risk.
Baha takes note of the proliferation of short-duration high-yield funds. "It's a fallacy to think that just because it’s short-term that bad things can’t happen."
"The good ole' days are gone," says UBS, cutting its recommendation for U.S. corporate bonds to "small underweight" ahead of what's expected to be the beginning of a rate hike cycle in about a year.
With spreads already so tight, any further gains from spread tightening will be marginal at best and not enough to make up for rate increases, says the team, which is bearish on both investment-grade and high-yield corporate debt.
Investment-grade corporate paper returned 2.7% in in Q1 vs. a 1.42% gain for the MSCI World Index of stocks, the first time debt beat equities since Q2 of 2012. This follows stock gains of 27% last year while bonds fell 1.45%, and a near-universal outlook at the start of the year to rotate out of fixed-income and into equity.
Junk bonds returned 2.86% in Q1.
Helping, of course, is the decline in benchmark Treasury yields, but corporate balance sheets have improved, with at least some of that related to the rollicking stock market narrowing pension fund deficits.
Eyeing better growth and sustained low interest rates, Moody's projects the global default rate to drop to 2.2% this year or 61 companies globally, from 2.9% or 66 companies in 2012.
"Additional factors that support our view of a low default rate in 2014 are the continuous accommodative monetary environment together with ample liquidity, which has and will continue to allow distressed companies to access the capital market and reduce refinancing risk in the near future."
For perspective, the average default rate since 1983 is 4.7%. It is indeed a golden age for corporate borrowers.
"The default rate is non-existent," he says, agreeing that fundamentals in high-yield look good. "Instead of a default cycle, we've had a refinance cycle." The issue, however, is valuation. At the end of 2013, the 30-year Treasury yielded about 4%, while BB corporates "unbelievably" yielded just 4.5% - a "remarkably low incremental yield."
His feelings about overvaluation extend to the investment grade corporate market (LQD) as well.
Most curious to Gundlach is how universally the long bond is hated at 4%, while junk yielding 4.5% gets so much love.
Besides Treasurys, Gundlach sees value in emerging market bonds. The risk is in the currency, but this can be eliminated by buying dollar-denominated paper.
Open for trade today is the ProShares Investment Grade Interest Rate Hedged ETF (IGHG) whose underlying index tries to achieve a duration of zero by offseting corporate debt holdings with a short position in Treasurys.
ProShares this summer launched a similarly hedged fund, but one aimed at high yield, the ProShares HighYield Interest Rate Hedged ETF (HYHG).