«Understanding Alpha versus Beta in Market Commentary High Yield Bond Investing Independent Credit Research – Leveraged Finance – July 2012 ...»
P E R IT U S
ASSET MANAGEMENT, LLC
Understanding Alpha versus Beta in
High Yield Bond Investing
Independent Credit Research – Leveraged Finance – July 2012
Investors have come to recognize that there is a secular change occurring in financial markets.
After the 2008 meltdown, we have watched equities stage an impressive rally off the bottom, only to peter out. There is no conviction and valuations are once again stretched given the lack of growth as the world economy remains on shaky ground. In another one of our writings (“High Yield Bonds versus Equities”), we discussed our belief that U.S. businesses would plod along, but valuations would continue their march toward the lower end of their historical range.
So far, this looks like the correct call. Europe still hasn’t been fixed, the China miracle is slowing and, perhaps, the commodity supercycle is also in the later innings.
The amount of debt assumed by the developed world is unsustainable so deleveraging began a few years ago. These are not short or pleasant cycles and both governments and individuals will be grumpy participants in this event. It simply means that economic growth will be subdued for years to come. I have never really been able to understand economic growth rates that are significantly ahead of the population growth anyway…oh yeah, the productivity miracle.
I have written chapter and verse on the history of financial markets and where returns have come from: yield. Anyone with access to the internet can verify that dividends, dividend growth and dividend re-investment are what have driven stock returns over the decades. Unfortunately, the one-time event of expanding P/E multiples over the last twenty years convinced a generation that equity investing was all about “growth” or stock prices going up, and we lost sight of yield.
S&P 500 P/E Ratio1 http://www.multpl.com/s-p-500-dividend-yield/.
In the early part of the prior century, yield, paid out via dividends, was indeed the focus in equity investing. Yet it began to change in the 1960’s, when management teams convinced investors that the companies should retain all the earnings so that they could re-invest in their business and grow them rather than pay out these earnings in the form of dividends. The argument was it was more “tax efficient” and would be good for investors. What is wrong with paying out the earnings and subjecting capital decisions to the discipline of the market? If you want to expand or make an intelligent acquisition, there will always be capital available. And couldn’t investors re-invest those dividends if they chose to?
While all of these issues are important, there is another elephant in the room: demographics.
After being led down the garden path for the last 25 years with those wonderful Ibbotson charts (stocks always go up in the long run!), investors are now significantly older and wiser, but unfortunately none the richer. The institutional investment landscape, which consists of the large defined benefit plans, both corporate and government, is in liquidation. These pension schemes became too expensive and many have either frozen these benefits in place (no new participants) or are staring at incredible funding gaps that will either be negotiated with the retirees (benefit cuts) or bailed out by the taxpayers. Importantly, participants have gotten older and are now retiring either with lump sum payouts or some type of annuity payout. These gigantic plans have been an important part of the continual and growing bid for equities for several decades. Yet, they are now on the offer side of the game, liquidating assets, never to be replaced. So the equity game is left to the traders and gamblers, creating volatility for its own sake, and who wants to play in that poker game unless you own the casino?
Unfortunately, there is another hard reality to deal with. The 30 year decline in interest rates is also coming to a bottom. Though I am not in the camp that yields necessarily have to rise dramatically from here, there is little room to fall a whole lot further.
http://www.multpl.com/interest-rate/ This means that most fixed income investors will likely at best earn the coupon on their securities and nothing more. Ask yourself this question: Would you lend the U.S. Government your money at 1.6% for 10 years? I wouldn’t and neither should you.
So investors are caught between a rock and a hard place. Pension plans have to eventually meet their expected returns or they will be ponying up more and more cash to shore up these plans.
Most of these plans place their expected annual returns at around 8%. With 10-year Treasury bond yields around 1.6%, and the equity markets yielding around 2%, how is it they plan to deliver this? And what about individual investors? How do they generate some type of tangible return to pay their bills and keep ahead of the game?
Our answer is high yield bonds. We have spent a great deal of time over the years discussing the benefits of investing in both the high yield bond and leveraged loan markets. In our whitepaper, The New Case for High Yield, we lay out the case that the high yield asset class produces tangible cash flows and has half the risk of equities, yet has outperformed equities over long periods of time even without adjusting for risk. 3 Yet there remains a stigma associated with high yield or euphemistically, “junk bonds.” Somehow, people believe they are “risky” compared with “high quality” stocks. We would encourage people to read the aforementioned paper to educate themselves and get the joke. Simply put, bondholders sit on top of equity (seniority in the capital structure) and get paid before equity holders, regardless of the rating.
It appears that some of this message is getting through to investors, as they have been pouring monies into the high yield asset class over the last two years. This discussion paper is meant for those who already have committed to the high yield market, though we hope it is helpful for the non-evangelized as well. It is specifically directed at the investors who have poured tens of billions of dollars into the asset class through high yield index-based exchange traded funds (“ETF’s”) and mutual funds, as we feel that is a hazardous strategy, especially in today’s environment.
Dangerous “Beta” Strategies I dislike jargon and buzzwords. Wall Street has an addiction to them, so I will do my best to speak plainly. The title of this paper uses the word “alpha” and “beta.” The way I want to define them in high yield is that beta is simply the market return and alpha refers to the true value of active management—the return generated beyond the beta. What we have seen is a bunch of product/strategy launches that have beta masquerading as alpha. Surface knowledge in investing is a very dangerous thing. In high yield debt markets it can be deadly. Below we profile some of the most popular strategies that investors have been fed.
Indexing Let’s gets to the heart of the debate immediately. Indexing is at the core of the alpha/beta argument. It is easy to see why the popularity of this process has exploded, particularly in the ETF space. In our own whitepaper, The New Case for High Yield, the basic data on the asset class is compelling. What this has led to is an attempt to capture this appealing data with a one See footnote 7.
of everything approach. While this might be a very rewarding strategy in the periods immediately after the high yield market had blown up (1990, 2002, 2008), this presupposes one has a crystal ball on the timing of the market.
Ultimately, we do not view this asset class as a spread or beta trade, but rather an opportunity, when done correctly, to earn excellent yields regardless of the overall environment or market cycle. It is active management, with its focus on credit selection, that allows the investor to lower risk and position the portfolio for any given market cycle. Trying to time the market is difficult at best and leaves the investor open to missing that valuable coupon income.
Volatility is not the enemy in high yield, defaults are.
In the case of indexing, credits and issuers are bought irrespective of their quality and future prospects. For instance, credits resulting from large leveraged buyouts (LBO’s) remain a very significant part of the game. While we are actually favorably inclined to lend to LBO’s when they are correctly structured, as we discuss further below, many of the massive legacy buyouts from 2006-2007 remain problem children from a credit perspective. We believe that many of these names will suffer some type of default or distressed exchange in the coming years. Yet they are a significant percentage of the indexes and must be purchased by these funds.
At the core, buying a bond is essentially making a loan. It would make sense that you would want to analyze what the company does, who is receiving the loan and if they have the means to pay it back. Didn’t we learn our lessons from the mortgage disaster? Playing the odds by having a large, diversified bucket of subprime paper didn’t work. It won’t in high yield either.
“Cream of the Crap” Strategy One of the most popular and confusing strategies in the high yield asset class involves the notion of “high quality” high yield. Specifically, this means sticking with credits rated no lower than BB. So while the world’s regulators look to try and downplay or remove credit ratings from their regulations, somehow investors are going to be well served by focusing purely on ratings?
If you assume similar credit metrics, would you rather lend money to a BB rated steel producer heading into a massive global slowdown or a single B rated domestic food producer? Ratings have a bias towards size and longevity, and have demonstrated on numerous occasions to be backward looking, while markets are forward looking. So the defacto strategy here is to outsource the credit analysis to the rating agencies. This has proven to be a failed strategy time and again.
A quick snapshot below gets to the point. The worst performing credits so far in June 2012 are listed in the chart provided by Morgan Stanley. We are not trying to data mine (picking out statistically irrelevant data to justify our thesis) but point out the pure insanity of basing an investment strategy on ratings. Looking at this list, there are as many poor performing credits among the BB rated names as the CCC rated names. 4 Richmond, Adam and Jason Ng. “High Yield Credit Strategy Leveraged Finance Chartbook,” Morgan Stanley, June, 12, 2012, p. 31.
An additional problem for this strategy involves the starting yield. Because of the popularity of the BB game, historical yields on these names start some 200 basis points below single B names. 5 One of the key variables in high yield investing involves the excess coupon or yield that an investor receives. The BB strategy appears to be something that has the worst of all worlds, with much lower beginning spreads/yields and the same credit and liquidity risk as the rest of the high yield market. It sounds good as a marketing strategy, but not as an investment strategy.
Acciavatti, Peter, Tony Linares, Nelson Jantzen, CFA, Alisa Meyers, and Rahul Sharma. “Credit Strategy Weekly Update: High Yield and Leveraged Loan Research.” J.P. Morgan, June 8, 2012, p. 30.
Sector Strategy The next interesting concept is to break the high yield market into sectors. When I hear the word sector, I immediately think of industry groups. But sectors in this case do not reference industry groups or fundamentals, but typically involve ratings categories or maturities. I remain dumbfounded by the proliferation of high yield “sector” ETF funds launched within the last year.
An example is this recent announcement. 6 So these are term trusts where bonds are separated into portfolios by maturity. I have no particular knowledge of these calendar years but it does seem to me that there is an awful lot of legacy leveraged buyout paper maturing during this timeframe. As mentioned above, we believe that many of these highly levered credits have dramatically increased default risk. Despite that, this just seems like a very strange way to invest in the high yield asset class. Laddering portfolios in the Treasury market, where you are dealing with a single issuer, I get, but in high yield? It just doesn’t make sense.
Risk-On, Risk-Off This is another one of my favorite misnomers. High yield is considered a “risky” asset. Well I’ll bet the efficient markets folks can describe what that means, but I’m personally not sure. If we have an asset that produces significantly higher returns than equities, and does so with half the risk 7, wouldn’t this be considered a much less risky asset?
Fuller, Matt, “…Investments launches 3 new BulletShares HY ETFs,” Standard and Poor’s Leveraged Commentary & Data, https://www.lcdcomps.com/lcd/index.html, April 25, 2012.
Credit Suisse High Yield Index data sourced from Credit Suisse. S&P 500 index data sourced from Bloomberg, using a total return including dividend reinvestment. Average Annual Return calculations are based on monthly returns. Average Annual Volatility is measured by the index standard deviation, calculated by annualizing monthly returns. All data for the period ending 6/30/12.
But be that as it may, what makes no sense is that people are trading the high yield ETF’s weekly or monthly. Isn’t the attraction of the asset class a significantly higher yield/coupon than other investment alternatives? This strategy involves trading in and out of a high yield fund based on an ability to time the “risk” trade. In essence, high yield is an all or nothing trade. Its attractiveness just varies based on the short-term risk measures. This type of philosophy suggests there is no way to separate your performance from the market, which is true with indexing, but certainly not with active management.