Look Out…Above: Weaker Credit Quality and Wider Spreads

October 13, 2022

Source: Bloomberg; Data as of 10/7/22 Source: Bloomberg; Data as of 10/7/22

2021 proved to be accommodating for high-yield-rated companies looking to refinance their debt. Many companies were able to lock in lower coupons during the low-rate environment and reduce their interest requirements. Companies that didn’t take advantage of the opportunity are having a tough time accessing the new issue market, given the relative risk aversion that has taken hold. According to Bloomberg, year-to-date (YTD) high yield new issue volume stood at roughly $87 billion, “the lowest since 2008 and down about 78% from 2021.”1

Recession fears have prompted significant outflows from high-yield credit and other risk asset classes. The Federal Reserve (Fed) is committed to its restrictive stance, and “doing whatever it takes” in order to bring inflation down. The era of “cheap financing” is over and companies are starting to feel the heat.

With macroeconomic uncertainties putting a damper on near-record demand for goods and services, companies are starting to adjust to the post-pandemic economy. Some high-yield companies are approaching distressed levels, with deteriorating fundamentals, bloated capital structures and heavy exposure to floating-rate debt.

Why does this all matter? The difficult operating environment, supply chain constraints and pervasive inflation have all led to soaring costs and put downward pressure on margins. Profitability has taken a hit while rates have risen sharply. In the short to medium term, some high-yield companies may be unable to service their debt, which portends a wave of ratings downgrades and potential bankruptcies.

According to Moody’s, downgrades are now outnumbering upgrades and defaults are forecasted to increase from a low of 1.5% through August to 4.4% a year from now.2 Those companies higher up the ratings spectrum (i.e., those with stronger credit metrics) are better insulated from rising rates and macroeconomic shocks. Better liquidity, healthier maturity profiles and exposure to fixed-rate debt may benefit those high-yield companies entering a recession.

Conversely, for those lower-rated issuers, higher rates combined with elevated inflation will limit free cash generation. Higher costs will eat away at profitability and cash flows, and those companies with unsustainable capital structures may be unable to cover the interest on their debt or even pay down upcoming maturities.

This week’s chart highlights the average option-adjusted spread (OAS) for the Bloomberg US Corporate High Yield Index. This gives an indication of the overall credit quality of the high-yield market. To note, spreads will tend to increase during times of weaker macroeconomic conditions. As the chart shows, when the COVID-19 pandemic threw the U.S. economy into a recession, high-yield spreads widened to roughly 1,100 basis points (bps) from roughly 380 bps.

With third-quarter earnings season quickly approaching, I expect to see more companies miss consensus estimates and further downward revisions to guidance. Weaker demand for goods and services will reverse some of the strong earnings growth experienced during 2021 and through the early part of 2022. However, I am still confident in many companies whose management teams have right-sized balance sheets, expanded margins, brought leverage down and improved liquidity. Navigating these times with fundamental research is necessary to find opportunities with a good balance of risk and reward.

Key Takeaway

2021 saw strong corporate earnings, lower rates and high-yield spreads that reached the tightest levels since 1998. These are historic times, as the Fed works to get inflation under control while aiming for a “soft landing.” Shortly after the pandemic began, the influx of fiscal and monetary stimulus that entered the economy led to lower rates and dislocated valuations.

Now, Treasury rates are around 4% and the floating-rate benchmarks are between 3.25% and 4.00%.3 Many companies have not had to contend with such elevated borrowing costs, coupled with strained operating metrics. It will be especially difficult for those companies at the lower end of the ratings spectrum, where there is more exposure to bank debt, greater earnings volatility and where liquidity is weakest.



Index Definition:

The Bloomberg US Corporate High Yield Bond Index measures the USD-denominated, high yield, fixed-rate corporate bond market. Securities are classified as high-yield if the middle rating of Moody's, Fitch and S&P is Ba1/BB+/BB+ or below. Bonds from issuers with an emerging markets country of risk, based on Bloomberg EM country definition, are excluded.



1Source: Bloomberg- US HY OPEN: Junk Bonds Drop Most in Two Weeks as Investors Balk; 10/13/22

2Source: Moody’s- Leverage Finance Interest; September 2022

3Source: CNBC- U.S. Treasurys; as of 10/10/22

Tags: Federal Reserve | Stimulus | Volatility | Liquidity | Inflation

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