While leveraged credit is far from the bargain it was four years ago, discussions of a bubble are premature at this point. Although we have entered the advanced stages of the rally, historical precedent and the continuation of accommodative monetary policy suggest that spreads, particularly those of lower-rated bonds and bank loans, may tighten materially from current levels.
First quarter 2013 returns of 2.9 and 2.4 percent in the high yield bond and bank loan market, respectively, represent the weakest performance to begin a year since 2008. Extended valuations and historically low yields have begun to elicit warnings of a bubble in the high yield market. While leveraged credit is far from the bargain it was four years ago, discussions of a bubble are premature at this point. Although we have entered the advanced stages of the rally, historical precedent and the continuation of accommodative monetary policy suggest that spreads, particularly those of lower-rated credits, may tighten materially from current levels.
With monetary policy mitigating credit risk in the near term, investor focus has shifted to interest rate risk. During the past quarter, rate-sensitive BB bonds underperformed floating-rate single B bank loans by over 100 basis points, a trend we expect to continue. Given the limited supply of net new bank loans, the robust demand from collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) and loan funds should continue to provide a strong technical bid. In the bond market, we remain focused on identifying select opportunities in upper middle-market tranches, where there is a greater ability to drive outcomes.
- The typical credit cycle, following a recession, lasts approximately 60 months with spreads not beginning to widen until the 80th month. Discussions of a bubble may be early, considering that the current credit rally will just be entering its 46th month post-recession in April 2013.
- Concerns of a sudden shift in monetary policy derailing the credit rally appear largely unfounded. The Federal Reserve has given no indication of plans to begin normalizing accommodation or tightening until 2015, at the earliest. Additionally, historical precedent shows that, in four out of the last five credit rallies, spreads continued to tighten even after the Fed began raising rates.
- Retail demand for bank loans remains robust as investors seek to minimize interest rate risk. Dating back to last year, loan funds have registered 31 consecutive weeks of positive inflows through March 2013. Year-to-date inflows of approximately $13 billion have already exceeded the total for full year 2012.
- The resurgence of the CLO market has contributed to the rise in loan issuance during the first quarter of 2013. Bank loan issuance totaled $150 billion in the first three months of this year, a level not reached until August last year. 64 percent of this year’s issuance has been used for refinancings, resulting in lower spreads and all-in yields.
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