The Grinch Comes to Loanland, but Expect a Short Visit

Boston - Just seven short weeks ago, the floating-rate loan market was standing tall with a 4.0% year-to-date return through October. Not only were loans on pace for the 5%+ calendar year mark that many anticipated, they had performed with remarkably low volatility and a performance profile that trumped all major asset classes.

Loans had outpaced U.S. stocks, investment-grade corporates, high-yield bonds, government bonds, emerging market debt and many other segments across the capital markets. All of these areas had suffered from a broad repricing of risk, coincident with a Federal Reserve on the move. Yet loans, thanks to their anti-bond character and near-zero duration, proved yet again to be broadly immune to rates.

Enter the Grinch.

Alas, loans' healthy year-to-date return has quickly been reduced to less than 1%. As of Dec. 20, the S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Index now reports a year-to-date return of just 0.97%. To be sure, if the year ended today, loans would still be one of the best-performing asset classes of the year. Yet we expect this is cold comfort for loan investors who have watched the average price of loans dwindle from 98.6 in early October to 94.5 today. Where did those four percentage points go, and why?

Here's some (comfort) food for thought ahead of the holiday week:

  • Today's average dollar price of 94.5 implies a 27% default rate, if one assumes loans' historical 80% recovery, according to Moody's. In other words, if future recoveries on defaulted loans are similar to those of the past, what default rate would be needed in order to make 94.5 "the right number?" The answer is 27.5%. If 27.5% of loans default, credit losses would be 5.5%, assuming the 80% recovery level referenced. If one assumes a 70% recovery, the implied default rate is 18.3%. And for a real pessimist who assumes a 60% recovery, the implied default rate is 13.75%. For reference, the cumulative default rate in the great financial crisis was 15%.
  • Yet the actual real-world default rate is just 1.6%. Not 27% or 18%. Talk about a disconnect. Granted, default rates are backward-looking measures of what's already experienced trouble. So perhaps consider the market's distress ratio, which tracks loans trading below 80. Many look to this figure as a forward indicator of credit stress. Today the distress ratio is just 2%. And further, the percentage of loans trading below 70 -- generally considered to be a level of deep distress -- is just 0.4%. Despite recent volatility, these numbers suggest the market is not anticipating credit troubles. What's more, third-party surveys of loan portfolio managers paint a similar picture. According to S&P's latest survey, consensus expectations are for a default rate of just 2.2% by year-end 2019, less than one percentage point higher than today's level, and well below the market's 3.1% long-term average.