Often times referred to as “high quality” or “upper tier” high yield, BB-rated bonds are a frequently overlooked asset class that offers investors attractive absolute and risk-adjusted returns. Sitting at the top of the high yield bond market rating scale, the BB market is a robust market in and of itself and now encompasses $546bn in market value across 310 issuers and 820 distinct issues. BBs currently represent approximately 43% of the $1.27trn high yield market. For comparison purposes, ten years ago, as the domestic economy was emerging from the Global Financial Crisis, the BB market was just $214bn in market value and 33% of the overall high yield market.
As shown in the chart and table below, BB-rated bonds have a long-term track record of superior absolute and risk-adjusted returns compared to BBB and single-B rated notes.
There are several key attributes that lead to the higher absolute return and Sharpe Ratio for BB bonds:
Turning to fundamentals, credit quality amongst BB-rated issuers is quite good. Net leverage continues to decline, and is below its long-term average of 4.2x . Net leverage and coverage for BBB- and single-B rated issues has also improved, but not to the extent of the improvement in BBs metrics. Revenue and EBITDA growth for the high yield market overall was +8.1% and +12.9% in the first quarter, according to JPMorgan, and the second quarter is tracking to be even better. Additionally, as discussed in a previous blog post, High Quality High Yield Set to Benefit from Tax Reform the tax reform act passed in late 2017 should help to improve the after-tax cash flows of most corporate issuers, especially BBs. In time, this will enhance the credit quality of the market as companies have less incentive to incur more leverage as the after-tax cost of debt increases.
Credit investors, in general, have enjoyed the recent span of above trend economic growth, low interest rates and benign defaults. It is difficult for investors to predict when the current expansion will turn or how quickly interest rates will rise, but BB-rated bonds have provided superior risk-adjusted returns across market cycles. Historically nominal credit losses should continue to be tempered by improving leverage metrics and the effects of accommodative tax policy will become increasingly evident in the quarters to come. These factors, combined with attractive carry and modest duration, put BBs in the sweet spot of the credit spectrum.
 Bloomberg/Barclay’s index data as of August 31, 2018
 Moody’s Investors Services calculates credit loss based on the issuer-weighted average default rate and the issuer-weighted senior unsecured bond recovery rate
 ICE Bank of America Merrill Lunch indices
If the Three Phases Model turns out to be an accurate-enough framework for market dynamics during 2018, then longer-term interest rates will rise in aggregate over the course of the year. Not in a straight line though, but rather in a sine wave higher, then lower, and then higher once again. In many ways this feels like an unsatisfying way to get higher rates, and it probably doesn’t lead to dramatically higher yields anyway.
Yet I and many of my fellow market participants seem to feel intuitively that rates should be higher. In the old days, if we had the level of growth the US is currently enjoying, 10-year Treasury yields would be higher than they are now. This intuition is supported by quantitative models also, for example the Taylor Rule, the Nominal GDP versus 10-year yield linkage, and the ACM term premium model all suggest rates are far too low. When you couple the intuition with the math, and layer on top the obvious increase in Treasury supply from the budget deficit and Quantitative Tightening, it feels downright weird that Treasury yields aren’t higher.
Much of my constructive view on rates (during Phase 2) has been rooted in the idea that because potential growth is slow, the labor market is tight, and the fiscal stimulus is ill-timed, monetary policy should welcome tighter financial conditions explicitly to slow down realized growth. Unless and until financial conditions begin to materially impact the economic data, the Fed should and would act to constrain inflation pressure. In practice, that meant continuing gradual hikes and balance sheet reduction. This leads to a flatter curve and weak-ish risk markets, together with anchored inflation expectations and long-end rates (Phase 2).
The nagging feeling in the back of my mind remains constant though, that rates should be higher intuitively. So I am continually vigilant for what sequence of events from here could lead to durably higher long term rates. Some of these I’ve mentioned in this forum over the past year, but my current list is:
The key theme is that all of these cases involve the central bank leaning dovish, whether that’s justified or unjustified, intentional, or unintentional, which all together is a bit of a paradox. It’s much easier intuitively to link a Federal Reserve aggressively hiking rates with a higher 10y yield, but at this point, given what’s already understood in the market about US growth and the supply/demand dynamic for Treasurys, I think it is actually dovish policy of some kind which will ultimately lead to higher rates. A subset of this has been a key element of the Three Phases Model – in Phase 3 we expect higher Treasury yields concurrent with a dovish course correction which most closely resembles item 1 in this list. But durably (and significantly) higher 10-year yields probably require at least one of these 5 circumstances, or something similar.
Rewind to August 24, 2018, Jackson Hole, WY. Fed Chair Jerome Powell gave a speech entitled Monetary Policy in a Changing Economy, which included a number of debatable and dutifully balanced passages. However, I cherry picked the following quotes and generally saw the speech as unnecessarily dovish:
“Under Chairman Greenspan’s leadership, the Committee converged on a risk-management strategy that can be distilled into a simple request: Let’s wait one more meeting; if there are clearer signs of inflation, we will commence tightening. Meeting after meeting, the Committee held off on rate increases while believing that signs of rising inflation would soon appear. And meeting after meeting, inflation gradually declined….
“In retrospect, it may seem odd that it took great fortitude to defend ‘let’s wait one more meeting,’ given that inflation was low and falling. Conventional wisdom at the time, however, still urged policymakers to respond preemptively to inflation risk…
“While inflation has recently moved up near 2 percent, we have seen no clear sign of an acceleration above 2 percent, and there does not seem to be an elevated risk of overheating. This is good news, and we believe that this good news results in part from the ongoing normalization process.”
For now anyway, inflation seems to be in the eyes of the beholder. Given what could be said about the chart below and whether or not Core PCE is accelerating, and explicit references both to Greenspan’s fortitude in not hiking rates and an explicit lack of overheating risk, the speech looked dovish to me. It had elements of items 1 and 3 from my list above, and maybe even a hint of number 4.
For these reasons, I viewed the speech as a short-term bearish signal for Treasurys and I think Powell’s remarks more than any other catalyst are what sent 10-year yields back toward the high end of the range in recent days. However, it’s just one speech, and I don’t think any of my proposed pathways to higher rates have been definitively satisfied. The average hourly earnings data last week offered more evidence that a dovish course correction is not yet justified by the data, and the Fed should see it that way. So, structurally, I think we’re still in for more Phase 2 price action: weak-ish risk markets, stronger dollar, and range-bound-to-lower yields. The recent market response to Jackson Hole merely lends some credence to the idea that dovishness of some kind would be the current pathway to higher yields.