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Fixed-Income Insights

We see much more fertile ground for investment opportunities in the high-yield bond market than in the last few years.  

As we look back on 2014 in the leveraged credit markets, returns were fairly modest, as most leveraged loan and high-yield indexes posted returns of around 2%. While return expectations at the beginning of 2014 also were low, most strategists were expecting rates to chip away at the 5.50%-plus yield on the BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Constrained Index,1 at the start of 2014. Rates did anything but rise in 2014, and returns in the high-yield market were haircut by poor performance in the gaming, metals and mining sectors, and the all-important energy sector. Credit and growth concerns caused spreads on the high-yield index to widen by almost 100 basis points (bps) during the year. Fortunately, we were able to avoid many of the landmines in these sectors, which allowed the strategy to perform very well versus the index and our peers in the high-yield market.

Looking ahead, we see a market that is a much more fertile hunting ground for investment opportunities than we have seen in the last few years. While we are not ready to raise the “risk on” flag just yet, we do see a number of attractive, idiosyncratic opportunities and will keep some reserves on hand as we await more appealing valuations that we expect to emerge later this year. We also expect the dispersion and volatility that we saw in the markets during the second half of 2014 to continue, which should create many opportunities for nimble credit investors.

In our 2015 outlook, we will discuss our views on the economy, credit conditions, valuations, and the sector themes that we are following to kick off the year. Of course, we will give our thoughts on the energy patch, which remains our most widely discussed topic in both internal strategy meetings and discussions with our clients.  

Macro Environment and Credit Conditions
When considering the outlook for the economy and the markets in 2015, the theme of divergence comes to the fore. While the U.S. economy is faring quite well, as evidenced by a 5% gross domestic product (GDP) reading for third quarter 2014, Europe and Japan are desperately trying to bring their economies back to life via unprecedented monetary stimulus. Emerging markets is a mixed bag of haves and have-nots, largely dependent on whether the nation is a net importer or exporter of oil. The million-dollar question for investors in all markets is whether the U.S. economy will be able to sustain its gradual improvement or be pulled down by the deflationary forces that are affecting Europe and Japan. In short, we believe the United States will be able to sustain itself and that policymakers abroad are committed to rejuvenating their economies. Thanks to the recent decline in energy prices, the U.S. consumer has been given an additional $100 billion in spending power (0.6% of GDP), if energy prices remain at current levels through 2015, according to economists at BofA Merrill Lynch. This is a key factor in some of the sector themes that we will discuss later in the report.

Despite the volatility that we saw at the end of the year, the improving U.S. economy continued to benefit high-yield issuers’ credit profiles. According to JP Morgan, the upgrade-to-downgrade ratio was 1.13, and 2014 was the fourth time in five years in which more high-yield issuers were upgraded than downgraded. Within that total, there were 35 high-yield issuers, with a total of $44 billion of debt outstanding, that were boosted to an investment-grade rating in 2014. This exceeded the 24 issuers that were downgraded into the high-yield market. During the year, our portfolios benefited from some holdings that moved up to the investment-grade market owing to improving credit profiles and/or favorable mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity. We do think there are a number of attractively priced credits that are migrating toward investment-grade profiles and could be rewarded by the credit ratings agencies in 2015. Thus, we would expect this theme will continue to be additive to our performance.

 

Chart 1. High-Yield Credit Quality Improved in 2014

Source: JPMorgan.
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results.

 

Looking ahead to 2015, the upgrade-to-downgrade ratio may deteriorate a bit if energy prices remain in the area of $50 per barrel. If this price environment prevails into late 2015, we would expect defaults to rise, from recent lows of 1.7% up to mid-single digits in 2016. This would be in line with the long-term average of 4.5%, according to the Moody’s U.S. issuer-based default rate. However, there are a few key reasons why we believe that we will not see an imminent spike in default rates in the high-yield energy sector:

  • Energy companies have termed out the bulk of their debt, thanks to significant issuance over the last few years.  Maturities for 2015 are close to zero, and there are only $5 billion of maturities due in 2016.
  • Exploration and production companies had their borrowing bases determined last fall at higher prices. It will take a few quarters for the availability of revolving credit to be reduced by their bankers.
  • Management teams have levers to pull, such as reducing capital expenditures, asset sales, issuing equity and tapping the market with secured financings. We already have seen companies in the energy sector reduce spending significantly over the last few months.

 

Chart 2. There Are Minimal Near-Term Maturities for High-Yield Energy Companies Over the Next Few Years

Source: BofA/Merrill Lynch. Data from the BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Constrained Index.
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results. Market forecasts and projections are based on current market conditions and are subject to change without notice.

 

While rising default rates do warrant some concern, we believe most of the pain will be contained within the oil patch, while other sectors of the market likely will see continued access to the new-issue markets and improving credit profiles. In the first few weeks of 2015, we already have seen $20 billion of high-yield issuance, despite continued volatility in the credit and equity markets.

Valuations
Thanks to the macro uncertainty that contributed to the volatility we saw in the second half of 2014, we believe valuations in the high-yield market are now much more attractive than they were at this time last year. The current benchmark index spread of 540 bps is more than 125 bps wider than it was at the start of 2014. While much of this has come from the energy sector, there are other segments of the market that also are much more attractive. To become more constructive on the market in general, we would like to see spreads over Treasuries closer to their long-term average of 582 bps.

 

Chart 3. High-Yield Spreads Over Treasuries Are Drifting Up Near Long-Term Average

Source: BofA/Merrill Lynch. Data from the BofA Merrill Lynch Government Master Index.2
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results.
Due to market volatility, the market may not perform in a similar manner in the future.
Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect the deduction of fees or expenses, and are not available for direct investment.

 

When we drill down further into high-yield market valuations, we maintain our underweight to ‘CCC’ rated credits. While ‘CCC’s widened relative to the broader market last year, they remain approximately 100 bps tighter to the market than their long-term average. Given the macro uncertainties we see on the horizon, we believe that much more attractive valuations are warranted before we would consider an overweight allocation. In addition to valuations, we also must consider the fact that the ‘CCC’ rated sector tends to be the least liquid category of the market. This does not mean we will avoid ‘CCC’s entirely, but the hurdle for new names in the segment of the market will definitely be higher.

 

Chart 4. ‘CCC’ Rated Credits Have Cheapened, but Are Not Cheap Enough

Source: BofA/Merrill Lynch. Data from the BofA Merrill Lynch CCC & Lower U.S. High Yield Index.3
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results.
The credit quality of the securities are assigned by a nationally recognized statistical rating organization (NRSRO), such as Standard & Poor's, Moody's, or Fitch, as an indication of an issuer's creditworthiness. Ratings range from 'AAA' (highest) to 'D' (lowest). Bonds rated 'BBB' or above are considered investment grade. Credit ratings 'BB' and below are lower-rated securities (junk bonds). High-yielding, non-investment-grade bonds (junk bonds) involve higher risks than investment-grade bonds. Adverse conditions may affect the issuer's ability to pay interest and principle on these securities.

 

Investment Themes for 2015
As we discussed earlier, we do not expect the Federal Reserve to make its play of raising the fed funds rate until late 2015, and believe that the U.S. economy likely will continue its gradual healing process. With that in mind, here are a few other investment themes that we are following this year:

  • Energy sector—During the second half of 2014, we maintained an underweight allocation to the oil field services and exploration and production subsectors. This contributed to our outperformance versus our benchmark index. As 2014 ended, we still were modestly underweight energy in general. We now are looking for opportunities that will present themselves in early 2015. Specifically, we see fallen angels (that is, bonds that once were investment grade but were reduced to junk bond status) dropping into the index from the investment-grade market and cash-strapped issuers coming to market with secured deals at very attractive valuations.
  • Consumer spending—As we discussed earlier, U.S. consumers are seeing more cash in their wallets thanks to a roughly 50% decline in energy prices over the last year. This should benefit the casual dining space and discount retailers. While the broader retail sector is very idiosyncratic, we are revisiting some names that have struggled in the past, but which may benefit from increased consumer spending. The travel, leisure, and lodging sectors are also fertile hunting ground for new opportunities.
  • Rising stars—With the U.S. economy slowly on the mend, we see credit conditions improving, leading to a continued stream of high-yield companies graduating to the investment-grade market. We have overweight positions in several issuers that we believe have the potential to be upgraded to investment grade in the upcoming year.
  • Upper-quality bias—In the near term, we expect to remain underweight ‘CCC’ rated credits in favor of ‘B’ and ‘BB’ rated issuers. However, if valuations on lower tier issuers continue to cheapen relative to the broader market we will revisit this allocation.

Conclusion
We start 2015 cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the high-yield market. While there are a number of concerns on the macro front, valuations are much more attractive than they have been in the last few years. As we sort through the high-yield universe, we see a number of compelling return opportunities in well-run companies with solid asset values and improving cash flows. Regardless of what the market brings in 2015, we believe that our experience of more than 40 years in the leveraged credit markets should continue to allow us to generate strong performance for our portfolios and clients.

 

1 The BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Constrained Index is a market value-weighted index of all domestic and Yankee high-yield bonds, including deferred interest bonds and payment-in-kind securities.  Issues included in the index have maturities of one year or more and have a credit rating lower than BBB-/Baa3, but are not in default.  The BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Constrained Index limits any individual issuer to a maximum of 2% benchmark exposure.
2The BofA Merrill Lynch Government Master Index is a market capitalization-weighted index including all U.S. Treasury notes and bonds, with maturities greater than or equal to one year and less than 10 years and a minimum outstanding of $1 billion.
3The BofA Merrill Lynch CCC & Lower U.S. High Yield Index is a subset of the BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield. Index including all securities rated CCC1 or lower. The BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Index tracks the performance of U.S. dollar-denominated below investment-grade corporate debt publicly issued in the U.S. domestic market. Qualifying securities must have a below investment grade rating (based on an average of Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch), at least 18 months to final maturity at the time of issuance, at least one year remaining term to final maturity as of the rebalancing date, a fixed coupon schedule and a minimum amount outstanding of $100 million. In addition, qualifying securities must have risk exposure to countries that are members of the FX-G10, Western Europe or territories of the United States and Western Europe. The FX-G10 includes all euro members, the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. Original issue zero coupon bonds, 144a securities (both with and without registration rights), and pay-in-kind securities (including toggle notes) are included in the index. Callable perpetual securities are included provided they are at least one year from the first call date. Fixed-to-floating rate securities are included provided they are callable within the fixed rate period and are at least one year from the last call prior to the date the bond transitions from a fixed to a floating rate security. Contingent capital securities (“cocos”) are excluded, but capital securities where conversion can be mandated by a regulatory authority, but which have no specified trigger, are included. Other hybrid capital securities, such as those legacy issues that potentially convert into preference shares, those with both cumulative and non-cumulative coupon deferral provisions, and those with alternative coupon satisfaction mechanisms, are also included in the index. Securities issued or marketed primarily to retail investors, equity-linked securities, securities in legal default, hybrid securitized corporates, eurodollar bonds (USD securities not issued in the U.S. domestic market), taxable and tax-exempt U.S. municipal securities and DRD-eligible securities are excluded from the index.

 

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