Holmes moans about loans

As a high yield fund manager it has been interesting to watch leveraged loans become something of an investor darling this year – almost $13bn has flowed into US loans over the year to date. Investors have sought out loans as a place to hide from a Fed that is raising interest rates, and with the perception that they are a “safer” income provider than conventional bonds.

But is this logic sound? How do loans perform in hiking cycles?

US leveraged loans underperformed US high yield by almost 2% per annum over the 2004-2006 hiking cycle. In a hiking cycle, high yield bonds tend to perform well due to their positive exposure to economic growth, while loans offer far less opportunity for capital appreciation.

And how much safer are leveraged loans? The peak-to-trough drawdown was 95% of that seen in high yield during the financial crisis, while high yield has produced 123% more total return over the last 15 years. In other words, investment in leveraged loans over the past decade and a half has resulted in almost as much drawdown while sacrificing the large profits that could have been made by a long-term investment in high yield (a topic my colleague David Ennett has discussed previously http://bondtalk.co.uk/high-yield/carry-me-home-the-source-of-high-yield-returns/).

 


Source: Bloomberg as at 31 May 2017

Leveraged loans are also more exposed to problem sectors than high yield. Retailers that are mortally threatened by Amazon make up more of the investable universe in loans than in the high yield universe. Leveraged loans are getting riskier too – in Europe the average secured indebtedness for new loans is almost 70% higher than at the end of 2010. In contrast, European high yield leverage has actually fallen over this period.

From my perspective a well-managed high yield portfolio provides a much better way to generate strong sustainable income versus alternatives such as loans. By investing with high yield teams focused on finding defensively-positioned companies with strong business models, attractive risk-adjusted total returns can be generated. Whether the same can be said for loans remains to be seen…

 

 

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

UK high yield retail – are you being served?

UK retailers are facing significant pressures over the coming years – from the rise in business rates, higher supplier costs due to weaker sterling, and the new national living wage; to the expected continued growth of online retailers like Amazon and Asos. Given all that is facing these companies anyway, investing in the more indebted end of the sector seems to us a costly mistake at present. We would argue that retailers in general tend to have high fixed costs and variable top lines, so adding a large fixed debt service cost generally doesn’t stack up. Interestingly though, the market doesn’t seem to agree with what we would regard as common sense, as the median UK high yield retailer has debt worth almost six times their earnings – significantly above the European high yield average of just over four times.

Despite the fact that UK high yield retailers are facing huge operational headwinds alongside significantly more indebtedness than the wider high yield universe, the bonds on offer do not trade at a discount – in fact when we checked on Friday the median UK high yield retail bond traded with exactly the same spread over government bonds as the wider European high yield market!

In short the bonds of UK high yield retailers offer significant operational risks; large levels of indebtedness; and absolutely no discount to the wider market. We’re quite happy to let the benchmarked funds and ETFs play away in these, and think that our clients are getting far better service by looking at other more attractive parts of the high yield market.