Monday, December 22, 2008

Corporate Bond Opportunities

Barrons interviewed Rob Arnott for this weekend's edition.

From Wikipedia:

Robert D. Arnott (born 1954) is an American entrepreneur, investor, editor and writer who focuses on articles about quantitative investing. He edited the CFA Institute's Financial Analysts Journal, as well as three other books on equity and asset allocation management.[1]

Arnott has also served as a Visiting Professor of Finance at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, on the editorial board of the Journal of Portfolio Management, the product advisory board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange.[1] He previously served as Chairman of First Quadrant, LP, as global equity strategist at Salomon (now Salomon Smith Barney), president of TSA Capital ManagementTSA/Analytic), and as vice president at the Boston Company. He graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1977. (now

Rob has been bearish for several years on both bonds and stocks, but he is starting to see some genuine value in risky assets. In particular, Rob expressed enthusiasm for locally priced emerging market bonds, emerging market stocks, and corporate bonds.

Some excerpts:
What's your view now?

... [T]his is the richest environment of low-hanging fruit I've seen in my career. And you would have to go back to 1973, 1974 or even, in some markets, to the Great Depression to find markets priced as attractively as now. This is not a time to be hunkering down in the safety and comfort of the Treasury curve. There are tremendous opportunities right now. It is so tempting in a bear market to focus on the glass being half-empty and on how much has been lost. But the glass being half full side is largely ignored.

What kind of an asset-allocation mix makes sense to you?

First of all, most investors think that putting some money in growth stocks, some money in value stocks and some money in international stocks is a well-diversified portfolio. It's not. Diversification means taking on risk in markets that are uncorrelated and that can go up when other markets go down. So a well-diversified portfolio should look at multiple sources of risk, not just in stocks.

Where do you see opportunities?

A year from now, investors in convertible bonds are likely to be very pleased with what they [see] in terms of prices and yields. The same holds for emerging-market debt denominated in the local currency, which I prefer to dollar-denominated debt. You get a premium yield for emerging-market debt and an additional premium for investing in the local currency. Tacitly, that's a dollar bet, but I don't see how the dollar can do well on a long-term basis when we have indebtedness that is eight times our national income. Imagine an individual going to a bank and saying, "I owe eight times my income and I would like to borrow more." The reaction would be immediate and drastic: "Give us your credit cards; we will slice them up." But as a nation we still have our credit cards, and we are still using them aggressively.

You don't sound like you are sold on stocks, Rob, even after this huge selloff.

The problem I have with stocks -- and it is a very simple problem -- is that while stocks are nicely priced, they aren't attractively priced relative to their own bonds. The savagery of September, October and November was more drastic for bonds than it was for stocks. A 40% drop in stocks is big. A 20% to 30% drop in major categories of bonds is immense. So the take-no-prisoners market actually widened the opportunities on the bond side even more than on the stock side.

Investment-grade corporate bonds are a vivid example of that. The yield spreads over stocks is averaging about six [percentage points] right now. If you can get a 3.5% yield on stocks and 9.5% on the same company's bonds, which is going to give you the higher return? The stocks will, if they show earnings and dividend growth faster than 6% -- but historically that's a stretch. So the bonds have been savaged worse than the stocks have, and actually represent the most interesting opportunity.

So you are talking about investment-grade bonds?

Yes, investment-grade bonds. But for bonds below investment grade, the spreads are quite extraordinary. By the end of November, spreads had widened out to nearly 20 percentage points above Treasuries and also above the corresponding stock yields. Suppose 40% of those bonds go bust next year. And suppose that you get 50 cents on the dollar back on the bonds that go bust. By that point, you have lost your spread of 20 percentage points.

But such a scenario has to happen every year, until the high-yield bonds mature, in order to merely match Treasury returns. A 40% default rate every year for several years would be truly without precedent. So I view 2009 as an "ABT" year -- Anything but Treasuries. The less you hold in Treasuries, the better you are likely to do.


Given Rob's views on corporate and emerging market bonds, and his bearish call on Treasuries, I examined the performance of these markets relative to Treasuries of equivalent duration. I used the iShares fixed income ETFs as investable proxies for these bond market sectors as follows (data as of Friday close):

  • iShares Barclays 7-10 Yr Treasury Bond Fund (IEF: Effective Duration = 7.00)
  • iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond Fund (LQD: ED = 7.21)
  • iShares JPMorgan USD Emerging Markets Bond Fund (EMB: ED = 6.67)
  • iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (HYG: ED = 6.67)
By utilizing the 7-10 Yr Treasury Bond ETF I can effectively neutralize interest rate risk against the other funds, as the funds all have an effective duration at or near 7. This allows the analysis to focus exclusively on spreads to Treasuries.

Chart 1. Emerging Market Bonds vs Treasuries (Cash yield spread = 590 bps)

Chart 2. High Grade Bonds versus Treasuries (Cash yield spread = 417 bps)

Chart 3. High Yield Bonds versus Treasuries (Cash yield spread = 1504 bps)

Bonds are effectively pricing in the Depression scenario; in order for Treasury yields to continue to decline, and spreads to continue to widen from these levels, the perception of default risk would have to increase beyond the levels of defaults and recoveries actually experienced in either the 30s, the 70s or the 80s by a substantial margin.

Although this is a risk, I view it as a small risk that is easily hedged against this trade by utilizing far out of the money put options on the S&P 500 and/or the emerging markets stock ETF (EEM). Even incorporating the premiums for the purchase of these options, the trade still represents a significant positive carry and a high reward to risk ratio.

Thus I envision a short Treasury ETF / long credit and emerging market bonds ETF trade to focus on the propensity of yield spreads over Treasuries to narrow over the coming weeks and months. This trade has effectively no interest rate risk as the durations of the ETFs in question all approximate 7.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Prudent Capitalism - China Style

China is behaving in truly Keynesian fashion by cleaning up bad debts on bank balance sheets and demanding prudence and risk management during boom times while forcing banks to expand their balance sheets aggressively during more challenging times in order to move funds into the economy.

Though the author of the article below takes the view that China’s actions within the banking system are inappropriate, I would assert that it is exactly this mechanism for moving funds into the economy that European and North American economies are lacking.

It is also why China is likely to lead us out of this global slump. Chinese shares have been demonstrating consistent relative strength since 
mid-October. Shares in Shanghai and equivalent H-Shares in Hong Kong are making higher highs and higher lows, and they are holding above both short- and longer-term moving averages.

Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan appear poised to break out to the upside on the back of the strength in Chinese shares. Brazil and South Africa also look strong and, with both the reais and the rand looking to join the Euro in a surge against the dollar, you may receive a double whammy on the ETFs.

Please see the following story from Dow Jones News.

Chinese Banks' Great Leap Backward

Around the world, the banks we see today are very different from their former selves of just a few months ago. The transformation has been most pronounced in the U.S. and Europe, where a combination of mergers and government involvement have reshaped the financial sector. But change is afoot elsewhere as well, and it isn't always positive. In particular, Chinese banks are currently under enormous pressure to change their business practices in ways that represent a serious step backward.

A year ago, many of us were ready to be impressed with China's banking system. To be sure, banks were still mainly state-owned, and the Chinese Communist Party continued to be omnipresent. However, the average bank managers were extremely risk conscious, and regulators from the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) swooped down on bank branches conducting surprise inspections every so often. Bankers were extremely hesitant to make uncollateralized loans to any firm except for the largest corporations.

This was an enormous change from just 10 years ago, when bankers doled out large sums at the slightest urging of the local governments and when banks were considered the "second treasury" by central policy makers. At that time, the nonperforming loan ratio was estimated to be nearly half of all loans outstanding. By January 2008, the official NPL ratio was less than 6%. This transformation wasn't cheap or easy -- it required hundreds of billions of dollars from the government to buy bad loans off bank balance sheets and recapitalize the institutions, and also the participation of Western "strategic partners" brought in to lend their expertise in best practices.

However, risk-prevention institutions built up over the past decade are now under enormous pressure to forgo prudence in the interest of maintaining economic growth. There have been two triggers for this. First, the global recession caused a plunge in demand for Chinese goods -- in November, Chinese exports fell for the first time in nearly a decade. At the same time, the property market continues to shrink in many major Chinese cities.

Anticipating a declining economy, in November the central government announced a four trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package to be carried out in the next two years. At the same time, the National Development and Reform Commission was ordered to approve fixed asset investment worth 100 billion yuan before the end of the year. As of mid-December, much of the money has been doled out. This forceful injection of funds into the economy will be the dominant method of generating growth in the next two years.
Banks are trapped in the middle, because they will finance much of the stimulus package. Of the four trillion yuan stimulus, only about a quarter will be financed by the government's central budget. At a time when local governments are strapped for cash due to falling land prices (land sales are a common form of municipal cash-raising), banks are expected to finance much of the remaining three trillion yuan in the package. This isn't a matter of choice. Most banks must follow the government's lead because senior bankers are appointed by the Party.

It gets worse. Local governments have announced a further 20 trillion yuan in investment to "supplement" the central package. Assuming both Beijing and the local governments stick to these spending targets, banks will be under enormous pressure to finance trillions in state-sponsored projects in the next two years. With so much money to push out the door, risk management will almost inevitably take a back seat. Banks that had made enormous strides toward global best practices were compelled by central pressure to greatly boost credit in the last two months of this year.
Prudence is not completely out the window yet because of continuation of CBRC monitoring, but risk management is increasingly a second priority. The CBRC has sent subtle signals to banks to not worry about profit too much and to exclude more risky loans to small- and medium enterprises from their main balance sheets.

Partly as a result, banks are increasingly compromising between risk prevention and political pressure by boosting lending through bill financing instead of writing outright loans. In theory this limits risks because bill financing tends to be short-term and can be easily transferred to another bank. Of the 477 billion yuan of new loans made in November, half were in bill financing. The rise of bill financing may increase systemic risks in the future because banks tend to be less careful when they discount these bills due to their transferability. Loans, on the other hand, are stuck on banks' balance sheets.

Meanwhile, if the economy worsens in the first quarter the government may be tempted to abandon prudent regulation altogether. Beijing could order the CBRC to disregard risk targets or even abolish the CBRC. This would plunge China back into the old days when the only risks that bankers faced were political ones.

Without a global financial crisis, the global financial community might have criticized such a giant step back toward the planned economy. The criticism might have at least triggered some debate in China. However, with the rest of the world suffering a severe credit crunch that has seen free-market governments bailing out their own financial institutions, there are few people left who can credibly criticize China's actions.
Western central banks have conducted operations that once were monopolized by the Chinese central bank and drew scoffs and snorts from the global banking community. For example, the People's Bank of China, the central bank, used to conduct "relending" operations to inject funds into distressed banks to pay creditors or to write off distressed assets. Now, the Federal Reserve is doing the same by buying or accepting as collateral questionable assets from banks.

In any event, everyone is too preoccupied with their own losses to comment on Chinese policies. Which is a problem, not least for China itself. With enormous political pressure from the central government to pump money into the economy and silence from the rest of the world, much of the work in the past decade is being undone.