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Holly LaFon
Holly LaFon
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Osterweis Commentary: Not as BBBad as You’ve Heard – Despite Negative Headlines, We Do Not Anticipate a Wave of Downgrades Out of Investment Grade

By John Sheehan, portfolio manager of Osterweis Capital Management

January 17, 2019 | About:

BBB issuers have received a lot of bad press recently, but John Sheehan believes the perception is worse than the reality and that credit selection is key to finding good risk adjusted returns within the diverse BBB universe.

The investment grade credit market across all ratings categories has seen strong growth since the financial crisis. As the Federal Reserve executed rate cuts, interest rates hit historically low levels while its quantitative easing (QE) program reduced the supply of U.S. Treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities, encouraging investors to venture further out on the risk spectrum and buy investment grade (IG) corporate securities.

IG issuers capitalized on this opportunity by filling the void created by QE, and the absolute and relative size of the investment grade credit market grew substantially. In 2018, the total notional value of the investment grade credit market eclipsed $6.0 trillion dollars from $2.5 trillion in 2009 and the weighting of investment grade credit within the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate index increased from 21% to 31% in the same time period.

Growth of IG Market

Since the crisis we have also seen a growth of BBB rated debt as a percentage of the investment grade universe. Recently, concerns over the size of BBB debt have garnered substantial attention. High-profile downgrades including General Electric, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and PG&E Corporation (and their subsequent bankruptcy filing), combined with a bearish fourth quarter on Wall Street, have sparked concerns that the BBB market may pose systemic risks to the U.S. credit market, a narrative that has been repeated frequently in the financial press.

Our view of the BBB market is more constructive than the prevailing outlook in the market. We feel that a rash of downgrades to BB is unlikely and that there are BBB bonds that offer attractive risk adjusted return potential.

BBB for Free (Almost)

To appreciate our perspective, it is helpful to understand the dynamics that have driven the expansion of the BBB market. As the chart below shows, the most significant source of growth has come from new issuance ($1.2 trillion) followed by downgrades ($745 billion). These two sources are closely related, as we have seen several large deals that have resulted in companies being downgraded to BBB prior to issuing new debt. In most of these cases, the borrowers increased leverage to finance mergers and acquisitions (M&A). It is also important to note that $387 billion of bonds were upgraded out of BBB into A, which exceeds the volume of BBBs downgraded below investment grade.

BBB segmentation

Given the historically cheap borrowing rates during the past decade, it is our view that many issuers who fell to BBB have done so willingly, if not deliberately. IG corporations with healthy financials saw the low costs of funds as an opportunity to boost their equity returns by pursuing a combination of M&A activities, share buybacks and dividends.

The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Index yield-to-worst fell from 9.09% during the financial crisis to a record low of 2.60% in April of 2013. Likewise, the Bloomberg Barclays Baa Corporate index (Baa index) fell from its crisis peak of 10.22% to a low of 3.08%, also in April of 2013. With an after-tax cost hovering near 2%, the decision to borrow was straightforward for many CFOs.

IG YTW last 10 years

Perhaps more importantly, the strong demand for investment grade debt resulted in a dramatic flattening of credit spreads across the ratings spectrum. During the past ten years, the average incremental cost of triple B debt versus single A debt was just 66 basis points (bps).

To put that in perspective, the incremental cost of going from BBB to BB (i.e., from investment grade to high yield) was a far more punitive 180 bps. Importantly, this is one of the reasons we believe BBB borrowers will do everything within their power to preserve their current rating. The price of another downgrade would be too steep.

Given the flat curve, many issuers made the conscious choice to increase their leverage and slip to BBB rather than to limit their borrowing and preserve their higher rating.

BBBanks Improving

Of course, not all firms that have been downgraded to BBB in the past decade have done so voluntarily. Most notably, in the aftermath of the financial crisis the rating agencies downgraded much of the global banking sector, and in our opinion, they have been slow to acknowledge the substantial improvement to bank balance sheets. This is important, as financial institutions comprise 20% of the Baa index.

Large global banks are now required to hold significantly higher levels of the highest quality capital (core equity tier 1, CET1) than they were before the crisis. Global systematically important banks (GSIBs) improved their CET1 ratio to 12.5% by the end of 2017 compared to an estimated 3.7% in 2007. Similarly, GSIBs are now in a materially better liquidity position as measured by Basel III’s Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR).

We are starting to see the rating agencies change their perception, as evidenced by the Moody’s upgrade of Bank of America to A3 in December of 2017. They followed suit in November of this year by putting Citigroup, the second largest issuer in the index, on positive watch. We expect a company like Citigroup to benefit from being a new name in the single A arena.

Financial FlexiBBBility

Another underappreciated, positive dimension of the BBB market is that most issuers have substantially more financial flexibility than BBB companies have had historically. The largest 15 non-financial issuers of BBB bonds generate an average free cash flow in excess of 2x their average annual interest expense. BBB issuers have also taken advantage of low interest rates by pushing their maturity profile further out the curve. In fact, the largest BBB issuers have just $56 billion of maturities in 2019, which is very manageable given that they will generate total free cash flow of $91.3 billion.

Additionally, the largest 15 issuers pay out $79.8 billion to shareholders in buybacks and dividends compared to an average annual interest expense of $42.5 billion. We acknowledge that suspending dividends and buybacks is a painful decision for management. However, the ability to fund both interest and principal from free cash flow is a powerful tool to protect ratings. In fact, two of the three largest issuers in the Baa index, GE and ABI, both cut dividends in 2018 to maintain their investment grade status.

Top 15 IG Issuer Stats

Not a Ticking Time BBBomb

In summary, we do not think that there will be a large-scale downgrade of BBB bonds to high yield (HY). In fact, 2017 saw the lowest rate of BBB- bonds downgraded to HY in 30 years.

Moreover, we feel that it is misguided to focus on BBB risk in aggregate. To properly assess the risk, it is necessary to focus on individual companies that are rated BBB. The BBB market is a diverse group that spans virtually the entire economy, creating a range of opportunities for investors. There is no company named “BBB.”

We especially like BBB bonds in sectors that are improving/deleveraging, and financials with their positive ratings momentum. We are actively investing in credits with significant amounts of financial flexibility and management teams that have displayed a commitment to their bond holders.

Lastly, we feel BBB valuations are attractive. According to Morgan Stanley, at the end of November, there were $188 billion of 5-10 year BBB bonds trading wide of the BB+ index. So, the market is already pricing in a substantial level of downgrades. Given all these factors, we feel the BBB market still has plenty of excellent opportunities, and we intend to continue investing in the space.

John Sheehan

Portfolio Manager

Holdings and allocations may change at any time due to ongoing portfolio management. References to specific investments should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell the securities. Current and future holdings are subject to risk.

The Fund’s holdings may be viewed by clicking here.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, are subject to change at any time, are not guaranteed and should not be considered investment advice.

About the author:

Holly LaFon
I'm a financial journalist with a Master of Science in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University.

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