The whiplash reversal in junk-bond spreads underlines the treacherous nature of markets at the moment. It's hard to find precedents for a reversal of sentiment on the scale we saw in the last couple of sessions. It's possible that the scale of the shift is justified by either the jobs data or Powell's put, but it seems likely that the Street's reduced capacity for making-markets is exaggerating the swing.
The last time we saw a two-day decline in U.S. high-yield spreads of this magnitude was in 2009, but that was in the context of a longer rally. There was a similar turnaround in late 2000, but in retrospect that just looks like a blip on the chart. The index in those days was less than a quarter of the size it is now and more susceptible to events in individual names.
It's not a lack of flow. Yesterday's volume of high-yield corporate trading was 67% above average, according to Trace data.
But trading isn't the same as liquidity. Market-making desks have much less capacity for assuming risk than they did before the crisis. They were never much help in a full-on panic, but if market-makers took down fewer bonds in the sell-off that would leave them less able to react when the market turns around. So, you can have a market in which too much money is scrambling after too little paper.
It's possible the culprit might be the growth in popularity of junk ETFs like HYG and JNK, but the assets in those two funds have fallen by one-third from the peak in 2017. Or you could just blame quants and algos. They seem to be the go-to scapegoat for everything hard to explain in the markets these days, just ask Cliff Asness (sarcasm alert).
Credit leads the stock market. Bond managers’ primary concern is default probability. Bonds don’t pay more if a company does well. Instead, the price of the bonds may rise which reduces their allure for new buyers on a yield to maturity basis. Unlike stocks, bonds have a clear end date, by which either gains have to be locked in or the issue redeems at par. That means bond investors are much more alert to credit conditions, default rates and the factors that can influence them which tend to affect bonds before stocks.Click HERE to subscribe to Fuller Treacy Money Back to top