posted on 27 October 2016
by Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong
More haunting even than the terrified screams of lambs being led was the silence that followed their slaughter. Such was the searing pain of relentless recollection for FBI agent Clarice Starling, the tortured lead played to Oscar perfection by Jodie Foster. In an agonizingly whispered scene that has forever left its imprint on the minds of horrified audiences, we hear the bleating of Starling’s long-dead tormentors.
Clarice’s hushed revelations to Hannibal reveal a desperate act by her young orphaned self. Unable to bear the horror, she’s running away from the bloodbath of spring lambs being slaughtered and her cousin’s sheep ranch. Desperate to do something, anything, she struggles to drive them from their pens to freedom:
A recent, reluctant re-viewing of the film, only the third in history to win the “Big Five" Oscars, Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay, fed fresh food for thought. The image of captives rejecting their freedom brought to mind another flock of corralled and stunned lambs - bond market investors. They too have been given the opportunity to escape their fate. But so many choose instead to stay. Such is the reality of a world devoid of options, with time ticking ruthlessly by.
Against the cynical backdrop of bulls and bears manipulating data to plead their case, Salient Partners’ Ben Hunt’s insights stand out for their indisputability. In his latest missive he points to one chart that’s incapable of being “fudged," to borrow his term - that of U.S. household net worth over time vis-à-vis U.S. nominal gross domestic product. Suffice it to say we’re farther off trend than we were even during the dotcom and housing manias.
Hunt asks in what should be rhetoric but is lost on so many:
And yet we are. The culprit, which too few identify as such, is runaway asset price inflation led by debt markets that have grown to be unfathomably immense in size and scope. At $100 trillion, the size of the global bond market eclipses that of the $64 trillion stock market. A bigger discussion for another day comes from McKinsey data that tell us the worldwide credit market is over $200 trillion in size.
Zero in on Corporate America and you really start to get a picture of pernicious growth. According to New Albion Partners’ Brian Reynolds, U.S. commercial paper and corporate bonds have swelled by $3.1 trillion, or 63 percent, since the 2008 financial crisis. According to Reynolds:
For a bit more historic context, consider that U.S firms are more levered today than they were at the precipice of the financial crisis. According to Moody’s data, the median debt/earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) is five times today vs. 4.2-times in 2008 for high yield companies. For comparison purposes, investment grade companies’ median debt/EBITDA is 2.6-times today compared to 2.2-times in 2008.
Michael Lewitt, the leading authority on all things credit and creator of The Credit Strategist, worries that companies are sitting on this pile of debt with not much more to show for it than, well, being in hock up to their eyeballs:
On that count, there’s trouble brewing. Moody’s publishes a Refunding Index which gauges the bond market’s ability to absorb high yield bonds maturing over the next 12 and 36-month periods at the current pace of issuance. In the quarter ending in September, the one-year index was down 50 percent over the prior year while that of the three-year index was off by 40 percent continuing a protracted two-year slide. In dollar figures, three-year high yield maturities are up 45 percent year-over-year; they now total $156 billion vs. $108 billion a year ago. The flip side of these coins is that issuance is down by $13 billion.
Moody’s Senior Analyst Tiina Siilaberg expects defaults to peak at six percent in the coming months. She said:
We can only hope Siilaberg is not being overly optimistic. A separate data set released by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) tallies the “weakest links," or companies that are 10-times more likely than the broad high yield universe to default. In September, this count hit a seven-year high. For the moment, with an eye on recovering oil prices, investors seem to be operating under the assumption that stress in the pipeline is dissipating. Fair enough. But only one-quarter of the weakest links are energy firms. Chances are defaults, already at the highest level since 2009, will continue to climb.
As for the much bigger investment grade (IG) market, it’s not an energy story but rather one entangling the financial sector that promises to capture headlines in the coming months. S&P Managing Director Dianne Vazza recently warned that financials dominate the fallen angel universe, as in IG firms likely to be downgraded to high yield. The culprits include their exposure to energy firms, the fallout from municipal mayhem in Puerto Rico and weakness in global growth.
The immediate fallout for these fallen firms is a spike in borrowing costs. But even for those that manage to remain in the celestial, expenses could be poised to rise. Lewitt warned:
That’s saying something considering that even with interest rates near their lowest on record, the interest expense among companies in the benchmark S&P 500 Industrials has been on the rise since bottoming at four percent of nonfinancial earnings in the third quarter of 2010. According to data compiled by S&P’s Howard Silverblatt, interest expense first topped six percent in the quarter ended March of this year. It remains above that level, the highest since recordkeeping began in 1993. Since then, we know borrowing costs have started to tick back up. With record debt loads, it’s safe to say many companies can simply not afford interest rates to rise off the floor.
As tenuous as the situation appears, this credit cycle may have one last rally in its gas tank. said George Goncalves, Nomura’s Head of U.S. Rates Strategy:
Once that panic sets in, though, expect sovereigns to regain the flight-to-quality status and stage a rally. Goncalves does foresee one potential fly in the ointment of the relatively happy ending:
New Albion Partners’ Reynolds doesn’t figure even an exogenous event could put the brakes on the current credit cycle. Pensions and insurers simply have too much in the way of fresh funds to deploy to allow that to happen; they’ve absorbed half of the $3.1 trillion in new issuance. Given more funds are expected to flow into pension coffers in the coming years as Baby Boomers retire in droves, there should only be more to come. So we go from the mammoth to the monumental when it’s game over. Reynolds cautions as follows, concluding with a bit more irony,
It would appear to be only a matter of timing, and in turn, magnitude. The outcome though is undeniable. With defaults on the rise, refinancing capability in increasing danger and more distress building in the pipeline, you would think we would be hearing investors screaming. But we don’t. Just the deafening sound of silence as most in the herd refuse to be early, even if waiting with the gate to the pen open offers them ultimate salvation.
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