Money management executives and consultants are starting to fall out of love with high-yield bonds following a tumultuous but rewarding 2016, as the outlook wanes for the asset class amid rising U.S. interest rates.
Some sources now are saying they are making tactical shifts away from the asset class and prefer the floating-rate characteristics of bank loans.
High yield was rallying for much 2016 following a dismal period that extended into the first quarter driven in part by difficulties in the oil and energy markets. The asset class was on the buy list for money managers and consultants, and those invested were rewarded with impressive returns. The Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global High Yield index gained 14.77% in 2016, compared with a 4.17% loss in 2015.
But now alarm bells are ringing for some, with rising U.S. interest rates and tightening spreads given as reasons for caution. Others said the asset class has become a victim of its own success.
“While we continue to have high-yield managers on our recommended list since high yield is a long-term asset allocation decision, we have recommended a tactical shift away from high yield” in the past couple of weeks, said Tim Bruce, Boston-based director of traditional research and a partner at consultant NEPC LLC. “The reason for that in part is because index-aware high-yield strategies enjoyed exceptional returns in 2016. Outsized credit spreads fell to historic median levels as the energy market and economic outlook improved in 2016.”
Also, the “extended U.S. economic growth cycle supports positive returns and can push credit spreads below long-term levels. Credit markets continue to benefit from high demand in a low-rate environment, but current spread levels are less compelling,” said Mr. Bruce.
The view is similar among European sources. Following rallies in 2016, consultant Mercer Investments was relatively positive on the asset class. But with spreads tightening, executives have downgraded high yield to “unattractive,” said Edward Krijgsman, principal at Mercer in Amstelveen, Netherlands. “The spread currently is, in our opinion, not enough to compensate for any default that may take place in the segment,” he said.
Timothy J. Atkinson, senior vice president at Meketa Investment Group in London, said return expectations are lower today than a year ago. “We are concerned with certain valuations. But that being said, (for) our clients we have a long-term allocation to high-yield bonds” with a target allocation. For discretionary clients, executives alter exposure based on current views. “We are not eliminating high-yield exposure, but we are slightly underweight in our portfolios,” Mr. Atkinson said. The firm has not taken all exposure off the table because of high yield's lower duration, higher carry, “and relative to other higher yielding asset classes, it is more liquid.”
BNP Paribas Investment Partners moved to underweight last month having already cut to a neutral position on the asset class previously. “This time last year we were looking more to buy high yield than sell it, which the crises around China and the oil industry in the U.S. intensified,” said Colin Graham, chief investment officer, head of active asset allocation, multiasset solutions at the firm in London. There was an opportunity at that point to buy the asset class, with “pretty much all” of BNP Paribas' scenarios giving a positive return.
However, through 2016 spreads “came in enormously in high yield,” and now, looking at expected returns for this year, “in two out of three scenarios we can see negative returns coming to high yield from the valuations,” he said. For that reason, the firm moved to underweight the asset class.