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Investing

Managers see more woe from high-yield market

Tax reform likely to take a nice bite out of already short supply

Holger Mertens said investment-grade managers compete for the same bonds as their high-yield brethren.

High-yield managers are cautious over incoming U.S. tax reform that is set to reduce the volume of debt issuance in an already reduced pool of opportunities.

These managers already have had to cope with a shortage of BB bonds available to them in recent months because of increased competition from investment-grade managers, who have been moving down the credit quality curve in their own search for yield.

"A lot of investment-grade funds had leeway, or have asked clients to gain leeway, to invest into BB bonds as yields in investment grade have trended lower over the last couple of years. This has increased the competition for BB bonds as investment-grade (managers) as well as high-yield (managers) are trying to buy these assets," said Holger Mertens, global credit manager at Nikko Asset Management, in London.

On top of that, the past year has seen a number of corporations improve their credit ratings, moving to BBB from BB, also reducing the size of the high-yield asset pool. According to Moody's Investors Service, some 35 corporations in the U.S. and Europe have boosted their ratings to investment-grade status in 2017.

High-yield managers might have braved the decreasing supply and increasing competition by incorporating still lower rated instruments into their strategies. But, sources said, the U.S. tax reform initially will limit deductibility of interest expense to 30% of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, which could lead to fewer B bonds being issued. (After four years, the limit is applied only to EBIT.)

"Approximately one-third of the current high-yield market, mostly CCC bonds and B bonds, has interest expense above 30%," noted Bryon Willy, principal and lead U.S. researcher for fixed income at Mercer in Chicago.

"And if interest rates increase (and they are expected to), these EBIT numbers will increase for everyone. (Then) BB issuers have the most to lose if this happens — they also have the most duration and convexity in high yield."

Paolo Zanghieri, senior economist, Generali Investments in Milan, Italy, said the impact of tax reform on the high-yield segment ​ should not be underestimated in terms of spreads and issuance volumes. "This will lead investors to discriminate across issuers. It will likely result in an overall decompression and more pronounced cross-section dispersion in spreads, at the expense of more leveraged sectors like telecommunications, aerospace and defense, metals and mining, and health care and business services."

Some sources said investment-grade managers might find themselves in a sweet spot when the tax is implemented.

"We think the tax reform could be positive for investment-grade credits in technology and health care because in these sectors, companies have issued bonds to avoid repatriation of funds and U.S. tax payments," Nikko's Mr. Martens said.

"As the tax reform is highly likely to introduce a territorial-based income tax, cash parked abroad is supposed to return to the U.S. We expect some bonds which were over the last years issued for tax purposes to being called at a premium price. Early calls should lead to gains for bondholders," he said.

But high-yield retained its dominance in the domestic fixed-income rankings of top-performing managers in the last 12 months, according to Morningstar Inc. And they are attracting investors.

The Louisiana Teachers' Retirement System, Baton Rouge, announced it will search for high-yield managers in 2018.

The $115.6 billion New York State Teachers' Retirement System, Albany, allocated $400 million to high-yield strategies this year. Also, in Europe, AP1, Stockholm, and PKH, Oslo, each hired high-yield managers this year. The 323 billion Swedish kronor ($38 billion) AP1 allocated $400 million to Hermes Investment Management in October. A spokeswoman said the mandate with Hermes is not going to be affected by changes linked to tax reform. PKH declined to disclose details of their allocation.

James Gledhill, head of European high yield at AXA Investment Managers in London, remains optimistic about institutional investors' appetite for taking on more risk and accepting lower-rated bonds because of the current low rate of defaults among high-yield issuers in Europe. AXA IM managed €23.3 billion ($27.6 billion) in high yield as of Nov. 30.

"Investors remain keen to invest in B bonds given (the) positive default environment," Mr. Gledhill said. "In the last few weeks we have seen some more higher risk CCC bonds (in the market) with higher yields. In some ways we think the core high-yield market would be very receptive to issuance."

David Riley, head of credit strategy at BlueBay Asset Management in London, agreed. "In the European leveraged loan market, rising investor demand is being met by an increase in supply from more highly leveraged companies and weaker protections for creditors. But default risk remains very low against the backdrop of improving economic growth and corporate earnings." BlueBay has $7 billion in high-yield strategies.

Sources also said tax reform could encourage European subsidiaries of large U.S. corporations to issue more euro-denominated corporate bonds to help with supply. But some asset owners are not convinced high-yield strategies will continue to enjoy its successful run.​