Investors Are Main Lenders To U.S. Businesses, But May Not Understand Risks

By Path Financial President and Chief Investment Officer Raul Elizalde

today imageFaced with regulatory constraints and stricter guidelines, bank lending to businesses declined since the financial crisis. The business sector filled the void by issuing bonds, which were quickly swallowed by yield-seeking investors. This amounted to a transfer of lending risk out the banking sector and into the investor class. This is good news for the banks, which are now in better shape, especially in the U.S.. The bad news is that, unlike banks, the investor class has no safeguards if something should go wrong. Also unlike banks, the average bondholder is ill-prepared to ascertain credit risk. And there are signs that the risks bond investors face are increasing.

There is no doubt that the role of investors as lenders to businesses has become more prominent. In the U.S., for example, companies in the non-financial sectors now have well over twice as many bonds than loans outstanding. In Europe, although bonds are not a widespread source of private sector financing, the proportion of bonds still nearly doubled with respect to loans since the financial crisis.

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Another reason to worry is that U.S. corporate bonds rated at BBB by Standard and Poors represent the largest group by far, at 37% of all non-financial corporate bonds outstanding, or $2.7 trillion. This is a credit rating category at the very bottom of the “investment grade” ladder. Bonds downgraded from this BBB category fall to the “non-investment grade” land where many investors are forbidden from entering. Thus, a downgrade that pushes a bond across that divide triggers selling that can drive the bond price even lower.

There is a large wave of bonds maturing in the next five years, which could be as large as $10 trillion globally according to the McKinsey Global Institute report. These bonds will be replaced with new ones that would be more costly if they are issued at higher rates than the ones maturing. This is likely to be the case, since interest rates are going up. Bonds at the threshold of investment grade quality could easily fall into the “junk” world.

There is also the issue of bond liquidity. The McKinsey report reminds us that “buying and selling corporate bonds often requires a phone call to a trading desk at an investment bank, and there is little transparency on the price the buyer is quoted”, a feature that can seriously curtail bond liquidity if a credit event were to take place.

Mutual funds – the largest holders of corporate bonds – can easily withstand the first wave of redemptions with their cash holdings, but because many funds hold similar positions, a selling wave could pose a problem when everyone is on the same side of the trade. Both practitioners and academics like Caitlin Dannhauser of Villanova University and Saeid Hoseinzade of Suffolk University have studied this point in depth.

A liquidity crisis is more likely today, when trading desks at investments banks that used to hold large bond positions are now restricted from doing so. Bond holdings of primary dealers, for example, have steadily declined and are now about a fifth of what they were before the financial crisis, even as the outstanding amount of bonds more than doubled.

Investors are now much more exposed to business lending risk because of their large holdings of corporate bonds, a risk that will increase if economic conditions suffer. While the economy is currently firing on all cylinders, it is vulnerable to the tightening efforts of the Federal Reserve, a slowing global economy and the risk that today’s trade disputes could turn into a full-scale global trade war.

Any of these issues could push some corporate bonds over the non-investment-grade category, severely affecting bond prices. While it is unlikely that bond weakness could turn into a broad crisis, bondholders will be hurt. They need to pay close attention to the risks they face, especially because nobody will be there to help them if their investments sour.

This analysis originally appeared in Raul Elizalde’s Forbes.com investment column. Click here to follow Raul on Forbes.

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Raul Elizalde President Path FinancialRaul Elizalde is the Founder, President, and Chief Investment Officer of Path Financial, LLC. He may be reached at 941.350.7904 or raul@pathfinancial.net.

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Why the trade tantrum is bad for stocks

today imageThe tariffs and penalties recently announced by the US represent a significant change in US relationships with its trade partners that creates uncertainty and stokes market volatility. Worse, they offer no outcome that would make the whole thing worthwhile. This is because the US has a lot to lose by alienating traditional partners who could help achieve its goals. This is not good for the stock market.

Let’s start with the botched attempt to impose steel and aluminum tariffs. The vast majority of economists opposed it and, in fact, Forbes did not find a single one who thought it was a good idea.

A tariff on goods imported into the US is a tax charged to US buyers. When a tariff is sufficiently high, the final price of the import becomes higher than the price of the same good produced domestically, which in theory should boost local production. This was the goal for the steel and aluminum tariffs announced in March.

All this may sound like a good idea. Yet, domestic buyers of those metals, who use them to make other things in the US, warned that they would have to raise prices for US consumers. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross argued tenaciously that the tariffs’ effect on local prices would be minimal (“less than six-tenths of one cent on a can of soda, less than half of one percent on a car”).

If what Secretary Ross says is true, then those particular tariffs served no purpose because such tiny price increases can be easily absorbed by consumers. Will anybody rush to deploy massive amounts of capital on new aluminum smelters or steel plants to replace imports? Most likely, any domestic substitution effect would come in the form of a small increase in capacity utilization.

The tariff gambit, in short, was ill-considered because it offered small potential upside compared to the possible downside of an escalation of tit-for-tat tariffs that could detonate a broader trade war. It is unsurprising that the administration eventually watered down the initial proposal as it also became clear that the main villain in its eyes, i.e. China, was unlikely to suffer much from tariffs on aluminum and steel.

The US then changed tack, announcing $60bn in tariffs and penalties specifically on Chinese imports, this time in response to US accusations of intellectual property theft.

The feeling that the US is itching for a confrontation with China is unmistakable. But the US has a lot to lose and the room for error is small.

The US is the largest exporter of goods and services in the world (China is larger just on goods) and therefore has the most at risk if a trade war unfolds. Additionally, foreigners hold 42% of all outstanding US Treasuries – 64% of which is held by governments. The fact that such a large proportion of US creditors are foreign is not a point of strength in negotiations.

More generally, a trade war could negatively affect the benign market outlook generated by other policies, such as the 2017 tax cut bill. While that bill created serious long-term problems (see How the tax bill made the next recession much more painful, 1.23.2018) there is no doubt that it gave stocks a short-term boost. A trade war, on the other hand, has no positive effects on the stock market.

A trade war will hurt US exports, corporate profits, and growth. US imports will also suffer, which will lead to higher inflation if cheap imports are substituted by more expensive local products.

While curbing intellectual property theft is a desirable goal, it is unlikely to be achieved through a trade war. Most experts agree that a coordinated approach by the US and other nations also affected by China’s actions would be more direct and have a higher chance of success.

For example, the US, Europe, and other allies could tighten restrictions on Chinese acquisitions of companies that own sensitive technology, or demand an easing on China’s regulations that force foreign companies to joint-venture with locals to establish a presence there. Alas, the US policy has so far been more directed at venting grievances with US allies over cars (Germany) or lumber (Canada), rather than convincing them to coalesce around common interests.

The US decision of abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) also complicates the issue.

The TPP was advanced by the US to strengthen commercial and investment ties with much of the Pacific Rim. It excluded China, thus reining in its ambitions while reinforcing US influence on the region. When the US walked away from the TPP, China quickly moved in to revive talks on the competing, and far more advantageous (to China) Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. In addition, the US-less TPP’s successor – the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP – now also includes China.

As the US surrenders influence in Asia, it cedes power to China. Pounding traditional partners over the head with tough rhetoric on trade simply drives them away, hurting US influence elsewhere. Meanwhile, confronting China’s ambitions in Southeast Asia is not made any easier by the rather inexplicable absence of a US ambassador to South Korea or the chaos in the State Department, which is currently awaiting the confirmation of a new Secretary of State after the sudden dismissal of Rex Tillerson.

In sum, the trade tantrum is not positive for the stock market. Since the bull run is already quite long in the tooth, some will see the trade issue as a possible catalyst for the rally’s end.

We believe that a full-on trade war is unlikely, but tensions need to be defused. The US must also formulate a coherent trade policy and refocus diplomacy on global cooperation favorable to US interests rather than confrontation with allies. Otherwise, the bull market could end soon.
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Raul cropped for facebookRaul Elizalde is the Founder, President, and Chief Investment Officer of Path Financial, LLC. He may be reached at 941.350.7904 or raul@pathfinancial.net.

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