Corporate debt frenzy rolls on as market worries loom

  • Markets
  • Monday, 21 Sep 2020

Bond boom: Traders working on the floor at the opening bell of the Dow Industrial Average at the New York Stock Exchange in New York. The Fed’s policy of holding interest rates near zero has spurred borrowing by corporations this year. — AFP

NEW YORK: Investors are gearing up for the year’s record-breaking pace of corporate bond issuance to continue in the coming week, even after the US Federal Reserve rattled nerves at its September meeting with a gloomier-than-expected economic outlook.

The past week has seen roughly US$42bil of high-grade debt come to market in 39 deals, most of which were small and offered by first-time issuers.

“I would expect next week to be similar, ” said Monica Erickson, portfolio manager, global developed credit, at DoubleLine.

The breakneck pace of fresh issuance illustrates how the Fed’s late March pledge to backstop credit markets and its policy of holding interest rates near zero have spurred borrowing by corporations this year. Companies had already issued US$1.7 trillion in debt through the end of August, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, compared with US$944bil in the same period last year.

Demand is likely to stay elevated in the next few weeks, investors said, as historically low rates continue to drive a hunt for yield despite a cluster of economic and political concerns. Those include the Fed’s downbeat economic projections as well as worries over waning fiscal support and potential uncertainty around the US presidential election.

“You have low interest rates, you have tight credit spreads: If I’m an issuer, I’m going to issue as much as humanly possible because it’s cheap debt, ” said Nick Maroutsos, head of global bonds at Janus Henderson Investors. “That demand is there because people are craving any sort of return.”

Just over US$18bil in high-yield debt had priced in the week through mid-morning Friday, with two more deals in the pipeline from Aetheon United and PM General Purchaser, according to IFR’s Refinitiv. Refinitiv’s data showed that Friday’s issuance was expected to drive the year-to-date total over US$337bil, past the previous annual record of US$332bil set in 2012.

Jason Vlosich, head fixed income trader at Brown Advisory, said he expects an additional US$40bil or so in new investment-grade deals through the end of the month. Bank of America in August forecast that this month’s investment-grade issuance was likely to be between US$120bil and US$140bil. September issuance stood at about US$115bil on Friday, according to Refinitiv.

In the coming week, investors will be watching earnings reports from Jefferies Financial Group, which is typically seen as a preview of what’s to come from Wall Street banks, Nike, cruise line Carnival and retailers including Rite Aid and Costco. The economic data calendar is comparatively light, with Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index on Wednesday and weekly jobless claims on Thursday.

In a break with recent trends, about 50% of new investment-grade debt in 2020 has been issued to pay off or refinance existing debt, versus the 20% or 30% that is typical, said Erickson.

“Companies will come to market and buy back higher-priced debt just to lower their interest expense.”

As a result, a slowdown in M&A and share buybacks – expected to continue through the end of the year – is less likely to dent issuance.

Several factors could potentially slow the pace of corporate debt offerings, investors said. Junk-rated issuers could have trouble accessing the market if it appears the nascent US recovery is flagging, Vlosich said.

Since many big name investment-grade companies have already come to the market this year, the remainder of 2020 could mean smaller, lesser-known companies dominate issuance, resulting in lighter volumes. An uptick in Treasury yields could also diminish the allure of corporate debt, which is seen as a far riskier investment.

For now, however, the intense demand for higher yielding debt remains in place.

Flows into both high-yield and investment grade funds rose in the last week and are up 45% and 18% respectively since the start of April, according to Lipper.

“I don’t see this stopping anytime soon, ” said Maroutsos. — Reuters

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