High-yield risks shed doubts on strength of US economy

NEW YORK: The selloff in the bellwether high risk corporate debt market is spreading fears that the US economy is on less sound footing than investors thought.

On Monday, the widely-traded iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF – essentially a basket of junk debt -expanded its losses for the year to 12 percent. A competitor product, the SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF, expanded its losses for the year to 13.4 percent.

Seven years after the credit crisis, the recent failure of a handful of funds investing mostly in distressed debt has taken on a mythic quality in the minds of some investors who view debt markets as a leading indicator of problems that could later haunt stocks and the economy.

“Liquidity-supported markets, which is what we have had for a while now, are particularly vulnerable to the possibility of policy mistakes and/or market accidents,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic advisor at Allianz SE, speaking of the US Federal Reserve’s multi-year policy of holding interest rates low and propping up the bond market with big purchases.

“Investors today are worried about both, given the evolving divergence in monetary policy and the liquidity problems in certain market segments” including the energy-heavy corners of the corporate debt market.

The question for investors in stocks as well as bonds is whether pain in the high-yield market is a sign of much wider economic suffering to come.

Monetary policy in Europe and elsewhere is generally easing while in the United States, the Fed is expected to start a tightening cycle on Wednesday on signs of labor market health.

The benchmark S&P 500 is down just 5 percent from an all-time closing high, issuance of investment-grade corporate debt remains high and a Fed rate hike would be another vote of confidence in the economy.

Could the Fed and US markets be terribly wrong? Fund managers and analysts who watch high-yield debt believe they could be.

High-yield issuers posted at least $1.5 billion in defaults every month for 13 consecutive months, just one month shy of the streak seen at the peak of the credit crisis in 2008 and 2009, according to Fitch Ratings Inc.

The relative gap between the yields required by some corporate debt investors and what they expect for risk-free assets, known as spreads, are as wide as they have been since that period. Coming into Monday’s market, the average spread of junk bonds over comparable Treasuries stood at 7.10 percentage points, the widest since June 2012, according to data from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch High Yield Master Index.

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