Global Investing

Rollover risks rising on high-yield bonds

Emerging market corporate debt is in high demand, as we pointed out in this article yesterday.  But we noted headwinds too, not least the amount of debt that will fall due in coming years as a result of the current bond issuance bonanza.

David Spegel, head of emerging debt research at ING in New York is highlighting a new danger — that of the exponential increase in speculative grade debt, especially from developed markets, that is up for rollover in coming years. A swathe  of credit rating downgrades for European companies this year mean that many fund managers who bought high-grade assets, have now found themselves holding sub-investment grade paper.  He calculates in a note this week that $47 billion of “junk” rated European paper will find itself up for refinancing in the first half of next year, more than double the levels that were rolled over in the first half of 2012.

It gets worse. The big danger now is that as Spain and Italy tumble into the junk-rated category (Ratings agency S&P on Wednesday cut Spain to BBB-, just one notch above junk) their blue-chip companies may well have to follow suit.  Spegel estimates over $100 billion in Spanish and Italian BBB rated corporate bonds are due next year. If these slip into speculative grade, it would triple the amount  of high-yield paper that needs refinancing in the first six months of 2013.

The picture is slightly less dire in the United States next year but it worsens in 2014  when high-yield debt redemptions total $121 billion, or a 60 percent jump from 2012 levels, Spegel says, adding:

Should risk-appetite sour…refunding may prove problematic for many global speculative grade corporates, in which case we could look forward to significantly higher global default rates as soon as 2014.

Venezuela — high risk, higher yield

Venezuela's Chavez with Lukashenko of Belarus

Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with  a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.

Venezuela’s 2022 dollar bond yields 15.5 percent while the 2022 issue from state oil firm PDVSA trades at 17 percent yield. Venezuelan debt pays a 1200 basis point premium to U.S. Treasuries, according to the EMBI Global bond index.

Now check out Belarus. Dire public finances, a huge recent currency devaluation, and seeking an $8 billion bailout from the IMF, yet able to pay 11 percent on its 2018 issue. Its yield premium to Treasuries is 900 bps or three percentage points less than Venezuela.

Desperately seeking yield

Equities may be having a stop-start kind of month, but investors do seem to be more willing to take on risk than before. The latest numbers from EPFR Global, a tracker of investment flows, show high-yield bond funds raking in the money in the second week of January. A net $766 million flowed into the HY funds tracked by the firm. At the same time, a net $578 million flowed into U.S. municipal bond funds.

The drive behind these flows is a mix of a desperate search for yield and a belief that the risk might well be worth taking. Investment grade corporate debt is considered to be priced at Armageddon levels. That is, the price assumes too much trouble ahead than is likely. This has led, for example, to a monthly record in new bond issuance in January in Europe.

High yield is not pricing in quite as extreme a default rate from a historial perspective. But it is still evidently attractive, hence $3.38 billion in global net inflows over the past seven weeks.