This widening is worrying because it points to a deterioration of credits. The cause is increased mergers-and-acquisitions activity undertaken by triple-B companies in the past few years. This has been made possible by easy money allowing corporates to take on more debt and causing a sudden increase of leverage.
One notable example is General Electric, whose bond prices have recently fallen to distressed levels. Although Ge has only recently been affected by negative investor sentiment, the company’s situation has been problematic since 2014 when GE acquired Alstom for $17 bn in the hope of becoming a power-generation leader via Natural Gas. This acquisition was financed by debt that dramatically boosted the leverage of the overall GE structure. On top of that, GE was left with a huge debt and an underperforming business once energy prices began their protracted decline in late 2014.
The M&A bonanza is obviously only part of the story concerning the sudden widening of triple-B US corporate bond spreads. The other part of a story concerns Federal Reserve policies and interest rate hikes pushing investors to reconsider risk.
Although the triple-B US corporate space is undergoing a repricing, I believe that it is very unlikely that the widening of spreads and isolated cases such as GE can provoke a wider sell-off of the investment grade corporate space for the simple reason that investors remain hungry for yield, and widening spreads in the IG world represent the prefect opportunity to swap lower-rated corporates for better rated ones in an effort to ride out the late economic cycle and possible recession. Short-term US high grade corporates may be the answer
We believe that this is the right moment to look for opportunities in the US investment grade corporate space, preferring short-term maturities over long. But why would we buy bonds with short maturities if we expect interest rates to push up the shorter part of the curve?
We do see short-term interest rates rising for the remainder of this year and the next, but we also believe that investing in short maturities can be a way for investors to earn interest while remaining somewhat neutral on US yield curve movements. This way, once the bonds mature, the investor will retain the flexibility to invest in new opportunities that may arise from a completely different market from the one we are looking at today.
In this case, the triple B corporate space, which presently provides an interest pick up over Treasuries of about 150 basis points, seems to be the perfect cushion against rising inflation and interest rates, even if it may be affected by ratings downgrades.