The widening of European high-yield corporate spreads can be explained by the headlines. For example, this year has seen Telecom Italia as one of the worst performers in the global bond market; its senior unsecured bond in EUR, with a 2033 maturity and paying 7.75% in coupon, has shrugged off almost 40 points in price, causing the yield to double from 3% to 6%.
Telecom Italia is a particular case where leadership instability has taken a toll on corporate debt performance, but the elements that placed the telecoms firm under considerable stress are the same ones that could cause a widespread weakness across other high yield corporates in EUR: weak fundamentals, political uncertainty, and central bank policies.
It is no coincidence that, apart from Telecom Italia, we have started to see other companies entering into ‘emergency mode’. Italian construction company CMC Ravenna, for instance, has announced that it will not be able to pay the coupon on its 2023 bonds. Outside of Italy, Nystar, Europe’s biggest zinc smelter, is also tumbling on poor Q3 earnings results and speculation on a possible debt restructuring.
To add to the list of European companies in difficulties, Renault’s CEO Carlos Ghosn has been arrested in Japan.
All these companies are certainly not helped by hawkish central bank sentiment, a falling equity market, and political uncertainty. The role of central banks
Over the past five years, the European Central Bank has not only been instrumental in the recovery of the periphery, but in avoiding a larger European debt crisis that would have involved investors and creditors across all Europe. The policies of the ECB have supported asset prices, enabling even the most stressed corporates to survive as interest rates fell to historic lows and investors were progressively pushed to accept more risk in order to get higher returns.
As you can see in Figure 2, the Itraxx Crossover – an index that tracks the CDS contract performance of Europe’s most liquid sub-investment grade entities – has been rangebound since the ECB launched its purchase programme. This makes investors comfortable that valuations will remain supported until the ECB aggressively unwinds its balance sheet.
This leads to an overall tightening of European credit spreads and a considerable decrease of corporate defaults.
Given that the ECB said that it will not hike interest rates until the end of next year, it is reasonable to say that European high-yield corporates will continue to be supported in 2019. But does that mean that investors should continue to buy lower-rated corporate bonds even as prices fall?
In this environment, a change of strategy it is necessary, but this is easier to say than to do. Euro bond yields across all industries and ratings continue to be very low, and flying to safety implies leaving the high-yield space, where yields are currently low, for even lower yields in the investment grade space.