Where do we go from here? Credit vs. Duration

 

“Wealth does not pass three generations.” — Ancient Chinese proverb

 

“Most people do not have a problem with you thinking for yourself, as long as your conclusions are the same as or at least compatible with their beliefs.”  — Mokokoma Mokhonoana

 

Duration or Credit Risk?

 

“Real estate and mortgage credit got us in so much trouble in 2007,” he said. “Next it’s going to be corporate credit, and the breakdowns are something we have to pay attention to.”

 

The above passage comes from an article in the Institutional Investor and quotes famed hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones. The article goes on to detail Mr Jones’s concerns around, what he describes as, a probable “global debt bubble”.

 

Global corporate borrowing reached  US dollars 13 trillion at the end of last year — more than double the level prior to the Global Financial Crisis.  The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that global corporations will need to repay or re-finance as much as US dollars 4 trillion in debt over the next three years.

 

Given the amounts involved, it comes as no surprise that Mr Jones is not alone in warning about the high levels of corporate debt being a potential systemic risk. Stanley Druckenmiller has been outspoken about it. Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects “corporates, not consumers or banks,” to be source of the next recession. Mr Claudio Borio, Head of the Monetary and Economic Department of the Bank for International Settlements, cautioned in December 2018 that “the bulge of BBB corporate debt, just above junk status, hovers like a dark cloud over investors”.

 

PIMCO, one of the world’s leading fixed-income investment managers, being a little more sanguine than the aforementioned, started advocating a more selective approve to US corporate debt allocations at the start of 2018.

 

From PIMCO’s research piece published in January 2018:

 

Crucially, the share of the U.S. investment grade (IG) nonfinancial bond market that is rated BBB (i.e., the lowest credit rating still considered IG) has increased to 48% in 2017 from around 25% in the 1990s. Drilling down into the riskiest part of the BBB market segment, the universe of low BBB rated bonds is now bigger than that of all BB rated bonds (i.e., the highest-rated speculative grade bonds) combined.

 

[…]

 

We think investors may want to consider taking a more cautious and selective approach to BBB nonfinancial corporate bonds, particularly those in the low BBB rated segment where the risk of downgrades is higher and the room for error is lower. Of note, we are not advocating a generic underweight to BBBs, but rather suggesting a more selective approach in this environment. We still see opportunities in select BBB nonfinancials, especially in sectors with high barriers to entry, above-trend growth and strong pricing power.

 

 

PIMCO’s timing, in hindsight, was prescient. US corporate bond spreads bottomed, on a cyclical basis at least, in January 2018, having tightened through most of 2016 and 2017 on the back of a recovery in oil prices and then the enactment of the Trump Tax Cuts. Spreads blew out in the second half of 2018 as global risk-off sentiment gathered steam.

 

US Corporate BAA spreads to 10 year US Treasuries bottomed at around 150 basis points, approximately the same level as the pre-Global Financial Crisis low. Today, spreads are below 230 basis points, having partially retraced the move to above 250 basis points from late last year.

BICLB10Y Index (US Corporate BAA 2019-03-19 12-11-52.png

 

US High Yield spreads to 10 year US Treasuries bottomed at around 295 basis points, failing, however, to break their 2014 low of  approximately 230 basis points. Incidentally, high yield spreads bottomed around 230 basis points prior to the Global Financial Crisis as well. Presently, spreads stand at approximately 390 basis points, having come in from over 530 basis points at the end of 2018.

 

CSI BARC Index (BarCap US Corp H 2019-03-19 12-13-00.png

 

A catastrophic event, widely experienced or one reported on extensively, can scar the collective imagination. The scarring can in turn heighten the sensitivity of individuals or the collective to signs pointing to the possible recurrence of said catastrophic event.

 

In the run up to the Global Financial Crisis, the investment community was long, very long, corporate credit —  investment grade and high yield spreads were at or near multi-decade lows between 2005 and 2008. Following the Lehman bankruptcy, credit spreads spiked to multi-decade highs, leaving many investors nursing significant mark-to-market losses.

 

We are therefore not surprised that corporate debt is widely cited as a major risk to global markets in the event of a recession or another financial crisis.

 

What is often overlooked, however, is that investors, particularly institutional investors, were not long duration in the run up to the Global Financial Crisis — rather, it could be argued, they were quite possibly short duration. Using the 10 year US Treasury term premium as an indicator — the higher the term premium, the shorter the market is duration and vice versa — we can see term premium, in the below chart, rising rapidly in the two years running up to the Lehman bankruptcy, i.e. the market punishing duration.

 

ACMTP10 Index (Adrian Crump & Mo 2019-03-19 12-06-34.png

 

As we all know, those who had the wherewithal to remain long duration were rewarded most handsomely soon after the collapse of Lehman.

 

Today, term premium for 10 year US Treasuries is negative —  more than 70 basis points negative versus over 150 basis positive in 2007. If the next crisis or recession is unlike the last one, and it usually is, could it be that long duration, not long credit risk, is the pain trade?

 

When duration is punished, the entire spectrum of fixed income instruments feels the pain. In the next crisis there may be few places for coupon clippers to hide.

 

 

The Hypothetical Family Office

 

The story is clichéd but bears repeating.

 

A patriarch from humble beginnings and limited employment opportunities establishes a small business, works hard, starts employing relatives into the business and later his villagers. Benefiting from macroeconomic tailwinds and nonexistent competition, the business expands at a rapid pace and starts spitting out cash the patriarch continues to put back into the business.

 

As the patriarch grows older, he encourages his children to join the business. In this instance, the patriarch has three sons. The first, having grown up when his family had little wealth, shows no interest and is far more concerned with spending his father’s newfound wealth than increasing it. The second, having had a comfortable, if not luxury laden, upbringing, wants to prove his worth and is eager to join his father in his entrepreneurial pursuits. The third, still young and having experienced little else except luxury, pursues formal education  at a school surrounded by the scions of other business magnates.

 

After decades of re-investing in the business and expanding it across the country, comes a point where the cash being generated by the business far overwhelms any of its investment needs. So the patriarch did, what any wealthy man in any developing economy has done over the last five decades, invests in real estate and then appoints his second son to manage and grow the real estate portfolio.

 

Real estate prices witness a parabolic rise over the next decade, driven by rapid population growth, urbanisation and lack of avenues to direct excess capital as local capital markets remain underdeveloped.  The income from the family’s real estate portfolio exceeds that of the patriarch’s original business.

 

Come the late-1990’s, the third son graduates from university and joins the family business with fresh ideas and aspirations. He tries to convince his father and elder brothers to establish a family office and diversify wealth across geographies and asset classes. The second son averse to change, urges his father to stick to what they know and not to pursue the third son’s ideas. The third son, being his father’s favourite, however, is able to get his way. A family office is established, the second son continues to manage real estate and the third son is given a small amount of capital to diversify the family’s wealth.

 

As the first order of business, the third son feels that his family must gain some exposure to the dot.com boom. He connects with private bankers to help him  allocate small amounts of capital to venture capital and technology funds.  Just as the family’s capital is deployed into these funds, the tech bubble bursts and the funds are quickly marked down to zero. Mistake number 1.

 

The second son gains the upper hand and continues expanding the family’s real estate portfolio. The ageing patriarch with little ambition to manage his original business decides to take a step back, handing over the business to his sons. The sons enamoured by the world of investing, show little appetite for day-to-day operations. Instead, with the local capital markets starting to take off and growing public interest in stocks, the family appoints an independent management team, lists the business on the local stock market and enjoys a cash windfall. They are no longer millionaires, but multi-billionaires. It is now the mid-2000’s.

 

The losses from the tech-bubble long forgotten, the third son is given purview over some of the windfall profits. Erring on the side of caution this time, he engages the services of strategy consultants and investment consultants. Their advice is to allocate capital to big-name private equity and real estate managers. Capital is allocated to the likes of Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts, Carlyle Group, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, amongst others, albeit it through private wealth management structures loaded with upfront and hidden fees.

 

The timing of allocations was not great but not spotting the hidden fees was criminal. Eventually, the returns were respectable gross of fees but atrocious on a net basis. Mistake number 2.

 

With large amounts of dry powder still at his disposal, the third son starts directly and aggressively investing the family’s wealth into the financial services sector — “look at the return on equity financial institutions enjoy,” he said.

 

Come the back end of 2008, Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt and those high returns on equity are history.  Mistake number 3.

 

In 2011, the third sons starts investing small amounts of capital into biotechnology start-ups, directly not through funds — “we are investing alongside brand name venture capital funds without paying fees” he said. As it often happens, start-ups burn through cash and need to raise more capital. Not wanting to be diluted, the family participates in each subsequent round of financing. Come 2014 the handful of biotech start-ups are no longer small investments, rather the family is even the single largest shareholder in some instances.

 

In 2015, the biotech bubble pops and all of the start-ups invested in by the family prove to be duds. Mistake number 4.

 

In 2019, the family office allocated capital to venture capital funds for the first time since their late 1990’s debacle. 

 

Everything in the above tale is true, except for the family office being hypothetical.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Environmental Concerns: Ideas on the Long Side

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

— Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

In this week’s piece we discuss the Paris Agreement — a global accord signed in 2015 with the aim of mitigating global warming —  and the progress made on curbing carbon emissions since the signing of the accord. We also identify two long ideas in the clean & renewable energy and waste management sectors. Finally, we briefly touch upon the surge in Chinese credit growth during January.

 

Environmental Concerns

 

On 12 December 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, the 190-plus parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, which committed countries to do their best “to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future“.

The agreement was seen as  “a turning point in the history of common human endeavour, capturing the combined political, economic and social will of governments, cities, regions, citizens, business and investors to overcome the existential threat of unchecked climate change“.

Three years since the Paris accord was negotiated,  we were amazed to learn that there has been no reduction in global emissions. In fact, there has not even been a decline in the rate of increase in emissions. Much rather, the rate at which emissions are being added to the atmosphere has increased!

Coal-fired power generation is still increasing — coal powered plants continue to be built and existing plants are not being removed as fast as new ones are being added.

What has gone wrong?

The lack of progress since Paris is attributed, by some, to the opacity of pledges made in the agreement, and the parties to the agreement remaining vague on the specific policies they will adopt to meet them. Further, there is no official mechanism for measuring progress.

The governing body and framework for the agreement, we think, are both highly bureaucratic and politicised. As is their wont, politicised bureaucracies are as much about not offending their stakeholders as they are about effective governance, if not more. The implications of this, we think, are that the goals of the Paris Agreement are likely to prove far too ambitious and meaningful, if any, progress on curbing global emissions will have to be made through the participation of the private sector.

The private sector, however, is unlikely to participate of its own volition. Rather, the powers that be, as ever, will need to create incentives, if, of course, they want profit seeking enterprises to participate in the mission to curb global emissions. Incentives can come in the form of regulations —  a cost of doing business, per say — or rewards — profits or higher relative valuations.

Higher relative valuations would be a result of supranational, multi-lateral and public institutions limiting their investment allocations to securities of companies adhering to a set of predefined environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. Thereby increasing the relative demand for ESG-compliant securities ipso facto a higher relative valuation to  that of non-compliant securities.

 

Ideas on the Long Side

 

Below we highlight two stocks we consider to be interesting  potential long-ideas in the clean & renewable energy and waste management sectors below.

Advanced Emissions Solutions $ADES

Advanced Emissions Solutions is an emissions solutions provider with a focus on mercury and gas control solutions for coal-fired power plants in the United States. The company supplies electric coal-fired generation facilities with systems that chemically pre-treat various types of coal prior to the burn process. It also up sells  existing customers by providing consulting services and chemicals used to remove mercury and other hazardous airborne pollutants from the emissions resulting from the burning of coal.

The company supports coal-fired electric generation facilities in complying with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.

$ADES has a market capitalisation of US dollars 233 million, trades at estimated 2018 price-to-earnings of 6.5 times and dividend yield of 8.5 per cent.  Short interest in the company is high at more than 11 per cent of free float.

 

ADES US Equity (Advanced Emissio 2019-02-19 14-33-04.jpg

 

Heritage Crystal Clean $HCCI

Heritage-Crystal Clean is a US-centric company that helps businesses clean parts and dispose of highly regulated waste materials, such as cleaning solvents, used oil, and paint, that cannot be discarded through municipal trash systems or standard drains. Customers, primarily small to midsize companies, include car dealerships, auto repair shops, trucking firms, and manufacturers such as metal fabricators. $HCCI serves customers in 42 states in the central and eastern US.

$HCCI has a market capitalisation of US dollars 600 million, trades at a rich valuation of estimated 2018 price-to-earnings of 36 times. The company, however, has a strong growth profile with earnings estimated to increase by more than 70 per cent in 2019.

 

HCCI US Equity (Heritage-Crystal 2019-02-19 14-54-41.jpg

China: Soaring Credit Growth

 

From Bloomberg:

 

China’s credit growth exceeded expectations in January amid a seasonal lending surge at the start of the year.

  • Aggregate financing was 4.64 trillion yuan ($685 billion) in January, the People’s Bank of China said. That compares with an estimated 3.3 trillion yuan in a Bloomberg survey
  • Financial institutions made a record 3.23 trillion yuan of new loans, versus a projected 3 trillion yuan. That was the most in any month back to at least 1992, when the data began

 

The Chinese leadership’s efforts to reinvigorate credit growth and support economic activity in the latter half of 2018 may be beginning to bear fruit. Credit growth, in January reached 10.6 per cent  year-over-year — welcome relief given the less than stellar showing in the latter half of last year.

The data from January is the first sign that the Chinese credit cycle may have bottomed out.

Chinese banks originated new loans amounting to CNY 3.23 trillion, increasing by more than 13 per cent year-over-year and setting a new monthly record in the process. The reading was well above both the CNY 1.08 trillion distributed in December and market expectations of CNY 2.80 trillion.

Net corporate bond issuance came in at CNY 499 billion, the highest level in almost in three years. As impressive as this may seem, state-owned enterprises accounted for more than nine tenths of gross corporate bond issuance.  Suggesting that Beijing’s recent calls for banks to provide greater support to the private sector has not yet had the desired effect. Moreover, credit growth tends to be higher in January, and ahead of the Chinese New Year. We will not be surprised if February data is less encouraging and only expect greater clarity after March.

If, indeed, credit growth remains strong over the coming months, it will still take time to show up in economic data. Typically, a spike in Chinese credit growth has led a corresponding spike in domestic demand by nine months. We still expect first quarter data to be weak as exporters suffer a hangover from the fourth quarter rush to get US orders out ahead of the original tariff hike deadline.

Nonetheless, early indications from credit growth and the looser monetary policy stance of the People’s Bank of China are of Chinese economic activity, as we have posited previously, to get incrementally better, not worse, in 2019.

 

 

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This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.