Where are we in the credit cycle?

08 February 2016

Standard Life Investments, the global investment manager, warns investors should expect another year of volatile outcomes in global credit markets, with further dispersion in regional performance.

In February’s Global Outlook, Craig MacDonald, Head of Credit for Standard Life Investments, has used a number of indicators to assess where investors are in the credit cycle, including trends in bank lending standards, corporate leverage levels, and the flatness of government yield curves.

Rod Paris

Craig MacDonald said:

“Although credit markets came under general pressure last year, there was still considerable dispersion in regional performance and investment grade debt which provided selective opportunities for savvy investors. European high yield outperformed US high yield; Sterling investment grade outperformed Euro investment grade, and Asian emerging market credit was actually a strong performer despite global concerns over China.

“However, there has been a weak and much more correlated start to 2016. Bank lending standards have tightened in emerging markets, and there are nascent signs of tightening in the US, although European lending is still loosening. Corporate leverage is relatively high in the investment grade sector, but remains lower than during the 1990s once the energy and commodity sectors are stripped out. Finally, although yield curves have flattened, they are still steeper than has been associated with previous recessions. While defaults have risen, this is only from historically low levels and they are generally a lagging, not leading, indicator.

“US high yield was one of the worst performing credit markets in 2015 with a -5% return. Almost 50% of bonds produced negative returns and a number entered distressed levels. Just over 20% of US high yield names are in energy and commodities and therefore vulnerable to the fall in commodity prices. Distress has also been seen in retail and telecommunications, however, yields have widened out to 9%, leading to selective opportunities.

“In US investment grade, good-quality issuers now look cheap and while we are avoiding some of the smaller regional US banks with over-exposure to commodities, it is a different story for the large banks such as JP Morgan, which have strong balance sheets with low book exposure to commodities.

“Another source of market worry has been emerging markets (EM). However, Russian corporate credit had a very strong performance in 2015 despite Russia’s myriad of problems. And Chinese credit outperformed, particularly property bonds. The lesson is that there are opportunities as well as risks in EM credit.

“The upshot is that we expect another year of volatility in credit markets, and believe the risk of recession is lower than the market is pricing in. This is an environment of selective opportunities. In high yield during 2015, our funds benefited from a reduced exposure to the most risky CCC rated debt, but it is still too early to reverse this position despite the wider yields on offer.”