Synopsis: The modest high-yield spread-widening that accompanied the early February stock market plunge was not an anomaly demanding an explanation.
Stocks’ long period of stability came to an abrupt halt on Groundhog Day and the non-investment-grade bond market’s response quickly became a topic of interest. Barron’s “The Trader” column noted that “the high-yield bond market is refusing to act as if a crisis is at hand” (see note 1). The “Current Yield” column elaborated:
The extra yield investors demand to hold high-yield bonds instead of Treasuries widened just 0.26% in the selloff, contrasting with 2015 and 2016: The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 12% and 11% respectively, and high-yield spreads climbed 1.5% and 2.75%, notes FundStrat’s Tom Lee.
High-yield has been relatively stable, as Lee wrote Friday. “It is extremely unusual that HY would diverge so sharply,” he said (see note 2).
Let us explore that last statement a bit more closely. How unusual, in fact, is the high-yield’s comparatively muted response to the equity market selloff? In the week-over-week period from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8, preceding the one-day rebound on Friday, Feb. 9, the change in the level of the S&P 500 was –8.54%. During that same interval, the option-adjusted spread (OAS) on the ICE BofA Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index widened by 30 bps. The table below shows how the OAS behaved during all weekly stock market declines of comparable magnitude from 1990–2017:
It is true that the high-yield risk premium increased far more than the recent 30 bps in some previous major stock market selloffs. Note, however, that the three largest spread-widenings—126, 199, and 274 bps—all occurred during the Great Recession of January 2008–June 2009. In two other instances, including the worst weekly S&P 500 change in our sample of stock selloffs of a similar magnitude to the latest one (–10.54% in the week ending April 14, 2000), the ICE BAML High Yield Index’s OAS widened by less than the 30 bps widening from February 1–8. In fact, that stock plunge was accompanied by the smallest high-yield spread-widening in the sample, a barely positive two basis points.
While the sample size for these events is small, the limited evidence indicates that barring a recession, a high-yield spread-widening of only 30 bps is not anomalous. Granted, the spread widened by more than twice as much, 72 bps, in the non-recession week ended Aug. 5, 2011. Interestingly, that stock market selloff originated in the debt market. S&P Global Ratings downgraded the U.S. Treasury from AAA to AA+, adding that further downgrading was possible, and Moody’s warned that it, too, might lower its rating. This all happened in the context to fears that the debt crisis then engulfing Portugal, Ireland, and Greece would spread to Spain and Italy.
In short, one could even argue that a widening of 30 bps in the high-yield spread from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8 was an emphatic, rather than a reserved response to the stock selloff, considering that neither a recession nor a sovereign debt crisis was underway. Again, one should not overstate the importance of these conclusions, given the small number of observations. Still, it is by no means clear that there is a puzzle in need of solving in the current divergence between the equity and high-yield markets’ views of the factors that influence the values of risky assets.
Marty Fridson, Chief Investment Officer of Lehmann Livian Fridson Advisors LLC, is a contributing analyst to S&P Global Market Intelligence. His weekly leveraged finance commentary appears exclusively on LCD, an offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Marty can be reached at [email protected]
Research assistance by Kai Zhao and Yaxian Li.
1. Ben Levisohn, “After Correction Pain, More Market Gain?” Barron’s (Feb. 10, 2018).
2. Mary Childs, “Bonds Behaving Well: A Tale of Two Markets,” Barron’s (Feb. 10, 2018).
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