Tough Year for Investing (with one little-known, totally safe exception)

There’s still a few more days left in the year, but at this point it is safe to say, unfortunately, that it was a very bad year for investing. This Google chart shows most of the bad news. Note: nothing in this post is investment advice about the future, just a summary of the past.

The S&P 500, the typical benchmark for US equities, was down 20%. Bonds, usually a safe haven, were down over 14% as measured by the Vanguard Total Bond fund (more on bonds later).

Gold, the traditional hedge against bad times, was flat. I guess that’s not so bad. But gold is also traditionally considered a hedge against inflation, and inflation will probably end up being somewhere in the range of 5-7% this year (depending on your preferred index). So in real terms, even gold was down. And the supposed new hedge against fiat currency? Bitcoin is down 65% (crypto has other potential redeeming features, but inflation hedging was supposed to be one of them).

Did anything do well? Oil was basically flat too, starting and ending the year in the $75-80 range. Of course, oil companies did very well this year — Exxon is up over 70%, since prices were elevated for much of the year. But picking individual stocks is always fraught with danger. For example, you might think electric car companies would have done well in the past year, given the high gas prices for much of the year, yet Tesla was down over 70% (I won’t speculate here about why, but it may have other idiosyncratic explanations).

There is one boring, sleeper investment that would have earned you a decent return. Not a massive return, but one that will likely be slightly higher than the rate of price inflation (once we have complete inflation data). And the investment is totally safe, and by April you would have known exactly your rate of return for the full year: 8.5%.

That investment? Series I Savings Bonds, issued by the US Treasury. Series I Bonds pay a fixed rate of return for 6 months, which you know at the time you buy it. The interest rate rests every 6 months based on the rate of CPI inflation. If you invested in these bonds in January 2022, you would have earned 3.56% for 6 months, and then you would have earned 4.81% for the second half of 2022. And this was all known as early as April 2022 (though not officially confirmed by the Treasury until May).

While a lot of people were talking about the possibility of high inflation at the beginning of 2022, I don’t recall many people advising anyone to buy these bonds. It’s not a super well known investment, and not super exciting. Plus each investor is capped at $10,000 per year in most cases, so you couldn’t have moved all your money into I Bonds. Another restriction is that you lose some of the interest if you pull the money out before 5 years.

Still, this was one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for most broad investment types.

Raging Inflation, Spiking Rates, Plunging Stocks, Oh, My!

It has been such a volatile couple of days in the markets that you hardly know where to focus.  Friday’s inflation print was 8.6% (year/year), higher than expected and the highest in forty years, showing (yet again) that the Fed’s “transitory inflation” line was always just fantasy. Despite its glacial, foot-dragging pace of response to date, the Fed will need to raise short-rates (which they directly control) faster and farther than earlier planned. The Fed does not directly control long-term rates, but they influence them by buying and selling bonds on the open markets. For years, they have been buying bonds (driving interest rates lower), but they will have to stop that and maybe go the other way, being net sellers of bonds.  This will make financing government deficits much more difficult.

Anyway, both short and long term rates have gone vertical in the past few days as markets price in all this, reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis:

Rates of U. S. 1-Year Bills. From Wolf Richter.

Rates of U. S. 10-Year Notes. From Wolf Richter.

https://seekingalpha.com/article/4518160-treasury-bonds-plunge-yields-spike-stock-crypto-mess

Mortgage rates will likely march even further upward, increasing the monthly payments for most homeowners. At some point, this will deflate the housing market. Some of today’s eager new homebuyers who paid over asking price, assuming that housing only goes up, may be in for a rude awakening.

It seems like the only way to tamp down inflation is old-fashioned demand destruction. Stock market participants are starting to price in the dreaded R-word (recession). The plunging stock market has been in the news the last few days. Yes, it has dropped a lot, but shown on a five-year chart below it may not be so apocalyptic. It is dropping from ridiculously over-optimistic market highs at the end of 2021.  We are still slightly above the pre-COVID peak:

S&P 500 Index. From Seeking Alpha.

If you are young and working, you should see lower prices as a buying opportunity. If you are making regular contributions to a savings plan in stocks (dollar cost averaging), your dollars are buying you more stocks. If you feel you must DO something, you could always rebalance your portfolio, shifting some funds into stocks from something else, to maintain a say 70/30 stock/bond portfolio. Peace…

Raising Cash: Corporate Bonds versus Corporate Loans

Corporations raise money in various ways to invest in their operation. A company may sell common stock to the public; the shareholders are not guaranteed any particular return on their investment, but if the company does well, the share price and the dividends paid by the stock can be expected to go up.

Preferred stock falls in between common stock and bonds. Investors mainly buy preferred stock for its dividends. Typically, the price of the preferred stock doesn’t go up like common stock can, but the company cannot pay any dividends on the common unless all of the promised dividends on the preferred are paid up.

CORPORATE BONDS: INVESTMENT GRADE AND JUNK

Companies can sell bonds to raise money. Bonds are somewhat standardized securities, which are marketed to the broad investing community. The company is legally bound to pay the interest, and eventually the principal, of a bond. Bonds are senior to stocks in case of extracting value from a company that has gone bankrupt. Some bonds are more senior than others, depending on the “covenants” in the fine print of the bond description (debenture). For smaller, less stable companies, the only way they may get someone to buy their bonds is to agree to certain conditions that make it more likely the bond will be repaid. For instance, the company selling the bond might be restricted from issuing more than a certain amount of total debt relative to its earnings, or from taking on additional debt which might be senior to its existing debt.

Bonds are rated by agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. Large, stable companies get high ratings (e.g. AA), and can pay lower interest. You, the public, can buy into investment grade bonds through funds such as iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD). This fund currently pays about 2.6%, but most of the returns in the past several years have been from an increase in the price of the fund shares. (For longer term bonds, the market price of a previously-issued bond increases as market interest falls, which it has in recent years).

The lowest investment grade is BBB. The bonds of shakier companies are rated at BB or lower, and have pay higher interest. This is called high yield debt or junk bonds. You can invest in junk bonds through funds such as JNK and HYG.

CORPORATE BANK LOANS

Companies also obtain loans from banks. Banks scrutinize the operations of the company to decide whether they want to risk their money in making a loan. Banks usually demand restrictions and guarantees to help ensure the loan will paid back. These restrictions are called covenants. Sometimes the payback of the loan is tied to a specified asset. For instance, if the income of a company falls below a certain level (which might imperil paying off the loan), the covenant may require the company to give ownership of some asset, like a building or a set of oil wells, to the bank, so the bank can sell it to pay back the loan immediately, before economic conditions worsen.

This graphic shows some of the conditions a company might have to sign to in order to get a loan from a bank:

Source: https://www.wallstreetmojo.com/debt-covenants-bond/

Here is a summary of the differences between bonds and loans, courtesy of WallStreetMojo (slightly edited):

  • The main difference is that a bond is highly tradeable. If you purchase a bond, there is usually a market place where you can trade it. It means you can even sell the bond, rather than waiting for the end of the thirty years. In practice, people purchase bonds when they wish to increase their portfolio in that way. Loans tend to be the agreements between borrowers and the banks. Loans are generally non-tradeable, and the bank will be obliged to see out the entire term of the loan.
  • In the case of repayments, bonds tend to be only repaid in full at the maturity of the bond – e.g., 10, 20, or 30 years. With bank loans, both principal and interest are paid down during the repayment period at regular intervals (like a home mortgage).
  • Issuing bonds give the corporations significantly greater freedom to operate as they deem fit because it frees them from the restrictions that are often attached to the loans that are lent by the banks. Consider, for example, that lenders or the creditors often require corporates to agree to a variety of limitations, such as not to issue more debt or not to make corporate acquisitions until their loans are repaid entirely.
  • The rate of interest that the companies pay the bond investors is often less than the rate of interest that they would be required to pay to obtain the loan from the bank. Sometimes the interest on the loan is not a fixed percent, but “floats” with general short-term interest rates.
  • A bond that is traded in the market possesses a credit rating, which is issued by the credit rating agencies, which starts from investment grade to speculative grade, where investment-grade bonds are considered to be of low risk and usually have low yields. On the contrary, a loan don’t have any such concept; instead, the creditworthiness is checked by the creditor.

LEVERAGED LOANS

The rough equivalent of a junk bond in the world of corporate loans is called a “leveraged loan”. A leveraged loan is a type of loan that is extended to companies or individuals that already have considerable amounts of debt or poor credit history. Lenders consider leveraged loans to carry a higher risk of default, and so they demand higher interest on the loan. Leveraged loans and junk bonds play a key role in helping smaller or struggling companies achieve their financial goals. Leveraged loans are widely used to fund mergers and acquisitions.

Because the company itself is considered shaky, creditors typically require that the company offers some specific asset for collateral to “secure” the loan. Also, the loan is typically written to be “senior” to other debt, including bonds, in case of bankruptcy. Historically, the recovery rate for such senior secured loans has been about 80%, as compared to a recovery of about 40% for unsecured bonds, if the company goes bankrupt.

Typically, a bank would not want to take all the risk of such a loan upon itself. Therefore, for a leveraged loan, the bank arranges for a syndicate of multiple banks or other financial institutions to own pieces of the loan. You, too, can get a piece of this action by buying shares of the fund Invesco Senior Loan ETF (BKLN), which is currently yielding 3.2%.

S&P Global Market Intelligence offers a primer on leveraged loans, complete with tutorial videos. As shown below, the market for leveraged loans in the U.S. is now over $ 1 trillion:

Source: https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/pages/toc-primer/lcd-primer#sec2