Many today believe the 2008-2009 recession was caused by a credit crisis in the banking system. They view the levels of debt that had built up in the consumer and financial sectors as excessive and somehow "blowing up" like a form of spontaneous combustion. The credit crisis, however, was preceded by a number of developments, not the least of which was the vast expansion of debt and the instruments that created and compounded that debt. But, the most immediate precursor of the crisis was a sudden and rapid repricing of risk that was well underway by the middle of 2007. In the years prior to 2007, risk had largely been discounted in the corporate, financial and consumer sectors, as yield spreads narrowed to historic lows. By 2014-2105, junk bonds were trading at yield levels below that of high grade corporate bonds throughout much of the 1990s.
Credit spreads, or the yield differential of a corporate bond, mortgage security or other debt instrument, relative to the US Treasury benchmark rate, is at the center of the way in which bonds are priced in the capital markets. The lower the credit rating, or the higher the perceived riskiness of a bond, the greater the yield spread relative to a Treasury bond of equivalent maturity.
Now the thing is, credit spreads are not static, but rather vary from time to time. During periods of relative calm and optimism in the financial markets, credit spreads tend to compress (often just as lending criteria become more relaxed). In times of uncertainty or distress, credit spreads widen. In the period 2003-2007, high yield bond spreads declined to levels that were absurd, with junk bond spreads compressing to less than 2.5%. By the time the 2008 recession was fully underway, however, these spreads would widen to an all-time high of 21.0%!
As can be seen from the graph below, debt levels are now once again at record levels, although today the debt is concentrated in the corporate and sovereign sectors, rather than the mortgage and financial sectors, as was the case leading up to the financial crisis. In fact, absolute debt levels in the US today are much higher than they were before the 2008 financial crisis.
Amidst this expansion of debt, a similar pattern of ultra-low risk premiums has been underway for several years, as a rapid expansion of liquidity by world central banks flowed into the sector. By mid-2014, high yield credit spreads had fallen to 3.3%. But now, the tide is once again turning. Rapidly widening credit spreads for high yield bonds are again underway, showing a similar pattern of risk re-repricing to what we saw in 2007. Today, the high yield index shows a credit spread of just under 8.0% (roughly the same levels as 2008).
The near default in Venezuela, deepening recession in Brazil and devastation in the energy sector has us also wondering about the vulnerability of bank stocks, with material emerging markets and oil patch exposures for these institutions. If the value of publicly held high yield debt is rapidly deteriorating (as price moves inversely with yield) mustn't the same value deterioration be equally true of these bank loans? JPM Chairman, Jamie Dimon was quick to play down the issue of his bank's risk profile in energy, arguing that the bank is well reserved against potential losses. As if to further comfort JPM investors, Dimon continued to offer that bank loans to oil and gas companies are asset backed; that is, losses would be offset by the realization of collateral.
The question, of course, remains as to what these assets would be worth in an environment of plunging oil prices, record excess capacity and massive inventory build. Taken in the context of the repricing of risk, the high yield bond market does appear to be telling us something about the near-term future of the economy that is increasingly difficult to ignore.