Q: What Stage of This Crisis Are Fixed Income Markets in Currently?
My lens here: I use four different phase/stages of a crisis.
First is evaluating the positioning of portfolios based on unanticipated developments in the economy and markets. Clearly, no one saw coronavirus coming.
Phase two is raising cash to meet redemptions on the behalf of our clients, many times driven by their own asset allocation decisions as they rotate potentially from fixed income back to equities. Let’s not forget that fixed income over the last two months, the higher quality sectors have performed well in generating positive returns so that they operated as very effective hedges relative to the drawdown in equities. We’re currently working through that.
I believe phase three, stage three, is the most important. And that’s when portfolio managers engage in targeted risk taking and look at compelling valuations in the credit markets, in securitized structures to generate over time over time higher total returns to offset some of the losses that we’ve experienced over the last month.
Phase four is preparing for the ultimate whiplash when the markets snap back and tighten spreads very suddenly. It’s very difficult, I would say virtually impossible, to pick the bottom. I’ve been through this four or five times in my 30 years in the high yield market. Nobody can predict that bottom, but when the markets do begin to come around, that can happen violently and quickly. If you haven’t engaged in phase three, in the acquisition of good collateral in your portfolios, typically you will lag significantly on the upside.
The balance of protecting on the downside but also participating opportunistically in improving credit situations requires some courage. Right now, given the violence and the velocity of this correction it’s time to engage in phase three.
Q: How are our portfolio managers engaging in this phase?
Energy is certainly front and center facing existential issues today. Two black swans – one, the virus and certainly the developments with OPEC when Saudis decided to flood the market with cheap oil. That will absolutely result ultimately in restructurings in high yield companies. But we’ll also see a number of investment-grade, well capitalized businesses downgraded into the high yield market. We refer to these as fallen angels, and we already have on the list five or six major corporations that will probably come into the high yield market
Last Friday, we organized a collaborative investment meeting with our high yield analysts, portfolio managers, equity analysts, as well as investment grade analysts, to look at a number of these situations. it’s very helpful in these situations because T. Rowe often owns equity positions in these companies as well as credit exposure in our fixed income portfolios. It was a very dynamic meeting on Friday that resulted in a number of some significant buy recommendations.
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