I was reading an article about the plunge in interest rates on junk bonds and wondered, are bond rates low, and if so, why?
I looked at AAA-rated Corporate Bonds (the highest-quality) and BAA-rated Corporate Bonds (medium-grade) as rated by Moody’s Investors Service, as that data was most readily available, to see if bond rates are down. Definitions:
- AAA: Bonds rated Aaa are judged to be of the best quality. They carry the smallest degree of investment risk and are generally referred to as “gilt edged.” Interest payments are protected by a large or by an exceptionally stable margin and principal is secure. While the various protective elements are likely to change, such changes as can be visualized are most unlikely to impair the fundamentally strong position of such issues.
- BAA: Bonds rated Baa are considered as medium-grade obligations (i.e., they are neither highly protected nor poorly secured). Interest payments and principal security appear adequate for the present, but certain protective elements may be lacking or may be characteristically unreliable over any great length of time. Such bonds lack outstanding investment characteristics and in fact have speculative characteristics as well.
Bond rates are low
Indeed, they are at historic lows – it’s cheaper for a corporation to borrow money now than at any point since 1956.
Interestingly, it’s cheaper for a BAA rated company to borrow money today than it was for a AAA rated company to borrow money back in 2011. Think about that. Companies that are up against the wall today (e.g. Best Buy and Dell who are both BAA rated companies and examining buy-outs) can borrow money cheaper than the top companies in the world could in 2011 (think Exxon and Johnson & Johnson – two of the largest and most stable companies out there).
If you think of countries instead of companies, the distinction is much clearer. AAA countries include Switzerland and Germany. BAA countries include many of the “PIIGS” – Spain, Italy, and Ireland. To think that the equivalent of Italy today can borrow at the same rate as Germany could in 2011 is absurd, but true.
Why are yields so low?
This is not an easy question to answer, and there’s a lot going on.
First, 4 rounds of quantitative easing by the federal reserve is having a big impact on bond prices. The bond market is just like any market – it’s driven by supply and demand. And when the Federal Reserve prints $85 billion each month to buy bonds, suddenly there’s more demand than supply. Bond yields decrease to the market-clearing rate.
There’s more going on though. Because bond rates are down, investors have to take on more risk to get the same return. In the competitive market of asset management, there’s belief that similar to before the housing bust, managers are taking bigger risks by buying lower-rated bonds, juicing their portfolio for the short term, but adding risk.
Additionally, there is still a “flight to security” going on. While a BAA bond is only medium grade, it is a lot better than the prospects of some sovereign debt and equity like in Greece. Suddenly, in a tough market, lower-rated bonds become more appealing.
How low will interest rates go?
I don’t know (hypothetically I calculated 30-year morgage rates could reach 2.75%), but there’s not much room below. I wouldn’t buy any bonds at the moment.