ONE OF THE MOST lucrative places for this year’s bond investor was in mines from Brazil to Mexico. One of the worst was North American malls.
And as the year draws to a close, investors are wondering where they’ll end up in 2018 as the global spigot of financial stimulus slowly turns off.
Commodity firms such as Vale SA and Southern Copper Corp. were among the credit market darlings this year, racking up total returns of as much as 30%, data compiled by Bloomberg through Thursday show. Europe’s riskier financial debt was another winner, also posting significant advances. At the other end of the scale were drug maker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Toys “R” Us Inc., the retailer that filed for bankruptcy in the US and whose bonds posted losses creeping toward 70%.
“The bounce back in global economic growth was more widespread and robust than people anticipated and the winners were big macro-economic driven sectors like metals and mining,” said Stephen Philipson, US Bancorp’s head of fixed income and capital markets. “The dynamic in the US has been the Amazon effect, with some companies and sectors struggling to compete and define themselves in the new online economy.”
As investors put the year to bed, what awaits is the gradual withdrawal of unprecedented central-bank bond-buying that pushed investors to higher-yielding assets, stirring calls that risk was being mispriced. With US interest rates poised to rise, tax reforms being enacted and a bull market that’s getting old, the 2018 outlook for credit is at best muddy.
“This year was about finding risks you wanted to take; the emerging-market credit or the credit that cooperated with synchronized global growth,” said Henry Peabody, a money manager at Eaton Vance Corp. “Next year is almost the opposite: it’s concern about complacency and about the risks of reaching for yield.”
THE BEST: METALS AND MINING
Investment returns: They may not be digging exclusively for bullion, but miners struck gold this year. Base metals had a stellar 2017, driven by a pickup in global growth, China’s commitment to cut production of metals that pollute and the Trump administration’s pro-growth and made-in-America policies. Bonds of Southern Copper, Vale, Barrick Gold Corp., Goldcorp Inc. and Newmont Mining Corp. have posted returns as high as 30% this year, and they may have more room to run.
What’s next: The price rally may get a further boost during the coming months when China, which produces about half the world’s steel and aluminum, plans to accelerate the cuts. Steel output in November was the lowest in nine months, and aluminum production is at the lowest since February 2016.
THE BEST: RISKIER FINANCIAL DEBT
Investment returns: “Eye watering,” is the verdict from CreditSights. Gains in the $150 billion additional Tier 1 asset class were about 14% this year, twice that of euro-denominated junk bonds, according to Bloomberg Barclays index data. That’s despite four bank failures in Italy and Spain, where some creditors lost everything. Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG and Italy’s UniCredit SpA helped spur the rally by shoring up their reserves with a combined €21 billion ($25 billion) of share sales.
AT1s are the first bank bonds eligible for losses if a lender runs into trouble. Investors are betting that economic growth will revive earnings at banks, making it less likely that will happen again any time soon. UniCredit issued €1 billion of AT1s for a 5.375% coupon this week, compared with 9.25% one year ago.
Insurers are also tapping demand, with ASR Nederland NV selling a 300 million euro Restricted Tier 1 note, the industry’s new equivalent to AT1, in October.
“You know what I like? High yield. You know what I like even more? AT1’s in Europe. That to me is the greatest story out there,” Lisa Coleman, head of global investment-grade credit at JPMorgan Asset Management, said in a Bloomberg Television interview Friday. “You’ve got an improving Europe, growth is great, you’ve got banks that have built up capital. Why not come down in capital structure there?”
What’s next: Investors’ short memories and risk appetite will be tested in 2018 by weaker lenders. Italy’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA plans to sell junior debt next year as little as six months after imposing losses on those creditors as part of a government bailout. Still, bond investors are discriminating between stronger and weaker lenders.
THE WORST: TEVA
Investment returns: Teva, the Israeli drug maker suffering from ill-timed acquisitions and rising competition for its generic medicines, has been the biggest loser in investment grade debt this year. Its $3.5 billion of 3.15% notes have returned minus 5.3% this year, and the €1.5 billion of 1.125% bonds have fared even worse.
What’s next: Chief Executive Officer Kare Schultz, who took the helm last month, plans to cut 14,000 jobs globally in an attempt to reduce expenses by $3 billion by the end of 2019. Teva’s stock jumped the most on record on the news, but bondholders were not as enthused. Fitch Ratings cut Teva to junk in November, while Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings have maintained their lowest IG ratings. All three have warned another downgrade is possible.
A representative for Teva declined to comment.
THE WORST: TOYS ‘R’ US
Investment returns: Toys “R” Us shocked bond traders in September when it announced its plan to reorganize $5 billion of debt in bankruptcy court, much of that stemming from a leveraged buyout in 2005. The company’s 7.375% bonds due October 2018, which are now in default, have returned negative 66% this year and are now quoted at 32 cents on the dollar. Two weeks before the filing, those notes were trading at 97.25 cents.
What’s next: Even the retailers that no one’s expecting to fail with the swiftness that Toys “R” Us did can be at risk as competition from Amazon.com Inc. intensifies and fewer shoppers visit brick-and-mortar stores. Apparel and accessories chains are already on creditors’ radars because, like the toy retailer, they have large debt loads, looming maturities and weakening results that could force a restructuring at some point.
A representative for Toys “R” Us didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
THE WORST: REMINGTON
Investment returns: Though US President Donald Trump told gun manufacturers his election would give them a “friend” in the White House, Remington Outdoor Co. has misfired since. The struggling gunmaker controlled by Cerberus Capital Management is grappling with surging inventories and debt amid plunging revenue. Its 7.875% third-lien bonds have posted a 71% loss this year and now trade at 21 cents on the dollar. A year ago, they were quoted as high as 86 cents.
What’s next: A debt reorganization is all but sure to come. S&P Global Ratings cut Remington’s rating by two levels to CCC- last month, citing a “heightened risk of a restructuring of some form” over the next six to 12 months. Moody’s Investors Service, noting a term loan coming due in 2019, said there’s an elevated risk of a distressed exchange or some action that might put the company at risk of default.
A representative for Cerberus didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
For some investors, it adds up to a year of too easily tolerating too much risk which doesn’t bode well.
“Sometime in 2017 people decided the sky would never fall,” said Dan Zwirn, chief executive officer at Arena Investors. “Asset prices range from what is grossly overvalued to what is even more grossly overvalued. That has to end.” — Reuters