Credit investing against a slower-growth, higher-inflation backdrop

Rob Burn, CFA, Fixed Income Portfolio Manager
2023-07-31
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An inverted US Treasury yield curve is often viewed as a reliable recession indicator, so the significant flattening of the curve over the past few months — and in an environment of persistent inflationary pressures, to boot — has some economic prognosticators calling for an impending US recession. I say not so fast.

While I acknowledge that the economic outlook will likely deteriorate at the margin as monetary policy tightens, particularly if energy prices remain elevated, I do not believe the recent flattening of the yield curve portends a US recession in the near term. US consumer balance sheets look very healthy, household savings rates are robust, and rising worker wages may help cushion against the impact of higher goods and energy prices. Furthermore, the US should remain relatively shielded from today’s uncertain geopolitical landscape, given its lower oil imports from Russia and its greater domestic oil production compared to Europe.

What’s driving recent yield curve flattening?

The recent flattening (and inversion) between the two-year and 10-year parts of the yield curve has been primarily driven by the increase in short-term yields following the more aggressive policy tightening stance adopted by the US Federal Reserve (Fed) in response to stubborn inflationary pressures. Yet the three-month and 10-year “shape” of the curve — historically a more reliable recession indicator — still has a ways to go before inverting, given that the Fed has only just begun to hike the fed funds rate (Figure 1).

Figure 1
credit investing against a slower growth higher inflation backdrop

Central bank-induced recession not imminent

The Fed intends to tighten financial conditions in an effort to alleviate the effects of higher inflation, but it will likely be mindful of the attendant risks to the economic cycle. Specifically, I expect the Fed to remain keenly cognizant of the danger of tightening policy too aggressively against a backdrop of heightened geopolitical tensions. This type of measured approach should further contribute to the “stickiness” of inflation and could raise the odds of a stagflationary outcome (i.e., high inflation in tandem with slowing growth).

That being said, I think a lot would need to go wrong in order for US economic growth to contract in the period ahead. All else being equal, it would likely take one to two years of steady Fed interest-rate hikes for tighter monetary policy to tip the US economy into recession. Projections by the Fed and futures markets have the policy rate increasing to 2.8% and 2.6%, respectively, by the end of 2023 — only slightly above the neutral rate and not overly restrictive, in my view.

Some sectors may benefit from higher inflation

While inflation can indeed erode the returns provided by traditional high-grade, rate-sensitive fixed income assets, I believe a number of bond sectors can prove resilient and even be net beneficiaries of higher inflation, including persistently elevated energy prices.

Obvious choices for sectors that can potentially benefit from inflation include bank loans (given the floating-rate nature of their coupons, which reset higher as interest rates rise) and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, aka TIPS (since their coupons are directly indexed to, and thus protected from, inflation). I also expect high-yield corporates, convertible bonds, securitized credit, and emerging markets (EM) local debt to outperform most traditional high-grade fixed income sectors in a rising-rate/high-inflation environment, particularly if the global economic expansion continues throughout 2022 and beyond. Some points to consider:

  • Floating-rate bank loans, high-yield corporates, and convertible bonds have actually exhibited flat to negative empirical durations over time, meaning these credit sectors have historically generated positive total returns during periods of rising US Treasury yields.
  • Within structured finance, non-agency residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) stand out, where solid fundamentals remain intact and the collateral typically benefits from rising home prices, which I expect to persist amid scant supply.
  • For similar reasons, inflation also tends to favor commercial real estate, although not all property types are created equal. We currently see the best opportunities in single-asset, single-borrower deals.
  • EM debt remains vulnerable to geopolitical flare-ups, but many local markets are under-owned by foreign investors. EM central banks are well ahead of the Fed in hiking rates to help blunt inflation, while high commodity prices are a boon to some EM commodity exporters.

Bottom line: Be opportunistic in the credit markets

While my outlook for the US credit cycle has worsened somewhat on the back of tighter financial conditions and significant inflationary pressures, I still do not believe a central bank-induced recession is around the corner. I am seeing plenty of investment opportunities in today’s environment in spite of — in fact, because of — the high levels of economic uncertainty and market volatility that have characterized 2022 so far.

Expert

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