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Keep An Eye On the Junk-Treasury Spread

Here's the worry -- the spread's narrowing


Spreads on high-yield bonds  and U.S. Treasurys are narrowing. Just look at the via SPDR Barclays Capital High Yield Bond ETF (NYSE: JNK) and the iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (NYSE: TLT) for trends. Junk bond issuance is at an all-time high because excess liquidity is lowering risk aversion.

Who is buying all the bonds is not particularly clear, however. But don’t worry, just as they did before the last credit crisis, the economic elite is telling us there is nothing to worry about this time, either. 

When there is too much money sloshing around the global financial system, the distortion shows up clearly in the bond market because it’s an insider’s game. The average investor isn’t exactly trading credit default swaps in his or her 401k. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, less than $29 billion has gone into high yield bond funds in the last 20 months. Yet Dealogic data indicates that $172 billion of junk bonds have been issued in just 2010 alone. Spreads over 10-year Treasurys are now around 6%, but have been somewhat lower during the summer. In 2007, spreads fell to around 2% and this indicated all common sense had abandoned the bond market. The inevitable collapse followed and at the height of the credit crisis, junk/Treasury spreads were over 20%.
One of the major determinants of yields on junk bonds is the danger of default. The economy is in much worse shape now than it was in 2007, even though we were just told yesterday by the NBER that the recession ended 15 months ago (boy, that sure is a timely announcement). So we should not get as low as a 2% spread between junk and U.S. Treasurys like we did last time. Less risk of failure because of government bailouts should not be assumed either. Few issuers of junk bonds would be considered too-big-to-fail and the government blank check for bailouts is either over or it soon will be. 

It’s a Mystery

There is also the mystery of why as more and more bonds are being issued, less and less trading activity is taking place. Bloomberg economist Michael McDonough recently reported U.S. Treasury trading is down and so is junk bond trading. Trading in stocks on the NYSE is also down as the market has risen. So how can prices be going up when there is a greater supply of bonds, but apparently less demand?  This is not really possible, so there has to be missing information. Now who would have access to vast sums of money and the ability to hide their activities in the market?
A narrow spread between junk and Treasurys is something to keep an eye on and to worry about. It is a good indicator of whether or not central banks have injected so much liquidity into the financial system that they have risked another credit crisis. It is not possible to say where the exact point is where the spread is too low, although it is now definitely somewhere well above 2%. If we haven’t reached it yet, we are getting close.

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