The new edition of the Whitebox Advisor, Andy Redleaf’s now quarterly market commentary, has been released. Below is an excerpt from “The Pastoral, the Earthquake, and the Avalanche.”
Investors and markets were on edge all year. To judge by Treasury prices, one might never suspect the U.S. had spent another year borrowing money that under plausible scenarios it would not be able to repay. Actually, Treasuries rose from already dizzying heights for two reasons. Nearly all the allegedly sovereign alternatives were even less attractive. And the Fed once again worked overtime to create the appearance of an alternate reality in which the U.S. government was not poised at the edge of a fiscal abyss.
Share prices might have suggested a calm but enthusiastic investor base; in reality institutional investors were making multi-generational lows for the percentage of their assets held in U.S. stocks. Measured purely against earnings, stocks were reasonably priced. Measured against discount rates, i.e., against the paltry competition from bond yields, stocks were cheap. And yet not only institutional but retail investors continued to prefer fixed income.
Retail investors seemed infatuated with high yield bonds and drove explosive growth in high yield ETFs creating a noticeable bifurcation in the high yield market. Large liquid issues of the sort ETF managers are allowed to buy pushed the yield on the Merrill Lynch High Yield Index down to a laughable 5.5%, while smaller, less liquid issues remained in the double-digits where dubious credits belong. Clearly, retail bond investors were not driven primarily by yield, or even the prospect of total return. (Who would have bet on prices going yet higher?) They were driven by fear.
Bond markets were overbought from top to bottom, not because the U.S. was fiscally healthy and not because the stock market did not offer attractive returns, but because investors, still traumatized by 2008 and the ongoing travails of Europe, valued what appeared to be security over yield.
For several years now the market has been saying it would rather bleed out slowly by investing in bonds with negative real yields than undergo a perhaps fatal electric shock as a result of investing in the real economy. Through this entire period, markets have been so transfixed by fears of collapse in equity markets they have steadfastly ignored the risks of overbought credit markets.
To read the entire commentary, click here.