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The $9.8 trillion U.S. corporate-bond market may look pretty sleepy right now, but there’s more and more happening in its shadows.

Instead of bothering with trading investment-grade bonds themselves, investors are increasingly turning to derivatives tied to the creditworthiness of specific companies. Volumes in such synthetic wagers have surged to the highest levels since at least the beginning of 2011, in many cases outpacing trading in the underlying bonds, according to Barclays Plc data.

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