The promise of yet another trillion-dollar cash infusion from a central bank isn’t enough to bring individual investors back into the market for risky corporate debt. In fact, they keep bailing.
Investors pulled US$523 million from global high-yield bond mutual and exchange-traded funds in the week ended Jan. 21, according to data compiled by EPFR Global. They withdrew $868 million from funds that buy U.S. speculative-grade loans, bringing their total assets below $100 billion for the first time since September 2013, Wells Fargo & Co. data show.
The goal of the European Central Bank’s new 1.1 trillion euro ($1.3 trillion) bond-buying program announced Thursday is to push investors into less-creditworthy notes for bigger—or even just positive—returns.
So, why aren’t junk bonds getting a serious boost?
Individual investors are either leaving a seemingly indefatigable party in risky debt too early, or their sentiment is a harbinger of a deeper, more worrisome idea: That policy makers’ main tool to ignite growth isn’t working so well anymore.
With yields so low, “the transmission of the monetary policy mechanism will be less effective,” said Ray Dalio, the U.S. hedge fund manager who runs the $160 billion Bridgewater Associates. “We have a deflationary set of circumstances,” which makes it appealing to just stuff your money under a mattress, he said at a panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland, this week.
The $2 trillion market for global high-yield bonds was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Federal Reserve’s record stimulus in recent years. The debt gained an annual 16.4 percent on average in the six years after 2008, with yields shrinking to 7 percent from a peak of 23 percent at the height of the credit crisis, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data.
Average borrowing costs are up from a low of 5.6 percent last year on concern that plunging oil prices will leave speculative-grade energy companies unable to meet their obligations.
While the Fed successfully got individuals to chase these risky credits, the ECB may now have a harder time doing the same. The juicy yields that were around during the aftermath of the crisis are gone, and some investors, it would appear, are opting to just hang onto their cash instead.