Correlation contagion

I fear that the daily announcements on bankruptcies, specifically in the retail sector, is just the beginning of the journey into our new reality. Despite relatively positive noises from US banks about short term loan provisions and rebounding consumer spending, the real level of defaults, particularly in the SME sector, will not become clear until the sugar high of direct government stimulus is withdrawn. In the UK, for example, the furlough scheme is paying 80% of the wages of approximately 9 million workers and is currently costing the same in government spending monthly as the NHS. This UK subsidy is due to be withdrawn in October. In the US, the $600 weekly boost to unemployment payments is due to expire at the end of July.

The S&P forecasts for the default rate on US junk debt, as below, illustrates a current projection. There are many uncertainties on the course of the pandemic and the economic impacts over the coming months and quarters that will dictate which scenario is in our future.

It is therefore not surprising that the oft highlighted concerns about the leveraged loan market have been getting a lot of recent attention, as the following articles in the New Yorker and the Atlantic dramatically attest to – here and here. I would recommend both articles to all readers.

I must admit to initially feeling that the dangers have been exaggerated in these articles in the name of journalist license. After all, the risks associated with the leveraged loan market have been known for some time, as this post from last year illustrates, and therefore we should be assured that regulators and market participants are on top of the situation from a risk management perspective. Right? I thought I would dig a little further into the wonderful world of collateralized loan obligations, commonly referred to as CLOs, to find out.

First up is a report from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in September on the differences between collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and CLOs. I was heartened to learn that “there are significant differences between the CLO market today and the CDO market prior to the great financial crisis”. The report highlighted the areas of difference as well as the areas of similarity as follows:

CLOs are less complex, avoiding the use of credit default swaps (CDS) and resecuritisations; they are little used as collateral in repo transactions; and they are less commonly funded by short-term borrowing than was the case for CDOs. In addition, there is better information about the direct exposures of banks. That said, there are also similarities between the CLO market today and the CDO market then, including some that could give rise to financial distress. These include the deteriorating credit quality of CLOs’ underlying assets; the opacity of indirect exposures; the high concentration of banks’ direct holdings; and the uncertain resilience of senior tranches, which depend crucially on the correlation of losses among underlying loans.

The phase “uncertain resilience of senior tranches” and the reference to correlation sent a cold shiver down my spine. According to BIS, the senior AAA tranches are higher up the structure (e.g. 65% versus 75%-80% in the bad old days), as this primer from Guggenheim illustrates:

As in the good old CDO days, the role of the rating agencies is critical to the CLO ecosystem. This May report from the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) shows that EU regulators are focused on the practices the rating agencies are following in relation to their CLO ratings. I was struck by the paragraph below in the executive summary (not exactly the reassurance I was hoping for).

The future developments regarding the Covid 19 outbreak will be an important test for CLO methodologies, notably by testing: i) the approaches and the assumptions for the modelling of default correlation among the pool of underlying loans; and ii) the sensitivity of CLO credit ratings to how default and recovery rates are calibrated. Moreover, the surge of covenant-lite loans prevents lenders and investors from early warning indicators on the deterioration of the creditworthiness of the leveraged loans.

As regular readers will know, correlations used extensively in financial modelling is a source of much blog angst on my part (examples of previous posts include here, here and here). As I may have previously explained, I worked for over a decade in a quant driven firm back in the 1990’s that totally underestimated correlations in a tail event on assumed diverse risk portfolios. The firm I worked for did not survive long after the events of 9/11 and the increased correlation across risk classes that resulted. It was therefore with much bewilderment that I watched the blow-up in complex financial structures because of the financial crisis and the gross misunderstanding of tail correlations that were absent from historical data sets used to calibrate quant models. It is with some trepidation therefore when I see default correlation been discussed yet again in relation to the current COVID19 recession. To paraphrase Buffett, bad loans do not become better by simply repackaging them. Ditto for highly leveraged loans with the volume turned up to 11. As many commentators have highlighted in recent years and the Fed noted recently (see this post), the leverage in terms of debt to EBITDA ratios in leveraged loans has crept up to pre-financial crisis levels before the COVID19 global outbreak.

Next up, I found this blog from MSCI in early April insightful. By applying market implied default rates and volatilities from late March to MSCI’s CLO model of a sample 2019 CLO deal with 300 loans diversified across 10 industry sectors, they arrived at some disturbing results. Using 1-year default rates for individual risks of approximately 20% to 25% across most sectors (which does not seem outrageous to me when talking about leverage loans, they are after all highly leveraged!!), they estimated the probability of joint defaults using sample 2019 CLO deal at 1 and 3-year horizons as below.

The MSCI analysis also showed the implied cross-sector default-rate correlations and a comparison with the correlations seen in the financial crisis, as below.

Even to me, some of these correlations (particularly those marked in red) look too elevated and the initial market reaction to COVID19 of shoot first and ask questions later may explain why. The MSCI article concludes with an emphasis on default correlation as below.

During periods of low default correlation, even with relatively high loan default rates, the tail probability of large total default is typically slim. If the current historically high default-rate correlations persist — combined with high loan default rates and default-rate volatility — our model indicates that a large portion of the examined pool may default and thereby threaten higher-credit tranches considered safe before the crisis

I decided to end my CLO journey by looking at what one rating agency was saying. S&P states that the factors which determine their CLO ratings are the weighted average rating of a portfolio, the diversity of the portfolio (in terms of obligors, industries, and countries), and the weighted average life of the portfolio. Well, we know we are dealing with highly leveraged loans, the junkiest if you like, with an average pre-COVID rating of B (although it is likely lower in today’s post-COVID environment) so I have focused on the portfolio diversity factor as the most important risk mitigant. Typically, CLOs have 100 to 300 loans which should give a degree of comfort although in a global recession, the number of loans matters less given the common risky credit profile of each. In my view, the more important differentiator in this recession is its character in terms of the split between sector winners and losers, as the extraordinary rally in the equity market of the technology giants dramatically illustrates.

S&P estimated that as at year end 2019, the average CLO contained approximately 200 loans and had an average industry diversity metric of 25. Its important to stress the word “average” as it can hid all sorts of misdemeanors. Focusing on the latter metric, I investigated further the industry sector classifications used by S&P. These classifications are different and more specific from the usual broad industry sectorial classifications used in equity markets given the nature of the leveraged loan market. There are 66 industry sectors in all used by S&P although 25 of the sectors make up 80% of the loans by size. Too many spurious variables are the myth that often lies at the quant portfolio diversification altar. To reflect the character of this recession, I judgmentally grouped the industry sectors into three exposure buckets – high, medium and low. By sector number the split was roughly equal to a third for each bucket. However, by loan amount the split was 36%, 46% and 18% for the high, medium and low sectors respectively. Over 80% in the high and medium buckets! That simplistic view of the exposure would make me very dubious about the real amount of diversification in these portfolios given the character of this recession. As a result, I would question the potential risk to the higher credit quality tranches of CLOs if their sole defense is diversification.

Maybe the New Yorker and Atlantic articles are not so sensationalist after all.

FED speak

In this time of uncertainty, we can only search for insights as we await actual Q2 figures and see how businesses fare as lock-downs are slowly relaxed. Many businesses, particularly SMEs, may hobble on for a while as demand slowly picks up and governmental support becomes due for withdrawal. Some, like hairdressers, will re-establish their businesses due to the nature of their service or product and with the support of a loyal customer base. Some may even thrive as their businesses adapt to the new normal.  Many may not. Services dependent upon crowds such as the leisure and hospitality sectors look particularly exposed. The digital transformation of many businesses will take a leap forward and the creative destruction of capitalism will take its course. Many of the old ways of doing businesses will be consigned to history in one fell swoop.

The FED this week issued their financial stability report with the following view on the current level of vulnerabilities:

1) Asset valuations. Asset prices remain vulnerable to significant price declines should the pandemic take an unexpected course, the economic fallout prove more adverse or financial system strains re-emerge.

2) Borrowing by businesses and households. Debt owed by businesses had been historically high relative to gross domestic product (GDP) through the beginning of 2020, with the most rapid increases concentrated among the riskiest firms amid weak credit standards. The general decline in revenues associated with the severe reduction in economic activity has weakened the ability of businesses to repay these (and other) obligations. While household debt was at a moderate level relative to income before the shock, a deterioration in the ability of some households to repay obligations may result in material losses to lenders.

3) Leverage in the financial sector. Before the pandemic, the largest U.S. banks were strongly capitalized, and leverage at broker-dealers was low; by contrast, measures of leverage at life insurance companies and hedge funds were at the higher ends of their ranges over the past decade. To date, banks have been able to meet surging demand for draws on credit lines while also building loan loss reserves to absorb higher expected defaults. Broker dealers struggled to provide intermediation services during the acute period of financial stress. At least some hedge funds appear to have been severely affected by the large asset price declines and increased volatility in February and March, reportedly contributing to market dislocations. All told, the prospect for losses at financial institutions to create pressures over the medium term appears elevated.

4) Funding risk. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak and associated financial market tur­moil, funding markets proved less fragile than during the 2007–09 financial crisis. None­theless, significant strains emerged, and emergency Federal Reserve actions were required to stabilize short-term funding markets.

The point about household debt is an important one and points to the likelihood that this will be a recession with characteristics more akin to those before the 2008 financial crisis, as per the graph below.

The oft highlighted concerns about leveraged loans in recent times has again been highlighted by the Fed as a worry in this crisis, as below, with default rates likely to turn sharply upwards.

However, it was the commentary in the report from the Fed’s market outreach that I thought captured succinctly the current market fears for the future:

Many contacts expressed concern that a U.S. recession brought about by the pandemic could expose highly leveraged sectors of the economy. Contacts noted that corporate default rates were likely to increase sharply, with acute stress in the energy sector. Even before the outbreak spread to the United States, concerns related to nonfinancial corporate debt were cited frequently, with a focus on the growth in leveraged loans, private credit, and triple-B-rated bonds. More recently, surveyed respondents noted that a period of renewed outflows from credit-oriented mutual funds could lead to limits on redemptions and that stressed global insurers could become large sellers of U.S. corporate bonds.

A number of contacts also raised concerns over household balance sheets, especially in low-income segments, highlighting increases in credit card, student loan, and auto loan delinquencies as well as concerns over spillovers from nonpayments of rent and mortgages. Against the backdrop of corporate, consumer, and real estate stress, several respondents noted that bank asset quality could come under severe pressure. Smaller banks with high concentrations of lower-rated consumers, small and medium-sized businesses, and commercial real estate were viewed as especially vulnerable.

Several policy-related risks were also identified, including the risk that funding designated to support small businesses would be either insufficient to address the scale of the need or not timely enough to avert a wave of layoffs and bankruptcies. Finally, a few contacts noted the prospect that state and local governments would face large budgetary gaps, with spillovers to the municipal bond market and local economies. In the euro area, some respondents noted that the absence of more expansive fiscal resource sharing or debt mutualization could underpin a return of redenomination risk in some of the monetary union’s most indebted sovereigns.

A few respondents noted that novel investment strategies and market structures could prove vulnerable in a sustained market downturn. Specifically mentioned were the growth of short-volatility strategies, the expansion of leveraged ETFs, and the reliance in some markets on sources of liquidity that could withdraw in a shock.

Finally, geopolitical tensions were cited frequently as a medium- to long-term risk. A few contacts noted that the COVID-19 outbreak could amplify tensions and accelerate a shift away from multilateralism. Respondents also highlighted the risk of heightened trade tensions and the possibility that the virus and its fallout could accelerate global leadership changes and amplify political uncertainty.

Musings on AAPL

In these weirdest of times, it is important to emphasis again Charlie Munger’s words of wisdom that “nobody knows what’s going to happen”. As developed countries across the world experiment with easing lock down measures, thoughts are moving to how economies can be re-opened. In what The Economist this week calls a 90% economy, they reflect upon a world where “the office is open but the pub is not”. A trite comment maybe but one that I think succinctly captures the new normal that those of us lucky enough to have our health can hope to be in for the next year.

Anyway, the point is that any projections in this environment are purely speculative. Add in my spotty record with AAPL, as this post in November attests to, and that AAPL have pulled guidance, highlights the likely futility of this post! Actually, I did dip my toe back in the water on AAPL around November after that post and when it shot up past $310 in January, I thanked the Gods and cashed out again (it went as high as $327 in February, daft!). The optimism about a new 5G iPhone super-cycle for next year that fed into that share price ramp has now been tempered by, well, the virus thing.

For my projections, I have assumed 26 million iPhone sales in the current quarter, down 27% on 2019, and 162 million for FY 2020, a 14% reduction from FY 2019. For FY 2021, I have assumed a pick-up in yearly unit iPhone sales due the launch of 5G iPhones, some in time for the holiday season, but at 180 units for FY 2021 it’s far short of the anticipated super-cycle refresh due to depressed consumer demand as the recession plays out next year. My assumptions are shown below:

These assumptions are further illustrated in the trailing 12-month graph below.

Every great company needs an edge in the coming months and years to thrive. For AAPL, in addition to the quality of their products and their loyal installed base, their cash pile and their ability to manipulate share count through buy-backs has been a particular feature of their financial success in recent years, as the graph above clearly shows.

Although analysts were expecting a $75-100 billion increase in their buy-back programme in the Q2 quarter announcement last week, the announced $50 billion shows discipline and caution from management. I estimate that AAPL has spent approximately 130% of free cash-flow on dividends and buybacks in aggregate over the past 6 quarters, reducing their net cash balance by approximately $50 billion to $83 billion over those 6 quarters.

For the next 6 quarters to the end of FY 2021, I am assuming they return to shareholders, through both dividends and buy-backs, a similar amount of $126 billion to the previous 6 quarters, $105 billion through buy-backs alone. This shareholder return in terms of free cash-flow earned over the next 6 quarters would be an eye popping 200% according to my estimates. I further estimate a reduction in net cash on the balance sheet to approximately $40 billion by the end of FY 2021, an amount which I believe management, to be consistent with the firm’s DNA, should not feel comfortable going below for prudence sake (or to avail of further accretive M&A opportunities). One of the lessons of the COVID19 outbreak for well managed firms is surely the need for a contingency buffer against the unexpected. The resulting impact upon diluted share count and EPS of these assumptions at differing average buy-back share prices is shown below.

So, that just leaves the question of valuation. I will again warn that the subject matter in this post is based upon my assumptions which are highly speculative. I have proven myself to be hopelessly wrong in relation to AAPL at certain points in the past, so this time is unlikely to be any different! Using my preferred forward PE multiple excluding cash per share methodology, the graph below shows the forward multiples of my assumed performance over the next 6 quarters at share prices from $150 to $400, in increments of $50. The “increased love trend” is reflective of the higher multiple that AAPL has received as their service business has expanded and the hybrid hardware/software valuation has evolved.

Based upon this analysis, I would suggest that a share price below $250 should be considered as an entry point. Currently, I am uber bearish on equities and have exited 90%+ of my positions, taking advantage in recent weeks of this fairy tale rally (I mean, where is the upside from here?). Were AAPL to fall below $250, I would look closely at it again, albeit at a still heightened forward PE just below 18 based upon my estimates. Whether such an opportunity is afforded is anybody’s guess. As the man said, nobody knows.

A string of worst evers

As the COVID19 deaths peak, in the first wave at least, across much of the developed world the narrative this week has moved to exit strategies. The medical situation remains highly uncertain, as the article in the Atlantic illustrated. A core unknown, due to the lack of extensive antibody testing, is the percentage of populations which have been infected and the degree of antibodies in those infected. What initially seemed to me to be a reasonable exit framework announced by the US has been fraught with execution uncertainty over the quantity and quality of the testing required, exasperated by the divisive ramblings of the man-child king (of the Orangeness variety).

The economic news has been dismal with a string of worst ever’s – including in retail sales, confidence indices, unemployment, energy and manufacturing. The number of turned over L shaped graphs is mind-blowing. And that’s only in the US! The exhibit below stuck me as telling, particularly for an economy fuelled by consumer demand.

In the words of the great Charlie Munger: “This thing is different. Everybody talks as if they know what’s going to happen, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.” The equally wise Martin Wolf of the FT, who penned an article this week called “The world economy is now collapsing” posted a video of his thoughts here. His article was based upon the release of the latest IMF economic forecasts, as below.

The IMF “baseline” assumes a broad economic reopening in the H2 2020. The IMF also details 3 alternative scenarios:

  • Lockdowns last 50% longer than in the baseline.
  • A second wave of the virus in 2021.
  • In the third, a combination of 1) and 2).

The resulting impacts on real GDP and debt levels for the advanced and emerging/developing countries respectively are shown below.

A few other interesting projections released this week include this one from Morgan Stanley.

And this one from UBS.

And this one from JP Morgan.

In terms of S&P500 EPS numbers, this week will provide some more clarity with nearly 100 firms reporting. Goldman’ estimates for 2020 compared to my previous guestimates (2020 operating EPS of $103 versus $130 and $115 in base and pessimistic) were interesting this week given the negative figure for Q2 before returning to over $50 for Q4. The “don’t fight the fed” and TINA merchants amongst the current bulls have yet to confront the reality of this recession for 2021 earnings where the fantasy of an EPS above $170 for 2021 will become ever apparent with time in my opinion. Even an optimistic forward multiple of 14 on a 2021 operating EPS of $150 implies a 25% fall in the S&P500. And I think that’s la la land given the numbers that are now emerging! We’ll see what this week brings…..

Stay safe.