The Bloomberg US Corporate Bond Index experienced a significant downturn for the year, falling 0.4% in a single day on Wednesday 27th September, 2023. This marks a stark shift from its performance earlier in the year when it was up as much as 5% in early February. The primary reason behind this decline is the Federal Reserve’s commitment to raising interest rates as a measure to counteract inflation, and its impacts on the corporate debt markets.
The Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates has had a profound impact on the corporate bond market. In the current year, the Fed has raised its benchmark rate by a full percentage point, bringing it to 5.5%. This aggressive approach is in contrast to earlier market expectations, and it has caused a ripple effect in the bond market.
One of the immediate consequences of this policy shift is the rise in Treasury yields, which have reached multiyear highs. This has raised concerns among market participants about the increased costs associated with refinancing corporate debt. As a result, investors in corporate bonds have seen losses.
The initial optimism that characterized many corporate bond investors at the start of 2023 has been disrupted by the strong performance of the U.S. economy. This economic strength prompted the Federal Reserve to take a more aggressive stance on interest rate hikes than was anticipated earlier in the year.
Althea Spinozzi, a senior fixed-income strategist at Saxo Bank, noted that as long as the Federal Reserve can convince markets that it won’t need to aggressively cut rates in the near future, long-term yields are likely to continue their upward trajectory. This suggests that the “higher-for-longer” interest rate environment will persist until there’s a compelling reason for the Fed to change its stance.
The decline in corporate bonds this month is closely tied to a broader rout in Treasuries, which has led to increased yields across various credit markets. Meanwhile, the spread on the corporate debt index over a similar Treasury benchmark remains below its 10-year average.
There has also been a noticeable slowdown in bond buybacks, with companies purchasing bonds at the slowest rate since 2000. This hesitancy could become problematic as debt maturities accumulate while interest rates remain elevated. In fact, North American firms have made just 52 offers to repurchase outstanding debt, amounting to the lowest amount bought back since at least 2008.
The vulnerability of investment-grade credit became evident since a U.S. banking crisis occurred in March. Specifically, the option-adjusted spread to Treasuries for a gauge of financial company bonds has widened significantly relative to the spread for the broader corporate index.
In the midst of these economic and market challenges, Federal Reserve policymakers remain optimistic that the rise in yields can effectively combat inflation and ultimately contribute to stabilizing economic growth. Despite uncertainties and various economic headwinds, this optimism guides their approach to monetary policy.