Director of Real-Time Economics
Ryan Sweet is director of real-time economics at Moody's Analytics. He is also editor-in-chief of Economy.com, to which he regularly contributes, and a member of the US macroeconomics team in West Chester, PA. He is among the most accurate high-frequency forecasters of the US economy, according to MarketWatch. He is also an adjunct professor in the Economics and Finance Department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He has a master's degree in economics from the University of Delaware and a bachelor's degree in economics from Washington College.
An abatement of tariff-related fears reduced the uncertainty surrounding a positive outlook for US corporate earnings. In response, the market value of US common stock quickly approached its record high of August 29, 2018. Moreover, high-yield bonds rallied from already richly-priced levels. In turn, a recent composite high-yield bond spread was thinner than 340 basis points (bp) for the first time since the middle of April 2018.
Weekly Market Outlook: Middling Ratio of Net Corporate Debt to GDP Disputes Record Ratio of Corporate Debt to GDP
First-quarter 2018's record ratio of U.S. nonfinancial-corporate debt to GDP has been cited as the harbinger of a steep upswing by corporate credit defaults once profits shrink materially again. However, first-quarter 2018's ratio of net nonfinancial-corporate debt to GDP supplies a far less ominous outlook, mostly because the liquid assets of nonfinancial corporations have been outpacing the accompanying growth of corporate debt. In terms of moving yearlong averages as of March 2018, the 11.4% annual increase by liquid assets outran the accompanying increases of 6.0% for corporate debt and 4.3% for nominal GDP.
The U.S. economy and financial markets have been pulling away from the rest of the world. Of special importance is the lagging performance of emerging market economies, which, not too long ago, had been the primary driver of world economic growth. The combination of higher U.S. interest rates and the relatively stronger performance of the U.S. economy has triggered a notable and potentially destabilizing appreciation of the dollar versus a host of emerging market currencies.
The U.S. business cycle has entered its boom phase. This is a period that typically comes closer to the end of the cycle, just prior to a recession. It is characterized by robust economic growth, tightening labor and product markets, intensifying wage and price pressures, monetary tightening, and higher interest rates. Another feature of the boom phase of a business cycle is excessive risk-taking somewhere in the financial system. This fuels the boom and is eventually at the center of the subsequent bust. Subprime mortgage loans were the obvious culprit a decade ago, runaway internet stocks that pumped up a stock market bubble were the problem in the early-2000s recession, and the savings and loan crisis incited the early 1990s downturn.
New signs of industrial commodity price deflation have grabbed the attention of financial markets. Nevertheless, the latest slide by Moody's industrial metals price index has yet to even remotely approach its 26.1% average year-over-year plunge of the six-months-ended January 2016. The two major takeaways from the latest slide by base metals prices are global industrial activity has subsided and any stay by the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield above 3% will be short-lived.
A high ratio of debt to GDP may be manageable, that is up until the income flow servicing such debt recedes. During the past several years, the ratio of U.S. nonfinancial-corporate debt to GDP seems to have lost its ability to explain both the magnitude and the direction of the high-yield default rate.
Weekly Market Outlook: Upon Further Review, Debt to EBITDA Still Falls Short as an Aggregate Predictor
Last week's commentary began with a reference to the weak predictive power of an unadjusted median ratio of corporate debt to EBITDA for publicly held, nonfinancial-company issuers of high-yield debt. However, one reader was gracious enough to take the time to alert me to a major shortcoming of the median ratio of corporate debt to EBITDA, especially as it applies to high-yield issuers. EBITDA—or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization—can be negative, especially among companies having speculative-grade ratings. As a result, an unadjusted median ratio of corporate debt to EBITDA often understates how burdensome outstanding debt is relative to the EBITDA of high-yield issuers.
The median ratio of interest expense to EBITDA offers another way of explaining the high-yield default rate. This approach fares far better when compared to explaining the default rate with the median ratio of debt to EBITDA. Since year-end 2005, the quarterly default rate generates a relatively meaningful correlation of 0.75 with the median ratio of interest expense to EBITDA from one to two quarters earlier.
Though it goes practically unmentioned, one of the more unexpected developments of late has been the stunning collapse of Moody's industrial metals price index. In part, the industrial metals price index's average of July-to-date is a deep 8.2% under its June 2018 average because of uncertainties stemming from trade-related issues. Since worries surrounding a trade war came to the fore following June 14's close, the base metals price index has sunk by 13.0%. Nevertheless, the base metals price index's month-long average had peaked some time ago in February 2018, where the subsequent slide by the index through mid-June reflected a loss of momentum for global industrial activity.
Financial markets believe that the U.S. is likely to fare better than most other major economies in an all-out trade war. This is because (i) international trade accounts for a smaller share of U.S. business activity, (ii) the U.S. imports far more than it exports, and (iii) the U.S. now well outperforms other major economies. Nevertheless, though the U.S. is better able the withstand the direct and collateral damage of a trade conflict, it is still expected suffer casualties in a trade war. And such casualties might well influence the outcome of November's Congressional elections.
Weekly Market Outlook: Outstandings of Rated U.S. Corporate Bonds Dip from 2018's First to Second Quarter
According to Moody's Capital Markets Research Group, second-quarter 2018's outstandings of Moody's-rated U.S. corporate bonds excluding ABS and MBS rose by 3.3% year-over-year to $7.212 trillion, which was a slight 0.6% under first-quarter 2018's record high of $7.259 trillion. The second quarter's yearly increase of 3.3% was much slower than the 6.3% yearly increase of 2018's first quarter and was the smallest since the 2.1% of 2015's final quarter. The -0.6% dip by U.S. corporate bonds outstanding from the first to the second quarter of 2018 was only the third such sequential decline by the rated outstandings of U.S. corporate bonds during the past five years. The other two quarterly retreats were those of 0.2% of 2016's final quarter and 5.7% in 2015's final quarter.
Let's start with the good news of operating profits' much faster rise relative to the growth of corporate debt. During 2018's first quarter, the 9.7% year-to-year advance by the pretax operating profits of U.S. nonfinancial corporations far outran the accompanying 5.2% increase by nonfinancial corporate debt. Moreover, for the year-ended March 2018, operating profits' 7.2% increase also outpaced the 5.9% growth of corporate debt. In turn, the moving yearlong ratio of debt to operating profits for nonfinancial corporations eased from third-quarter 2017's cycle high of 699% to the 691% of 2018's first quarter.
Weekly Market Outlook: Investment-Grade Looks Softer and High-Yield Looks Firmer Compared With Year-End 2007
Since June 14's close, or immediately prior to the latest bout of trade-related stress, the cumulative 0.8% decline by the market value of US common stock has been shallower than the accompanying 2.7% drop by the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average. By comparison, China's Shanghai Composite stock price index incurred a much deeper setback of 5.5%. The latest installment of trade friction has yet to roil all financial markets. The recent VIX of 14.2 points remained well below its long-term median of 15.9 points notwithstanding heightened financial market volatility.
May 2018's 52% year-to-year plunge by US$-denominated high-yield bond issuance to $20.96 billion grossly understated the overall pace of borrowing by high-yield companies. In stark contrast, May 2018's newly-rated bank loan programs graded Baa or lower soared higher by 52% from a year earlier to a record $104.64 billion. The latter surpassed January 2017's former zenith of $91.42 billion and was well above November 2007's $81.80 billion high of 2002-2007's business cycle upturn. By December 2007, the Great Recession was officially under way.
Perhaps the speed at which GDP grows relative to debt matters more than the ratio of debt to GDP. The faster GDP grows relative to debt, the lower might be the risks surrounding the repayment of debt obligations. Expressed differently, the greater the return from debt capital, the lower should be the incidence of delinquencies, charge offs, and defaults. When productively employed, debt capital can more than pay for itself. The U.S.' ratio of private and public nonfinancial-sector debt has soared from 1968's 131% to 2017's 253% of 2017. Nevertheless, the 10-year average annualized growth of U.S. real GDP decelerated from the 4.9% of the span-ended 1968 to the 1.4% of the span-ended 2017.
Notwithstanding the occasional jarring setback, the market value of U.S. common stock need only rise by 4.8% in order to return to its record high of January 26, 2018. Such a recovery appears to be well within reach if profits grow. Moreover, the realization of the projected decline by the U.S.' high-yield default rate from April 2018's 3.7% to 1.5% by April 2019 implies a firming of corporate finances that can only facilitate a recovery by share prices.
The remedy of higher interest rates is taking effect. The risk of an overheating of financial markets and business activity appears to be waning. The market value of U.S. common stock has been unable to return to its record high of January 26 ever since the 10-year Treasury yield has risen from its 2.56% average of 2018's first 36 days to 2.88% since then. In turn, the S&P 500's forward-looking price-to-earnings ratio has eased from January 26's 18.7:1 to a recent 17.1:1. Not only will a less exuberant equity market rein-in wealth-driven spending by consumers, it will also curb business expenditures by containing the market valuation of business assets and increasing the cost of equity capital. Moreover, a less vibrant equity market may prompt creditors to demand additional compensation for default risk when lending to businesses.
Markets are now torn between upbeat outlooks for corporate earnings and the risks posed to these outlooks by a very low jobless rate. A recent consensus forecast has S&P 500 operating income growing by 22% in 2018 and by 11% in 2019. Moreover, the Blue Chip consensus believes that the pretax operating profits of all U.S. corporations will increase by 5.2% in 2018 and 4.4% in 2019. In addition, an expected drop by the U.S.' high-yield default rate from April 2018's 3.7% to 1.5% by April 2019 complements the positive outlook for profits. Nevertheless, April's historically low unemployment rate of 3.9% hints of limited upsides for both domestic spending and U.S. output that may thwart expectations of operating earnings growth and fewer defaults.
The net equity buybacks of U.S. nonfinancial corporations fell from 2016's $581 billion to 2017's $391 billion possibly in response to the historically rich valuation of U.S. common stock. Indications are that first-quarter 2018's net stock buybacks were up considerably from 2017's final quarter mostly in response to the volatility that followed the setting of the now record high for the market value of U.S. common stock on January 26, 2018.
Mergers, acquisitions and divestitures (M&A) wield considerable influence over corporate credit quality, where M&A's impact on a single company's credit standing can vary over time. For example, a credit rating may be downgraded early on because of the substantial increase in leverage brought on by a debt-financed acquisition. However, over time, the acquisition may help to boost profitability, liquidity and the company's market value by enough to eventually prompt a credit rating upgrade.
The high-yield bond market continues to shrug off equity market volatility. Notwithstanding a climb by the VIX index's month-long average from December 2017's 10.3 points to April-to-date's 18.6 points, as well as a rise by the U.S.' high-yield default rate from January 2018's 3.3% to March's 3.9%, April 25's composite high-yield bond spread of 352 basis points was thinner than the 359 bp of year-end 2017. Still, thin spreads reflect strongly held expectations of a renewed slide by the high-yield default rate well into 2019.
In 2017's final quarter, the 7.7% yearly advance by nonfinancial-corporate profits from current production outran the accompanying 6.6% increase of nonfinancial-corporate debt. The record shows that if pretax operating profits continue to outpace corporate debt, corporate credit quality will improve. The correlation between the high-yield default rate's quarter-long average and the yearlong ratio of debt-tooperating profits for US nonfinancial corporations is a meaningful 0.82.
Perceived economic and political risks drove share prices sharply lower on March 22. Markets are beginning to ask whether companies will be capable of passing on higher costs to the U.S.' less than financially robust middle class. The U.S.' still relatively low personal savings rate questions how easily consumers will absorb recent and any forthcoming price hikes. Moreover, the recent slide by Moody's industrial metals price index amid dollar exchange rate weakness hints of a leveling off of global business activity.
Never before have the high-yield bond spread and default rate been so low amid a new record high ratio of U.S. corporate debt to GDP. In terms of a moving yearlong average, U.S. nonfinancial-corporate debt finished 2017 at an unprecedented 45.4% of U.S. nominal GDP. Nevertheless, not only was the U.S.' high-yield default rate of Q4-2017 at a below-trend 3.3%, but the accompanying average high-yield bond spread of 363 basis points reflected expectations of an even lower default rate nine to twelve months hence. Moody's Default Research Group expects the default rate to approximate 2% during early 2019.
Lately, financial markets have grudgingly withstood the broad imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum. Not even the resignation of the highly respected Gary Cohn was capable of triggering a jarring sell-off of equities. Markets took some comfort from President Trump's indication that countries might be granted exemptions from the tariffs if they resolve issues that led to the imposition of tariffs.
February was a stormy month for financial markets. Worse yet, March got off to a horrible start in response to President Trump's intention to impose import tariffs of 10% on aluminum and 25% on steel despite how costlier aluminum and steel will diminish the global competitiveness of those U.S. manufacturers using these materials. Remember, after having incurred back-to-back monthly setbacks in January and February, auto sales were expected to decline in 2018 prior to the statement on tariffs.
Partly as a means of offsetting the loss of business activity to deleveraging by households, businesses, as well as state and local governments, the federal government's share of the U.S.' broadest estimate of public and private nonfinancial-sector debt has soared from year-end 2007's 18% to the 34% of 2017's third quarter. The latter share is the highest since 1960's third quarter.
Corporate bond yield spreads have been relatively steady throughout recent equity market tumult. Expectations of a declining high-yield default rate into early 2019 have anchored corporate yield spreads.
Thus far, the corporate credit market has been relatively steady amid equity market turmoil. Corporate credit's comparative calm stems from expectations of continued profit growth that underpins a still likely slide by the high-yield default rate. The record shows that 90% of the year-to-year declines by the default rate were joined by year-to-year growth for the market value of U.S. common stock.
It has been a volatile week for financial markets. After shrugging off an earlier ascent by the 10-year Treasury yield from year-end 2017's 2.41% to January 26's 2.66% and advancing by 7.1%, the market value of U.S. common stock has since sunk by 1.6% in reaction to a climb by the 10-year Treasury yield to 2.77%. The deeper post-January 26 drop of 3.7% by the interest-sensitive PHLX index of housing-sector share prices underscores the importance of higher Treasury bond yields to the latest retreat by equities. Earlier, or from year-end 2017 through January 26, the index of housing sector share prices was up by 4.9%, which trailed the accompanying advance by the overall equity market.
Some predicted that the loss of the full deductibility of business interest expense would weigh heavily on the issuance of dollar-denominated high-yield bonds. However, corporate bond issuance has exceeded expectations thus far in 2018.
Mark Zandi, Chief Economist, and Ryan Sweet, Director of Real Time Economics, share Moody’s Analytics forecast and discuss the factors that could impact the economy’s performance.
Earnings-sensitive securities have thrived thus far in 2018. Not only was the market value of U.S. common stock recently up by 4.5% since year-end 2017, but a composite high-yield bond spread narrowed by 23 basis points to 336 bp. The latter brings attention to how the accompanying composite speculative-grade bond yield fell from year-end 2017's 5.82% to a recent 5.72% despite the 5-year Treasury yield's increase from 2.21% to 2.39%, respectively.
Corporate bonds and equities got out of the gate quickly in 2018. Though benchmark interest rates are likely to climb higher, the combination of corporate earnings growth and a benign outlook for corporate defaults should be enough to prevent a deep and extended slide by share prices. Except for late 1987's stock market crash, the historical record shows that since 1982, interest-rate inspired declines by the broad equity indices have been relatively brief and shallow.
In this webinar replay, Mark Zandi and the Moody’s Analytics team examine the economic impact on the national and regional economy.
In this webinar replay, Mark Zandi and the Moody’s Analytics team examine the economic impact on the national and regional economy, including the effect on GDP, corporate profits, gas prices, as well as property damage estimates for infrastructure, real estate and vehicles.
How US policymakers respond to pressing fiscal challenges could have major implications for financial market conditions. These challenges, coupled with the debate surrounding the Fed's balance sheet and geopolitical issues, are of concern for those with exposure to market risk.
Mark Zandi and Ryan Sweet discuss the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, what must be done early in the new president’s term to help the economy, and the implication of the election outcome on the fiscal outlook and growth.