Can US Stocks Rise Still Despite Buyers' Strike?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/02/2017 12:50:00 PM
Are companies flush with high-yield bond proceeds buying back stock no matter what?
There's an interesting article over at MarketWatch that brings up all sorts of questions about what really buoys the stock markets and who investors really are. The conventional understanding is that bonds--debt issued by corporations--move in the opposite direction of stocks since the former are regarded as relatively safer assets while the latter are riskier assets. However, bonds and stocks may not be coupled in this manner. Instead, large institutional investors, namely pension funds, tend to shy away from risky investments like equities. So, they buy high-yield corporate debt in large quantities. With many retirees to account for in the near future, they have few options nowadays:
Unlike so-called smart investors, who worry about fundamental influences including the economy, politics and even natural disasters, the nation’s public pensions trustees only care about one thing: “Their sole focus is on making 7.5% through the credit market,” [Cannacord's Brian] Reynolds wrote in a recent note to clients. “They are going to focus on that whether the economy speeds up or slows down, whether there is tax reform or not and whether the Fed raises rates more or has to bring them back down.”

As Reynolds explains, 7.5% is generally what pension trustees have to earn on assets to cover the gap between what pensions have promised to pay out and what they actually have. The general perception among pension trustees is that equities are too risky, and safe 10-year Treasury notes are currently yielding just 2.31%. And since their biggest worry is to not be too careful, pension funds have been gobbling up higher-yield corporate debt and credit instruments.

Through August, high-yield bond issuance reached $1.21 trillion, already just shy of the full-year record of $1.23 trillion in 2016, according to data provided by Fitch Ratings. Institutional leveraged loan issuance hit $1.07 trillion through August, already breaking the 2016 record of $973.1 billion. Assuming the pace of flows remains the same, the puts high-yield issuance on track to exceed $1.8 trillion and leveraged loan issuance to top $1.6 trillion.
Corporations issuing high-yield paper are therefore flush with cash from selling all this high-yield debt. For a long time now, many have chosen not to invest the proceeds, but rather buy back their shares on the open market. Therefore stock investors may understandably quit the stock market at these incredibly elevated valuations, but companies will continue buying back shares. It's said that "real" investors haven't been the main buyers of stocks since the end of the Great Recession, but rather companies buying back stock using bond sale proceeds:
Companies have used that cash to be the primary buyers during the current bull market, while what Reynolds described as the “main investors” have been net sellers. “Main investors” include mutual funds, insurers, hedge funds, households, foreign buyers, broker dealers, pension funds and exchange-traded funds.

Since the S&P 500 index hit its bear-market bottom in March 2009, it has soared nearly fourfold, even though “main investors” have sold a total of $9.89 billion worth of stock, Reynolds said, using Bloomberg data. That’s because the cumulative total of corporate stock repurchases has been about $3.2 trillion, he said.

And since the credit market has grown by $3.3 trillion since the credit crisis, Reynolds sees it as nearly a one-to-one correlation between the credit boom, share buybacks and the bull market.
I have my doubts about this version of events as to why stocks can thus keep rising indefinitely. Many of the gainers are not the sorts who issue boatloads of high-yield debt, but rather blue-chip corporations issuing investment-grade debt like components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average 30, the larger Standard and Poors 500 components, and giant tech stocks on the Nasdaq Index like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. If high-yield issuers were indeed the main beneficiaries, then you would expect smaller, less creditworthy companies to outperform large ones. However, that has not really been the case with the Russell 2000 index being outperformed by the aforementioned indices over this time frame.

It's food for thought, though, and shines a light on the role played by stock buybacks in buoying the market.