J is for Junk Bonds


We’ve already reached the tenth letter of our investor alphabet – well done for sticking with me this far! Today we’re going to look at an asset class that has an unappealing name but which could provide returns that are very attractive. J is for junk bonds.

We’ve already established that a bond is simply a loan to a government or a company. So what do we mean by a junk bond? It’s a term that came to be used in the nineteen eighties and will forever be associated with one of its pioneers, Michael Milken. One of the risks of being a pioneer is that you get arrows in your back. Ask Milken – he went to jail over junk bonds. But that’s a story for another time.. A junk bond is issued by a company which usually has a not too brilliant credit rating from the official rating agencies who measure these things. The specific definition is a rating of BB or lower from Standard and Poors or BA or below from Moodys.

Because they are deemed to be high risk companies, historically they’ve had to offer much higher rates of interest than bonds issued by companies judged to be safe. So they can appeal to investors looking to diversify their portfolio and willing to accept higher risk for higher returns with at least some of their savings. I say historically because in recent years one of the strangest phenomena that I’ve seen is the massive reduction in this so called risk premium.

Just like its amazing that Spain or Portugal can borrow money for not much more than Germany or Switzerland, so it is bizarre that many junk bonds now offer only marginally better returns than A rated companies. The biggest attraction for the more sophisticated investor is to find junk bonds issued by a company at the start of a major business turnaround. For example if a new management team is put in place or a new product is launched around the time that the bond is issued. Not only do you lock in a good return, but if the turnaround leads to a re-rating by the credit agencies then the value of the bond can sky rocket in a matter of days. In the junk bond peak of the nineteen eighties companies with few assets would use this paper as a means of acquiring other businesses. Then they’d use the real assets of the acquired business to pay off the debt they took on to fund the acquisition! But as they became more widely used, so the quality of the companies declined and the rate of defaults increased.

Many investors got a bloody nose and the junk bond craze died out. But, memories are short. Investors who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. And that’s what they’re doing right now. If the main bond markets are at risk of a sharp correction when interest rates start to rise again, I can only imagine the scorched earth that will ensue in the junk bond market. And don’t imagine that this is a tiny niche market. Over ninety five per cent of American companies with revenue over thirty five million dollars a year have their bonds rated as junk. They include household names like Delta airlines and US steel.

The US junk bond market alone is worth half a trillion dollars. But this is definitely a market for sophisticated investors only. You should only invest money you can afford to lose and no more than the top five or ten per cent of your portfolio. There’s nothing wrong with allocating some of your savings to high risk high return assets. Just make sure you do some due diligence otherwise you might just as well throw darts at the Financial Times…