On Monday evening, we noted that market participants are reducing the size of their trades and turning to derivatives in order to avoid the perils associated with what are increasingly illiquid markets.
While we’ve been pounding the table on bond market liquidity for years, the rest of the world (operating on the standard 2-3 year time lag) has just begun to wake up to how thin markets have become. Now, pundits, analysts, billionaire bankers, and incorrigible corporate raiders alike are shouting from the rooftops about the pitfalls of illiquidity. The secondary market for corporate credit has received the lion’s share of the attention (for reasons we outlined yesterday) and as Carl Icahn was at pains to explain to Larry Fink last week, ETFs are a large part of the problem.
The story is simple. Shrinking dealer inventories (the result of a post-crisis regulatory regime wherein the term “prop trader” is taboo) have made it harder to transact in size without having an outsized effect on prices for corporate bonds. Meanwhile, artificially suppressed borrowing costs and the attendant hunt for yield have led to record corporate issuance and voracious investor demand. In short, the primary market is booming while the secondary market has become a veritable no man’s land. If you need an analogy, try this: the crowded theatre is getting larger and more crowded while the exit keeps getting smaller.
The proliferation of ETFs has made it easier for the retail crowd to chase yield in corners of the bond market where they might not have dared to venture before, and this has only served to create still more demand for things like high yield credit.
Now, with the US staring down a rate hike cycle, and with some corners of the HY market (see HY energy for instance) facing a number of insurmountable headwinds going forward, the fear is that the retail crowd will all head for the exits at once, leaving fund managers with a very nondiversifiable, unidirectional flow which will force them to sell the underlying assets into illiquid markets. Due to a generalized lack of market depth, that selling pressure has the potential to trigger a rout. Of course a sharp decline in prices would send still more panicked retail investors to the exits necessitating even more asset sales by fund managers and so on, and so forth.
But don’t take our word for it, here’s WSJ with more on how Wall Street is preparing to profit from an unwind in Main Street’s ETF and mutual fund portfolios:
Wall Street is preparing for panic on Main Street.
Hedge funds are lining up to profit from potential trouble at some “alternative” mutual funds and bond exchange-traded funds that have boomed in popularity among retirees and other individual investors.
Financial advisers have pushed ordinary investors into those funds in search of higher returns, a strategy that has come into favor as Federal Reserve benchmark interest rates remain near zero. But many on Wall Street worry the junk bonds, bank loans and esoteric investments held by some of those funds will be extremely hard to sell if the market turns, leaving prices pummeled in a rush for the exits.
Concerns about such scenarios have been escalating for some time. Now, investment firms such as Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management LLC and Oaktree Capital Management LP are laying the groundwork to cash in if they come to pass.
Apollo has been raising money from wealthy investors and portfolio managers for a hedge fund that snaps up insurance-like contracts called credit-default swaps that benefit if the junk bonds fall. In marketing materials reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Apollo predicted: “ETFs and similar vehicles increase ease of access to the high yield market, leading to the potential for a quick ‘hot money’ exit.”
Guided by a similar outlook, Reef Road Capital Management LLC, led by former J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. proprietary trader Eric Rosen, has been betting against, or shorting, exchange-traded funds that hold junk bonds and buying options that will pay off if the value of these high-yield securities falls.
The hedge funds are taking aim at what is regarded by many on Wall Street as a weak spot in the markets. “Liquid-alternative”” funds have emerged as one of the hottest products in finance, fueled by a promise to deliver hedge-fund-style investing to the masses. They use many of the same strategies as hedge funds, with wagers both on and against markets, but are open to less-wealthy investors with fees closer to mutual-fund standards.
Liquid-alternative funds manage a cumulative $446 billion, according to fund tracker Lipper, up from $83 billion at the start of 2009. High-yield bond ETFs, another popular product, manage more than $38 billion, and in the week ended last Wednesday took in their biggest inflows on record at $1.5 billion, Lipper said.
Activist investor Carl Icahn brought the issue to the fore last week, saying at an investment conference that he feared a bubble was expanding in junk bonds thanks to the rush into high-yield exchange-traded funds run by companies like BlackRock Inc.
Managers of ETFs and liquid-alternative funds said they are well-protected against any tumult. Some have lines of credit to cover redemptions if needed and point to research showing that even during past crises, mutual-fund investors generally withdraw no more than 2% of assets each month.
When Reuters first reported that fund managers were lining up emergency liquidity lines like the ones mentioned above, we smelled trouble and were quick to note that not only did that not bode well for the market, but that funding redemptions with borrowed cash is a fool’s errand and depends upon the market stress being transitory (see here and here). But beyond that, it betrayed the extent to which the country’s largest and most influential ETF issuers have become worried about just the type of meltdown the hedge funds mentioned above are banking on.
If you want a candid take on just what the smart money thinks is ahead for all of the retail money that’s been herded into esoteric ETFs, we’ll leave you with the following from David Tawil, president of hedge fund Maglan Capital, who spoke to WSJ:
“They are going to be toast. It will be one of our first levels of shorting the moment we start to see cracks, because it’s ripe with retail, emotional investors.”