HSBC has now thrown its hat in the ring, in a 24-page research note entitled “The triumph of the pessimists”, which looks at the behaviour of corporate bonds and equities over the past 140 years or so. Here’s the summary.
Lots of studies have looked at government bond and equity valuations, few at the relationship between corporate debt and equities. We’ve filled the gap, going back to the middle of the 19th century.
The results don’t look pretty for equities, which are likely to suffer a multi-year downgrading compared with corporate debt… Historically, there have been three multi-decade periods. Relative prices in the first two were very different to those in the third. Before the beginning of the last century, yields on corporate equity were sometimes lower than those on corporate debt and sometimes higher. Over the following 50 years — from about 1907 until 1951 — they were almost always higher, sometimes a great deal higher. But for the 50 years starting in the early 1950s, dividend yields on equities fell sharply relative to yields on corporate bonds. By 2000, the peak of the cult of the equity, the relative yield of equities compared with government and corporate bonds had reached its lowest level ever.In fact, the only significant period in which dividend yields weren’t higher than corporate bond yields was in the early 1930s (chart, using railway bond yields as a proxy for corporates, below), when dividend yields collapsed and corporate bond yields surged because of the cascade of Depression-related defaults, according to HSBC. Investors’ enthusiasm for equities was dulled, and, in a parallel with our current financial crisis, their appetite for corporate debt sharpened. Even as the economy improved and profits rose, investors attached an increasingly low valuation to dividend payments, resulting in increased dividend yields.
Fearing another depression, then, investors demanded more of their returns upfront. That’s why dividend yields went up and corporate spreads went down. Although stocks went up and down, the shift continued until 1950, by which time the trailing PE for the S&P had fallen to 6x, its dividend yield had reached 7.5%, yields on Baa bonds had fallen to 3.2% and spreads to less than 80bps. In the early 1930s, Baa yields reached 11% and spreads touched 725bps.
That was the cheapest that equities have ever been against corporate bonds. Over the next 50 years, not all at once and with big, sometimes huge setbacks, valuations of stocks compared with corporate bonds moved from their cheapest ever to their most expensive. Which … is the situation in which we find ourselves now.
Which leads us to today, when, according to HSBC, we’re facing two scenarios for corporate bonds and equities. Over the past 18 months, the implosion of the global financial system has led to huge risk aversion and acute deflationary concerns, both of which have driven government bond yields lower still. Now, it could be that quantitative easing by central banks will lead to a pick up in inflationary concerns and worries about how governments will repay the huge numbers of bonds that they have issued and will continue to issue. That’s certainly not an argument that one should dismiss out of hand. That wouldn’t augur well for government bonds in the long term.
Alternatively, the situation we’re in now might echo the 1930s, when risk appetite was shot to pieces and, regardless of whether inflation fell through the floor or picked up somewhat, government-bond yields fell and then fell further. For their part, having spiked up hugely, corporate spreads declined for the rest of the decade. But as we saw earlier, if investors lapped up bonds, particularly corporate bonds, they shunned equities; earnings yields and dividend yields rose dramatically. In that environment, investors, in other words, were expressing a strong preference for safety and income over risk and capital gains.
Although we strongly suspect that the present world looks more like the second of these scenarios than the first, we really don’t know for sure. Perhaps it doesn’t much matter, as long as governments don’t unleash another huge inflation. For what is certainly true is that central bankers have now told us explicitly that they will not allow government bond yields to rise for the foreseeable future. Their aim is simple: to make risk-free assets so unattractive that investors wade into riskier markets, thus restoring confidence to the financial system and the economy as a whole. For now, it’s clear, equity markets have taken the hint, but corporate credit markets haven’t. That situation will, we think, be reversed.
This is a sentiment echoed in The Aleph Blog and Crossing Wall Street. The spread between corporate bonds and equities is getting big - corporates were sitting out of the recent rally. They are, as per HSBC’s research title, the pessimists.
However, as HSBC also notes, this is essentially a deflationary vs inflationary debate. In a deflationary environment, as in the Great Depression, corporate bonds, with their stable returns, make sense. In an inflationary environment those fixed returns are eroded. Equities, with their ability to raise prices in tandem with inflation (or as close as they can get) could be more attractive.
A slightly random example here - but the German stock market of the 1920s increased by a staggering amount as inflation shot through the roof. We’re far from hyper-inflation, but throwbacks to that era, like the below 1921 clipping from the New York Times, should give us pause for thought.