On Tuesday, Carl Icahn reiterated his feelings about the interplay between low interest rates, HY credit, and ETFs. The self-feeding dynamic that Icahn described earlier this year and outlined again today in a new video entitled “Danger Ahead” is something we’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time delineating over the last nine or so months. Icahn sums it up with this image:
The idea of course is that low rates have i) sent investors on a never-ending hunt for yield, and ii) encouraged corporate management teams to take advantage of the market’s insatiable appetite for new issuance on the way to plowing the proceeds from debt sales into EPS-inflating buybacks. The proliferation of ETFs has effectively supercharged this by channeling more and more retail money into corners of the bond market where it might normally have never gone.
Of course this all comes at the expense of corporate balance sheets and because wide open capital markets have helped otherwise insolvent companies (such as US drillers) remain in business where they might normally have failed, what you have is a legion of heavily indebted HY zombie companies, lumbering around on the back of cheap credit, easy money, and naive equity investors who snap up secondaries.
This is a veritable road to hell and it’s not clear that it’s paved with good intentions as Wall Street is no doubt acutely aware of the disaster scenario they’ve set up and indeed, they’re also acutely aware of the fact that when everyone wants out, the door to the proverbial crowded theatre will be far too small because after all, that door is represented by the Street’s own shrinking dealer inventories. Perhaps the best way to visualize all of this is to have a look at the following two charts:
So now that the wake up calls