Tim Gramatovich is chief investment officer of Peritus Asset Management and portfolio manager of AdvisorShares Peritus High Yield ETF (HYLD).
The high yield and floating rate loan market are often misunderstood asset classes. Just what is the formal definition of “high yield”? High yield, or its more polite acronym, non-investment grade, is based off of the ratings grids provided by the two major credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. All bonds rated below Baa by Moody’s are considered high yield or non-investment grade. Similarly, all ratings below BBB by Standard & Poor’s are considered high yield. We remain perplexed as to how these two private companies came to monopolize the business and have become the definitive standard on who gets credit and on what terms. Ironically, even after their well-publicized gaffes in the scandals of Worldcom and Enron, and more recently with the ratings of structured products, they ended up with more power. Various attempts have been made to move away from traditional credit ratings, most recently with the G20 countries committing to come up with plans to reduce reliance on credit ratings by mid-2015; yet so far nothing has been successful and given that these ratings are so ingrained in the system, we remain skeptical that the fixed income market ever will ever be defined by anything other than ratings.
Investors should understand what the ratings agencies themselves say about their ratings. Among their various disclosures, the ratings agencies caution that their ratings are opinions and are not to be relied upon alone to make an investment decision, do not forecast future market price movements, and are not recommendations to buy, sell, or hold a security. So if these opinions have no value in forecasting where the security price is going and are not investment recommendations, what good are they? Candidly this is a question we have been asking for the past 30 years. We see the ratings agencies as reactive not proactive, yet many investors in fixed income rely almost entirely on these ratings in making investment decisions.
Yet to us, these ratings present an opportunity. Central to our core investment philosophy is a belief that the credit ratings process employed by the main rating agencies is flawed. Their algorithms tend to favor large enterprises with long histories. Regardless of our belief, many institutional investors remain captive and constrained by this ratings process. Their ability to include non-investment grade securities in a fixed income portfolio is severely restricted. Because of this, we believe that the high yield, or non-investment grade, bond and loan markets are inefficient and lend themselves to active management. Active managers have the ability to focus on investing in companies and industries – not on ratings, maturity, duration or subordination—allowing them to capitalize on opportunities other can’t or don’t.