Generating income amid inflation and rising rates

12 minute read

April 2022

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While preferreds and other fixed income groups have faced macro headwinds so far in 2022, we believe the longer-term outlook for preferreds remains intact.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

 

  • Fundamentals for preferred issuers remain attractive
  • Valuations offer select opportunities, but require active management, in our view
  • We have taken a more defensive position for rates and credit

Backdrop: A challenging start to 2022 for fixed income

Preferred and other fixed income securities started 2022 on a difficult note amid higher inflation and the prospect of monetary tightening, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adding more uncertainty to the mix.

In March, the Federal Reserve raised short-term interest rates for the first time since 2018. We expect the Fed to continue a tightening cycle as it takes a more aggressive approach to fight high inflation readings.

The Russia-Ukraine war has the potential to exacerbate inflation due to an increase in a broad spectrum of commodities prices, most notably oil and gas. As it stands, the Fed is projecting at least several more rate hikes in 2022. Given the current economic backdrop, we believe it makes sense to take an increasingly hawkish stance.

Fundamentals and strength of preferred issuers remain attractive

We acknowledge the risk that tighter Fed policy could drive down economic growth. But banks, the main issuers of preferred securities, are entering this uncertain period from a position of strength. For U.S. banks, core capital ratios— which measure the amount of Tier 1 capital relative to risk-weighted assets—are close to 11% on average, which is well above required minimums, and much higher than the 7% average going into the 2008 financial crisis (Exhibit 1).

EXHIBIT 1
Capital strength in U.S. and European banks near all-time highs

Core capital ratios of major European and U.S. banks(1)

Core capital ratios of major European and US banks

It’s a similar story in Europe. While we acknowledge concerns about the economic impact of the war, we believe European banks are well positioned to mitigate the risk of direct credit exposure to Russia and Ukraine, as well as the potential second-order effects on European economies. By our estimates, assets at direct risk are less than 1% of all European bank credit exposures. Some banks have higher direct credit exposure than others, but in general, although there are no guarantees, we expect any losses to have a limited and manageable capital impact.

In addition, loan loss reserves for European banks are at conservative levels as a sizable amount of Covid reserves have yet to be released. Notably, the head supervisor for European banks has said that regulators do not expect to limit European banks’ shareholder dividends like they did during the height of Covid.

The negative economic impact of the war could also be mitigated with more flexible monetary policy, meaning that the European Central Bank could be less hawkish than expected. And governments in the region may look to soften the economic impact through fiscal support (resurrecting the Covid playbook), including the possibility of joint bond issuance to fund higher energy and defense spending.

Higher rates have the potential to aid bank profits

In general, another fundamental factor that can support preferred investors is banks’ positive earnings sensitivity to rising rates. For example, about two- thirds of U.S. bank interest-rate sensitivity is on the short end of the yield curve. Some bank loans are poised to reprice higher, and we estimate that a 100-basis-point move up in rates could increase bank profitability by more than 15%, on average.

Valuations offer select opportunities

Preferreds are subordinated to the issuing company’s senior debt, so it’s important to look at how much compensation preferreds offer over traditional investment-grade bonds. The yield on investment-grade exchange-traded preferreds is about 5.1% (as of March 31, 2022), compared with a yield of about 3.6% for single A corporate bonds.(1)

In the first quarter of 2022, the spread between exchange-traded preferreds and investment-grade bonds compressed by about 57 basis points, to 148 basis points. While preferreds’ yield advantage is now tighter than the longer- term average (1/97 through 3/22) of 190 basis points, we think the spread compression makes sense, given the solid fundamentals of preferred issuers. The tighter spread differential on this part of the preferred market now offers less cushion against rising interest rates and wider spreads, so security selection remains important.

Yields on preferred securities appear attractive vs. high-yield bonds on a historical basis.

Yields on investment-grade exchange-traded preferreds look attractive relative to high-yield debt, as high yield now only offers about 107 basis points of income over preferreds, compared with a long-term average of 209 basis points (Exhibit 2). Issuance within high yield has slowed this year, in part because issuers have turned to the leverage loan market, which may help explain the tighter valuations in high yield.

EXHIBIT 2
Preferreds offer competitive yields vs. lower-credit high- yield debt

Yield comparison—high-yield bonds vs. preferred securities January 1997 – March 31, 2022

Yield comparison high-yield bonds vs preferred securities

High-yield debt does have generally lower durations than preferreds. But the quality of preferreds is triple B on average (based on the exchange-traded market as of March 2022), which is five notches above single B+ rating of high yield. Also, most preferreds pay qualified dividend income, which is taxed at just 23.8% for the highest tax brackets, compared with a 40.8% income tax rate for high yield bonds. Therefore, on an after-tax basis, high quality preferreds may offer more income than high yield—with substantially better credit quality.

While we have seen a sharp repricing across preferreds that has created valuation opportunities, we believe the opportunities are nuanced, as parts of the market offer the potential for attractive risk-adjusted returns, while other parts of the market offer less potential cushion against rising rates. In our view, the best opportunities can be found among preferreds with coupons that are fixed-to-fixed or fixed-to-float. At the call date (if the security is not called), these coupons reset at a benchmark rate, such as the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) or 5-year Treasuries, plus the original credit spread.

As interest rates rise, the coupons of such fixed-to-reset securities will rise too, as they reset over higher rates. Effectively, the expected internal rate of return of these securities can turn more attractive, offering the potential for certain preferreds to outperform other fixed income assets.

A more defensive position

Given the prospect of tighter financial conditions and an increasingly uncertain macro backdrop, we have become more defensive in both our preferreds and low-duration preferreds strategies. We have reduced some of our credit overweight while favoring more-defensive security structures such as higher-quality and higher-reset (less rate-sensitive) structures. Specifically, we have shortened portfolio durations by increasing investments in shorter-duration preferreds that have high resets in the next few years and decreasing exposure to longer-duration fixed-rate securities.

We’ve also been favoring higher coupon securities, to potentially help smooth out interest-rate volatility. The higher income acts as a cushion, mitigating potential negative price returns, as rates rise.

While higher inflation, and the higher interest rates that typically accompany it, present challenges across fixed income, we believe active management can help mitigate the risks.

EXHIBIT 3
Our preferreds strategies have ample coupon reset structures
Cohen & Steers SICAV Global Preferred Securities Fund

At March 31, 2022.
Holdings are subject to change without notice. Portfolio weightings are subject to change without notice. Based on a representative account which was chosen because it best illustrates the strategy’s investment policy and objective.

FURTHER READING

3 reasons to consider preferreds when rates are rising

September 2022 | 10 mins

Preferred securities have characteristics that can potentially help mitigate the effects of rising interest rates.

Recession or not, growth is slowing: Our macro team’s view

August 2022 | 10 mins

Our base case calls for a shallow recession as inflation peaks and central bank policies take hold. Here’s how we’re positioned across key strategies.

Three reasons we think preferreds are now attractive

3 reasons we think preferreds are now attractive

August 2022 | 5 mins

Broad fixed income markets have seen a substantial wave of repricing this year stemming from persistent inflation, interest rate volatility, and concerns around economic growth.

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