Market Commentary: Paradise

In twenty U.S. states there is a town or city called Paradise. In Michigan, there are two. At one point there were 36 different communities with that name. In Indiana, it was believed to be the ideal location for mining; in Montana, fishing. In California, it was the perfect spot for filming scenes from Gone With the Wind. The one in Nevada was created in 1950 so that its five casinos could avoid paying taxes to the city of Las Vegas. Because gambling produced so much revenue, mob-run businesses once paid for all the services they needed out of pocket, using their own private security instead of relying on local or county law enforcement. Paradise, Nevada is still an unincorporated section of Clark County, home to most of the Las Vegas Strip although The Pair-O-Dice is no longer open; its citizens are now served by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

There is some talk of late that having a police-free society would be paradise, or at least an improvement over some of conditions that exist in several parts of the country. Since 1751, when the first city police services began in Philadelphia and the first police department was created in New York in 1854, we have come to expect nearly the impossible of our men and women in blue. We cannot overlook evidence of brutality, nor can we discount the sacrifices or forget that more than 22,217 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty. Right now, we have 17,985 police agencies based as far north as Point Barrow, Alaska and as far south as Ka Lae, Hawaii with more than 1.1 million full-time employees. In the wake of dozens of senseless deaths roiling American cities these past two weeks, we welcome civil debate over how some of the $100 billion of our tax dollars spent every year on crime prevention and protection of the citizenry should be redirected or supplemented with training programs, employment screening, and broader initiatives tackling poverty, homelessness, mental health, drug addiction and troubled youth.

With the exception of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, the financial markets have not paused for a second in recent weeks over headline news of protests, riots, looting, COVID-19 case counts, corporate bankruptcies, widespread continuing unemployment, coming elections, or anything else going on here or abroad. There is simply very little if any correlation between our actual economy and the performance of Dow, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq. To Main Street, where going out for a mere cheeseburger seems like paradise, the endless rally is surreal. We know that Wall Street tends to discount background noise and look for blue skies. We also know that the indices reflecting gains are driven by a shrinking number of firms, heavily weighted by a technology sector that in many ways has benefited from lockdowns and efforts to organize. Most of all, we cannot ignore the Federal Reserve’s massive presence and the market’s near total reliance on its perpetual interventions. The $3 trillion of liquidity support happens to be right in line with the gain in the S&P market capitalization dollar for dollar: from $21.42 trillion in March to $25.24 trillion at the end of May.

The securities industry employs approximately 442,400 and has certainly featured its share of textbook bad actors and felons over the years. Working conditions could not have been more favorable in recent years. Perhaps with the assurance of Fed injections at the first sign of any sniffle, and Congress poised to deliver additional stimulus, the capital markets perceive open-ended tickets to paradise. Conditions for borrowers certainly remain heavenly. But we are now formally in recession after 128 straight months of expansion. On Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the record-long recovery from the Great Recession ended in February. In the past, the declaration has required consecutive quarters of negative growth. This time, since our economic collapse was rapid, with an unprecedented decline in employment and production driven by pandemic containment policies. The good news is that economists predict that GDP will turn sharply positive in the third quarter as businesses continue to reopen and Americans get back to work. On Wednesday, we will get more color from the Federal Open Market Committee, which meets for the first time since April 29.

During the first trading week of June, the Dow gained nearly 7%, the S&P 500 was up 5%, the Nasdaq rose by 3.5% and the Russell 2000 increased by more than 8%. Oil prices climbed 11% to $39.55 while gold fell by $45 an ounce to $1,685. The rally in corporate bonds continued as well. The yield on 10-year Baa rated corporate securities fell 12 basis points to 3.75%. U.S. Treasury yields rose over the course of a week capped by the unexpected jump in payrolls and drop in unemployment. The 2-year increased by 4 basis points to 0.20% while the 10-year gained 24 basis points to 0.89% and the 30-year added 26 basis points to 1.66%. Municipal bond yields rose as well after seven days of no change, but to a lesser degree than governments. Flows into municipal bond mutual funds totaled $1.2 billion, marking a third consecutive week of net investment, and reception for new issues was solid. The Fed expanded the eligibility for its liquidity fund to smaller municipalities after the State of Illinois became the first to take advantage of the program with a $1.2 billion, one year loan. The 2-year AAA general obligation benchmark finished the week at 0.19%, up three basis points in yield. The 10-year and 30-year yields rose 5 basis points to close at 0.89% and 1.70%, respectively. This week, we encourage you to contact your HJ Sims advisor for opportunities. The muni calendar is expected to exceed $7 billion with a wide range of tax-exempt, taxable and corporate issues.

Market Commentary: Space Tours and Race Wars: A Critical Time

Doug Hurley, 53, of League City, Texas, was a Marine Corps fighter pilot before becoming an astronaut twenty years ago. A graduate of Tulane, known for his call sign “Chunks,” he is married to a fellow astronaut. In July of 2011, his last mission was aboard Atlantis on the final flight of NASA’s space shuttle program. Bob Behnken, 49, a native of St. Ann, Missouri with a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, also joined the NASA astronaut corps in 2000 and married an astronaut from his class. Dubbed “Dr. Bob,” he previously served as a test pilot and flight test engineer in the U.S. Air Force, and is the former Chief of the Astronaut Office. The two retired colonels with numerous distinguished service medals have been close friends for two decades. Today both are aboard the international space station, orbiting 220 miles above Earth after having piloted SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship in a spectacular Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, May 30th. They had worked for years to perfect the brand new “bird,” a brainchild of Elon Musk funded with $3.14 billion of federal tax dollars, becoming not only the first two humans on a commercial spaceflight, but providing a moment of much-needed human triumph for a world marred by pandemic and social unrest.

While much less stunning on the global scale, U.S. financial markets have celebrated some milestones. In May, municipal bonds posted their strongest May price performance in history with the ICE BoAML Index returns up 3.25%, reversing two months of losses and bringing year-to-date returns into positive territory at 0.98%. A total of $3.3 billion poured into municipal bond funds and $1.52 billion into municipal bond ETFs in a reversal of the panicked selling a mere two months ago. The coming June, July and coupons, calls and maturities will produce $20 billion of new cash looking for reinvestment opportunities. With few exceptions, the yields on the coupons cannot be replaced. Short investment grade bonds, when factored for inflation and transaction costs, are in fact negative. The 2-year AAA general obligation bond benchmark yield closed on May 29 at 0.16%, right on top of the U.S. Treasury yield and a full 75 basis points below where it began the month. The 10-year muni at 0.84% fell 62 basis points during the month. State and local issuers are now able to access the markets at rates so low that loans are effectively free, which explains why the June calendar could exceed $40 billion. In May, muni issuance totaled $27.9 billion, of which 42% was taxable, including $5.7 billion through the corporate bond market, and nearly all with investment grade ratings or bond insurance.

The last trading week of May closed with both the Treasury and municipal bond markets relatively range-bound with little change in yields or prices. High yield corporates strengthened by 10 basis points on the long end. The Treasury 5-year auction, one of the latest in a long string, was considered weak while the 7-year auction was described in the trade press as uninspired. This capped a month of larger than expected 10- and 30-year auctions as well as the first 20-year auction since 1986. The Beige Book, a report of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published eight times per year, reiterated the havoc being wreaked on the economy by the pandemic, lending no new insight or direction to markets clutching for reasons to continue their rallies. However, it started to lay the groundwork for the use of a policy tool with a new name, yield curve control, at a time when so much more than yields appear to be beyond control.

Stocks have cast aside concerns over ugly economic data, Hong Kong, China, and the protests, and riots that has escalated in more than 100 U.S. cities in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a 46 year-old truck driver and furloughed security guard. The 220 miles around Minneapolis includes 193 counties in seven states but looting and violence quickly spread far beyond that radius. As if in a parallel galaxy, equities, as defined by the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500, all gained more than 4% in May on optimism for progress with treatments and vaccines as well as state and local business re-openings and signs of other major economy recoveries. The Dow finished up 1,037 points, the S&P 500 was 131 points higher, and the Nasdaq gained 6.75% or 600 points. High yield corporate bonds and preferreds have returned more than 9 percent during April and May combined. Oil prices surged $16.65 a barrel or 88% to $35.49 last month, and gold prices increased by 2.5% to $1,730 an ounce.

At this writing, more than 17,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to 23 states to support law enforcement. This is on top of the 45,000 already dedicated to pandemic-related duties in all 50 states. The Federal Reserve, the white knight on which Main Street and Wall Street have relied for solutions to many urgent problems for years, is powerless to quell the social turmoil. Officials are instead entering their traditional blackout period ahead of the June 10 meeting. The damage and destruction to municipal operations and private businesses may not have lasting economic impacts, but the conflicts have further inflamed political divisions likely to persist long after the November elections.

Market Commentary: 57 Varieties

An ambitious young Canadian immigrated to the United States at the age of 29 and began a business in Chicago by selling cheese from the back of a wagon. Six years later, James L. Kraft was joined by three brothers and they soon moved their headquarters to New York. By 1915 they had patented a processed cheese product that did not require refrigeration and sold six million pounds of it to the U.S. Army for military rations. They rebranded as Kraft Cheese Company and captured 40% of the U.S. cheese market before they sold themselves to National Dairy in 1930. Four decades later, the Kraft name was resurrected and the firm began a long series of dizzying mergers and sales until it was acquired by Philip Morris then spun off again. In 2008, Kraft replaced AIG in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and pursued ventures with Group Danone and Cadbury. In 2012, Kraft divided its business into two companies, one focused on grocery product sales in North America, the other on snack product sales worldwide.

Henry J. Heinz, the driven young son of German immigrants was 25 years old when he formed a horseradish packaging company in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. In 1876 he started another firm with his cousin and brother. Within 20 years he bought them both out and expanded his business line from tomato ketchup and sweet pickles to include more than the “57 Varieties” in his catchy slogan. By 1908, the Pittsburgh-based firm had become the world’s largest tomato manufacturer and, over time, developed marketing innovations ranging from octagon shaped glass bottles to single-container pouches of mustard and relish to commercials set to the hit song “Anticipation.” The company was managed by members of the Heinz family until 1969. Henry was the great-grandfather of U.S. Senator H. John Heinz III and a second cousin twice removed of President Donald J. Trump.

In 2015, Kraft’s parent company merged with H.J. Heinz Holding Corporation in a $23 billion transaction arranged by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, two firms that hold a 47% ownership stake. Kraft Foods in Northfield, Illinois became a division and brand within Kraft Heinz Company (NASDAQ: KHC), now the fifth largest food company in the world with 80 factories and $24 billion of annual revenue. The Heinz brand and division in Pittsburgh includes many of the world’s most popular condiment including relish, sauces, gravy, vinegar and baked beans. Kraft’s most popular products include Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Planters Nuts, Jell-O Desserts, Kool Aid, Maxwell House, Oscar Meyer, Nabisco cookies, Cadbury and Toblerone chocolates and, of course, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese which sells one million boxes a day.

The debt-financed merger of the two American success stories has made it rather tough going for shareholders. Market share, revenue and net income have declined along with consumer preferences for fewer packaged foods and the company is reliant on Wal-Mart Stores for more than 20% of its sales. Kraft Heinz has slashed expenses, cut dividends, sold assets, and taken writedowns in an effort to remain competitive. The brand names nevertheless retain huge popularity: during the pandemic lockdowns, pantries around the world have been stocked with Kraft and Heinz staples that are trusted and viewed by consumers as having value. The company is in a defensive sector, one that is likely to remain strong under stay-at-home, eat-at-home scenarios throughout the recession. It has scale and a solid supply chain. In addition, as of March 31, the company had $5.4 billion of cash and a $300 million credit facility still untapped.

Kraft Heinz came to the high yield corporate bond market earlier this month with a $1.5 billion deal funding a tender offer but found enough investor demand to upsize the bond issue to $3.5 billion. This was its first debt raise in the high yield market as the company was downgraded to BB+ by S&P and Fitch who cited a two-year decline in profits, high dividend payouts, and failure to bring its $32 billion debt level down after splurging on acquisitions. Among its outstanding debt, the 4.375% bonds due 6/1/2046 are priced at $92.97 to yield 4.854% at this writing. We compare the yield to that offered by 20-year Treasuries at 1.19%, 30-year Treasuries at 1.43%, 30-year Fannie Maes at 1.55%, and 30-year Baa rated taxable municipal bonds at 3.95%. On the tax-exempt side, Baa3 rated State of Illinois general obligation bonds due in 2045 currently yield 5.17%. For current offerings from our municipal and corporate bond trading desks, please contact your HJ Sims Advisor.

We divert from our usual weekly commentary focused on municipal bonds this week to pay tribute to one of our longtime corporate bond traders, Peter Polakoff, who passed away this week. Peter was a senior vice president in our Boca Raton office for 19 years until he retired after 45-year career in corporate and municipal bond trading. He relished the stories behind each bond and could always find hidden gems among the varieties in our $8 trillion corporate debt market. We at HJ Sims extend our sympathies to his family.

Market Commentary: Frozen Thinking

There is at least one place on Earth untouched by the scourge of the pandemic: it is our driest, windiest, and southernmost point, a place that never had an indigenous population, one so cold that if you throw boiling water into the air it will instantly vaporize. With fewer than 5,000 scientists or tourists in peak season, all clumped into one of 70 camps scattered across a desert tundra the size of the United States and Mexico combined, 98% of which is ice, it is the least densely populated of our seven continents, entirely surrounded by water. Antarctica is a scientific preserve governed jointly by 54 countries under a treaty banning military, mining, and nuclear activities. As far as we know, there is no mad rush to seek refuge from pandemic fatigue, Zoom burnout, and anti-lockdown protests there on the Frozen Continent. Most of us have been camping in our homes for two months, creating “quaran-teams”, social bubbles, and virtual cocoons. The cable news, radio, print and social media that so polarized us at the start of the year has largely united us in our need for real-time information, assurance of progress, distraction, and consolation. Some of our thinking, however, is still frozen in time.

Let us take a look at how we view stocks and bonds for a moment. At the start of the new decade, it looked like we were continuing the record-setting 128 month-long economic expansion with rallies ahead in virtually all markets for as far as the eye could see. Unemployment was at 50-year lows. Borrowing rates were at record lows. Inflation was under control. Not everything was rainbows and unicorns for all Americans by any measure. Plus we knew asset prices were inflated. The cycle had to end at some point. But before we heard of SARS-CoV-2, the Fed was our backstop and traders were able to discount nearly all talk of recession, impeachment, war with Iran, or breakdowns in relations with China. Then came the twin traumata of destabilized oil markets and the Wuhan virus cluster that was declared a global pandemic on March 11. Like volcanic eruptions on Antarctica, they changed the landscape. For almost three weeks, the uncertainty was like lava flow and caused markets to move in ways not seen before. Federal, state and local officials then intervened with restrictive policies that had no precedent. Central bankers followed by Congress, moved at the polar opposite of glacial speeds with mountains of money that came out of air as thin as it is on the highest continent in the world.

Citizens complied. Schools quickly learned how to hold online classes. Businesses put up signs: “Sorry Temporarily Closed,” “Take-Out Only,” “Stay Safe, See You Soon.” Markets without trading floors, operating from remote workstations with residential Wi-Fi, took comfort in daily Task Force briefings, reports on the yeomen’s efforts underway to develop tests, treatments and a vaccine, manufacturers nimbly switching from car parts to ventilators, naval hospital ships redeployed, convention centers reconfigured as triage centers. The anguish of separation and loss, particularly among families of those in nursing homes, was in some small part allayed by hopeful signs of slowdowns and recoveries in countries overseas that were earlier afflicted, and reports from hospitals that were not as overwhelmed as feared.

But the lockdowns were extended. Now, barely one third of Americans say they are working and 30% have withdrawn more than $6700 on average from their retirement savings, mainly to buy groceries. More than 4 million Americans are skipping their mortgage payments. Cars are still lining up for hours at food banks. It has become painfully clear how many millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and how many work in jobs not eligible for unemployment. How small businesses are so closely reliant upon daily community patronage that, according to one Washington Post report, more than 100,000 have permanently closed since March. Nevertheless, financial markets turned around. As Fed and federal aid began to flow, the Dow, the Nasdaq, the S&P, the Russell 2000, U.S. Treasuries, municipal bonds, corporate bonds, gold all began upward price swings again. A red, white and blue rally is still underway well before all the damage has been done and counted. Some of this makes sense. We understand that U.S. Treasuries are the world’s most liquid securities and that many of our stocks and bonds have unmatched global value. A 14% run-up in the price of gold since the start of the year is not a surprising increase for this safe haven, given the enormity of the upheaval. We also know how important Amazon and Domino’s Pizza and Dollar Tree have been to all of us during the shutdown. But analysts also point out something that does not sit well: that businesses are declaring bankruptcy and there are likely many more to come, yet the S&P 500 is trading at the highest price-to-earnings ratio since the peak of the dot-com bubble.

Many sectors are still being tarred with a broad brush. In some energy trades, offshore oil drillers have been lumped together with oil storage firms. Well-run airlines are trading alongside those less prepared to endure the groundings of most of their fleet for most of the year. Many well-managed senior living communities have bonds that attract no good bids despite having no cases of the virus and hundreds of staff and residents who are relieved to be safe and well supplied on their carefully tended campuses. Because of the constant clamor from governors and mayors lobbying Congress for aid now that the fat federal wallet has been flashed, some investors are most concerned about state and local bond defaults and possible bankruptcies. Their fears involve municipal authorities with the power to levy taxes and hike user fees rather than companies who never had such powers but have in fact filed for bankruptcy, like Intelsat, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penny, and Whiting Petroleum.

More than two thirds of states are relaxing restrictions this week and America is slowly returning to work. But the timing of re-opening schools and many types of businesses is still unclear. We know that it will take longer than we would like for our economy to return. The Director of the National Economic Council says things are starting to turn. The White House Economic Adviser thinks we are looking at a very strong third quarter. The Treasury Secretary expects economic conditions to improve in the third and fourth quarters. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve says a full recovery may not happen until the end of 2021. In the meantime, Americans need to repair or shore up some of our personal finances and that means a hunt for current income as well as future returns.

When looking at stocks, the New York Times recently reported that, from 1926 through March 2020, dividends alone accounted for 40.2 percent of the total return of the S&P 500 Index. Several market strategists and asset managers contend that corporate buybacks have in fact been the only net source of money entering the stock market since the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the CARES Act precludes public companies that borrow money from buying back any of its company stock or issuing any dividends for one year after the repayment of the loan or the expiration of the loan guarantee, unless there was a pre-existing contract. There may be political pressure to extend this. Some of the companies that have already announced the reduction or suspension of dividends are Ford, Delta, Boeing, Macy’s, Marriott, and Disney. Unlike bond interest, stock dividends are always only paid at the discretion of corporations. If we assume that the coronavirus-induced recession produces dividend cuts of around 25%, that means investors could collectively lose between $100 billion and $150 billion in annual dividends on top of losses from stock price declines this year. Although the Nasdaq is up more than 2% year-to-date at the time of this writing (primarily due to Netflix, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook), the Dow is down 14% and the S&P 500 is down 9%. So, some big portfolio hits are in store.

As public companies announce cuts or suspension of suspend quarterly stock dividends for this year and perhaps longer, we remind ourselves that interest payments on the vast majority of municipal bonds will continue. Munis offer the opportunity to either supplement or replace those missing stock dividends with tax-exempt income. Last week saw an $800 million Baa3 rated financing for the State of Illinois featuring a 25-year maturity with a 5.75% coupon priced at a discount to yield 5.85%. This week, in addition to the $4 billion of new tax-exempt bonds expected to come to market, our municipal bond traders are also seeing $3 billion of taxable municipal bond issues, some of which feature interest exempt from state taxation for in-state residents. These include insured general obligation bonds for the City of Bridgeport, A1 rated revenue bonds of the Great Lakes Water Authority, and an A- minus rated sale for the University of Tampa. In addition, the new issue calendar includes quality municipal bonds being sold in the corporate bond market. Some examples include AA+ rated Northwestern University and AA rated Emory University. Our corporate bond trading desk monitors these sales as well as higher yielding corporate debt trading in the secondary market.

Credit analysis has never been as critical as it is now in the process of evaluating the merits of all these individual offerings. As a result of this pandemic-induced recession, outlooks, ratings, and events affecting performance and durability are changing weekly. Your HJ Sims advisor can help guide you through many of the key considerations. These include reviews of historic default rates for municipal and corporate bonds (at 0.18% and 1.74%, respectively). They include technical factors, such as mutual fund flows, inventories, bids-wanted, redemptions, and visible supply. It is equally important to consider fundamental factors including liquidity, cash flow, utilization, and debt service coverage. But this is a time in which we all need to consider broader contexts: how local and regional economies have been impacted, political leadership, community sentiment, changing demographics, direct federal stimulus whether in the form of low interest loans or block grants, and central bank liquidity facilities made available to support our primary and secondary markets. All play a role in determining the level of risk inherent in an investment and its suitability as a short- or long-term holding in your portfolio. At HJ Sims, we believe in the outcome of income. Thinking together in new ways as we define the “new normal” for our continent, we look forward to finding bond solutions that work for you.

Market Commentary: The Kicker

The New Orleans Saints announced that its Hall of Famer Thomas J. Dempsey died on Saturday at age 73 from complications of COVID-19 just ten days after being diagnosed. Dempsey was a placekicker who signed with the club in 1969 as an undrafted free agent out of Palomar College. During his rookie season the following year at Tulane Stadium in a game against the Detroit Lions when his team was behind 17-16 with only second left he took a snap from Jackie Burkett and kicked a jaw-dropping 63-yard field goal that stood as an NFL record for 43 years. Over his career with the Saints, the Eagles, Rams, Oilers and Bills, the Milwaukee native aced 61.6% of his field goals and 89.4% of his extra point attempts using an old-school kicking style that differed from most others in the NFL. Instead of a soccer style boot from the laces, he preferred the straight toe approach. But, since he was born without toes on his right foot, he wore a flat-front shoe custom designed to accommodate his disability. Some thought that gave him an unfair advantage. Others shook their heads in marvel. After 11 seasons in the NFL, the good-humored man nicknamed “Stumpy” by his teammates retired in 1979 and went on to work as an oil field salesman and run a car dealership. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2012 and came to reside at the Lambeth House assisted living center in New Orleans where he was one of 50 to be stricken with coronavirus, one of 15 who has died there in quarantine, apart from his wife, sister, three children and three grandchildren except in video chats. The sad human toll of the pandemic exceeds 1.4 million cases worldwide, 400,000 in the U.S. at this writing, with more than 82,000 deaths including nearly 13,000 Americans. The economic toll mounts as well. Our nation’s spectacular 10-year expansion came to an abrupt halt in March as every aspect of society has been disrupted in the effort to contain the spread of the virus. Apart from the incalculable loss of human life, the worldwide cost may exceed $4 trillion and 4.8% of combined gross domestic product. Talk often kicks up a notch from recession to depression, but all estimates still hinge on a range of unknowns. In the meantime, most manufacturing, employment, education, and services are at a virtual standstill. Oil price wars compound the troubles. In times of uncertainty, investors turn to the safest havens but leap into risk on hopeful news: progress with a vaccine, interim measures that appear to save lives, down-ticks in case counts, timetables for the loosening of restrictions that will allow us to kick-start our lives again, the next massive government stimulus rescue package and trillion-dollar central bank intervention. Since the start of the month, stock indices have risen by as much as 3.4% on optimism for the turnaround and a return to old routines. The Dow is up 736 points, the Nasdaq up 187 points, the S&P 500 up 75. Oil prices have increased more than 17% to $23.63 a barrel. Gold prices have gained $54 an ounce. Volatility remains elevated, a function of medical, economic and fiscal pronouncements. Relative value is constantly shifting and often irrelevant in period of illiquidity caused by large institutions placing massive sell orders into markets unable or unwilling to absorb the supply and, at moments, shocked by the strategies being revealed and unwound, deleveraging and re-leveraging. Whether measured in the thousands or trillions, investment accounts are being kickboxed from week to week. There are opportunities and risks galore. The world’s safe haven, U.S. Treasuries, have lost some ground so far this month. The 2-and 10-year yields have inched up a few basis points to 0.26% and 0.71%, respectively. However, the 30-year has strengthened with yields dropping by 5 basis points to 1.29%. The corporate bond market is extremely active; firms are tapping lines of credit and issuing investment grade bonds at a breakneck pace. In spite of all the predictions for a dramatic increase in the number of “fallen angels,” or bonds dropping from BBB ratings to below investment grade as a result of pandemic-induced losses, and “sinking demons,” or bonds and leveraged loans falling from B ratings to CCC levels, the BBB-rated corporate bonds are flat on the month with 10-year yields at 4.61%. Municipal bonds are operating in almost a parallel universe from governments and corporates where there is explosive new issuance. The primary tax-exempt calendar has been quiet for weeks. Several top rated issuers are able to access the markets in negotiated and competitive sales while lower- and non-rated issuers are on hold or seeking to privately place their debt. All the action is in the secondary market where bid-wanted lists are large and trading is active. The market is sometimes schizophrenic, moving unpredictably from oversold to overpriced, with so many technical factors at play, not the least of which is speculation over the future credit quality of state and local issues in the era of COVID-19. Mutual funds have experienced $13.8 billion of outflows in the past two weeks; municipal ETFs have suffered net withdrawals for the past five. So far this month, the AAA general obligation tax-exempt muni yield has dropped by 2 basis points to 1.04%, the 10-year is up 5 basis points to 1.38% and the 30-year yield has increased by 20 basis points to 2.19%. Nontraditional buyers, called crossovers, such as insurance companies find newfound appeal in munis given the outsized ratio to Treasury yields. At this writing, the 1-year ratio is 507%, the 10-year ratio is 189%, and the 30-year ratio — with the Treasury at 1.29% and the comparable tax-exempt muni at 2.19% — is 170%. These are indeed extraordinary times. At HJ Sims, our team stands alongside you, your families, your businesses and employees. We are not on the sidelines but fully engaged in the financial markets. Our traders find pockets of opportunity in every session and our advisors have use of stress testing tools to help our clients analyze portfolios and diversify as needed. We encourage you to enhance your dialogue with your HJ Sims representative and take comfort in the strategies that we develop together. But for now we pause during this holy season of Easter and Passover to wish you safe and happy celebrations, be they at home or on line, together with those most dear.

Market Commentary: Profiles

Our local newspapers have begun to publish touching profiles of community members lost to the coronavirus in much the same way as The New York Times featured those lost on 9/11, with a snapshot taken on a happy day and recollections of unique achievements during lives so sadly cut short. This time: veterans, ballplayers, cops, teachers, musicians, transit workers. Tributes to those whose lives will only be celebrated with the gathering of family and friends in days ahead when conditions permit. Plans are also being made for ticker tape parades in cities like New York to honor the doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, fire and other public safety officials who are risking their lives to protect and care for others. Some of those who do not make it to the front pages for acclaim are the millions of family caregivers tending to those battling chronic illnesses as well as the disabled, the elderly and the very young. Unpaid family caregivers are said to be the backbone of our health care system, providing as much as 90% of all home health care for no pay or public honor. This amounts to 30 billion hours for the 44 million Americans, including more than 1.3 million children, who take care of others in need while trying to stay healthy, work, go to school, or look for work. Approximately 12.3 million are sandwiched between aging elders and young children, some for the first time right now, facing challenges and navigating crises with little, if any, outside help, day in and day out.

There are some 15,600 nursing homes and 28,900 residential communities caring for many of our most frail elderly and disabled as well. Some of these facilities, particularly in New Jersey and Massachusetts, have been hit very hard by COVID-19 outbreaks, while others struggle mightily to protect residents and staff, incurring significant, unbudgeted expenses for supplies and labor, trying to manage what at times seems unmanageable. A recent unofficial count found more than 4,000 facilities and 36,500 residents and staff with cases that have been reported to states and counties. These numbers also point to the majority of communities and several million residents that have not been or may not be affected.

Having accurate and timely case information is critical for residents, families, local citizens, policymakers and the industry as a whole. At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just started to receive data on COVID-19 cases in long term care facilities under a directive that went out to nursing homes on Sunday from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS is also finally mandating that facilities notify residents and families of this information. It is hard to believe that this data was not required earlier. But it is hard to believe a lot of the things we are seeing today across the country and around the world. No sector of our economy, no part of our day-to-day lives, has been unaffected by this scourge on the Earth. We applaud those facility managers that are being the most pro-active with residents, families, public health officials, and investors, making timely, regular, and comprehensive disclosures of medical, operational, and financial conditions. The profiles of well-prepared, well-managed, and resourceful communities with a culture of open communication will be long remembered and held as a standard for all others as we face the challenges ahead.

There is no reliable profile of the financial markets right now. We are seeing things never seen before as a result of this virus and the policy chokeholds imposed on our economy. Record unemployment claims. Record low Treasury yields. Negative oil prices. Unprecedented outflows from municipal bond funds. Historic corporate bond issuance. It is hard to know from day today what to expect by the close. But since the start of this month just about everything other than oil is up, buoyed by phased increases of federal stimulus and the active presence of the major central banks who have bought more than five times the amount of assets they did during the Great Recession. It has by no means been a smooth rally but, at this writing, the Dow is up 8%, the S&P 500 9%, the Nasdaq 11%, the Russell 2000 5%, and gold 6%. Bond prices are also up. The 2-year U.S. Treasury yield has fallen 3 basis points to 0.20%. The 10-year yield is down 7 basis points, and the 30-year has dropped 13 basis points to 1.21%. The 10-year Baa corporate bond yield has plunged 36 basis points to 4.24%. In the municipal market, the 2-year AAA general obligation benchmark yield has fallen 21 basis points to 0.85%, the 10-year is down ever more at 26 basis points to 1.07% and the 30-year has dropped 9 basis points to 1.90%. The AA taxable municipal bond, attractive for many retirement accounts, yields 3.14%, down 24 basis points since the start of April trading and well above the comparable AA corporate at 2.55%.

There has been very little municipal new issuance this month, but we are very active in the secondary market for tax-exempts as well as taxables, including corporates. The sheer quantity of bonds being offered in sectors being battered by newspaper headlines make it difficult at times to distinguish the good credits from those that were already struggling and may come under greater stress. Whether it is utilities, hospitals, transit, colleges or senior living — where most of our industry expertise lies — we have the credit analytic capabilities to pick out those bonds which we believe have the most enduring value and offer above average streams of income. We encourage you to contact your HJ Sims advisor to update your investment and risk profiles as well as your capital needs, and exchange views on current market opportunities.

Market Commentary: The Flavivirus of 1793

Toward the end of the 18th century as the new, permanent capital of the United States was being designed and built in the District of Columbia, attention was still focused on Philadelphia. It was the temporary capital after the Constitution was ratified, the hub of the new nation boasting 50,000 citizens, the largest city in the country and the second largest in the English-speaking world. But in the dry, hot summer of 1793, refugees arriving at America’s busiest port from the Caribbean islands brought with them a deadly scourge. The epidemic of yellow fever first attacked those who lived and worked on the waterfront and swiftly spread, carried and transferred by mosquitoes ravaging the city during the summer and fall, eventually claiming one in ten lives. President Washington, his Cabinet, Members of Congress and 20,000 others who could leave fled to the countryside. Those in other cities fearful of contracting the disease boycotted the entire area. The flavivirus was said to have originated in Africa and first came through the West Indies to North America in the late 17th century. Outbreaks afflicted those trading with the Caribbean for the next hundred years. But it was not until the deadly contagion hit Philadelphia that year when the cause and potential means of controlling it were debated. The city established a Board of Health to enforce sanitary regulations, but these met with little success. The federal government had no authority to act, the governor fell ill, the state legislature skedaddled, and so it was left to the mayor and a ragtag committee to try and save the citizens of the city. Little respite was had for more than three months until the winter frost came and put a temporary end to both the mosquitoes and the fever. The pestilence returned seven times in the next 12 years, producing familiar patterns of finger-pointing, evacuation, and isolation, eventually relegating what would late become known as the City of Brotherly Love to second tier status as a port. For many years, the cause and means of transmission were not known and there was no vaccine or treatment, although bleeding, purging, cleaning, blistering, vinegar camphor, mercury and jalap, opium, wine and quarantines were all prescribed.

Fast forward 227 years when the nation’s capital — and every great American city — has been hit by plague again. The novel coronavirus has effectively shut down the nation for 34 days and counting. This time, there is no safe place to escape. Although the cause and source are said to be known this time, the cure remains elusive and fear has spread alongside the disease. A second wave is possible but the prospect of annual recurrences for the next decade is unthinkable. Instead of boycotts, there are lock-downs that have shuttered schools and non-essential businesses. Social distancing, handwashing, gloves and masks, online learning, telemedicine, and home deliveries will be with us for a long while. The toll COVID-19 is taking will be measured in precious lives, once proud businesses, and a legacy of debt. Debates will continue for years if not generations as to when to impose and how to remove quarantines, whether policy cures are worse than the disease, what we need to do to prepare properly for the next one. Massive central bank action in close coordination with the Treasury has again set new standards for intervention in free markets and municipalities that have long treasured independence and self-reliance. It will prove difficult to not to look to them again when the next sniffle occurs or the next proverbial ship with a cargo of pestilence limps into a U.S. port.

Our nation’s healthcare leaders note that America is still on the upward slope of The Curve with a short way to go before case counts, hospitalizations and death rates slow. It was only seven months ago that we were laser-focused on another curve, the Treasury yield curve, when it inverted during a very different liquidity crisis last September. Since the President declared a national emergency on March 13, the markets have experienced extreme volatility as fear and uncertainty gripped the world. During the flights between safety and risk, the S&P 500 has risen 50 points to 2,761, the Nasdaq is up 317 points to 8,192, and the Russell 500 has gained about 2 points to stand at 1,212. Gold prices are up $184 an ounce to $1,714. Oil, primarily due to the Saudi-Russia production dispute has fallen nearly 30% to $22.41 a barrel. On the bond side, the U.S. 2-year Treasury yield has fallen 25 basis points to 0.24%, the 10-year is down 19 basis points to 0.77% and the 30-year has decreased 12 basis points to 1.40%. Ten-year Baa corporate bond yields have risen 83 basis points to 4.51%. More than $35 billion has been withdrawn from municipal bond funds but the 2-year AAA municipal general obligation bond yield is down 25 basis points to 0.87%, the 10-year has fallen 51 basis points to 1.10% and the 30-year tax-exempt benchmark has dropped 39 basis points to 1.93%.

Corporate bond issuance has been extremely heavy on both the investment grade and high yield sides as firms tap markets and bank lines of credit for as much cash cushion as they can get. Investors concerned with the ability of state, local and nonprofit borrowers to withstand the financial pressures stemming from the pandemic have effectively frozen the calendar for many new municipal issues although higher rated health care, higher education, utility and general obligation borrowers have consistently been able to enter the market. There is a $14 billion pipeline of deals on day-to-day status as investors await fresh disclosure on the status of projects previously financed. How have people and operations been impacted? Is there sufficient cash to meet all day-to-day needs for the next 6 months and pay debt service in full and on time? Buyers heavy with cash from April 1 redemptions are scouring an array of solid credits at attractive prices in the secondary market, including hospital, airport, mass transit, and utility bonds being tarred with the same brush regardless of liquidity position and debt service coverage. Operating under more stringent regulatory structures imposed after the 2008 recession, the major credit rating agencies are revising all sector outlooks as negative and swiftly downgrading those who are slipping below certain trigger points, no matter the cause or expected duration, adding to investor worry and uncertainty. Those who lived in Philadelphia in the late 18th century faced much darker days and more uncertain times. In the case of COVID-19, we do not yet have all the answers but we have a staggering array of federal, state, local, private, and central bank aid to help us handle this crisis and recover. Please continue to count on your HJ Sims representative as a valuable resource and trusted partner throughout this process.

Market Commentary: The Ninth Hole

Hope is slowly starting to fill the holes in every refrigerator, cash register, classroom, orchard, and airplane. As case counts decline and the prospects for treatment or vaccines increase, several states and counties are starting to re-open restaurants, hair salons, movie theaters, gyms, malls, construction sites, health care offices, churches, and parks, many of the places we once took for granted and have since missed dearly. Georgia. Tennessee. Alaska. Iowa. Colorado. Montana. Oklahoma. Utah. Rules are being lifted in phases in other areas for the first time six weeks while many urban areas remain in the early stages of planning. Since December, the COVID-19 pandemic has scorched the earth from Wuhan to Castro Barros, Argentina–inflicting pain and suffering on more than 3 million people, primarily seniors, as well as damage on both local and global economies. One German newspaper put together an itemized invoice for amounts due from China as a result of lost tourism and manufacturing. The State of Missouri is suing the People’s Republic for negligent and deceitful behavior that has led to deaths and losses that were otherwise preventable. In the end, individual states and nations will have to tend to their own wounds. Some parts of the world may take years to recover. Here, the amazing mosaic of sovereign states that comprise our federal republic will re-assemble sooner and stronger than ever.

There is a huge cost that we and other nations will bear, the size and extent yet to be calculated. We have yet to determine where we are in the process of impact and recovery. Are we halfway through, at the ninth hole of an eighteen hole course? Are we on the fairway or still in the rough? Assessing the course and its conditions is a full time job for many economists, industry lobbyists and state budget officers. The National Governors Association has proposed a federal rescue package of $500 billion, an amount that represents more than half of combined general fund spending for all states for the entire year. Members of Congress, mostly back in their home districts, are estimating the local needs. In effort to throw some cold water on the skyrocketing demands, and out of sheer amazement over the audacity of several looking to plug unfunded pension holes, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that what may be needed is to extend eligibility for filing bankruptcy to state governments. That gave the talking heads some new material for a few days. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve is issuing so much currency that it has actually become a mathematical impossibility for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to keep up.

It has been hard to keep up with the directions of the financial markets as well. There are, as always, multiple forces and factors involved. One can explain negative oil prices, for instance, but it is nevertheless astonishing. There are many theories as to why stocks and municipal bond prices have been so closely correlated and why Treasury and municipal prices have diverged since March, but these are also all head-shakers. It has been hard for analysts to find the logic in many of the rallies and selloffs that we have seen in recent months. We attribute some to automated trading based on news flow, fund flows, speculation, and knee-jerk reactions. It seems that we need some new perspective every day on where we are and how we got here. So let us step back and take a look at where the markets have moved since the start of the year.

On the equity side, the Russell 2000 is down 386 points or 23%, the Dow has dropped 4,406 points or 15%, the S&P 500 has fallen 242 points or 2.70%, and the Nasdaq is off by 242 points, just under 3%. Compared with two years ago at this time, the Russell 2000 is down more than 17%, but the Dow is off by less than 1%, the S&P 500 is up about 8% and the Nasdaq has gained nearly 23%. With respect to key commodities, oil prices are down $48 a barrel or 79% since January, 92% since last April, and 81% from where they stood in 2018 at this time. Gold is up across the board with a gain of $190 an ounce of 12% this year and has gained 29% since last year and 29% from April of 2018.

On the bond side, yields are at historic lows. The 2-year Treasury yield has plunged 134 basis points to 0.22% over the past four months. The 10-year has fallen 125 basis points to 0.66% and the 30-year is down 113 basis points to 1.25%. In the past two years, the basis point drop in yields is even greater: 226 for the 2-year, 229 for the 10-year and 187 for the 30-year. Baa-rated corporate 10-year yields currently stand at 4.24% which is 54 basis points higher than where we opened 2020 but 66 basis points below where it stood two years ago. On the tax-exempt side, 2-year munis yield benchmarks at 0.90% have fallen 14 basis points this year and 10-year yields at 1.28% are down 16 basis points. The 30-year AAA general obligation bond yield is actually up 4 basis points to 2.13%. One year ago, muni yields stood at 1.57%, 1.87% and 2.55%, respectively. Two years ago, yields were between 97 and 123 basis points higher across the curve.

The municipal primary market has been quiet for two months. Some deals have fallen in to a black hole for now. Of the new and refunding issues successfully placed, the vast majority are high investment grade or insured. In the high yield sector this month, there were only a handful of deals. The South Carolina Jobs-Economic Development Authority sold $32. 6 million of non-rated revenue bonds for Avondale Senior Living. The single maturity in 2050 was priced at par to yield 4.00% and converts to 6.5% in one year. The Public Finance Authority of Wisconsin issued $24.8 million of non-rated charter school revenue bonds for the Utah Military Academy, structured with a 2030 term bond priced at 5.25% to yield 6.50%. The City of Minneapolis brought a $12.4 million BB-minus rated charter school lease revenue bond issue for KIPP North Star that included a 35-year maturity priced at 5.75% to yield 6.00%. The Michigan Finance Authority sold $7.8 million of BB rated refunding bonds for the Dr. Joseph F. Pollack Academic Center of Excellence that had a 2040 term maturity priced at par to yield 5.75%.

The lockdowns imposed as a result of the pandemic have produced financial stress on every sector of the market. Some are overpriced and some dramatically underpriced and all of this is due to lack of information. First quarter corporate earnings reports are illuminating conditions through March 31, but it will not be until late July that we will have data for damage done in April and May and June. To date, only about 350 municipal issuers and conduit borrowers within the universe of approximately 118,000 have publicly disclosed any details about how operations and expenses have been impacted. So investors are forced to speculate on the extent of illness, revenue loss, liquidity, resource needs, and aid being received from federal, state and other sources. As the month comes to a close, we encourage you to tap the many resources available to you through your HJ Sims advisor in the coming days as you explore opportunities and make informed investment decisions together.

Market Commentary: Down But Not Out

Before a big fight, reporters would always ask Mike Tyson what he thought would happen. The writers always wanted insight on the boxing style of his opponent and asked him to speculate about other guy’s lateral moves, how he danced, whether Tyson expected him to do this or do that, and how he would react. The youngest heavyweight champion in the world liked to talk and he always had a quote for the story. But once he cut the questions off altogether. “Look”, he said flatly, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The man nicknamed Iron Mike and Kid Dynamite had quite a bit to talk about. By the time he was 46, he had racked up 50 wins and 6 losses, defended his title nine times, spent hard time in prison, declared bankruptcy, battled addictions, tried to make a comeback, lost his mother to a stroke and a 4 year-old daughter to a tragic accident. He labeled himself an annihilator and literally changed the game for fans, promoters and boxers worldwide. Back in the day, Mike Tyson was considered the epitome of pain and savagery by many and he left a wide path of fear and broken bones in his wake. This is generally how investors in the financial markets will look upon March of 2020.

The first three rounds of the new decade came to an end on Tuesday. But this is the United States of America and we have by no means suffered a knockout. Not even close. Nevertheless, all of our coronavirus related fears, national containment policies, raging oil battles, and expectations for global recession carry forward into April. And, now that our national shutdown has been extended, we know they will be with us through what we call the cruelest month into May.

Most of us who are not on the front lines of research, medical care, law enforcement, emergency services, national defense — and even the fourth estate trying to report on all of the aforementioned — are still adjusting to the stay-at-home orders and working around employer and school routines and demands, continuing to digest the daily White House Task Force briefings and announcements from state and local officials, closely following the progress of family, friends and neighbors in quarantine or hospitals, shaking our heads at the savagery of the pandemic, and sharing our bucket lists for all the life-affirming things we plan to do as soon as we are loosed from our studio apartments, man caves, and shared kitchen workstations. Case counts increase as expanded testing provides confirmation of the COVID-19 spread as a result of gatherings held a mere fortnight ago.

Governments around the world are taking unprecedented actions to restrict the movements of its citizens as well as those seeking to cross its borders, and this is greatly affecting supply chains, jobs, businesses and the greatest component of our economy: personal consumption. Schools across the globe are closed, factories are being repurposed from autos and whiskey to ventilator and hand sanitizer production, hotels and dormitories are being eyeballed as intensive care recovery sites, the National Guard is being mobilized to build mobile medical facilities, massive hospital ships have been sent to Los Angeles and Manhattan, and the Congress is looking at a fourth massive emergency funding bill. Trillions in direct assistance to households as well as grants and loans to airlines, railroads, and other businesses and needs are en route. And the financial markets respond to the aid, and talk of more aid, with temporary relief rallies that last until uncertainty and need surface again.

We are officially told that, despite all of our precautions and sacrifices, things will get worse in the weeks ahead, peaking in mid-month for some regions, later in others. Our glorious spring and holy days are about to be darkened by jobless claims, lost earnings, more shuttered businesses, widespread illness, and loss. But — optimists and patriots all — we power through these days, cheering for the doctors and nurses and scientists and manufacturers unbelievably hard at work, awaiting their lifesaving treatments, vaccines, protective devices, and cures while we are being advised to prepare, mentally as well as financially, not only for the bad numbers ahead, but for a recurrence and downturn in the fall. We are in between rounds right now, with the loud bells from February and March still ringing in our ears. There is a brief time out before the next bouts begin and volatility has dropped from the 50-year high set on March 16, when the Fear Index spiked to 82.69, topping the most recent high of 80.86 on November 20, 2008 and far from its half century average at 19.25.

U.S. stocks in general just suffered their worst quarter since 2008. For the Dow and S&P 500, they experienced the worst March since the Great Depression. Since January 1, the Dow Industrials Index has fallen 23%, the S&P 500, 20%; the Nasdaq, 14%; and the Russell 2000, best reflecting many of our smaller businesses, down 31%. For a number of reasons, crude oil is down an astonishing 67% this quarter, and gold is up 5%. Baa-rated corporate bonds maturing in 10 years gained 90 basis points to finish March at 4.60% and the major U.S. corporate bond indices suffered losses of 4.05% in 1Q2020. The world’s safe haven, U.S. Treasuries, however, stood strong, produced returns of nearly 9%. The 2-year government yield fell 133 basis points to 0.23%, the 10-year dropped 124 basis points to 0.67% and the 30-year shed 104 basis points to close the quarter at 1.34%. Just one year ago the long bond yielded 2.81%.

In March, municipals had their worst week ever. Investors trying to raise cash and meet margin calls, and institutions unwinding highly leveraged wagers, flooded the market with sell orders at fire sale prices will no distinction made between credits. Liquidity in a market seen as a haven second only Treasuries virtually dried up. During the week of March 18, total par volume sold peaked at $63.5B, the highest since the record selloff in mid-September of 2008. One week later, munis had the biggest price rally in history, a reversal that left traders breathless and investors relieved. By the time all the dust settled on Tuesday, the 2-year AAA municipal general obligation benchmark yield at 1.06% had gained only 2 basis points on the year and was 43 basis points below where it stood only one year ago. The 10-year muni yield fell 11 basis points to 1.33% during the quarter and was 53 basis points below the comparable 2019 level. The 30-year tax-exempt benchmark at 1.99% was 10 basis points below its 2020 starting point and 61 basis points stronger than where it was one year ago. After record-setting outflows in municipal bond mutual funds and with a primary calendar at a virtual standstill, municipal returns fell 3.75% in March. Despite the hottest start to the year on record, muni gains were reversed and major indices ended down 0.68% on the quarter.

Those who lived through the Great Recession know that the challenges we face now are decidedly different today, as are the threats to, and demands asked of, our citizens. Few, if any, comparables exist; some point to the Spanish Flu era and the two world wars for reference points. This pandemic is being viewed as a war different from the ones we once declared on poverty, on drugs, and on terror. It is being fought on two fronts, the one on disease protection and the other on economic protection. Public health officials and central banks have become the generals on the field, endeavoring to assure citizens that health care and financial systems are sound. The Federal Reserve and counterparts around the world have taken steps never before seen to provide for short term funding needs. The Fed acted with lightning speed to slash interest rates to zero, lower the rate that it charges banks for overnight loans, and began purchasing $700 billion of U.S. government and mortgage-backed securities. It relaxed the requirements for deposits that banks must hold as reserves to meet cash demand and increase lending, and is buying billions of U.S Treasuries from foreign sources in need of U.S. dollars. To stabilize a market short of buyers, the Fed is even now stepping in to buy investment grade corporate bonds and will soon start purchasing municipal bonds in the secondary market to ensure liquidity in markets that have never before required such support. All in all, it has been quite an action-packed 90 days for those who generally deal in more contemplative pursuits.

HJ Sims would like to let you know that we stand along with you, your families, your small businesses, employees and families during these challenging times. We encourage you to reach out if we can be of assistance directly or in referring you to other resources that may offer meaningful support. In the meantime, we invite conversations about your banking and financial needs, changes in your risk tolerance, interests, and goals. Over the course of our 85 years in the business, we have worked to attract an amazing array of talent that is available to serve you, our partners. In extraordinary times like these, we learn together, grow together, support each other, and celebrate our many day to day successes, small and large.

Market Commentary: On the Verge

At a meeting of the G-20 nations in Brisbane, Australia in November of 2014, Jim Yong Kim, President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), proposed a new way to help developing countries finance efforts against infectious diseases in the early stages of a global contagion. Three years later, as Ebola continued to ravage West Africa in a pandemic that killed more than 11,000 people and set back development there for more than a decade, the Bank looked to transfer some of the effective insurance risk to the financial markets by privately placing $329 million of Floating Rate Catastrophe-Linked Capital at Risk Notes. These were quickly dubbed “pandemic bonds”. Roughly modeled on catastrophe bonds from the mid-1990s that pay out in response to insurance claims for events like hurricanes and earthquakes, the principal would be transferred to the Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) to aid eligible developing countries with containment and relief efforts after a very specific series of events occurs. The 386-page prospectus outlines the order and magnitude of triggers: when an outbreak reaches a predetermined level of contagion, involves a specific number of deaths, spreads at certain speeds, and crosses international borders producing more than 20 deaths in any additional country. Determinations are made by a verification agent based on publicly available data as reported by the World Health Organization, and the maximum payout in this case is $196 million.

The 2017 Notes were issued in two classes: a $225 million tranche covering flu and coronavirus that was priced at LIBOR plus 6.50%, and a $95 million series covering Ebola and various fevers as well as coronavirus that priced at LIBOR plus 11.10%. Swiss Re Capital Markets, Munich Re, and GC Securities managed the sale, which was oversubscribed by 200%. Interest on the Notes totals about $36 million a year which, along with fees, are paid by donor countries including Japan, Germany, and the soft loan arm of the Bank. No payouts to the PEF have yet been made and due to the number and timing of triggers, it is unclear that any monies would be paid or that they would even arrive in time and sufficient quantity to be helpful. Although there remains considerable doubt about the official numbers, China reached the first threshold for fatalities weeks ago. But due to unsurpassed global efforts at containment, including the effective quarantine of half of China’s population — a staggering number that is twice the size of the United States — no other nation is close to reaching the next trigger point. The 2017 Notes are scheduled to mature on July 15 of this year and principal will be repaid to holders if no recognized event occurs. At this writing, the COVID-19 disease, now officially caused by the virus SARS CoV-2, is not a global pandemic, although officials at the National Institutes of Health believe that the outbreak is on the verge of becoming one. There are now 15 confirmed cases in the U.S and diagnosed infections in 23 other countries. The Notes are said to be trading at a discount now, reflecting market belief that the first payout may well be forthcoming in the next five months.

This year’s G-20 summit will be held in Riyadh in late November and the theme is “Realizing Opportunities of the 21st Century for All.” It is one of a number of international events planned for 2020, including the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the G-7 at Camp David, the World Expo in Dubai, and the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, any or all of which could be disrupted as a result of the spread of the deadly virus. Traders are alternatively spooked and soothed by the intraday news reports which dominate all headlines. As fourth quarter corporate earnings are released, the term “coronavirus” has been cited in 138 of 364 companies holding calls, and FactSet reports that 25% have referenced some type of impact or modified guidance. The progress of the disease cannot be known, so speculation is rife on the potential economic impact of the coronavirus on tourism, retail sales, production and demand for products ranging from pharmaceuticals to oil to baby carriages and semiconductors. Futures trading now reflects expectations for one or more rate cuts this year, with the first coming in July.

Through the first half of February, stocks fought to keep the rally going in spite of widespread virus concerns. As of the close on Friday, the Dow gained 4% or 1,142 points on the month to close at 29,398. The S&P has risen 154 points to 3,380, the Nasdaq increased by 580 points to 9,731 and the Russell 2000 added 73 points or 4.6%. Oil is up 1% to $52.05, while gold has lost $5.10 an ounce to $1,584. On the fixed income side, U.S. high yield corporates, with more than $50 billion of refinancings so far this year, and preferreds are the only sectors with positive returns on the month. Short Treasury yields have jumped 11 basis points to 1.42%, and 10-year yields have inched up 8 basis points to 1.58%. While 30-year yields have gained 4 basis points so far in February, last week’s government auction fetched a record low yield of 2.06%. The calendar of municipal issues hit a high for the year last week at $9.6 billion and yields this month are up imperceptibly across the curve. The 2-year AAA general obligation bond yield ended mid-month at 0.86%, the 10-year at 1.18% and the 30-year benchmark at 1.82%. Municipal bond funds have taken in $3.7 billion during the last two weeks, sending the inflow streak to a record high of 58 weeks.

HJ Sims was in the market last week with $28.3 million of BB+ rated New Hope Cultural Education Facilities Finance Corporation bonds for Morningside Ministries. The offering met with a strong reception and we sold the 2055 term bonds with a 5% coupon priced to yield 3.35%. Among other deals on the high yield slate, the Public Finance Authority of Wisconsin sold $21.5 million of non-rated senior living facility revenue bonds for Montage Living due in 2024 priced at 8.00% to yield 9.121%. In the education sector, the Arizona Industrial Development Authority issued $42.3 million of BB rated revenue bond for the Cadence campus of Pinecrest Academy of Nevada structured with a 2050 term maturity priced at 4.00% to yield 3.23%; the California School Finance Authority brought a $21.3 million BB+ rated financing for Fenton Charter Public Schools featuring a final maturity in 2040 priced with a coupon of 4.00% to yield 2.07%; and the Public Finance Authority issued $11.3 million of non-rate revenue bonds for 21st Century Public Academy that included 30-year term bonds priced at 5.00% to yield 4.21%. The Berks County Municipal Authority of Pennsylvania had a $19.5 million BB+ rated sale for Alvernia University that had a 30-year term bond priced at 5.00% to yield 3.59%.

This week, we will see more fourth quarter corporate earnings, the minutes from the January Federal Open Market Committee meeting, and economic data on housing, producer prices, and manufacturing. Qualifying Democratic presidential candidates will meet on the debate stage Wednesday night in Las Vegas. The $6.8 billion municipal slate includes a $90.2 million non-rated Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority senior living revenue bond transaction for Quality Senior Housing and QSH/Pennsylvania, LLC, and a $36.2 million BB+ rated Lancaster County Hospital Authority issue for Saint Anne’s Retirement Community. Life plan communities will be the focus of the two-day HJ Sims Late Winter Conference next week in San Diego. We look forward seeing so many of you at our 17th annual event. For those unable to attend this year, we will be sure to share our highlights in the weeks to come.