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UK Pension Funds Are Dumping Assets To Meet Margin Calls

Daniel Plainview

Updated: October 17, 2022

uk pension funds
Editor’s Note:

EDITOR'S NOTE: It’s past the three-day mark and the Bank of England has held to its promise: it’s no longer putting a floor under bond purchases. UK pension funds are now dumping bonds across the board to meet “margin calls” (wait, so UK pension funds were using borrowed money to leverage citizens’ pensions?). Across the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, corporate bonds are now dropping, with most companies unwilling to issue new bonds in light of the dismal economic data that’s being reported (like last week’s PPI and CPI numbers). So, if you’re heavy on bonds, or if you’re making moves based on the notion that inflation may be easing or that our economic prospects are looking a little brighter, you might want to think again and pay attention to what these large financial institutions are doing.

(Bloomberg) -- UK pension funds are dumping assets to meet margin calls as the Bank of England confirmed it will end its emergency bond buying program, with the reverberations being felt everywhere from Sydney to Frankfurt and New York.

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In the US, investment-grade corporate bonds are falling, with average prices of around 86 cents on the dollar on Wednesday compared with 90 cents about three weeks ago. UK pension funds have contributed to the selling pressure in recent days, according to one Wall Street trading desk.

In Europe, leveraged loans bundled into bonds known as collateralized loan obligations have been under pressure, with selling having renewed this week. In Australia, investors have been asked to bid on mortgage-backed securities that were being auctioned off. And the yield premium on Asian investment-grade dollar notes is at a two-month high.

UK pensions are selling to meet margin calls on derivatives they used to help ensure they could keep paying retirees even if interest rates changed, using a technique called liability-driven investing. The offloading that first began after a spike in gilt yields two weeks ago was renewed this week, when the BOE confirmed that it plans to end an emergency bond buying program on Friday. Investors are hoping the central bank will back down.

“The market simply doesn’t have the confidence, for now, that the LDI crisis won’t return and has increased concerns that other pockets of leverage may cause issues,” said Janusz Nelson, head of Western European investment grade corporate syndicate at Citigroup Inc. “Until we see some stability in the rates market, wherever that may come from, investors will continue to be nervous around their holdings.”

End of Intervention

The BOE intervened to buy bonds soon after the government announced tax cuts last month and gilt yields spiked. The central bank had hoped its measures would be big enough that nobody would doubt its resolve to quell market turmoil, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Limits on the buying were increased to allay concerns that anyone seeking to tap the program this week would have difficulties accessing it, the person said, asking not to be identified as the matter is private.

But angst about the end of BOE intervention quickly followed. Yields on sterling denominated investment-grade corporate bonds ballooned to over 7% for the first time since 2009. Fears intensified on Tuesday when BOE Governor Andrew Bailey warned that the program will end on Friday. The next day, the central bank made its biggest round of emergency purchases since the intervention began.

As a result of the latest BOE buying, UK bonds rallied on Thursday. Gilts extended gains while British domestic stocks also jumped on reports that government officials are considering a U-turn on planned tax changes. The pound surged.

Selling Pressure

The market reprieve came after days of stress in global fixed-income markets.

“Investors fear further selling from UK liability-driven investment managers in response to margin calls, including selling of USD high-grade credit,” JPMorgan Chase & Co. strategist Eric Beinstein wrote on Wednesday. “There was some evidence of this selling yesterday.”

That selling was manifest in risk premium movements. US investment-grade bond spreads have widened 11 basis points this week through Wednesday, according to Bloomberg index data, hitting their widest level in more than two years.

Meanwhile, selling by UK liability-driven funds “continues to result in a much-higher-than-usual” amount of Australian securitization notes being offered, National Australia Bank analysts including Ken Hanton wrote in a Thursday report.

Key Date

If the BOE holds course and ends the buying program on Friday, the next crunch date could be Oct. 31. That’s when Kwarteng will announce his medium-term fiscal strategy and the non-partisan Office for Budget Responsibility will publish an accompanying assessment. The date was brought forward by more than three weeks after City of London figures warned Kwarteng that he couldn’t wait until late November to reassure markets.

The BOE plans to begin actively reversing its quantitative easing program on the same day by selling gilts, potentially adding to frayed nerves.

The end of forward guidance by central banks has roiled market strategies based around buying the dip and selling volatility on the assumption that correlations would continue to be stable as they had been for two decades, said Alberto Gallo, co-founder of hedge fund Andromeda Capital Management. Risk parity strategies and 60-40 portfolios are among those that could be vulnerable, he said.

“What’s happening in the UK could lead to further volatility also in the Eurozone market,” said Gallo, who previously ran money for Algebris Investments. “There’s a lot of assets that should not be priced where they are now. We’re just at the beginning.”

Pensions may have lost as much as £150 billion ($168 billion) on derivatives tied to liability-driven investment strategies on a market-to-market basis, according to JPMorgan strategists. Some analysts are hopeful that the worst of the selling has ended.

“We think that it is likely that the vast majority of pension funds are likely to have de-levered and replenished liquidity buffers following the BOE intervention,” UBS Group AG strategists led by Julien Conzano wrote Thursday.

Elsewhere in credit markets:

Americas

No US high-grade companies are selling new debt Thursday after US inflation data surprised to the upside.

  • The cost to protect a basket of US high-grade bonds against default, measured by the Markit CDX North American Investment Grade Index, surged as much as 6.7 basis points to 109.2 following the release of September Consumer Price Index data

    • It was the biggest move wider since Sept. 13 for the CDX index, as traders quickly priced in another outsized rate hike for the Federal Reserve’s next meeting

  • Investors are bracing for more global defaults as corporate borrowers come under strain from rising interest rates, according to a survey from the International Association of Credit Portfolio Managers

  • AGL CLO Credit Management and Voya Investment Management are marketing collateralized loan obligations that will take advantage of beaten-down leveraged loan prices

  • For deal updates, click here for the New Issue Monitor

  • For more, click here for the Credit Daybook Americas

Europe

Activity in the region’s primary bond market slowed markedly on Thursday, with just one sale coming to market, a covered bond deal from Landesbank Berlin AG.

  • Spanish utility Naturgy SA announced an early redemption of one of its hybrid bonds, triggering the notes’ biggest price jump since 2016

  • Shares of Italian lender Monte Paschi slumped after it set the terms of its rights offer at a discount to the theoretical ex-rights price

Asia

Asian issuers in the dollar bond market stayed on the sidelines Thursday as yield premiums widened further ahead of the US inflation print.

  • Yield premiums on Asia ex-Japan dollar high-grade notes are on track for their highest level since July, a Bloomberg index shows

  • Hawkish monetary policy is making bond issuance costlier than loans, according to data analyzed by Bloomberg. Three-year yields for highly-rated companies overtook the one-year marginal cost of lending rate -- the indicative rate at which banks give loans to companies -- earlier this week

(Updates risk premium moves, adds comment from UBS beginning in 17th paragraph.)

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Originally published on Yahoo Finance.

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