The History of the U.S. High-Yield Bond Market
High-yield corporate bonds, commonly referred to as junk bonds, have been a part of the corporate bond landscape for a significant period, coexisting with various other bond categories. However, some market participants associate the rise of junk bonds with the dynamic decades of the 1970s and 1980s, a pivotal era for their substantial expansion.
Much like their investment-grade counterparts, junk bonds represent promissory notes issued by businesses or corporations. These documents delineate the principal amount to be repaid, the maturity date, interest rate, or coupon.
The principal disparity between investment-grade and high-yield corporate bonds pertains to the creditworthiness of the issuer. Entities plagued by unfavorable credit ratings often have limited financing alternatives, prompting them to offer bonds with significantly higher yields compared to issuers with more favorable credit standings. However, these amplified yields come at a cost - increased investment risk. In some instances, investors may find themselves holding assets that align with the colloquial term "junk," signifying their speculative nature.
The Rise of High-Yield Bonds
The surge in high-yield corporate bonds during the 1970s and 1980s was predominantly driven by companies known as "fallen angels." These firms had previously issued investment-grade bonds but experienced a substantial deterioration in their creditworthiness, causing them to descend to a BBB- overall rating, typically the lowest within the investment-grade category.
Especially in the 1980s, these reclassified "junk bonds" acquired newfound attractiveness for facilitating leveraged buyouts (LBOs) and serving as a means of corporate financing through mergers, igniting their initial rapid expansion.
This trend gained momentum swiftly, and soon, it became widely acceptable for a broad spectrum of issuers and investors to explore the speculative-grade bond market as a financing option. This transformation led to the market evolving into a mechanism for refinancing bank loans and employing debt-financing strategies, such as the amortization of older bond obligations.
Significant Historical Crisis Events
Throughout its history, the high-yield bond market has weathered various crisis episodes. Three pivotal instances stand out as critical turning points:
Savings & Loan Crisis, 1980s
The high-yield bond market encountered a significant setback during the 1980s due to a massive scandal involving numerous "Savings & Loan" (S&L) institutions. The S&Ls' risky investment practices, including investments in junk bonds, had far-reaching consequences, impacting the issuance and performance of high-yield bonds until the 1990s.
Dot-Com Bubble, 2000–2002
While many companies that perished during the dot-com crash had utilized junk bonds as a financing tool, the market's decline was primarily attributed to investors' fascination with "big ideas" fueled by the internet's emergence, rather than sound business plans. Consequently, the high-yield bond market swiftly rebounded.
Subprime Mortgage Meltdown, 2008
A significant portion of the toxic assets implicated in the subprime housing market crisis and the ensuing collapse had ties to corporate high-yield bonds. It is worth noting that these bonds were originally assigned a top-tier AAA rating, typically associated with investment-grade securities, rather than being marketed as junk bonds.
Resilience and Significance of the High-Yield Bond Market
Despite these challenges and its substantial expansion since the early 2000s, the high-yield bond market, often called the "junk bond" market, persists as a valuable source of financing for companies and investors. High-yield bonds constitute a vital segment of the broader U.S. corporate bond market, representing over 15% of its total value.
The high-yield bond market, or junk bonds, has a robust history and resilience despite facing significant challenges, including the Savings & Loan Crisis, Dot-Com Bubble, and Subprime Mortgage Meltdown. Today, it remains a vital part of the U.S. corporate bond market, providing essential financing options for companies and investors, underscoring its lasting importance.