• Yield-oriented sectors of the stock market didn’t generate outsize returns in 2015 despite generally favorable earnings, as investors favored dividend-free or low-yielding growth stocks like Facebook, Amazon.com, and Alphabet. The result is that price/earnings ratios are lower now than they were 12 months ago in utilities, REITs, and telecoms. • A big issue is whether bonds and yield-oriented sectors of the stock market can do well in 2016, with the Federal Reserve likely to continue lifting short rates. The Fed may prove to be a head wind, but the central bank is expected to raise short rates to only about 1% by year-end 2016, and such an increase may be already partly discounted in the market.
Topping the list are junk bonds, now yielding almost 9% on average after a weak year dominated by a crash in the energy and commodities sectors. Other areas that look good include dividend-paying stocks, with yields at 3% or more in a range of industries, as well as utilities and REITs. Municipal bonds, which are coming off a solid year in which they bested Treasuries, look good, not great, for the year ahead.
Pipeline master limited partnerships are on the minds of many individual investors following a 40% sector crash in 2015. Despite the losses, the sector doesn’t look like a bargain, given tougher business and financial conditions in an environment of low energy prices. What follows is our view of 10 income sectors in order of their appeal.
With yields averaging close to 9%, junk bonds look better than they have in several years. “A confluence of events suggests that you should be buying high-yield bonds now,” says Andrew Susser, manager of the MainStay High-Yield Corporate Bond fund (ticker: MHCAX). He argues that the junk market was an outlier in a year when U.S. stocks and interest rates were little changed and the U.S. economy advanced at a slow 2% pace.
Susser maintains that vulnerability of the $1.5 trillion junk market is overstated because buy-and-hold investors such as pension funds and insurance companies account for more than half of the investor base. Pension funds and endowments could see junk debt as an increasingly attractive asset class, as they seek to hit targeted annual returns of 7% or more.
One of the longtime knocks against junk debt is asymmetric risk—little upside and a lot of downside. The selloff has changed that equation, with most bonds trading at discounts to their face value, allowing for sizable capital gains. All of this suggests the possibility of double-digit returns in 2016.
The wild card is defaults, which probably will rise. Many energy and commodity bonds already discount bankruptcy and could be big winners if commodity prices rally in 2016. At a minimum, they offer a nice alternative to common shares.
Higher-quality junk from T-Mobile US yields about 6.5% and Charter Communications, 5.75%. Energy debt has been crushed, with that sector now trading for an average of about 50 cents on the dollar.
A good junk manager should be able to add value relative to an unmanaged ETF like the iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond (HYG). Investors need to look carefully at mutual funds, given the troubles at the Third Avenue Focused Credit fund (TFCVX), which was too heavily invested in risky, illiquid debt. Most junk funds are more prudent with risk. There are plenty of closed-end junk funds trading at roughly 10% discounts to net asset value, like the BlackRock Corporate High Yield (HYT). Another closed-end at a 12% discount, the AllianceBernstein Global High Income (AWF), holds junk and emerging market debt, which also is out of favor.
There are plenty of stocks yielding 3% or more outside of traditional yield sectors like telecoms and utilities. Investors generally have to venture into out-of-favor industries like autos, retailing, and manufacturing to get those dividends.
General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor (F) both yield over 4% and are covering their dividends comfortably out of earnings. In technology, Qualcomm (QCOM) yields almost 4% and Seagate Technology (STX), almost 7%. Qualcomm has a large slug of cash on its balance sheet, while Seagate raised its payout in October in a sign of confidence.
Many traditional retailers facing competitive threats carry high yields, including Macy’s (M), at 4%; Gap (GPS), 3.6%; GameStop (GME), 5%; and Barnes & Noble (BKS), 7%. All are covering their payouts from earnings. Other notable high-yielders include Procter & Gamble (PG), the subject of a bullish Barron’s story last fall (“It’s Time for P&G to Split,” Nov. 23). P&G yields 3.3%; Merck (MRK), 3.4%; and Cummins (CMI), 4.3%.
With income-oriented funds, it pays to focus on expenses since high fees can eat up a good chunk of the dividends. Low-fee ETFs like the Vanguard High Dividend Yield (VYM) and Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity (SCHD) have annual expenses of about 0.10 percentage point and yields of about 3%.
The sector retreated after a strong 2014, as the Utilities Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLU) fell about 8% in 2015 and finished with a negative return of 4% after dividends. The ETF now yields 3.6%.
Many utilities, including American Electric Power (AEP), Southern Co. (SO), and Duke Energy (DUK), carry yields in the high-3%-to-mid-4% range. Valuations aren’t bad, as the group trades for an average of about 16 times projected 2016 earnings, in line with the Standard & Poor’s 500. The industry is expected to produce modest earnings and dividend growth in the low-to- mid-single-digit annual range over the next few years.
Edison International (EIX), the big Southern California utility, is favored by Bernstein analyst Hugh Wynne because he sees above-average profit and dividend growth in the coming years. Edison, at $60, yields 3.2% and trades for about 16 times projected 2016 earnings. One potential negative for the sector is the growth of rooftop-generated solar power, which cuts into demand.
Tax-exempt debt starred in an otherwise lackluster U.S. bond market in 2015, generating 2%-to-4% returns depending on maturity, while Treasury returns were about flat. “Munis are likely to outperform again because demand remains strong and credit issues have receded,” says Alan Schankel, municipal analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott. He notes that muni mutual fund flows have been positive in recent months, in contrast with taxable bonds.
Munis, however, don’t yield much, with triple-A-rated 10-year debt now about 2% and 30-year bonds at about 3%. There are some pluses. Top-quality muni yields are comparable to Treasuries and offer clear tax advantages, especially for those in top brackets.
High-quality long-term revenue bonds from the likes of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey yield about 3.25%. Investors should be aware that most long-term muni debt trades at a sizable premium to face value, meaning yields should be calculated to the shorter expected call date, not maturity.
The efforts to restructure Puerto Rico debt probably will dominate the headlines in 2016, as its government, Congress, and investors grapple with how to reduce the commonwealth’s debt burden while implementing fiscal and economic reforms to help revitalize a moribund economy. So far, there has been plenty of posturing and gamesmanship, but little progress outside of negotiations involving the island’s electric company, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Puerto Rico’s benchmark long-term debt issue, the 8% bond due in 2035, was trading last week around 73 cents on the dollar, indicating that investors are banking on some restructuring that will result in less-than-full recovery.
Vanguard’s muni funds, including the big Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt (VWIUX), continue to outshine most rivals, thanks in part to low fees. Veteran muni manager Joe Deane and his partner David Hammer are generating nice returns with the Pimco Municipal Bond (PMLAX) and Pimco High-Yield Municipal Bond (PYMAX). Muni closed-end funds aren’t the bargains they were a year ago, but many still trade at close to double-digit discounts to net asset values. These include the BlackRock Municipal Target Term Trust (BTT), yielding 4.5%. Unlike nearly all closed-end muni funds, the BlackRock fund has an appealing built-in mechanism to close its discount to NAV with a scheduled maturity date in 2030.
Real Estate Investment Trust
The overall sector moved little in 2015, as measured by the big Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ). Its 2015 return of 3.7% through the middle of last week was entirely due to dividends. Its current yield is 3.9%.
Michael Bilerman, the REIT analyst at Citigroup, projects a 5% to 10% total return for REITs in 2016, writing in his outlook report that “REITs are benefiting from solid operating fundamentals, healthy free-cash-flow growth, good dividend yields and coverage, and a meaningful amount of private capital still chasing real estate.” REITs are expected to generate mid-single-digit growth in operating profits in 2016.
There have been plenty of stories during the Christmas season about the “death of malls,” due to the growth of Amazon.com and online retailing. That isn’t apparent yet, however, in the share prices of two of the top mall REITs, Simon Property Group (SPG) and Taubman Centers (TCO). Shoppers at high-end malls often want to see clothing or luxury goods in person before buying. That may insulate them from the online threat.
An often overlooked sector, convertibles have experienced similar selling pressure to the junk market in late 2015, as hedge funds and other investors dumped securities to meet expected investor redemptions or reduce risk.
David King, who co-manages the Columbia Convertible Securities fund (PACIX), says convertibles look statistically attractive. He points to Allergan ’s 5.5% preferred stock (AGN.PA) as a good way to play the shares of the drug maker, which has a merger deal with Pfizer. The Allergan preferred trades around $1,030, above its face value of $1,000.
The largest convertible ETF is the SPDR Barclays Convertible Securities (CWB), and there are several convertible closed-end funds that trade at double-digit discounts to their net asset values, including the Advent Claymore Convertible Securities & Income (AVK), which was changing hands last week at a 17% discount.
Amid little enthusiasm for the U.S. telecom sector, AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ) have long traded in narrow ranges, and both are valued at a modest 12 times projected 2016 earnings. Verizon, at about $47, yields 4.8%, and AT&T, at $35, 5.5%. Both are committed to their dividends.
The competitive pressures in the U.S. wireless market are well known, as are the high expense to improve cellular network quality and the erosion of wire-line operations. Dubious investors view AT&T’s purchase of DirecTV as a deal for a declining satellite-TV business.
Perhaps the best way to view the pair is as bond surrogates, with upside potential if wireless competition eases and investors accord them higher valuations.
Bank issuers dominate the market, and their improving profits and balance sheets since the financial crisis have made preferred stock a more secure investment. The bank preferred market has been strong lately, with many issues at or near 52-week highs. Yields, however, generally don’t look attractive, given the interest-rate risk.
Most bank preferred trades above face value—usually $25 a share—and the result is that those issues probably will be redeemed early, typically five or 10 years after the initial sale. This means investors should focus on the lower “yield to call,” based on the shorter expected maturity date rather than higher current yields.
Callable bank preferred from big issuers such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C), and Wells Fargo (WFC), have current yields of about 6%, but the yields to the shorter call dates are closer to 5%.
Preferreds are vulnerable if rates rise, since they have no maturity dates. “Preferreds are usually issued at $25 and callable in five years. The risk/reward isn’t skewed in favor of the investor,” says King, who also co-manages the Columbia Flexible Income fund (CFIAX).
He favors two unusual preferred issues from Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo that technically are convertibles, but amount to regular or “straight” preferreds, because the conversion prices are far above the current common equity prices.
The Bank of America Series L issue has a 7.25% dividend rate, $1,000 par value, and recent price of $1,100 for a current yield of 6.64%. Bank of America can redeem the issue only if its share price, now $17, hits $65. In that scenario, investors would be paid a premium above the current share price. The Wells Fargo 7.5% issue has a similar structure, with a $1,000 par value, price of $1,155, and yield of 6.5%. Wells Fargo can call the issue if its stock, now about $55, hits $203. “If you’re going to play bank preferred, this is the way to do it,” King says. “They’re misunderstood.” The Wells Fargo 7.5% issue yields a percentage point more than the bank’s regular preferred.
There are several preferred-focused closed-end funds trading at discounts to net asset value, including Nuveen Preferred Income Opportunities (JPC).
It’s hard to get excited about government bonds, with yields ranging from 1% on two-year notes to 3% on 30-year bonds. Probably the best thing that can be said for Treasuries is that they could be a good hedge for stocks in a bear market.
Low-fee ETFs may be the best way for individuals to buy Treasuries. Large ETFs include the iShares 20+Year Treasury Bond (TLT), now yielding 2.5%, and the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond (IEF), yielding 1.9%. Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, offer a good alternative to regular Treasuries. TIPS trailed Treasuries in 2015 as inflation expectations declined. The so-called break-even inflation rate at which 10-year TIPS return more than ordinary Treasuries is now 1.5%, down from more than 2% in late 2014.
Kenneth Taubes, U.S. chief investment officer at Pioneer Investments, likes TIPS. “They are imputing very low inflation rates for a long time,” he says. Once energy prices stabilize, U.S. inflation readings, now about zero, should rise. TIPS, moreover, offer a hedge against what many bond investors fear: inflation. The most liquid ETF is the iShares TIPS Bond (TIP).
Master Limited Partnerships
Bulls argue that pipeline MLPs, down an average of 40% last year based on the Alerian MLP index, are bargains. On a recent investor conference call, Kevin McCarthy, co-founder and managing partner at MLP specialist Kayne Anderson Fund Advisors, said that the “MLP sector is oversold, and commodity prices will recover.” Fans say the sector was depressed by late-year tax-loss selling and could rally in early 2016.
While MLP prices are down and the average yield on the Alerian index is almost 9%, the sector doesn’t look cheap based on traditional financial measures, and most companies still need to finance much of their capital spending in the now-unfriendly capital markets if they plan to continue their generous distributions.
Kinder Morgan (KMI) rattled the sector with a 75% reduction in its dividend last month, and its shares, at about $15, were off 65% in 2015. The Street is betting that big MLPs won’t follow Kinder’s lead. That could reassure investors, but the industry’s business model, which relies on outside funding, is under threat and may have to change.
Based on traditional valuation measures, MLPs aren’t cheap, with major companies trading for 10 to 12 times projected 2016 cash flow, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. That’s slightly higher than electric-utility valuations, and above those of the major telecoms and cable companies. Given financial and business pressures, MLPs don’t look like bargains now.