What the Ford Downgrade Means. Main Street Investors Ask Natalie.
Dear Natalie. These may be ignorant questions. Am I correct in thinking these bonds are issued as money raisers? I would have presumed that's what stocks were for. Also, is junk bond status something negative? I’m wondering what this means for the overall economy, and for me personally.
Signed: Feeling a Bit Clueless
Dear Getting Clued In:
Never be embarrassed about asking these kinds of questions. Until we get The ABCs of Money and life math taught in high school and college, most of us are clueless.
Stocks raise money by asking people to become a shareholder (i.e. owner). Bonds raise money by borrowing from banks. The banks then sell those bonds to regular folks as "safe" fixed income products that will pay a dividend and then repay the principal at the end of a certain period of time. When bonds are investment grade, then pensions and institutions purchase them. Main Street investors might opt for individual bonds or bond funds, thinking they are safe from a downturn in the stock market. Many Main Street investors hold bonds in their retirement, pensions, 401Ks, mutual funds, annuities, insurance products, etc. without really realizing it.
The Ford downgrade is a symptom of a much more widespread problem. There is too much risk in the investment grade bonds for that asset to be considered safe. Over 50% of corporate bonds are at the lowest rung, just above junk status. So, they are just as vulnerable as Ford is to a downgrade.
Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul
The economists contributing to the Financial Stability Report are also concerned about the leverage in corporate bonds and loans. In the May 2019 report, the Feds wrote, “Borrowing by businesses is historically high relative to gross domestic product (GDP), with the most rapid increases in debt concentrated among the riskiest firms amid signs of deteriorating credit standards.” In my August 2019 interview with Liz Ann Sonders, the Chief Investment Strategist at Charles Schwab Inc., she warned that “This highly indebted, weak component of the corporate sphere will mark the end of this cycle in some way.”
Corporate Bonds Lost Money in 2018
Last year, corporate bonds lost money in tandem with stocks. Finally, interest rates are starting out too low for the bond market to be of much help in the next stock market correction. Bonds, particularly corporate and muni bonds with credit risk, could lose value in the next downturn (and always lose value in a downgrade), meaning that investors will lose principal on the “safe” side of their nest egg, in addition to the “at risk” side.
Being downgraded to “junk” bond status is negative. It means that the bond has been downgraded to speculative and is a higher risk. The ultimate risk is that the company may have to restructure their debt, meaning that bondholders will not receive all of their money back, and will also lose the income they were expecting. After Greek bonds were cut to junk status, MF Global went bankrupt (in 2011).
Junk status also means that the next time Ford needs to borrow more money, the company will have to pay a higher interest rate. So, it cuts into Ford’s profits.
Many pension funds, bond funds and institutions limit the amount of speculative junk bonds that they hold, in their bylaws. So, junk bonds can become illiquid, which means that investors won’t be able to sell them to someone else. Many Ford bonds are 30-year bonds. That’s a long time to bet that Ford, which has over $220 billion in liabilities, including debt, pensions and other post-employment benefits, will not have to use bankruptcy to restructure. General Motors and Chrysler declared Chapter 11 in 2009. No one will be interested in taking a junk bond off of your hands, unless you take a large haircut on your investment – if you can get anyone to buy it at all.
Stock Investors and Bond Investors Lose When a Company is Downgraded
The bottom line is that when a company is downgraded, investors lose money on the stock and the bond side of the equation. Since 50% of corporate bonds are at the lowest rung, just above junk bond status, this is one of the riskiest areas of the market to be in. If you have high-yielding dividend stocks or bonds, then you are taking on a lot of risk for a very small return (under 5%).
GE and Ford are the poster children of what happens to companies that keep borrowing from Main Street to buy back their own stock, while taking on unsustainable debt and short-changing their pension plans. (GE just froze the pension plans of over 20,000 employees this week.) However, they are not the only companies that have bought into this practice. In fact, corporate buybacks have been the fuel of the current bull market. My warnings on GE and Ford began years ago. Click on the blue highlights to see a few of those blogs.
Learn Life Math Now
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Please note: Natalie Pace does not act or operate like a broker. She reports on financial news, and is one of the most trusted sources of financial literacy, education and forensic analysis in the world. Natalie Pace educates and informs individual investors to give investors a competitive edge in their personal decision-making. Any publicly traded companies or funds mentioned by Natalie Pace are not intended to be buy or sell recommendations.
ALWAYS do your research and consult an experienced, reputable financial professional before buying or selling any security, and consider your long-term goals and strategies. Investors should NOT be all in on any asset class or individual stocks. Your retirement plan should reflect a diversified strategy, which has been designed with the assistance of a financial professional who is familiar with your goals, risk tolerance, tax needs and more. The "trading" portion of your portfolio should be a very small part of your investment strategy, and the amount of money you invest into individual companies should never be greater than your experience, wisdom, knowledge and patience.
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Natalie Pace is the co-creator of the Earth Gratitude Project and the author of The ABCs of Money, The ABCs of Money for College, The Gratitude Game and Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is. She blogs on Huffington Post and Medium, and is a frequent guest contributor to national news shows and magazines. She has been ranked the No. 1 stock picker, above over 830 A-list pundits, by an independent tracking agency, and has been saving homes and nest eggs since 1999.