It's not easy being "the world's most bearish hedge fund", a description we first conceived nearly three years ago, and one look at Horseman Capital's returns over the past three years confirms it: after generating market-beating returns for much of its existence, things went bad in 2015, and much worse in 2016...
... when the Fund had a record net short equity position of over -100%, just as the market ripped higher after the Trump election.
That said, 2017 has been much better for Horseman and its CIO Russell Clark, who correctly timed the year's two big short trades so far: the mall REIT and the shale shorts.
Unfortunately, his other positions stood in the way, and as of the end of October (a good month with 2.04% in P&L), the fund is just 0.25% up on the year. Worse, after a period of calm, steady, upward grinding monthly performance for much of the previous several years, Horseman's sharpe ratio has cratered, as the monthly return variance surged, with a -6% month following two +7% months as a result of gross leverage that has never been higher, even if the net equity position - while still largely short - is far more manageable than it was in 2016.
Still, having been well ahead of the pack on the two big shorts of 2017, most money managers are always curious what if anything Clark - and Horseman - are shorting next. Well, they are in luck, because in his latest letter, he unveils the answer: according to Clark, the next major source of alpha will be shorting fallen angel bonds.
In his November letter to clients, Clark explains why he is hunting for soon to be "fallen angels", and where he got the idea from. And after more fund managers read the following excerpt, we have a feeling that the next big leg lower in not only junk, but also crossover credit, is imminent:
Mifid II will come into force soon, and a lot of research that used to be free, will need to be paid for. This has been a reason to ask ourselves some serious questions, namely what research do I read, and what has made me the most money. Strangely the research that has been most profitable for me, will remain free even post Mifid II as it is publicly available. The International Monetary Fund produces Global Financial Stability Reports. The stand out report for me was the April 2008 report that highlighted Eastern European banks vulnerability to wholesale funding. I shorted many of the banks named in the report. Most fell 70% to 90% subsequently.
What does the most recent issue of the Global Financial Stability Report have to say? It notes that BBB bonds now make up nearly 50% of the index of investment grade bonds, an all time high. BBB bonds are only one notch above high yield, and are at the greatest risk of becoming fallen angels, that is bonds that were investment grade when issued, but subsequently get downgraded to below investment grade, or what is known these days as high yield. It then points out that investors have never been more at risk of capital loss if yields were to rise. In addition, it notes volatility targeting investors will mechanically increase leverage as volatility drops, with variable annuities investors having little flexibility to deviate from target volatility. Another interesting point was that mutual fund share of the high yield market in the US have risen from 17% in 2008 to 30% today, and notes that investors outflows have become much more sensitive to losses than they used to be.
So my favourite research (love the price!) is telling me that US investment grade debt is very low quality, and could produce some large fallen angels. It then goes on to tell me that mutual funds are much larger in the high yield market than they used to be. It also tells me low rates means the capital losses are much higher than they used to be. And that investors in high yield mutual funds are much flightier than they used to be! Essentially the IMF are telling me that if you get a large enough fallen angel, the high yield market will freak out, and volatility will spike causing volatility targeting investors to dump leveraged positions. Sounds good to me - but with growth so good and the market so strong, how on earth would we get a fallen angel?
To find a potential fallen angel, I looked through the holdings of investment grade bond ETFs to find large BBB bond issuers. The biggest of the BBB issuers happened to be the large telecommunication companies. The sector has over USD300bn of BBB rated debt compared to a high-yield market of USD 1tn. I am not a debt specialist, but I have noticed that falling share prices tend to be good lead indicators on debt downgrades, and the US telecommunication sector has not been participating in the market rally this year. The story looks good to me, and it comes via my favourite research source. US debt markets look in trouble to me, whether that has any effect on broader equity markets remains to be seen.
Aside from this rather original idea, some other notable changes in Horseman's industry exposure are noted: while both the retail and E&P shorts are still there, they have been notably tamed, and of note are two other major shorts (both in the US): one in real estate (we assume this is a play on the adverse impact of rising rates on real estate valuations), and the healthcare sector, a short whose thesis is quite interesting and we will reveal tomorrow.
For those wondering, the top 10 positions by % of NAV are the following:
Needless to say, we wish Horseman much success with a prompt realization of his BBB-short, especially since it appears that his LPs are starting to get cold feet, and the fund's AUM has shrunk by half from $2.8 BN one year ago...
... to less than half, or $1.2BN currently.