Pacific Investment Management Co. and TCW Group Inc. are investing in bonds guaranteed by aircraft as U.S. carriers hold back from adding seats to protect profitability, preserving the value of their planes.
Junk-rated airline bonds, including enhanced equipment trust certificates from Delta Air Lines Inc. and UAL Corp., have returned 1.4 percent this month compared with an overall 0.05 percent gain for high-yield notes, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show. The gap, the widest since May, comes after their debt trailed by 0.44 percentage point in July.
The debentures are gaining appeal as traffic for the nine biggest U.S. carriers rose 1.9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More than 600 planes, many of which are older and less fuel-efficient, have been parked since the start of 2008 to slash capacity during the recession. That makes the remaining aircraft more valuable as collateral on bonds.
“I particularly like these bonds because you’re very much collateralized and yet the yield is very compelling,” said Mark Kiesel, global head of corporate bond portfolios at Newport Beach, California-based Pimco, manager of the world’s biggest bond fund. “Because the airline industry has taken capacity out of the system, and because China and the emerging markets are booming, the demand for aircraft has been rising.”
‘Meat on the Bone’
Investors are scouring credit markets for opportunities as the slowing economy fuels demand for fixed-income securities, sending yields on investment-grade corporate debt to a record low 3.74 percent this week. Orders for durable goods in the U.S. increased less than forecast in July and sales of new homes unexpectedly dropped, increasing the risk of a renewed recession in the world’s largest economy.
While airline EETCs have rallied, “there’s still some meat on the bone,” said Tad Rivelle, head of fixed-income investment at Los Angeles-based TCW Group, which has about $115 billion in assets under management. “We do like the asset class quite a bit,” he said.
Elsewhere in credit markets, Georgia Power Co., a unit of Southern Co., plans to sell $500 million of bonds as utilities issue securities at the fastest pace since March and outperform investment-grade and high-yield debt.
The company may sell 30-year bonds as soon as today, according to a person familiar with the transaction, who declined to be identified because terms aren’t set. Georgia Power joins Southern California Edison Co., Virginia Electric Power & Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. in selling debt this week, Bloomberg data show.
Companies that generate and distribute electricity and gas have sold $4.5 billion of bonds this month, the most since March, when they issued $5.2 billion, Bloomberg data show. Returns on gas and electric utility bonds, including reinvested interest, exceed those on investment-grade debt and high-yield debt for the month and year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data.
The extra yield investors demand to own company bonds rather than government debt rose 1 basis point to 178 basis points, or 1.78 percentage points, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Broad Market Corporate Index. Yields climbed to 3.47 percent from 3.44 percent.
The cost of protecting corporate bonds from default was little changed in the U.S., with the Markit CDX North America Investment Grade Index Series 14, which investors use to hedge against losses on corporate debt or to speculate on creditworthiness, rising 0.1 basis point to a mid-price of 112.91 basis points as of 12:56 p.m. in New York, the highest since July 19, according to Markit Group Ltd.
In London, the Markit iTraxx Europe Index of credit-default swaps linked to 125 companies with investment-grade ratings, declined 0.46 to 117.06, Markit prices show.
The indexes typically drop as investor confidence improves and rise as it deteriorates. Credit-default swaps pay the buyer face value if a borrower fails to meet its obligations, less the value of the defaulted debt. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.
Airlines have issued $4.16 billion of dollar-denominated EETCs since the beginning of 2009, Bloomberg data show, compared with $1.92 trillion of sales in the U.S. corporate bond market.
EETC offerings are limited because of the availability of collateral, said William Hochmuth, a senior debt analyst at Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial, which oversees about $64.7 billion in assets.
The nine largest U.S. airlines filled 82.5 percent of their available seats this year through July, an increase from 80.3 percent a year earlier, Bloomberg data show.
‘Hmmm, Looks Good’
Renewed interest in EETCs is driven by airlines’ capacity discipline, which is leading to profitability and improved balance sheets as demand recovers, said Jeff Straebler, fixed- income strategist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.
“Investors are looking for yield and they see EETCs and say ‘Hmmm, that looks good,’” he said. “They’re taking the time to re-educate themselves on the product.”
Delta issued $450 million of eight-year, 6.2 percent notes on June 28, the most recent dollar-denominated EETC offering, Bloomberg data show. The debt is backed by 22 Boeing Co. planes delivered from 1999 to 2000 to the Atlanta-based carrier and two from March of this year, according to a regulatory filing.
The securities, rated Baa2 by Moody’s and A- by S&P, have climbed to 113.68 cents on the dollar from par to yield 4.14 percent, Bloomberg prices show. The overall investment-grade corporate bond market yields 3.79 percent, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data show.
Threats to the industry include terrorism, accidents, a slump in business travel should the economic recovery falter and costly schedule disruptions such as those trigged this year by U.S. East Coast blizzards and a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
Airlines are refreshing their fleets with newer planes that are more fuel efficient as oil prices average $78.07 a barrel this year compared with $55.34 for the same period in 2009. Oil reached a record $145 a barrel in July 2008, prompting most of the biggest carriers to park jets, slash jobs and cancel unprofitable routes to lower costs. U.S. airlines had the largest capacity reduction since World War II last year.
A new Boeing 737-800 from the most commonly-flown 737 family of aircraft would cost about $45 million after discounts for a small order, said Fred Klein, president of Aviation Specialists Group Inc. in Herndon, Virginia, which values planes. The jet would retain about 80 percent of its value after five years, 70 percent after 10 years and 40 percent after 20 years, he said.
“Not only is the collateral doing OK, but the airlines in general across the spectrum are liquid, they’re making money,” said Roger King, an analyst at CreditSights Inc. who has covered airlines for 20 years. “The whole industry from a creditor standpoint is in very good shape.”