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Limited Liquidity in Corporate Bonds is Another Canary in a Coal Mine

Limited Liquidity in Corporate Bonds is Another Canary in a Coal Mine

Taxidermy canary under glass dome.

Courtesy of Rom Badilla, CFA – Bondsquawk.com

Bloomberg is reporting that liquidity is harder to come by as trading costs soar. 

The gap between the cost to buy and sell corporate credit reached the widest in nine months in another sign that investors are increasingly wary of all but the safest government securities amid Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

The bid-ask spread for credit-default swaps on U.S. investment-grade bonds surged to an average 8.86 basis points as of May 21 from 5.42 basis points a month ago, according to CMA DataVision prices. The difference jumped to a one-year high of 10.57 on May 7, from as low as 3.1 in 2007.

Higher trading cost is not just centered on Credit Default Swaps but also their cash bond counterparts.

The bid-ask spread for AA rated U.S. corporate bonds has increased to about 5 basis points from about 1 basis point earlier this year, said Mark Jicka, managing director at Mizuho Securities USA in New York. The gap for lower rated investment- grade debt has widened to about 10 basis points from 5 basis points.

Liquidity begins to suffer as bond investors sell their holdings, flooding the market with supply.  Also, liquidity can tank as demand evaporates as dealers hunker down by either passing or giving “throw-away” bids to avoid building inventory and taking on risk on their balance sheet.  Furthermore, most dealers will widen out the bid and ask for bonds in their inventory in order to be compensated for the risk of holding it and the event of any deterioration of the credit.

I have seen similar markets where liquidity is poor and finding an exit on a corporate or mortgage bond is difficult.  The Long Term Capital Management episode in the late 90’s and the recent subprime crisis is a good example of poor liquidity during uncertain times.

When Wall Street begins to go into risk aversion mode where they are reluctant to buy bonds from an investor, its a clear signal that choppy waters are ahead.

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