Keep a Wary Eye on Plunging Junk Bonds!

Stocks have been defying gravity recently. They were moving relentlessly higher. But then last week, they hit a tax-reform speed bump.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average snapped an eight-week winning streak last week, falling half a percent. Meanwhile, the Dow Transportation Average dropped 2.6%, continuing a bearish non-conformation with the Industrials.

The primary reason for the pause seems to be tax-reform trouble in Congress. The differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation are proving more difficult to reconcile than expected.

Markets are nervous that we won’t see corporate tax reform in 2017. But forget about Congress pushing it out to 2018 — many are starting to think we might not see tax cuts until 2019!

Related story: Tax Reform: Be Careful What You Wish For

But another indicator has been sending up a major red flag for weeks now: high-yield corporate bonds.

And that’s making stock investors increasingly nervous …

The chart above shows the SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (JNK), which tracks a widely followed index of junk bonds. You can clearly see that junk bonds peaked back in August. Then a half-hearted rally attempt in September and early October fell short of notching a new high.

Junk bonds rolled over and began plunging lower last week, before bouncing a bit on Friday. But it looks like the damage is done.

High-yield bonds are clearly in a downtrend … and likely headed a lot lower.

So why is that potentially bad news for stocks?

Typically, junk bonds trade more in line with stocks than with Treasury bonds. They often serve as a leading indicator for where stocks will head next.

The last prolonged slump in junk bond prices happened in late 2015. JNK plunged more than 20% going into early 2016.

Stocks initially held up OK. But they finally came unglued, with the S&P 500 Index falling 14% from November 2015 until stocks bottomed in February 2016.

That’s why the divergence — between the Dow hitting new record highs while high-yield bond prices tumble — is a big red flag in my book. And it warns of potential trouble ahead for stocks.

Good investing,
Mike Burnick

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Comments 5

  1. H. Craig Bradley November 13, 2017


    Tax Reform as proposed, has less than a 50/50 chance of being signed into law in 2017. Part of the problem is its too complex and unwieldy. This Tax Reform Bill is similar to a suitcase with too much stuff in it that just doesn’t quite fit and can not be closed and latched. The result is travel problems. Add-in Airline baggage restrictions and Airport security problems and you might be a “No Go” with too much baggage. So it is with Tax Reform, as it is. Its over- stuffed and over-weight. So, expect plenty of delays as Congress decides what stays and what goes. This is every overseas airtraveler’s dilemma.


  2. Allan November 13, 2017

    Can you tell us how often the divergence which you describe has not resulted in a US stock market decline of more than 10% within 12 months of the current divergence?


  3. terry shead November 14, 2017

    Junk bonds are what they are junk, can’t see any point of buying any debt?


  4. craig November 14, 2017

    investors seem to be an easily-spooked lot. why not just calm down and follow Buffet’s example of choosing good stocks by due diligence and just having faith in your choices?


  5. $1,000 gold December 6, 2017

    we have a tax plan that will stimulate the economy at the same time the fed is desperately trying to tighten without creating a catastrophe. this is like one person pressing on the gas pedal at the same time another person is pressing on the brake. this stimulus will have the opposite affect the fed is trying to accomplish, which means higher stock, lower bonds, greater deficit, and a bigger recession pushed further down the road.