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29 May 2018

Balance sheet strength: why it matters and where to find it

When interest rates and bond yields rise, and markets and economic direction take a turn for the worse, it tends to be the weakest elements in the economy – typically those companies with the greatest amount of debt – which suffer first. Yet corporate leverage is back where it was during its dot com and global financial crisis peaks. Should investors be worried?  


What rising bond yields mean

Rising bond yields don’t automatically mean equity losses. They tend, initially at least, to be accompanied by a rally with both asset classes driven on by improved economic conditions. Only in the later stages of the cycle do they have a negative impact. The last time there was a switch from a positive to negative correlation between equities and bond yields (1960s/1970s), it coincided with bond yields pushing past the 5% barrier. We’re a way off that, so investors should still have a decent cushion before rates become a problem – but stretched valuations in some parts of the world mean a little caution is merited.  


Correlation between S&P500 and 10-yr treasury yields since 1900


      Correlation between S&P500  10yr treasury yield since 1900

Source: Lyxor AM International, Shiller. Rolling 5-year period, monthly data as at 01/05/2018.

 In our view, global economic conditions are still improving (albeit more slowly), so your choice rests between switching out of bonds and into suitable equities or sitting tight until losses on your bond portfolio eventually force you to move. If you are going to hold bonds, you have to believe economic conditions won’t improve; deflation will set in and central banks will make ever more desperate attempts to drive yields lower.

Those wary of making seismic asset allocation changes may be tempted to switch from low quality bonds to high quality equities – a change which puts balance sheet strength before anything else. Finding them isn’t as simple as it might be however. 


Not buying buybacks

Many companies have tried to exploit the low yield environment by re-leveraging in order to grow but changing conditions leave some more exposed than others. Tech companies aren’t significantly at risk because their balance sheets are often cash rich but the same can’t be said elsewhere, especially where companies have engaged in massive stock buybacks – something which, in our view, destroys shareholder value more often than not. Over time, those companies tend to be the weakest and cheapest (relative to their peers) in the market. Their price momentum is weak and they generally have ‘below average strength’ balance sheets. Selling this balance sheet risk, and focusing on companies with shrinking debt and improving fundamentals, makes sense at a time like this.

Replacing or augmenting mainstream equity allocations with equivalent Quality Income (QI) strategies which value balance sheet strength above all else could be the solution. True, the kinds of stable businesses these strategies hold haven’t necessarily enjoyed the irrational exuberance that’s driven markets so much higher in recent years. But they might be a better bet for what comes next... 

Why balance sheet strength matters

The nature of these businesses means their earnings are predictable, rather than cyclical, so they are rarely seen as fashionable. In fact, QI stocks’ main source of relative performance is the drawdown protection they offer when markets are stressed. Handily, they also offer another way of countering rising inflation – dividends tend to track inflation higher, unlike fixed rate securities.

Over the long term, QI equities have delivered similar returns to high yield credit. Drawdown too is similar but the overall risk/return profile is better; with higher return and lower volatility for QI equities. 


Maximum drawdown/loss on global assets since 1990 (%)


 Maximum drawdown/loss on global assets since 1990 (%)

Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Portfolio presented assumes no transaction costs. Source: SG Cross Asset Research/ Equity Quant, Factset, data as at 31/12/2017


Volatility-adjusted returns since 1990

Volatility-adjusted returns since 1990

Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Portfolio presented assumes no transaction costs. Source: SG Cross Asset Research/ Equity Quant, Factset, data as at 31/12/2017


Where you can find “good” balance sheets

Despite being close to its 20-year average, US leverage is far higher than we saw in the run-up to the 2008-09 crisis. In Europe, levels are even higher. Interest coverage in both regions is weaker than it was, despite recovering global earnings and artificially low yields.

Leverage ratios suggest most eurozone country indices are in line with long-term averages, but this is not true of the US or UK. We still find the most leveraged companies in Spain and Italy but France is now less geared than the US or UK equity markets. Interest coverage ratios show significant improvements in France and Germany (excluding financials) since 2017, but it’s different on the periphery. Spain’s coverage has improved, but is no better than it was prior to the 2008-09 financial crisis; Italian companies have yet to improve their solvency at all. In fact, the opposite is true despite the supportive environment.

At the sector level, Utilities and Telecoms are more highly levered when compared to other sectors and their own long-term averages. For all that, there are still good companies to be found in these sectors and they remain pivotal to our portfolios. We’re confident our methodology weeds out those that aren’t quite so strong. 

An example of how quality income indices are constructed: SG Global Quality Income


Chart 4 - Income universe ​Source: Lyxor International Asset Management, as at 28/02/2018.

*In order to meet the required minimum number of stocks, these rules may be relaxed to a quality score of 5 out of 9, the top 60% for balance sheet strength, and a dividend yield threshold of 3.5%.


Why Lyxor for quality income?

Our five quality income generators target only the most robust and stable businesses in the developed world, helping you step forward with your eyes firmly on the horizon.   We range across broad global markets, as well as strategies specific to Europe, Japan, the UK and US – with TERs starting from just 0.19%, making them some of the most cost effective income generators your money can buy.


Our range explained


TERs correct as at 15 May 2018

All views & opinion, Lyxor Equity & SG Cross Asset Research/ Equity Quant team, as at 15 May 2018 unless otherwise stated. Past performance is no guide to future returns


All views and opinions: Lyxor & SG Cross Asset & ETF Research teams as at 3 May 2018 unless otherwise stated. Past performance is no guide to future returns.

This document is issued by Lyxor International Asset Management (LIAM), a French management company authorized by the Autorité des marchés financiers and placed under the regulations of the UCITS (2009/65/EC) and AIFM (2011/61/EU) Directives. Société Générale is a French credit institution (bank) authorised by the Autorité de contrôle prudentiel et de résolution (the French Prudential Control Authority).

The products mentioned are the object of market-making contracts, the purpose of which is to ensure the liquidity of the products on the London Stock Exchange, assuming normal market conditions and normally functioning computer systems. Units of a specific UCITS ETF managed by an asset manager and purchased on the secondary market cannot usually be sold directly back to the asset manager itself. Investors must buy and sell units on a secondary market with the assistance of an intermediary (e.g. a stockbroker) and may incur fees for doing so. In addition, investors may pay more than the current net asset value when buying units and may receive less than the current net asset value when selling them. Updated composition of the product’s investment portfolio is available on In addition, the indicative net asset value is published on the Reuters and Bloomberg pages of the product, and might also be mentioned on the websites of the stock exchanges where the product is listed.

Prior to investing in the product, investors should seek independent financial, tax, accounting and legal advice. It is each investor’s responsibility to ascertain that it is authorised to subscribe, or invest into this product. This document is of a commercial nature and not of a regulatory nature. This material is of a commercial nature and not a regulatory nature. This document does not constitute an offer, or an invitation to make an offer, from Société Générale, Lyxor Asset Management (together with its affiliates, Lyxor AM) or any of their respective subsidiaries to purchase or sell the product referred to herein.

Lyxor International Asset Management (LIAM), société par actions simplifiée having its registered office at Tours Société Générale, 17 cours Valmy, 92800 Puteaux (France), 418 862 215 RCS Nanterre, is authorized and regulated by the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF) under the UCITS Directive (2009/65/EU) and the AIFM Directive (2011/31/EU). LIAM is represented in the UK by Lyxor Asset Management UK LLP, which is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK under Registration Number 435658. Société Générale is a French credit institution (bank) authorised by the Autorité de contrôle prudentiel et de résolution (the French Prudential Control Authority).

Research disclaimer

Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) or its employees may have or maintain business relationships with companies covered in its research reports. As a result, investors should be aware that LIAM and its employees may have a conflict of interest that could affect the objectivity of this report. Investors should consider this report as only a single factor in making their investment decision. Please see appendix at the end of this report for the analyst(s) certification(s), important disclosures and disclaimers. Alternatively, visit our global research disclosure website

Conflicts of interest 

This research contains the views, opinions and recommendations of Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists. To the extent that this research contains trade ideas based on macro views of economic market conditions or relative value, it may differ from the fundamental Cross Asset and ETF Research opinions and recommendations contained in Cross Asset and ETF Research sector or company research reports and from the views and opinions of other departments of LIAM and its affiliates. Lyxor Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists routinely consult with LIAM sales and portfolio management personnel regarding market information including, but not limited to, pricing, spread levels and trading activity of ETFs tracking equity, fixed income and commodity indices. Trading desks may trade, or have traded, as principal on the basis of the research analyst(s) views and reports. Lyxor has mandatory research policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to (i) ensure that purported facts in research reports are based on reliable information and (ii) to prevent improper selective or tiered dissemination of research reports. In addition, research analysts receive compensation based, in part, on the quality and accuracy of their analysis, client feedback, competitive factors and LIAM’s total revenues including revenues from management fees and investment advisory fees and distribution fees.

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