Record Junk-Bond ETF Inflows Belie Still-Raw Credit Nerves

(Bloomberg) -- A record inflow into the largest high-yield debt ETF can’t mask lingering nerves among investors.

The $14.8 billion iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond exchange-traded fund absorbed nearly $1.8 billion last week, the highest amount ever, as U.S. junk-bond spreads tightened the most in 10 years. That’s after the market lost more than 2 percent in 2018, notching its worst performance since 2015 as stocks and oil were pummeled in December.

Record Junk-Bond ETF Inflows Belie Still-Raw Credit Nerves

But look closer: Open interest in HYG puts -- bearish contracts that permit a holder to sell shares at an agreed-upon price -- has also climbed to the highest on record. That can speak either to outright bearish bets or heightened hedging activity by holders.

“High-yield and leveraged loan ETFs all fell hard into the black hole of illiquidity in December and have rebounded incredibly strongly (too strongly, possibly),” Peter Tchir, head of macro strategy at Academy Securities, wrote in a note.

Record Junk-Bond ETF Inflows Belie Still-Raw Credit Nerves

Last week, Bank of America Corp. strategists led by Oleg Melentyev wrote that the rally in U.S. junk bonds “is probably reaching its near-term limits.” High yield may trend tighter in coming weeks but “a pullback is possible and even likely here, just given the intensity of the move so far,” the strategists wrote.

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