This commentary originally appeared at 9:04 a.m. EDT on March 23 on Real Money Pro -- for access to all of legendary hedge fund manager Doug Kass's strategies and commentaries, click here.
In last night's "Fast Money" segment with Melissa Lee and the gang, I discussed potential winners and losers if interest rates rise in the year ahead.
Two weeks ago on "Fast Money," when Michelle Caruso-Cabrera subbed for Melissa, I discussed why I thought the bull market in bonds was over.
Finding opportunities (long and short) is the next logical step.
It is important to remember that I expect rates to rise not because the economy is especially vigorous -- it's not -- as Wednesday night's PMIs in Europe and China support the notion of below-trend worldwide growth.
As I mentioned in response to a question by Anthony Scaramucci, I expect rates to rise because in a muddle-through recovery in the U.S, with Band-Aids applied to the European debt contagion and China set to ease further:
- The flight to safety in bonds will be reversed -- remember, over history the yield on the 10-year has approximated the sum total of nominal growth in GDP in the U.S. (i.e., real GDP plus inflation). We are currently growing domestically at slightly under 2%, inflation is about 2.3%, so you get a theoretical 10-year yield of between 4% and 4.3% vs. the actual yield of 2.25% for the 10-year now.
- This morning's Intrade odds that Obama regains the presidency are at 60%, odds that the Republicans regain the Senate are at 59%, and odds that the Republicans retain the House are at 70%. Based on these probabilities, gridlock is on the agenda in Washington, D.C. There will be little addressing of our fiscal problems, so it's only a matter of time before the bond vigilantes demand higher returns on U.S. paper.
- I don't see demand-pull inflation as the economy recovers slowly, but I do see the potential for cost-push inflation, particularly from higher oil prices and from the continued need to ease quantitatively around the world (which will likely push up commodity prices).
Let's assume for the sake argument that it is a given that interest rates are about to launch a gradual multiyear rise. Which industries and companies are then the winners and which are the losers in a rising-rate environment?
There are obvious and less obvious losers and winners.
- Most vulnerable are companies and industries with large debt-to-equity ratios, particularly those that have a large amount of variable-rate debt and low returns on assets. The most vulnerable industry sectors would include telecom -- I found a lot of long-distance and broadband providers on the Bloomberg screen that I conducted -- as well as names in retail, real estate, media and materials. Some exposed and possible short candidates with large debt loads include Pitney Bowes (PBI), which is in the mail and shipping business; Pepco Holdings (POM), which is engaged in the transmission of electricity and natural gas in the Mid-Atlantic area; CenturyLink (CTL), which provides local, long-distance and network access; PPL Corporation (PPL), an electrical and utility holding company; Avon Products (AVP) cosmetics; Cablevision (CVC), cable; and CMS Energy (CMS), a Michigan-based utility.
- High-yielders are up next. Every strategist that lives has encouraged buying high-yielders over the past few years. Now, not only are these yields less competitive as rates rise but proposals by the Obama administration to nearly triple the tax rate on dividends will make dividends less valuable. Utilities would likely be losers, a sector that has had terrific share price performance. Some other qualifiers include Frontier Communications (FTR), another local and long distance provider; Windstream (WIN), another broadband and voice provider; Supervalu (SVU), retail food distributor; and Gannett (GCI), a newspaper chain.
- Finally, we have sectors that have prospered from an unprecedented drop in interest rates and that have contracting margins or reduced demand for products as interest rates rise. Homebuilders would be prominent in this list.
I mentioned to Melissa that I would not necessarily short these names and sectors but I would carefully, after doing some more research, consider paring back these holdings.
I then moved on to the winners in response to Joe Terranova's question on banks.
- Banks are obvious winners, but they have run up a lot and, as I discussed on "Fast Money" two weeks ago, it's my view that a fragile muddle-through recovery will result in sluggish loan growth and probably the end of the great credit-quality cycle that we have seen since the recession ended. (There has been a huge reduction in loan-loss provisioning.) My view is that these factors could trump net interest margin gains. Less obvious beneficiaries in the financials would be the life insurers. Industry valuations have been hurt because the marginal investment opportunities were lower yielding than their current portfolio returns, but this would change. Prudential (PRU), MetLife (MET) and Lincoln National (LNC) are good names.
- Also less obvious are the discount brokers. Companies such as E*Trade (ETFC) and Schwab (SCHW) are obvious beneficiaries from a rotation out of bonds and into stocks. More important, with large free-money balances, their net interest margins will expand relative to expectations. Property and casualty names, such as Chubb (CB), Travelers (TRV), Loews (L), and reinsurance companies, such as Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A/BRK.B) and XL Group (XL), benefit from large floats earning higher levels of interest.
- For a rotation out of bonds and into stocks, there is purity in asset managers such as T. Rowe Price (TROW), Legg Mason (LM), Waddell & Reed (WDR) and Franklin Resources (BEN), which should be viewed as possible longs.
Finally, given rising rates and higher marginal tax rates on dividends - a possible interesting pair trade is long municipals via iShares S&P National AMT - Free Municipal Bond Fund (MUB) and short U.S. taxable bonds via a short of iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond Fund (TLT) or through a long in ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury (TBT).