06 Jul 2018 3 min read

Credit bear market

By Ben Bennett

Could today’s credit bear market be a signal of equity market wobbles to come?


Investment grade credit markets have been in a bear market since the end of January. There’s no official definition, but credit spreads have been gradually widening since that moment, resulting in negative returns for investors and higher funding costs for borrowers.

This probably comes as a surprise for equity market investors. Returns haven’t been great, but they’re nothing like the traditional definition of an equity bear market – a 20% fall.

Credit conditions are a really important leading indicator for economic growth

But here’s the interesting bit. In a world weighed down by debt, we think credit conditions are a really important leading indicator for economic growth and, by association, equity markets. Our team of economists focus on bank surveys that ask about lending conditions – are they loosening or tightening? Here, there’s very little to worry about right now, with lending conditions looking broadly stable.

But we could also use public credit markets as a gauge of lending conditions, with higher funding costs for borrowers a potential warning flag. In this context, should equity investors be worried about the credit spread widening we’ve seen this year?

I’ve taken spread data for global credit markets since just before the financial crisis and highlighted the four periods when similar spread widening occurred.

What happened to equity markets following these periods? I’ve used the S&P 500 in the US as a proxy for global equity market sentiment, and shown in the table how much this index fell following each period of credit widening.

Credit Correction Subsequent S&P 500 drawdown
2007 -57%
2010 -16%*
2011 -18%
2014 -14%
2018 ?

 * This drawdown occurred during the credit correction

As someone who studied maths at university, I know we shouldn’t put much weight on just four data points. But the statistical experience is consistent with my hunch that tightening credit conditions should eventually weigh on global growth and equity markets.

On this basis, I would not be comforted by equity market resilience in the face of a credit bear market, rather I am thankful that it gives the opportunity to reassess equity exposure before potentially suffering heavy losses.

Ben Bennett

Head of Investment Strategy and Research

Ben focuses on investment ideas and themes. He spends a lot of time on the 4Ds of fixed income investing: debt, deficits, demographics and deflation. This might be more than a little influenced by his first-hand experience of a credit crisis, having joined us from Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Ben Bennett