While raising money for his credit hedge fund, Rajay Bagaria was surprised by the limited understanding of the high-yield debt market on the part of many institutional officials responsible for investment in the sector. Previous books on the subject, he found, were aimed at fledgling analysts or at high-yield fund managers grappling with higher-order problems of risk management. Bagaria decided to fill an unmet need with a succinct but comprehensive primer that eschews industry jargon.
The result, High Yield Debt: An Insider’s Guide to the Marketplace, succeeds resoundingly in its objective. It covers the development of the high-yield industry, market structure, the contractual foundations of high-yield investing, historical returns, and risk assessment. In addition to high-yield bonds, the author addresses leveraged loans, mezzanine debt, and distressed debt, as well as such investment vehicles as open-end and closed-end mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), hedge funds, and business development companies. Particularly useful to the intended audience is the author’s survey of information sources on issuance, fund flows, market news, secondary trading volumes, and pricing.
Most refreshingly, Bagaria, president and chief investment officer of Wasserstein Debt Opportunities, avoids a number of endlessly recycled inaccuracies about the high-yield market’s history and dynamics. For example, he offers an accurate appraisal of the analytical usefulness of the overhyped “maturity wall,” which he defines as “a point in the near future where a substantial amount of high yield debt becomes due.” The author is also well reasoned on such controversial topics as the impact of ETFs on market volatility.
On another issue that Bagaria takes up—competing approaches to determining fair value for the high-yield market as a whole—there is room for people of good faith to differ. The author writes that multivariate econometric models “can be helpful” but that they “can also seem like black-box forecasting, as it’s sometimes unclear how all the inputs come together to derive estimates.” Here I must declare an interest: I introduced this approach two decades ago and regularly update a multivariate model, the methodology of which is fully disclosed. Bagaria prefers the breakeven method, which defines the fair value of spreads versus Treasuries as Expected default rate – Recovery rate on defaulted debt + Illiquidity premium. As he acknowledges, however, the last term in that formula varies widely with market conditions, leading him to conclude that the breakeven method is effective only “in environments where the high yield market is properly functioning and not experiencing strain or risk aversion.” Yet it is precisely when extreme market conditions depress prices below their intrinsic worth that a valuation model can be most useful.
That debate aside, High Yield Debt is an excellent book that deserves to go through multiple editions. A second edition could correct a few minor errors. For instance, the BofA Merrill Lynch index that Bagaria calls the US High Yield Master II Index is now known as the US High Yield Index. Tighter copyediting the next time could fix such misspellings as “Paul Volker” and “the Lehmann bankruptcy,” an instruction to the copyeditor that was mistakenly printed as part of a footnote, and several failures of subject–verb agreement. In the omissions category, the list of major industries represented among high-yield issuers excludes energy, currently the largest industry by market value.
These imperfections do not diminish the author’s achievement. Among many other insights, Bagaria explains the differences in volatility between leveraged loans and high-yield bonds on the basis of dissimilar investor bases and provides a balanced account of the market impact of regulatory responses to the global financial crisis. In summary, High Yield Debt is an invaluable resource for Bagaria’s target audience of institutional decision makers with actual or potential involvement in the high-yield asset class.