Fallen Angel Bonds and Rising Stars: Risks and Opportunities

High-yield bonds, also referred to as junk bonds, can be divided into two specific classifications: fallen angels and rising stars. Bonds that are described as fallen angels are simply those that at one time in the past were considered to be investment grade and are now categorized as “junk” bonds due to a reduction in the issuer’s credit rating.

On the other hand, rising stars are bonds that were considered speculation grade when issued but have since improved their financials, reducing the risk of default. These bonds are now closer to the security of an investment-grade bond. So while rising stars are junk bonds, for now, there’s a good chance they will not always remain as junk bonds. In this article, we review the risks and opportunities available to investors with both fallen angel and rising star bonds.

Key Takeaways

  • A fallen angel is a bond that was once rated as investment grade but has fallen to junk-bond status because of the issuing company's poor credit quality.
  • A rising star is a bond that is rated as a junk bond but could become investment grade because of improvements in the issuing company's credit quality.
  • By investing during a security's temporary fallen angel status, investors can benefit from an opportunity to generate strong returns.
  • By identifying a rising star bond at the right stage of the market cycle, investors can earn higher yields from a firm that is more likely to meet its financial obligations.

Understanding Fallen Angels and Rising Stars

A typical rising star is a new business or company that has a very short or no record of debt repayment from which to assess them high enough for investment grade. These corporations are performing strongly, thus are “rising” and may thus become investment grade as soon as the assets required to have the right ratio are achieved. In general, a rising star is a superior performing bond considered a “junk” or speculation grade investment.

While it’s pretty clear why most investors target rising stars, what’s also true is that some specific investors also target fallen angels. By looking for fallen angels and attempting to determine those about to lose their rating, investors may be able to get an increased return on their investment if they time it properly.

Risks and Opportunities

Fallen Angel Bonds

A company often becomes a fallen angel due to either specific issues within the company or the industry the company operates in. An industry may have fallen out of fashion, or perhaps acceptable levels of risk on key metrics for the company or industry have been re-evaluated.

When issues arise from the internal struggles of a company, this is typically the result of using debt instruments to finance things during the wrong part of development. Of course, an inferior credit quality development of a bond will lead in most cases to a decline in the price value. For investors, this will cause a downturn in their portfolios.

However, fallen angels may still create positive opportunities to generate strong returns. By anticipating a temporary downgrade, investors may access what they know to be an investment-grade risk at a temporarily higher return by investing during the security's temporary fallen angel status.

Rising Star Bonds

Identifying a rising star bond at the right stage of the market cycle can be highly beneficial. Improvements in rating tend to reflect internal improvements within the business, which means the corporation is more likely to be able to meet their financial obligations.

When a company has earned a rating that is considered investment grade, it means that its prospects for securing funding improve as it now has access to all those investors whose portfolios cannot tolerate the added risk they would add if still carrying junk bond status. This can often lead to an increase in demand for a corporation’s bond issue, which tends to drive up the price as well.

Special Considerations

Since the early 2000s, the market for high-yield, or junk-rated securities has experienced tremendous growth. This has come about in large part because of the original work investment analysts did in identifying fallen angels in the 1970s and rising stars in the 1980s. The market for these securities boomed as companies began using high-yield bonds as a financing mechanism for mergers and acquisitions.

In the United States, the overall corporate bond (investment grade and junk) market was valued at an estimated $8 trillion in 2021, with junk-rated securities representing more than 15% of the market.

With the growing demand for such investment options both on the part of companies and investors, coupled with the inability of traditional funding options to keep up, there does not appear to be any signs that this growth will slow down at any time in the foreseeable future.

$1.2 trillion

The approximate value of the high-yield (junk bond) market in the United States.

The Bottom Line

Rising stars are not easy to assess at the right stage of the cycle, particularly for private investors. Often, investment professionals are needed to properly evaluate the risk-yield of an individual bond when the rates are higher than the investment grade.

As is commonly known, in a market that works well, higher than normal yield to risk ratios tend to disappear quickly as market forces will bring about equilibrium before too long. Moreover, investors who are dealing with higher-yielding securities should apply meticulous risk management practices, as well as careful due diligence.

Article Sources
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  1. Standard & Poor's. "High-Yield Bond Market Primer," Page 1.

  2. SIFMA. "Research Quarterly: Fixed Income – Issuance and Trading."

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