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High Yield in High Business Quality
Federated Institutional High Yield Bond Fund
Interview with: Mark Durbiano, Thomas Scherr

Author: Ticker Magazine
Last Update: Feb 16, 9:09 AM ET
High yield bonds issued by heavily leveraged companies often garner most skeptical views from rating agencies. However, even under a debt-laden capital structure, high quality businesses will often deliver attractive returns for investors. The team behind the Federated Institutional High Yield Bond Fund seeks to invest in leading businesses with strong franchise value.

“This fundamental belief — our willingness to enter into high-yield companies with greater debt but stronger and more stable businesses — often leaves us at odds with the rating agencies, where their focus is much more on debt leverage than on the underlying quality of the business.”
Q: What is the history of the fund?

A: The Federated Institutional High Yield Bond Fund was launched in 2002 but is the institutional sister fund to a retail offering that dates back to 1977. Its purpose has always been to give pure high-yield exposure to institutional clients.

We generally play inside of the high-yield box, and do not venture outside the asset class to seek alpha. We do not invest in equities or in bank loans, or view cash as a strategic asset. The fund has few out-of-index positions and little in investment grade.

Our belief is that bottom-up fundamental analysis focused on the quality of an issuer’s underlying business has the potential to generate competitive returns over time. In high-yield, “quality” does not necessarily refer to balance sheets, but instead to strong underlying companies with market leading positions, good cost structures, and leading management teams. We simply want to identify the best companies among these.

Q: How do you define your investment philosophy?

A: Along with bottom-up analysis, our philosophy centers on finding companies and industries that can produce consistent, predictable free cash flow, because having it means they can hold a little more debt than the average high-yield company.

This fundamental belief—our willingness to enter into high-yield companies with greater debt but stronger and more stable businesses—often leaves us at odds with the rating agencies, where their focus is much more on debt leverage than on the underlying quality of the business. We think the ratings agencies have it wrong, and are less concerned about debt leverage if a company is stable and can continue to grow its way through a capital structure.

Historically, we are consistently underweight what the rating agencies consider high-quality credits and consistently overweight single-Bs and CCCs rated bonds. This does not make our portfolio low quality. In fact, it performs well in up markets and even a little better in down markets.

Q: What is your investment strategy and process?

A: We do not start with a macro view but view all the companies in our universe using a bottom-up approach.

If a company falls from investment grade we will look at it, but idea generation generally is driven by the new issuance calendar. Because high-yield bonds are not particularly long in nature, often callable within four or five years, we get a fairly consistent look at new companies as they come along.

The basis of our qualitative process begins by looking closely at a company’s products and franchise value. Are they market leaders either in a large global area, or do they have a strong set within a particular niche? Next, we examine the industry profile to understand its competitive dynamics, and then determine whether the company is a cost leader.

Finally, we focus on the management team and whether it can execute. At the time of a new deal, a call is set up to go over their business and gain an understanding of what they are looking for, be it a leveraged buyout, an acquisition, or a share repurchase. After that, we quickly set up company meetings typically with the CFO; each of our analysts visits on-site at least twelve companies per year, in addition to attending industry conferences.

Though we are not a quant shop, all of our models lead toward the same metric: the free cash flow a company can generate relative to its debt balance. Because we put a heavy premium on stability, the fund tends to be overweight more predictable sectors like healthcare, media, packaging, and consumer nondurables.

Conversely, we tend to be underweight areas with more volatile business structures, like companies in metals and mining, energy, and single commodity chemicals. It is not prudent to put significant debt on a company that already has so much operational leverage.

Q: What kind of opportunities do you seek to discover through your research process?

A: To a large extent, our research process focuses on identifying opportunities that will offer solid growth rates without requiring us to take the underlying risks. For example, in the restaurant space, leaning toward companies with lower volatility means we prefer licensors with solid brand names over companies that physically operate restaurants.

By focusing on licensing or franchising companies, we avoid direct exposure to much of the cost basis that restaurant operators have, like labor costs or raw material costs. We simply receive a percent of revenue off the total sales of the company. Also, we have considerably lower capital expenditure requirements since we are not physically building new restaurants.

Often, below investment-grade is a choice, not just a place we randomly fall. When a leveraged buyout gets a junk or CCC rating, it is no surprise. As long as our bottom-up analysis has determined there is a strong underlying business that can grow and create consistent, predictable free cash flow, we are willing to put our cash behind our beliefs.

High yield by design is a model we have followed many times. Take a public company which at the time may or may not be high yield. The sponsor decides a leveraged buyout makes sense, so they purchase the company, fund a sizeable portion of that with debt, and put their capital at the bottom of the structure.

If the story plays out as we expect, the company will grow, pay down part of its debt load, and maybe take a dividend at some point. Then it will go public again through an IPO and ultimately pay down the debt that was issued as part of the leveraged buyout process.

There is a certain stigma attached when a company gets a CCC rating, but that is a reflection of its leverage profile as it stands today. We are looking at this from a much more future-looking perspective. Frankly, we do not care whether the company ever gets upgraded. We just need it to be strong enough to grow and ultimately repay debt.

Q: Would you describe the types of companies you generally like to avoid?

A: For an example of the type of investments we tend to avoid, think about the newspaper industry five to seven years ago. These companies had been around for 100 years and were relatively low levered—two to three times—so the agencies rated them highly, generally BBB or BB. The problem was no one was buying newspapers anymore. The businesses were functionally going away; they had high single-digit subscriber declines every year.

When we looked, we saw a group of companies that were deteriorating in value. It was not a good place to be as a bondholder, in that ultimately a decision would have to be made about whether cash flow being generated would go to equity holders or debt holders. Many of those companies have since restructured.

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Sources: Data collected by 123jump.com and Ticker.com from company press releases, filings and corporate websites. Market data: BATS Exchange. Inc