虽然这并不等于眼下的形势已跟2005年一样，投资者开始一窝蜂地追求高收益，但也差不多了。鉴于美国联邦储备局（Federal Reserve）推行的低利率政策，几乎每种金融资产类别都存在着风险。“本•伯克南重新引燃了风险市场。”Sitka Pacific Capital的注册投资顾问迈克尔•“米什”•谢德罗克表示，他同时也是一名深受欢迎的网络日志作者。“人们眼下的行为与2006年毫无二致。”他指出：“这类事没什么基本面支撑，都是流动资金和感受在作怪。投资者的内在感受发生变化，流动资金也会跟着变，因为流动资金就是个儒夫，而且它还会彻底销声匿迹。”据报道，上上周，伊里诺伊州发行的37亿美元应纳税债券受到热捧，如此强劲的需求，还能有什么其他合理的解释呢？要知道，伊里诺伊州的养老金储备严重不足，已是美国证券交易委员会的调查对象。
这种现象的背后，是投资者对稳定收入的疯狂追求。而且，无论机构投资者还是个人投资者都不例外。“那些原本会将资金存入银行赚取利息或者投资于超安全资产的人，现在都在冒险。” 法国巴黎投资管理公司（BNP Paribas Investment Partners）全球信贷战略家马丁•弗里德森表示。“但是，人们投资的目的并不是要赚取巨额资本收益，他们只是希望能得到稳定收入而已。”
全球各地的投资者都满怀着这种希望。总部位于德国的房地产投资商GLL房地产公司（GLL Real Estate）就刚刚斥资1.01亿美元，从另一家房地产机构CoStar Group手中，买下了位于华盛顿特区商业中心的一座办公楼。仅仅一年前，后者仅花4,100万美元就买下了这座楼。更为讽刺的是，此楼原来的主人美国抵押贷款银行家协会（Mortgage Bankers Association），去年被迫搬离这座簇新的办公楼，将其7,500万美元的按揭贷款甩给了银行，其做法与普通房主放弃还不起的贷款时的选择一模一样。
由于经济开始好转，银行也更愿意放贷，商业抵押借款担保证券（CMBS）市场也随之回暖。两周以前，德意志银行（Deutsche Bank）、瑞银证券（UBS）以及Ladder Capital等机构投资者，私下里为瓜分一笔价值220亿美元的商业抵押贷款担保证券交易，而争得难解难分。他们买断了优先购买权。据熟悉此交易的人士介绍说，与去年秋天发行的同类证券相比，AAA级证券的息差降低了15%，也就是说其价格上升了。BBB级证券的升值更猛：息差现在比换兑比率高295个基点，而原来为425个基点。
这笔交易引人注目之处除了规模，同样抢眼的还有投资组合中贷款的多样性，以及这些地产的位置——近91%位于一级市场。但是，如果深入研究一下细节，你便会发现，负债经营的模式也开始在这一领域悄悄蔓延。据穆迪投资服务公司（Moody's Investors Service）数据，潜在贷款投资组合的贷款-价值比为94%，比近来交易的贷款-价值比通常为88%~89%要高。在房地产泡沫最严重时期，商业抵押贷款担保证券交易的债务服务水平曾一度逼近120%。
要想在当下的房地产市场上进一步嗅出2005年的味道，你得到更特别的资产担保证券市场以及所谓的“非代理”住房贷款市场去走一遭。在住房市场，“非代理”住房贷款可以是除政府支持外的任何类型的贷款。“在这一领域，各类分支市场异常集中，而且，基本情况比2009年时还要糟。” Warfield Consultants公司的丹尼尔•J•尼格罗表示：“所有人都在疯狂地追逐收益。”
他接着指出，在大萧条（Great Recession）期间最为严重、黑暗的时期，收益高达15%~20%；现在，则狂降到了4%。上个月，投资者哄抬价格，竞相购买风险极大的选择性支付可调整利率抵押贷款，致使其价格上涨了5~10美元，比原来抬高了近15%，尼格罗估计道。友情揭示：在选择性浮动利率贷款（Option ARM）方式下，贷款者需要支付的资金数量虽然已达最低，但却能害得他们最终将家中所有的财产赔得精光。
个人投资者由于对变幻莫测的股票市场依然心存恐惧，于是也开始以不同方式寻求收益。来自理柏基金评级公司（Lipper）的数据显示，奥本海默基金（Oppenheimer Funds）和富达基金（Fidelity Funds）等共有基金机构提供的银行贷款参与基金的回报较高，吸引了大量个人投资者。这类基金每1~3个月即会被重置。但是，此类基金的年收益由于尚未被评级，因此风险更高，到2011年1月31日，收益为4.53%，理柏公司的资深研究分析师汤姆•罗西恩介绍说。此类基金相对政府票据的差额可谓巨大。目前，政府票据的收益只有不足三分之一个百分点。罗西恩表示，个人投资者还纷纷涌向多领域收入基金，即厨房下水道债券（kitchen sink bond），去年，这类基金的收益为5.17%。专注于合格的股息收入的基金也很流行，这在某种程度上是由于现任政府沿用了布什政府的减税政策，因此这类基金收益的纳税额度只有15%，而不是纯债权收入基金适用的35%。
Investors are getting fed up with minuscule interest rates but remain nervous Nellies -- afraid to gallop into the stock market and afraid to hang back with their bonds.
Instead they hope they're entering a middle ground -- putting money into assets once assigned to investment purgatory in return for steady income. Institutional investors are keen again on bank loan participations, covenant-light corporate debt, exotic asset-backed securities, and all manner of commercial real estate. Individual investors, meanwhile, are seeking yield in dividend funds and certain bond funds that pay much higher than Treasuries.
It's not that investors are partying out there like its 2005, but it's close. Risk is mounting in almost every asset class as a result of the Federal Reserve's low interest rate policy. "Ben Bernanke has reignited the risk market," says Michael "Mish" Shedlock, a registered investment advisor for Sitka Pacific Capital and a popular blogger. "People are doing the same dumb things they did in 2006," he asserts. "There are no fundamentals for this. Just liquidity and sentiment. And when sentiment changes, liquidity will change with it because liquidity is a coward and it will disappear." How else can anyone account for the strong demand reported for this week's $3.7 billion taxable bond issue from Illinois, a state with a severely under-funded pension fund and the target of an SEC investigation?
It's a hunt for steady income, and it's happening on both the institutional and individual investor level. "People who would otherwise be in CDs or ultra-safe assets are taking greater risks," says Martin Fridson, Global Credit Strategist, BNP Paribas Investment Partners. "But people are not buying to get significant capital gains. They are hoping to get their coupons."
That hope is global. GLL Real Estate, the German-based real estate investor just bought an office building in downtown Washington, D.C., for $101 million from CoStar Group, a real estate firm that had purchased the building just one year earlier for $41 million. In a twist of irony, the original owner was the Mortgage Bankers Association, which was forced to abandon its spanking new building last year, leaving its $75 million mortgage much the way home owners abandoned their unaffordable loans: with the bank.
GLL wanted an income-generating investment, and it paid big for it. CoStar spokesman Chris Macke says the GLL deal is typical of the real estate market of the past couple of years: fully-leased properties in cities like Washington, Chicago, and New York, are in demand, with prices rising more than 30% from the bottom and even pushing beyond 2007 levels.
Institutional investors are also looking to hard assets to strike a balance between income and capital appreciation. Brett Hammond, chief investment strategist for TIAA-CREF, likes the top properties in the commercial real estate market, but he's also focusing on agriculture, timber, gas and oil, "something where we can get superior yield." Much of those investments are headed to an insurance annuity fund designed to rise and fall with interest rates, protecting investors against the vagaries of inflation, a new concern now in the face of rising rates. The annuity offers returns between 3% and 6% -- not exactly bell-ringers but appreciably better than US Treasury notes.
Mortgage-backed security, a dirty word no longer?
As the economy improves, and banks become more willing to lend, the market for commercial mortgage-backed securities is also warming up. Just last week, institutional investors scrambled to get a piece of a $2.2 billion private CMBS deal led by Deutsche Bank (DB) with UBS (UBS) and Ladder Capital. They paid up for the privilege. Spreads on the triple-A rated securities were about 15% tighter than comparable securities issued in last fall, which means they were pricier. The triple-B layer saw even more aggressive bidding: spreads were 295 basis points over the swaps rate down from 425 basis points, according to people familiar with the deal. (See also Let's try this again: Mortgage bond ratings return with scrutiny)
Size wasn't the only notable part of this deal – it was the diversity of loans within the portfolio and the location of the properties – about 91% in primary markets. But dig into the details and you'll see that leverage is creeping back. The loan-to-value ratio on the underlying portfolio of loans is 94%, according to Moody's Investors Service, up from the high 80s of recent deals. At the height of the real estate bubble, CMBS deals came whizzing through with debt service levels approaching 120%.
To find a stronger taste of 2005 in the marketplace, you'll need to go to the more exotic asset-backed security market and so-called "non-agency" residential loans -- that is, anything that isn't government-backed in the home market. "In the non-agency residential sectors the markets have rallied dramatically and arguably fundamentals are worse than they were in 2009," says Daniel J. Nigro, of Warfield Consultants. "Everybody is a yield pig."
Yields have dropped from a high of 15%-20% during the deep, dark days of the Great Recession to as little as 4%, he says. In the last month, investors have bid up prices on the super risky option-pay adjustable-rate mortgages by 5 to 10 points -- about 15% higher, Nigro estimates. Friendly reminder: Option ARMs enable borrowers to pay minimum amounts that can eventually eat away any equity they have in their homes.
Individual investors, still fearful of stock market volatility, are reaching out for more yield in different ways as well. Data from Lipper reveal that they are seeking better returns in bank loan participation funds offered by mutual fund firms like Oppenheimer (OPY) and Fidelity, which reset every 30 to 90 days. The 12-month yield on the loans, which are unrated and therefore riskier, was 4.53% as of 1/31/11, says Tom Roseen, senior Lipper research analyst. That's a huge spread to the one-year Treasury bill, which is currently yielding less than one-third of a percentage point. Roseen says individual investors are also headed to multi-sector income funds -- a "kitchen sink" array of bonds that have yielded 5.17% in the last year, he says. Funds that focus on qualified dividend income are also popular, in part because the retention of the Bush cuts mean that they get taxed at 15% versus 35% for pure bond income funds.
Some are saying that if there's a poster child for a bubble it's the high-yield debt market. Issuance remains on a record pace at $90 billion in the first five weeks of the year, according to data from Dealogic, even though yield spreads to comparable Treasuries have tumbled from about 725 basis points to 525 basis points. Martin Fridson argues the defaults on high yield are at historic lows: about 3% now versus 4.5% historically – which puts the spreads in a different light. Some are predicting that defaults could slide to under 2%, he adds.
Jeffrey Gundlach, head of bond fund manager DoubleLine Capital, worries that defaults are unlikely to remain low and that investors in riskier assets like junk bonds, commodities, and bank loans are in for nasty surprises. In fact, he still prefers government bonds to stocks: Sure, a stock might offer twice the yield as a Treasury but it is much more likely to drop 20% in price than its thin-yielding compatriot. He worries about the other markets, but he refrains from using the word 'bubble' to describe them. Investors have been rewarded for slowly extending out on the risk curve. But now "they are owning more and more of it when it's less and less attractive."