«Xing Zhou∗ Department of Applied Economics and Management Cornell University Abstract Taking advantage of a unique corporate bond transaction ...»
Information-Based Trading in the Junk Bond Market
Department of Applied Economics and Management
Taking advantage of a unique corporate bond transaction dataset from the National
Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), this paper investigates whether
information-based trading takes place in the high-yield corporate bond market, and
how firm-specific information flow across related securities, including stocks, options
and corporate bonds. Differing from previous studies, I find that current corporate bond returns have explanatory power for future stock price changes. This implies that informed investors do trade in the corporate bond market, and both the stock market and the corporate bond market serve important roles in disseminating new information. The option market, however, contains valuable information about future movements in both stocks and corporate bonds, and these relations are unidirectional, suggesting that the option market is a preferred venue for informed trading.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence that informed trading in the option market is distributed across different strike prices, with at-the-money options attracting investors who posses mild firm-specific information, and deep out-of-the-money options catching the attention of those who obtain extreme information.
JEL Classification: G14 Key-words: Firm Specific Information, Information-based Trading, Information-risk Premium, Insider Trading, Junk Bonds, Market Microstructure, Price Discovery.
∗ Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, 253 Warren Hall, Ithaca NY, 14853.
Phone: (607)351-8374; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I thank NASD for help with the data. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and not those of any other person or entity, including NASD. I thank Hazem Daouk, Maureen O’Hara, David Easley and Yongmiao Hong for helpful comments and discussions. I also thank Vidhi Chhaochharia, David Ng, Michael Piwowar, and Xiaoyan Zhang for their useful suggestions. Any errors are my own.
1. Introduction Since 1934, when the United States Congress enacted the Securities Exchange Act, the stock and the options markets have been under intense scrutiny for potential abuse of material nonpublic information. However, information-based trading also seems to be taking place in the corporate bond market, as investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have revealed the occurrence of insider trading and price manipulation in the junk bond1 market by the “king of junk bonds”— Michael Milken. In 1989, James Dahl, an employee of Milken's junk bond department, swore before a grand jury that Milken advised him to buy up Caesar’s World bonds from their own customers on the day when Milken made a presentation to Caesar’s World on how to handle their finance, i.e., a sales pitch. In 1990, Michael Milken pleaded guilty to six felony counts in connection with insider trading, and he was sentenced by federal Judge Kimba Wood to 10 years in prison (though he was released in 1993).
Michael Milken is not the only one who acted inappropriately on private information in the once arcane world of high-yield debt market. Institutional investors and investment bankers who trade high-yield corporate bonds every so often participate in syndicated loans for the same company issuing high-yield bonds. Since investors who lend to the company are entitled to send representatives to regular meetings with the borrowing company’s management and bankers, they obtain access to some confidential information, such as updated projections of revenues and earnings, or plans for an acquisition or divestiture, which public investors will never see. When such information from internal discussions is improperly leaked or misused, prices of the borrowing company’s bonds will be affected and investors acting on this private information will make profits. Indeed, trading based on such private information in the credit markets has been warned about in research work authored by Chris Dialynas, a managing director and portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management Co., which is one of the world’s top bond investors. Furthermore, 1 A bond rated BB or lower because of its high default risk. Also known as a high-yield bond, or speculative bond.
At a first glance, it is counter-intuitive that investors with private information about a company will trade in its debt securities. Even though the value of a company’s debt, equity and its derivatives will all be affected by information related to the issuing company’s underlying assets, investors who posses such undisclosed information will presumably trade in the equity security and/or its derivatives, rather than in the debt securities. According to a recent study released by the SEC [Edwards, Harris and Piwowar (2004)], average transaction costs for trades in corporate bonds are higher than in stocks. Furthermore, unlike options, corporate bonds do not provide higher leverage than stocks. If trading corporate bonds incurs higher transaction costs but offers lower leverage, why would an informed investor trade in the corporate bond market?
Several explanations stand out when we look into the transaction costs argument and the market structure for high-yield corporate bonds. First of all, as it has been documented in several previous studies, the value of high-yield corporate debt is very sensitive to firm-specific information, especially extreme information regarding the state of the company. Therefore, the high-yield corporate bond market offers potential profitable opportunities for trading on nonpublic information. More importantly, these opportunities provide an additional venue for an informed trader to strategically exploit his private information. Conventionally, an informed trader employs optimal trading strategies in the stock and the options markets to make the most out of his information. These trading strategies typically include certain trading intensity over multiple trading periods, as well as an optimal order size for each individual period [see for example, Kyle (1984, 1985), Foster and Viswannathan (1993) and Holden and Subrahmanyam (1992)]. Conceivably, trading too 2 See speech by SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt: “The Importance of Transparency in America’s Debt Market”, at the Media Studies Center, New York, N.Y., on September 9th, 1998.
2 aggressively on the private information in stocks and options makes it harder for the informed trader to hide from the marker maker and the regulators, and hence increases his transaction costs. As the informed trader becomes more aggressive, trading in stocks and options gets more and more expensive. At some point, the marginal cost from trading an additional amount of stocks and options exceed that for a first trade in high-yield bonds. As a result, substituting a certain amount of excess trading in stocks and options with a trade in the issuer’s high-yield debt might better serve the informed trader’s goal in maximizing his total profits. Furthermore, given the fact that the debt securities market has been subject to much less scrutiny for insider trading compared to the markets for equity securities and derivative securities, informed traders have much lower perceived probability of being detected and prosecuted. Consequently, to take full advantage of his private information, the informed trader will choose to trade a certain amount of high-yield bonds, in addition to some quantity of stocks and options of the issuer.
In addition to higher transaction costs from more aggressive trading in stocks and options, there are other important factors that play a role in encouraging an informed trader's decision to trade in the junk bond. These factors include some common practices within the bond industry, and the trader's degree of risk aversion. First, differing from the equity market, the high-yield corporate debt market is largely institutional. Institutional investors who trade high-yield corporate bonds sometimes buy syndicated loans for the same company issuing high-yield bonds. In addition, these investors in syndicated loans are often also traders, who trade bank loans next to high-yield bonds. In fact, it is quite often that a single trader at a hedge fund deals in all of a company's debt instruments. Under such porous circumstances, keeping private information private and avoiding improper use of this information is a challenge. "You can't put a Chinese wall through someone's head," says Michael Kaplan, a partner in the corporate practice at law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell3.
3 For further discussion of insider trading in the bond market, see a recent article by Carolyn Sargent: “The New Insider Trading?” Investment Dealers’ Digest, October 31st, 2005.
3 Second, for some risk averse investors, even if they have access to some information about a pending large change in the firm’s asset value, they might choose to trade in bonds to stay away from down-side risk, as their aversion to risk cannot be fully eliminated by the piece of information they have, especially when they are not so sure about the quality of the information. While it is true that the down-side risk can be easily hedged in the options market, associated transaction costs might render direct trading in bonds a better choice.
If an informed trader trades corporate bonds as well as stocks and options, new information will be disseminated in all three related markets. Thus, current bond prices hypothetically contain valuable information about future price movements in the stock and options markets. Taking advantage of a unique corporate bond transaction dataset for a set of 50 most frequently traded high-yield corporate bonds from NASD, this paper empirically tests this hypothesis and explores the dynamics of information flow across related markets by examining the pair-wise lead-lag relations between stocks, corporate bonds and options. Differing from previous studies, I find that current high-yield corporate bond price changes have explanatory power for future stock returns. This implies that the bond market serves an important role in disseminating new information. The option market, however, contains valuable information about future movements in both the stock and the bond market, and these relations are unidirectional, suggesting that the option market is a preferred venue for informed trading. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that informed trading in the option market is distributed across different strike prices, with at-the-money options attracting investors who posses mild firm-specific information, and deep out-of-themoney options catching the attention of those who obtain extreme information.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. Section 2 summarizes some recent developments in the corporate bond over-the-counter (OTC) market and the new Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE) introduced by NASD. The stock, bond and options data are described in Section 3. Section 4 investigates pairwise lead-lag relationships between stocks, bonds and options. Whether these relationships
2. The Corporate Bond Market and NASD’s TRACE The corporate bond market assumes roughly as important a role in corporate financing as the equity market, with approximately $4.4 trillion outstanding in 2004, which is larger than both the US treasury market ($3.8 trillion outstanding) and the municipal bond market ($2.0 trillion outstanding)4. The stock market is larger at about $15 trillion5. The total dollar volume of the bond market in 2003 is about $10 trillion, more than the trading volume on the NYSE6. About $18 billion in par value of corporate bonds turns over in roughly 22,000 transactions on a typical day7. As babyboomers age and shift more of their assets from equity investments to debt investments, the corporate bond market will certainly grow in both size and importance.
However, transparency in this market has never been comparable to that of other securities markets. As Doug Shulman (NASD’s President of Markets) said, the corporate bond market ‘has been largely a mystery to retail investors’. Following insider trading and price manipulation scandals in the corporate bond market in the late 1980's, the opaqueness of the corporate fixed-income market, especially that of the high-yield bond market, became a really big concern for the U.S. Congress and the SEC. The Fixed Income Pricing System (FIPS) was the result of discussions between the SEC and the NASD on how to increase the transparency of the junk bond market. FIPS helps regulators effectively monitor trading in high-yield debt. On 4 NASD News Release, March 26th, 2004.
5 Business Times, Feb 8th, 2005 6 The Economist, Oct 14th, 2004 7 See a speech by Doug Shulman, NASD’s President of Markets, on February 2nd, 2005 in New York, New York, ‘Bond Market Association Legal and Compliance Conference Keynote Address’, which is on the NASD’s website.
5 April 11th, 1994, The Nasdaq Stock Market, Inc., began operation of FIPS for members trading high-yield bonds. Under the FIPS system, NASD members are required to report all secondary market transactions on a selected set of high-yield bonds within 5 minutes of execution. Based on submitted transaction reports, hourly price and volume data on about 50 most frequently traded high-yield bonds are displayed on the FIPS terminal. Even though FIPS brought some transparency to the high-yield debt market, the corporate debt market as a whole still does not live up to regulators’ expectation of a transparent market. In 1998, former SEC Chairman Levitt noted that "[t]he sad truth is that investors in the corporate bond market do not enjoy the same access to information as a car buyer or a homebuyer or, dare I say, a fruit buyer." In order to further increase the transparency of the corporate bond markets, NASD initiated a broader system know as TRACE (Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine) on July 1st, 2002, which incorporated the previous FIPS system.