We let the facts speak for themselves, using Apple Inc. bond price data as of April 23, 2014. We compare our results with our prior analysis of Apple Inc. bonds on January 20, 2014 using data from January 17. In the wake of the dividend announcement, April 23 was a heavy trading day for Apple Inc. bonds with a total of 197 trades reported on 4 fixed-rate non-call bond issues of Apple Inc. with trading volume of $154 million.
Conclusion: We find that Apple Inc. still offers investors a very rare combination of virtues. Apple Inc. is an iconic brand name that offers bond investors both low default risk and an above average value proposition, as measured by the ratio of credit spread to matched-maturity default probability. Apple Inc. bond prices, however, have been bid up since January and the credit spread to default probability ratios are just above the median on April 23. From a common shareholder’s point of view, zero coupon credit spreads widen by a factor of 13 when the time horizon moves from 2016 to 2043 for Apple Inc. On a credit-adjusted basis, we find the risk-free dividend yield is 2.05%, 0.27% below the traditional dividend ratio of 2.32%.
We explain our conclusions in the rest of this note.
The Reward-to-Risk Ratio and “Investment Grade” Status
Institutional investors around the world are required to prove to their audit committees, senior management, and regulators that their investments are in fact “investment grade.” For many investors, “investment grade” is an internal definition; for many banks and insurance companies “investment grade” is also defined by regulators. We consider whether or not a reasonable U.S. bank investor would judge Apple Inc. to be “investment grade” under the June 13, 2012 rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which we explained in our Citigroup post in December.
Assuming the recovery rate in the event of default would be the same on all bond issues of the same seniority for the same issuer, a sophisticated investor who has moved beyond legacy ratings seeks to maximize revenue per basis point of default risk from each incremental investment, subject to risk limits on macro-factor exposure on a fully default-adjusted basis. In this note, we also analyze the maturities where this reward-to-risk ratio is highest for Apple Inc.
Term Structure of Default Probabilities
Maximizing the ratio of credit spread to matched-maturity default probabilities requires that default probabilities be available at a wide range of maturities. The graph below shows the current default probabilities (in green) for Apple Inc. ranging from one month to 10 years on an annualized basis. We compare them to the same default probabilities in our prior study on January 17, 2014, shown in yellow. Rounded to the nearest basis point, the default probabilities are only slightly changed. Current default probabilities have dropped slightly since January 17. For maturities longer than ten years, we assume that the ten year default probability is a good estimate of default risk. The default probabilities range from 0.00% at one month (non-zero before rounding, unchanged) to 0.00% at 1 year (unchanged) and 0.09% at ten years, down 0.01% from January.
We explain the source and methodology for the default probabilities in each Instablog on default risk posted here on www.SeekingAlpha.com.
Summary of Recent Bond Trading Activity
The National Association of Securities Dealers launched the TRACE ( Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine) in July 2002 in order to increase price transparency in the U.S. corporate debt market. The system captures information on secondary market transactions in publicly traded securities (investment grade, high yield and convertible corporate debt) representing all over-the-counter market activity in these bonds. We used all of the 4 bond issues mentioned above in this analysis.
The graph below shows 6 different yield curves that are relevant to a risk and return analysis of Apple Inc. bonds. These curves reflect the noise in the TRACE data, as some of the trades are small odd-lot trades. The lowest curve, in dark blue, is the yield to maturity on U.S. Treasury bonds, interpolated from the Federal Reserve H15 statistical release for that day, which matches the maturity of the traded bonds of Apple Inc. The next curve, in the lighter blue, shows the yields that would prevail if investors shared the default probability views outlined above, assumed that recovery in the event of default would be zero, and demanded no liquidity premium above and beyond the default-adjusted risk-free yield. The orange dots graph the lowest yield reported by TRACE on that day on Apple Inc. bonds. The green dots display the traded-weighted average yield reported by TRACE on the same day. The red dots are the maximum yield in each Apple Inc. issue recorded by TRACE. The black dots and connecting line reflect the trade-weighted yield curve constructed by fitting a cubic polynomial to credit spreads, discussed below.
The graph shows an increasing “liquidity premium” as maturity lengthens for the bonds of Apple Inc. This premium is typical for companies with very strong credit risk, but the steepness of the curve for Apple Inc. contains important insights for the dividend outlook for common shareholders, which we discuss below.
The high, low, average and trade-weighted fitted credit spreads at each maturity are graphed below. We have done nothing to smooth the data reported by TRACE, which includes both large lot and small lot bond trades. For the reader’s convenience, we fitted a cubic polynomial that explains the traded-weighted average spread as a function of years to maturity. Because the number of bonds and the number of parameters in a cubic polynomial are the same, we get a perfect fit to Apple Inc. bond spreads:
Using default probabilities in addition to credit spreads, we can analyze the number of basis points of credit spread per basis point of default risk at each maturity. The credit spread to default probability ratio ranges from 2.786 times at 2.029 years to 11.832 times at 29.029 years. Note that the high ratio for the long maturity is impacted by our (optimistic) assumption that the appropriate default probability for maturities over 10 years is the 10 year Apple Inc. default probability. The ratios of spread to default probability for all traded bond issues are shown here:
These ratios have dropped fairly significantly from the ratios we found on January 17, 2014, as listed in this chart:
The April 23, 2014 credit spread to default probability ratios are shown in graphic form below. Again, we get a perfect fit of a cubic polynomial to the four bonds for which data was available.
Are the credit spread to default probability ratios for Apple Inc. bonds above average, just average, or below average as we have found for many iconic consumer companies in the past? The best way to answer that question is with facts, not opinions. The chart below provides a histogram of 1 year spreads for all bonds which had at least $5 million in trading volume and a maturity of more than 1 year on April 23, 2014. There were 393 such bond issues:
The median credit spread on April 23 was 0.818% and the average was 1.029%. The next histogram shows the distribution of the credit spread to default probability ratios for all 393 issues, although we have capped the graph at a maximum ratio of 40 times. The median credit spread to default probability ratio was 7.911 and the average was 11.056.
By this measure, the three longest maturity Apple Inc. bonds were above the median. When we rank the 393 bonds from highest credit spread to default probability ratio to lowest ratio, Apple Inc. bonds were ranked 116th and 174th out of 393 (the median issue is ranked 187 th). The other two Apple Inc. bonds were not included in the chart because they did not have trading volume over $5 million.
Credit Default Swap Analysis
The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation reports weekly on new credit default swap trading volume by reference name. The DTCC has never reported a single trade in Apple Inc. credit default swaps since it began reporting weekly in July 2010. This fact doesn’t indicate per se that a firm’s default probability is very low. Instead, it indicates that there is so little difference of opinion on the credit quality of Apple Inc. that no one wants to trade. For most firms (but not all) with no credit default swap trades during this period, this is a very positive factor.
Credit-Adjusted Dividend Yield
We explained in a recent post on General Electric Company (GE) how default probabilities and the associated credit spreads for a bond issuer can be used to calculate the credit-adjusted dividend yield on a stock . That analysis makes use of a comparison between the yield on the issuer’s promise to pay $1 in the future versus the yield on a similar promise by the U.S. government to pay $1 at the same time. Using the maximum smoothness approach to both the U.S. Treasury curve and to Apple Inc. credit spreads, we can generate the zero coupon bond yields on their promise to pay $1 in the future, which are shown in this graph:
The widening of zero coupon credit spreads is very striking. The zero coupon credit spread at the first bond maturity, May 3, 2016, is only 0.103%. By May 3, 2018, the spread has tripled to 0.311%. By May 3, 2023, the zero coupon credit spread is 0.806%. At the longest maturity of Apple Inc. bonds (May 4, 2043), the zero coupon credit spread is 1.297%, 13 times more than the shortest maturity zero coupon bond credit spread. If we discount dividend payments for maturities of 1, 10 and almost 30 years, we can solve for the “credit risk free” dividend for Apple Inc. This would be the dividend level for a default risk-free issuer (we assume as a first approximation that the U.S. Treasury is default risk-free) that has the same present value as the flow of dividends from Apple Inc. over almost 30 years. We use this data from SeekingAlpha.com, but we update it for the April 23 dividend increase announcement:
The history of Apple Inc. dividends is nicely summarized on the company website
Readers who prefer a real time update of this information can see that here. After discounting the flow of dividends from Apple Inc. at the new quarterly rate of $3.29 and using the present value factors implied by Apple Inc. bond prices, we find that the long term credit-adjusted dividend yield is 2.05%, 0.27% less than the traditional dividend yield of 2.32% (note that the yield on the SeekingAlpha website is different because of lags in updating the figure as the stock price changes). Both calculations assume that the current dividends remain at their current level forever, except in the credit-adjusted case we recognize that Apple Inc. may default, ending the dividend stream. The bond-based discount factors recognize this fact. We show the calculation below for just the first 24 months of cash flows. We ignore the first (imminent) dividend payment and focus on the dividends that follow after that.
On a cumulative basis, the current default probabilities for Apple Inc. (shown in green) range from 0.00% (after rounding) at 1 year to 0.94% at 10 years, down 0.02% from January 17, 2014 (shown in yellow).
Over the last decade, the 1 year and 5 year default probabilities for Apple Inc. have never exceeded 0.25% at any time, even during the heart of the 2006-2011 credit crisis. Long-time followers of Apple Inc. will recall, however, the dangerous period in the company’s history prior to the display period on this graph.
Prior to 2004, the five year default probabilities for Apple Inc. peaked near 4.50% and the 1 year default probability peaked at more than 3.50% in early 1998. Why was Apple Inc. at such risk? Founder Steve Jobs was not with the company, and a major technological shift shook the company to its roots. The forward looking default probabilities for Apple Inc., which have stock prices as a key input, and the credit spreads for Apple Inc. clearly predict a future for Apple Inc. that is much better than its past, even without Steve Jobs. Those who argue “an iconic company like Apple could never default” have only to look at the history of Apple itself and another icon, Sony, to see that a low default probability is a precious but often fleeting virtue.
The macro-economic factors driving the historical movements in the default probabilities of Apple Inc. have been derived using historical data beginning in January 1990. A key assumption of such analysis, like any econometric time series study, is that the business risks of the firm being studied are relatively unchanged during this period. With that caveat, the historical analysis shows that Apple Inc. default risk responds to changes in 8 risk factors among the 28 factors listed by the Federal Reserve in its 2014 Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review. These macro factors explain 70.5% of the variation in the default probability of Apple Inc. The remainder of the variation in the default probability (29.5%) is the idiosyncratic risk of the firm.
Apple Inc. can be compared with its peers in the same industry sector, as defined by Morgan Stanley (MS) and reported by Compustat. For the USA “information technology-technology, hardware and equipment” sector, Apple Inc. has the following percentile ranking for its default probabilities among its 313 peers at these maturities:
1 month Tied at 0 percentile (5th lowest), down 3 points from January
1 year Tied at 0 percentile (second lowest), down 3 points from January
3 years 1st percentile (third lowest), down 1 point from January
5 years 0 percentile (lowest), unchanged
10 years 0 percentile (lowest), unchanged
This is the best collection of percentile ranks of any firm analyzed so far in this series of bond studies.
In contrast to the daily movements in default probabilities graphed above, we turn to the legacy credit ratings for Apple Inc., those reported by credit rating agencies like McGraw-Hill (MHFI) unit Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s (MCO). In 2004, Apple Inc. was rated as a “junk” credit by Standard & Poor’s. Standard & Poor’s affiliate Compustat reports no ratings for Apple Inc. from April, 2004 until April, 2013, when the company was rated just short of AAA. The lack of ratings for most of the decade contrasts with the daily updated default probabilities shown above. Taking still another view, the actual and statistically predicted Apple Inc. credit ratings both show a rating strongly in “investment grade” territory. The statistically predicted rating, however, is four notches below the legacy rating.
Before jumping to conclusions about the “investment grade” status of Apple (a strong temptation), prudence requires us to look at some more data. We first compare the credit spreads of Apple Inc. with all peers in the “technology media and telecommunications” industry group whose bonds traded on April 23, 2014:
Apple credit spreads were near the bottom of the peer group. We now examine the default probabilities of the sector peer group whose bonds traded on April 23, 2014. Again, Apple Inc. shows much lower default risk than the peer group:
Next we turn to credit spreads on bonds traded April 23, 2014 and issued by firms who have a legacy credit rating with the older designation of “investment grade”:
Again, Apple Inc.’s performance versus peers is excellent. Lastly, we compare the matched-maturity default probabilities for the investment grade peer group as well.
Again, Apple Inc. displays extremely low credit risk compared to the investment grade universe on April 23.
The default probabilities of Apple Inc. and the percentile ranking of those default probabilities are exceptionally good, as they were on January 17, 2014. The credit spreads and ratio of credit spreads to default probabilities are also very good and offer exceptionally good value compared to other iconic brand names like AT&T (T), which wereviewed April 23, 2014 . That’s the good news. Because of this good news, we believe that almost all analysts would rate Apple Inc. as “investment grade.”
Is there bad news for Apple Inc.? Perhaps there is, on two fronts. From a bond valuation point of view, the credit spread to default probability ratios for Apple Inc. have lost 1-2 points at all but the longest maturity compared to January 17 as investors have bid up the prices of Apple Inc. bonds. One of the two Apple Inc. bonds was barely above the median credit spread to default probability ratio on April 23.
The second concern is a concern about the long term future for Apple, which is reflected in the zero coupon credit spreads in the graph above. These credit spreads, which are based on market prices, widen by a factor of 13 times as the maturity extends from 2016 to 2043. A look backwards shows that Apple Inc. had a near-death experience when Steve Jobs departed from the company and when dramatic shifts in technology did not move the company’s way. Apple Inc. was rated as a junk credit as recently as 2004. Much of the huge recent success that Apple Inc. has experienced recently is attributable to the touch-screen technology (replacing the mouse and a keyboard with one’s fingers) and Apple’s rapid operating system response to this change in the hardware state of the art. Will this success continue for the next 30 years? That is the key question for investors in Apple Inc.
Regular readers of these notes are aware that we generally do not list the major news headlines relevant to the firm in question. We believe that other authors on SeekingAlpha, Yahoo, at The New York Times, The Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal do a fine job of this. Our omission of those headlines is intentional. Similarly, to argue that a specific news event is more important than all other news events in the outlook for the firm is something we again believe is inappropriate for this author. Our focus is on current bond prices, credit spreads, and default probabilities, key statistics that we feel are critical for both fixed income and equity investors.