Decoding Credit Spreads: Risks, Returns, and Implications for REITs

May 9, 20238 min read
Decoding Credit Spreads: Risks, Returns, and Implications for REITs
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Key Takeaways

  • A credit spread, in the realm of finance, represents the difference in yield between two securities with similar maturity but different credit quality.
  • A wider credit spread implies a greater risk of default, hence the need for a higher return to compensate for that risk.
  • REITs, especially mortgage REITs that invest in mortgage-backed securities, are significantly influenced by credit spreads.

The financial world is brimming with terminology that can seem impenetrable to even seasoned investors. One such term is the ‘credit spread.’ Understanding what a credit spread is and how it works can provide valuable insight into the financial markets and help investors make better-informed decisions. In this article, we will unpack the meaning of credit spreads, how they’re calculated, their application in the world of bonds and options, and how they can inform investment strategies.

What is a Credit Spread?

A credit spread, in the realm of finance, represents the difference in yield between two securities with similar maturity but different credit quality. It’s a critical metric that offers insight into the perceived risk associated with a particular investment compared to a risk-free benchmark (usually government bonds).

It’s important for investors to understand credit spreads because they reflect the additional yield an investor can earn for taking on more risk. A wider credit spread implies a greater risk of default, hence the need for a higher return to compensate for that risk. Conversely, a narrower credit spread suggests a lower risk.

Delving Deeper into Types of Credit Spreads

While the term ‘credit spread’ may sound singular, its applications in finance are multifaceted. Crucially, it finds relevance in two distinct financial domains: bonds and options trading. Let’s dive deeper into how credit spreads function in these two contexts and explore their nuances.

Credit Spread in Bonds: Assessing Credit Risk

In the world of fixed-income securities, particularly bonds, a credit spread plays a critical role in understanding and managing credit risk. Here, a credit spread refers to the yield differential between a corporate bond and a government bond of similar maturity.

Government bonds, particularly those issued by stable governments like the U.S., are considered virtually risk-free. This perception stems from the high confidence that these governments will honor their debt obligations. Therefore, the yield on these bonds is often referred to as the ‘risk-free rate.’

On the other hand, corporate bonds carry a higher risk. The ability of a corporation to repay its bond obligations is subject to its financial performance, industry dynamics, and broader economic conditions. To compensate investors for bearing this additional risk, corporate bonds offer a higher yield compared to government bonds.

Thus, the credit spread in the bond market essentially quantifies the extra yield, or return, an investor demands for taking on the credit risk associated with a corporate bond. A wider credit spread indicates higher credit risk, prompting investors to seek a larger return. Conversely, a narrower credit spread points to lower perceived risk.

Credit Spread in Options: A Strategy for Premium Collection

The term ‘credit spread’ assumes a slightly different meaning when we move from bonds to options trading. In options trading, a credit spread – also known as a net credit spread – is an options strategy that involves simultaneous buying and selling of two options of the same type (both calls or both puts), same expiration, but different strike prices.

The objective of a credit spread strategy in options trading is to earn a premium. The trader achieves this by selling, or “writing,” an option at a certain strike price and buying another option on the same underlying asset at a different strike price. The option sold is more expensive than the one bought, resulting in a net credit to the trader’s account.

Depending on the type of options used, a credit spread strategy can take the form of a call credit spread or a put credit spread. In a call credit spread, the trader sells a call option and buys another call with a higher strike price. In a put credit spread, the trader sells a put option and buys another put with a lower strike price. Both strategies aim to profit from the premium difference and are typically employed when the trader expects the price of the underlying asset to remain range-bound until the options’ expiration.

The Nuts and Bolts of Calculating Credit Spread

The computation of a credit spread is relatively straightforward in the context of bonds. It’s typically measured in basis points (bps), with one basis point being 0.01%. The formula to calculate the credit spread is:

Credit Spread = Yield on Corporate Bond – Yield on Comparable Government Bond

In options trading, the credit spread calculation is based on the net premium received. Here, the credit spread equals the premium received from the sold option minus the premium paid for the bought option.

A Real-World Example of Credit Spread

Let’s walk through an example to illustrate the concept of a credit spread in the bond market. Suppose a corporate bond yields 5%, and a comparable government bond yields 2%. The credit spread would be 5% – 2% = 3%, or 300 basis points. This credit spread signifies the additional yield an investor earns for assuming the higher credit risk of the corporate bond issuer.

In the context of options, let’s consider a trader who sells a call option on a stock for a premium of $5 and simultaneously buys another call option on the same stock with a higher strike price for a premium of $3. The credit spread in this case would be $5 – $3 = $2.

Credit Spreads: A Dynamic Phenomenon

Credit spreads aren’t static – they fluctuate over time based on market conditions. Factors contributing to changes in credit spreads include shifts in economic conditions, changes in interest rates, alterations in the issuer’s credit rating, and market sentiment towards the issuer or industry.

The Role of Credit Spreads in Investment Strategy

Credit spreads serve as a key indicator of the risk level of an investment and can play a significant role in shaping an investor’s strategy. They can help investors evaluate potential investments, balance the risk and reward within their portfolio, and time their entry and exit points in specific markets.

Investors can also profit from expected changes in credit spreads by taking long or short positions. For example, if an investor anticipates that a company’s credit spread will widen (due to increased perceived risk), they can invest in derivatives that increase in value when the spread widens.

Expanding Horizons: The Role of Credit Spreads in Real Estate and Alternative Investments

While bonds and options might be the first to come to mind when discussing credit spreads, it’s essential to recognize that their influence stretches beyond traditional investments. The concept of credit spreads is relevant and applicable even in alternative investment domains like real estate, functioning as a critical risk assessment and pricing tool.

The Intersection of Credit Spreads and Mortgages

One of the most prominent instances of credit spreads in real estate investing is in mortgage lending. In essence, a mortgage loan is a form of credit extended by a lender to a borrower for purchasing property. The interest rate on this loan is determined, in part, by the perceived credit risk of the borrower. This credit risk factor essentially forms the basis for a credit spread in the context of real estate financing.

Consider two prospective property buyers – one with an excellent credit rating and another with a lower rating. Both seek a mortgage loan for purchasing properties of the same value. Here’s where credit spreads come into play.

A borrower with a higher credit rating is viewed as less risky from a lender’s perspective, primarily because they have a history of managing credit responsibly. This perception allows them to secure a loan at a relatively lower interest rate.

On the other hand, a borrower with a lower credit rating is deemed to carry higher credit risk. They have a higher chance of defaulting on their loan repayments, as indicated by their credit history. To compensate for this elevated risk, a lender will charge a higher interest rate on the mortgage loan offered to this borrower.

The difference in the interest rates – or yields – on these two loans is effectively a credit spread. Much like in the bond market, the credit spread in this context represents the additional yield a lender demands for assuming a higher level of credit risk.

Beyond Mortgages: Credit Spreads in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)

Another aspect of real estate investment where credit spreads come into the picture is Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). REITs, especially mortgage REITs that invest in mortgage-backed securities, are significantly influenced by credit spreads. The profitability of these trusts depends on the difference between the interest they earn on their investments and the interest they pay on their borrowings. This difference, in essence, is a type of credit spread.

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In Summary

Understanding credit spreads provides investors with a nuanced perspective on risk and return. Whether you’re navigating the bond market, strategizing in options trading, or assessing risk in real estate investments, a solid grasp of credit spreads is a valuable tool in your investment arsenal.