With just €1.5bn of jumbo pfandbrief issues since the end of June, and none since Eurohypo’s €1bn deal at the end of August, the primary market this year will fall way short of the €87bn recorded in 2010. Verband Deutsche Pfandbriefbanken (VDP), the association of German pfandbrief banks, now reckons the final figure for this year will come out at around €65bn, against its earlier forecast of €90bn, on the back of the €47bn of bonds that were sold in the first six months, including €19.8bn of jumbo transactions.
Pfandbrief spreads have nevertheless remained relatively stable, compared with most other classes of capital market debt and covered bonds elsewhere. While the differential between pfandbriefe and German sovereign debt (bunds) may be approaching historical highs at around 120 basis points (bps), average spreads are still only about 30bps over the mid-swaps benchmark as those on most other covered bonds are well into three figures. “Flight to quality has prevailed, and the pfandbrief has confirmed its benchmark position in the covered-bond market,” maintains a VDP spokesman.
This spread stability looks set to endure through next year. For even if EU authorities take the measures necessary for the bond markets to resume normal functioning, the overall pfandbrief market will continue to shrink, which will tend to support the current spread levels. In the jumbo sector of the market, for instance, most banks are forecasting that primary issuance will be around €26bn while redemptions, although lower than the €44bn this year, will still total €38bn.
Investor confidence in the market received a further boost on November 23rd, when the Moody’s rating agency raised its base-case timely payment indicator for mortgage-backed (hypotheken) bonds issued under the Pfandbrief Act from “probable high” to “high”. The agency cited the strong legislative and regulatory support for the pfandbrief regime as the reason for its decision, including recent amendments to the act. These require issuers to maintain a so-called liquidity buffer of at least 180 days in respect of their pfandbrief commitments and enhance the powers of a cover-pool administrator in the event of an issuer insolvency. The pfandbrief market is nevertheless facing significant challenges over the next 12 months and beyond, which could yet alter the historical perception—which German banks and financial authorities are keen to maintain—that the instruments trade almost as an homogenous asset class.
The increasing emphasis that both the rating agencies and investors are placing on the link between issuers and their covered bonds is certainly threatening to create a great deal more discrimination in the market, particularly in the present environment where individual banks’ sovereign exposures are under the microscope.
Moody’s decision to place UniCredit’s covered bonds on review for downgrade a week after it announced it was reviewing the bank’s senior debt rating was a recent example of such linkage. Moreover, the trend could clearly see the spread spectrum in the asset class widen significantly from historical norms. Timo Böhm, portfolio manager and member of the covered bond team at Allianz Pimco in Munich, says the mounting concern over banks’ exposure to the sovereign debt crisis has led to a more pronounced linkage between the spreads on an institution’s covered bonds and those on its senior unsecured debt. “That link to the seniors and the sovereigns is much tighter now, and therefore everybody is looking at what could be the worst case here,” Böhm explained. “Even if the covered bond is rated triple-A, its spreads will widen on these concerns.”
“From our point of view, covered pools should be split,” says Böhm. He points out that banks now price their commercial property loans to reflect the different degrees of risk involved, and that it was not unreasonable for bond investors to require the same consideration. However, issuers continue to oppose the need for such a move. They say the pfandbrief legal framework offers investors adequate protection while the transparency of the cover pools allows them to choose the type of investment that most closely meets their requirements.
“They can decide themselves what kind of strategy suits them best,” says the VDP spokesman. He points to mortgage pfandbriefe backed 100% by residential mortgages: “If you like to take entirely residential mortgage risk, you find such bonds, too,” he says. While that is clearly the case, it is equally evident that issuing banks that have high concentrations of commercial loans in their cover pools are going to have to pay progressively more for the privilege.