The bond markets drifted like a rudderless boat, with little or no direction, and was buffeted from all sides by various problems, or at best, imagined problems. It would appear that no one really knows which way the market is going to go, so the best approach has been to do nothing.
These are some of the descriptions of the market last week: "Skittish about money supply" (a big increase knocked off market prices late Friday afternoon), "fragile," "not much marketability," "concern about the Fed tightening credit" (because of the recent increases in money supply), "little attention given to economic indicators," "concern that federal funds were too high," and lastly, fears about the bad weather, which caused checks not to be cleared on time in the Federal Reserve System and may have caused large increases in bank reserves (a technical consideration). In all probability the market was suffering a hangover from the horrible first week of 1982. Bonds did become cheap enough until some retail buying was prompted.
Although there were no new corporate issues, there was a large adjustment of the outstanding debt issues of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to the rest of the taxable market. This adjustment was caused by the Justice Department's settlement of the antitrust suit against AT&T. The settlement calls for the parent company to divest itself of its 22 operating companies. The Bell System, according to the Wall Street Journal, has some $42 billion in debt outstanding, of which $8 billion belongs to the parent company.
Over the years, these 22 operating companies' credit has been protected, moore or less, by being subsidiaries of the high-quality parent company. Only recently have the rating agencies begun to rate the creditworthiness of the "Bell subs" on an individual basis. The ratings run from a very high AAA on Illinois Bell or New Jersey Bell, for example, to a weak A on Pacific Telephone. Consequently, various yield-spread relationships have existed among the various "Bell subs" themselves, as well as among other public utilities and Treasuries.
For example, prior to the antitrust settlement, the highest rated "Bell sub" probably sold at a spread to return 225 basis points more yield than a comparable Treasury. Now, the spread has widened to about 260 basis points more yield. This is all-important to the corporate bond market because the Bell System has been the largest single issuer of corporate bonds. The holders of these bonds now find that all the spreads are changing, and many investors have to decide on holding their "Bell subs," selling them or simply doing nothing.
The crazy part about this is that the parent company has six months to present its divestiture plan plus another two months for comments and then, at a later date, the Justice Department will either approve or disapprove the plan. This plan could be anything from forming four large regional operating companies to any other combination imaginable. So investors won't know the true status of their holdings for some time. Conceivably, Pacific Telephone could be merged into other companies, which would produce a stronger credit.
The Treasury will sell its largest two-year issue ever, $5.25 billion on Wednesday, in minimums of $5,000. The return should be approximately 15.1 percent.