Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Investing Solo in Floating-Rate Preferred Stocks

I have been invited to post at this blog my current thoughts and approach to investing as an individual investor with no background in finance or securities with the thought that my experiences might be of some interest. Writing things down can also benefit me if it helps clarify my own thinking. I devote 5-10% of my savings to moderately higher-risk investing to boost overall portfolio performance and as an intellectually interesting challenge that helps keep me off the streets. Most of my portfolio is in a fairly conservative mix of stock and bond mutual funds, ETFs, and some closed-end funds (CEFs) diversified across investment styles, management firms, and accounts. Of course, nothing I am about to say constitutes investment advice of any kind – merely my personal observations and decisions.

Lately one of the areas of particular interest to me involves securities that pay a variable, or floating, interest rate. Given the widespread expectation that not only are interest rates going to rise (they can’t get much lower) but possibly rise a lot given the current global governmental fiscal debacles, floating rate debt securities are attracting a lot of commentary and interest. In addition, given the recent sell off in debt securities, there may be some bargains for investors willing to be a bit contrarian, since “buying low” usually requires the nerve to buy at a time when most others are selling.

The two largest categories of such securities accessible to the small individual investor like me are bank loans and preferred stocks; there are only a few individual floating rate securities of other types of exchange-traded debt – exchange-traded bonds, trust preferreds, and trust certificates (third party trust preferreds). Bank loans are not exchange-traded but are available via mutual funds (such as Fidelity’s FFRHX) and closed end funds (such as TLI, JFR, and BHL), and I have investments in bank loans in both investment vehicles. Bank loans are non-investment grade debt and of course as such carry a higher interest rate, but are usually relatively short-term, senior and secured, and usually have a floating interest rate.

I have had for some time modest positions in CEFs such as JPS and HPF that primarily hold preferred stock, trust preferreds, and trust certificates, but these funds are not focused primarily on floating rate debt. The one CEF that is – JFP – melted down a while back because many of the issuers of the preferred stock it held (lots of banks) stopped paying their non-cumulative dividends.

Therefore, an investor with a particular interest in preferred stocks that pay a floating dividend rate that qualifies for the 15% federal tax rate (qualified dividends) must look to individual securities. Although I generally have a strong preference for funds and only have a few individual securities in my entire portfolio, I have been looking at individual preferred floaters since I don’t have funds (other than the wounded JFP) to consider that invest primarily in them.

At QuantumOnline (quantumonline.com), considered by many who comment online to be one of the, if not the, best source of information about exchange-traded debt securities, earlier this month I found a total of 24 floating rate preferred stock issues, about 5% of the total universe of preferred stocks listed there. Of these 24, 14 were rated investment grade (most at the lowest level) by both Moodys and S&P, and another 6 had one of the two ratings at IG.

Most issuers are banks (e.g.: HSBC; UBS; Bank of America) or financial companies (e.g.: Goldman Sachs; Morgan Stanley). All but one pay dividends quarterly and those dividends are non-cumulative with all but one.

It’s interesting, and very challenging, for me to try to assess the varying market valuations based on variables such as credit rating of the issuer, chance of dividend interruption, method of calculating the interest rate, the current rate, etc. The issues I’ve looked at all are paying dividends right now at the interest rate floor, and given the variable to which the rate is pegged, commonly the 3 month Libor which is currently well under 1%, interest rates would need to rise considerably before the floating rate would rise above the set minimum.

So far I’ve settled for modest investments in two IG issues, but I am keeping an eye on the group for entry points based on share prices and the yields at those prices. The first is MET-A (or METprA) from Met Life, whose variable rate is pegged to the 3 month Libor + 1% point with a 4% floor based on a $25 par. As such, the current dividend is $1.00, which, at today’s close of $23.18, delivers a dividend yield of about 4.3% that equates to about 3.67% after federal taxes at the 15% rate. The fully-taxable equivalent yield at the 35% rate is 5.6%. So the question for an investor like me is of course whether this security offers sufficient value. Met Life seems reasonably strong to me, and although part of the attraction is that it’s an insurance company and not a bank, given what happened at AIG there's no shortage of worry. Is the current yield enough for a period of time that could be a long one -- who knows how fast interest rates will rise to eventually push the coupon above the 4% floor; but when rates do start to rise, might they rise fast and cause the price of this preferred to shoot up past a reasonable entry point at that point in time? Does buying at a price below $25 par offer a great enough chance of capital gain in addition to the dividend?

The second issue is HBA-D (or HBAprD) from a subsidiary of HSBC, a very large global bank, whose variable rate is pegged to the highest of three different US Treasury debt metrics and has a floor of 4.5% and a ceiling of 10.5% based on a $25 par. Of particular interest to me is the fact that the dividends are cumulative, offering some protection in the event they are suspended; dividends from the other two HSBC floating rate preferreds are not cumulative.

At the floor of 4.5%, the current dividend is $1.125, which, at today’s close of $24.73 delivers a dividend yield of about 4.5% that equates to about 3.87% after federal taxes at the 15% rate. The fully-taxable equivalent yield at the 35% rate is 5.95%. In my thinking, a very nice rate, provided that HSBC, a bank, keeps paying the dividends, which, though, accumulate if suspended. I am taking some comfort in the fact that, according to a recent article (November 20) in Barron’s on the ongoing issues with banks and their mortgage-related debt, HSBC was ranked 11th of 11 big banks in the estimated dollar value of the loss if bad mortgage securities are forcibly “put back” to the banks.

I am drawn to looking at individual relatively high-yielding debt securities as investments, of course, because of the prolonged, unusually low interest rate environment that seems to me designed by the Federal Reserve to help banks repair their balance sheets at the expense of individual savers like me – a tremendous transfer of wealth to bankers and their investors in the name of stabilizing our financial system. At least as a way to mitigate my risk somewhat in this area of investing, I wish there was a viable mutual fund or closed-end fund from a major fund manager focused primarily on floating-rate preferred stock.

Mike Parenti

Related posts:
Investing Solo -- Floating Rate Debt
Investing Solo – Floating-Rate Debt - GFY


  1. Mike, I like Sallie Mae's Preferred 'B' (SLMBP). It trades at less than 60% of $100 preference value and will really spike if 90D LIBOR increases (div = 90D LIBOR + 1.7% times $100).

  2. Traders / investors must beware of certain dynamics such as slowing economic growth rate and Federal rate soaring etc and these have a direct and adverse effect on the
    assets of most preferred stock mutual funds.