Preferred securities, also known as “preferreds” or “hybrids,” share the characteristics of both stocks and bonds, and may offer investors higher yields than common stock or corporate bonds. Understanding preferreds is an important first step in determining if they are an appropriate investment.
What are preferred securities?
Traditional preferred securities (“preferreds”) are fixed-income investments with equity-like features mainly issued by large banks and insurance companies. These securities are perpetual and callable, typically pay dividends instead of coupons, offer multiple rate structures, often have investment grade ratings, and are subordinated in the capital structure.
- Perpetual and Callable: Traditional preferreds are issued as perpetuals, i.e. with no stated maturity, but have call options typically at 5 or 10 years.
- Dividends, Not Coupons: Traditional preferreds pay dividends rather than coupons and in periods of severe stress the issuer may skip a payment without triggering a default. Income earned from preferreds can be taxed at a federal rate which historically has been considerably less than ordinary income tax rates that are applied to other fixed income securities.
- Different Rate Structures: Preferreds that have more debt-like traits can have fixed rate, floating rate, or fixed-to-floating rate dividends. Floating rate structures offer significantly less interest rate risk than fixed rate bonds.
- Junior Ranking in the Capital Structure: Preferreds rank lower than senior debt and higher than common equity. That means, in the event of an issuer’s default, investors holding that company’s preferreds will get paid back after the bondholders and before the stockholders.
- Higher Quality Ratings: Preferreds are often issued by investment grade entities and even though they are typically ranked two or more notches below an issuer’s senior debt, many preferreds still garner investment-grade ratings.
There are two common types of traditional preferred securities – retail and institutional:
Why do companies issue preferreds?
Preferreds are issued primarily by banks and insurance companies. REITs, utilities and other financial institutions also issue preferreds. Preferred securities count toward regulatory capital requirements so banks issue preferreds to help them maintain their required capital ratio. Preferreds can also offer issuers structural benefits, lower capital costs and improved agency ratings.
Why invest in preferreds?
Preferreds are attractive because they can provide investors with the potential for a relatively high source of income, diversification from core bonds, reduced portfolio volatility, lower risk of default, reduced interest rate risk and certain tax advantages.
- Attractive Risk/Return Profile: Preferreds offer an attractive combination of relatively low interest rate risk and relatively high yields compared to some traditional fixed income. They are typically higher quality than high yield bonds – particularly U.S. preferreds which are on average investment-grade rated – while still offering solid return potential.
- Diversification Benefits: A dedicated allocation to actively-managed preferreds can help reduce interest rate risk and enhance return when used to diversify from core bonds, or reduce volatility while enhancing income potential when used to diversify from equity.
- Lower Default Risk: A significant proportion of preferreds are issued by banks and the banking sector historically has a lower default rate than other sectors. From 1983 to 2016 the default rate of the banking sector averaged 0.5% while all other sectors averaged 2.3% (Source: Moody’s).
- Tax Advantages: Preferred dividends are taxed at qualified dividend income (QDI) rates, at roughly 20%, are considerably less than ordinary income tax rates (top federal rate of 37%). This means that for U.S. investors, preferred stocks may provide a compelling after-tax yield relative to other asset classes.
- Reduced Interest Rate Risk: Many preferreds can reduce the interest rate risk in a diversified portfolio given their potential to be called by the issuer and or become floating rate securities. With potential relatively high starting yields, preferreds may be used as a substitute for equities or high yield bonds.
What are some other types of preferreds?
The global preferred and capital securities market, which was over $1.3 trillion as of 31 December 2017, also includes Additional Tier 1 (AT1) and Contingent Convertible (CoCo) securities, which differ from “traditional” preferreds in a few ways:
- Preferreds and AT1/CoCos all sit above common equity in the capital structure but below senior debt, and are meant to absorb losses before senior debtors. In order to absorb losses, preferreds can be converted from debt to equity or their par value can be written down based on regulator discretion but AT1/CoCos explicitly state the capital level that would trigger a write-down or conversion.
- Preferreds dividends, like equity dividends, are discretionary in nature and not mandatory. For issuers of traditional preferreds to defer dividend payments, they must also stop their common dividend while issuers of AT1/CoCos have full discretion stop paying dividends regardless of the common dividend.
What are some preferred investment risks?
Similar to other fixed income investments, preferred securities’ performance can be affected by interest rates and credit risks. Because preferreds have direct exposure to the overall health of the banking/financial system, returns could be relatively volatile in the event of a shock to the financial markets. Preferreds also contain risks that traditional bonds do not, including coupon deferral risk, conversion risk and write-down risk.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, bank balance sheets have generally grown stronger with higher capital ratios and, in parallel, the preferreds they issue have also improved credit quality. Strong banking system fundamentals, the influence of regulation and compelling valuations can make preferreds an attractive addition to an investor’s portfolio.