This article originally appeared in a modified form on on 12 April 2015.

I n one of my favorite films, George Lucas’ Star Wars, the Force is described as an energy field created by all living beings that surrounds and binds galaxies together. I am thinking about this today because, as I look around, the Force now seems to reside with the three powerful central bankers: Yellen, Draghi and Kuroda.

Recognize the existence of the Force
The central banks are absorbing a significant portion of the net supply of high quality sovereign bonds even as the Federal Reserve completed its quantitative easing (QE) in 2014 (Figure 1). This demand has pushed aggregate sovereign yields to incredibly low levels (Figure 2), while at the same time global credit spreads remain wider than their long-term average.

Understand what the Force can and can’t do
The Force can bring sovereign yields down. It can punish depositors for holding cash through negative rates. It can also encourage risk-taking as investors search for higher yielding assets to escape financial repression. This risk-taking can support prices of assets that central banks are not directly buying. This asset price appreciation can even support real economic growth through wealth effects. The jury is still out on the sustainability of that growth (we will leave that to the future historians).

The Force cannot make corporate managers smarter. It does not change the competitiveness of a company. It does not make its products suddenly more appealing, and it does not make a secularly declining business profitable. In short, it can’t make pigs fly – not for a long time, at least.

Investors should resist the Force and focus on avoiding these (temporarily) flying pigs. PIMCO’s elaborate global credit research process brings our credit research analysts, sovereign analysts, commodity analysts and global portfolio managers together to identify businesses and companies we believe have strong earnings potential, improving pricing power, superior asset coverage and high barriers to entry and those that focus on de-levering to generate value for credit investors. At the same time, it aims to avoid flying pigs. We will not be right all the time, but as history has shown, this process has been successful in avoiding such issues much more consistently than the aggregate market (Figure 3).

Expect periodic disturbances in the Force
The Force in consideration depends on smooth and flawless execution by central banks. We have seen many disruptions in the Force in the past and will continue to see them in the future. The next possible disruption comes from when the U.S. Fed will begin hiking rates. Our base case is around Q 3 2015. The Fed has attempted to reduce some volatility associated with the rate hike by lowering its dot forecasts for 2015 and 2016. Nonetheless, the implication for us is, first, to keep some dry powder with the aim to take advantage of the volatility or disturbance in the central bank’s Force. And second, be armed with the fundamental research for when that disturbance creates opportunities in the sectors and credits that pass our rigorous screening process.

Harness the Force but resist the urge to go to the Dark Side
The central bank policies provide a lot of interesting opportunities in the credit markets, but also a number of potential pitfalls. We evaluate credit using three broad considerations: fundamentals, technicals and valuations.

  •  Fundamentals

Broadly, corporate debt levels relative to profits look in line with long-term averages (Figure 4). Additionally, improving economic fundamentals in the U.S. – as evidenced by the declining unemployment rate and incremental cash in consumers’ pockets through lower energy costs – provide a supportive backdrop for credit. Similarly, in Europe, stabilizing and improving Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data support credit fundamentals.

  • Technicals

This is where central bank policy, particularly now in Europe and Japan, remains most supportive for high quality global credit. By making deposit rates negative and/or by buying sovereign bonds, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan are pushing investors to look for other sources of high quality yield. Global high quality credit should benefit from this as investors look for relatively safe but higher sources of yield.

  • Valuations

Current credit spread are wider than the long-term average, making for an attractive entry point. Additionally, during prior rate-hike periods we have seen credit spreads tighten over time, since rate hikes are also associated with improving economic growth, which helps credit fundamentals (Figure 5).

Various areas in global credit look attractive to us given improving fundamentals, favorable technicals and attractive valuations. In the U.S., housing-related credits, banks and sectors tied to improvement in the U.S. consumer, like autos, airlines and lodging, look attractive. In Europe, we like peripheral sovereign spreads, exporters that benefit from weaker currency and subordinated bank securities (see the April 2015 Global Credit Perspectives for more details on opportunities in global credit markets today).

But it is also important to avoid going to the Dark Side – companies whose valuations are not justified by fundamentals but are artificially supported by central bank policies. To us, these would include select U.S. retail and technology companies that face risks of obsolescence in business models as the search for yield keeps spreads artificially compressed. Similarly, in Europe, credit spreads of many corporates now trade tighter than the sovereign spread and, hence, look less attractive. Finally, in Asia-Pacific we expect downside risk to China steel demand to translate into weakness in metals and mining companies in the region.

May the Force be with you
By virtue of their large balance sheets, central banks today are more powerful than ever before. This creates significant opportunities in global high quality credit sectors. Instead of being choked by negative or negligible yield on sovereign bonds, investors should look for opportunities elsewhere when seeking superior returns. But we believe fundamental credit research is now more important than ever. Focus on companies with improving business fundamentals, high barriers to entry and strong pricing power and those that are de-levering when seeking better risk-adjusted returns. And finally, recognize that this monetary policy reliance globally will likely lead to increased market volatility. Be prepared to take advantage of such opportunities.

The Author

Mohit Mittal

Portfolio Manager, Liability Driven Investment and Credit

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A word about risk: Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The value of most bonds and bond strategies are impacted by changes in interest rates. Bonds and bond strategies with longer durations tend to be more sensitive and volatile than those with shorter durations; bond prices generally fall as interest rates rise, and the current low interest rate environment increases this risk. Current reductions in bond counterparty capacity may contribute to decreased market liquidity and increased price volatility. Bond investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. All investments contain risk and may lose value.

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