Reaching-for-yield — the propensity to buy riskier assets in order to achieve higher yields — is believed to be an important factor contributing to the credit cycle.
This Harvard Business School finance working paper analyses this phenomenon in the corporate bond market.
The paper’s authors Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina show evidence for reaching for yield among insurance companies, the largest institutional holders of corporate bonds.
Insurance companies have capital requirements tied to the credit ratings of their investments.
Conditional on ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds.
This behavior appears to be related to the business cycle, being most pronounced during economic expansions.
It is also more pronounced for the insurance firms for which regulatory capital requirements are more binding.
The results hold both at issuance and for trading in the secondary market and are robust to a series of bond and issuer controls, including issuer fixed effects as well as liquidity and duration.
Comparison of the ex-post performance of bonds acquired by insurance companies does not show outperformance, but higher volatility of realized returns.