Published on September 23, 2020
Bob Veres of Insider’s Forum recently moderated a panel discussion featuring Eddy Vataru, lead portfolio manager of the Osterweis Total Return Fund (OSTRX), that explored the apparent disconnect between the strength of the bond market and the weakness of the macroeconomy. As Bob writes in his recap:
“Everybody is wondering how the stock market can be so high while the U.S. economy is so low. But you don’t hear the same rumbling concerns about the bond market – even though something very similar to ultra-high P/Es is going on in the fixed income side of your portfolio.”
To be more specific, the average yield on the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Index (BC Agg) is just over 1% while the duration is about 6, which means a 1% increase in interest rates would cause the value of the index to fall roughly 6%. Assuming the current ~1% yield, it would take nearly 6 full years to recover those losses. In other words, the risk/reward profile of the BC Agg is at an all-time low.
Eddy started off the panel discussion by explaining that the current predicament is largely a byproduct of the monumental stimulus programs implemented by the Federal Reserve (the Fed) in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only is the size of the latest quantitative easing (QE) cycle unprecedented – the Fed has increased its balance sheet by a staggering $3 trillion in the past few months – but the scope of the program has also expanded as the Fed now buys corporate debt directly. Previous QE purchases were limited to Treasuries and mortgages, both of which were also included in the current program.
The historic support from the Fed has done more than simply stabilize the bond market – it has triggered an equity rally and a concurrent decline in credit spreads for corporate issuers. This has had the dual effect of dropping yields in the index and simultaneously washing out the risk that the pandemic has introduced. In fact, corporate spreads have nearly returned to their pre-pandemic levels, which were near all-time tights. Eddy said those levels may be too optimistic given the circumstances:
“The spreads are pretty stunning when you think about the fact that we haven’t solved for the virus, we don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have any therapeutics, and we have some pretty listless companies now whose business models are quite compromised as they navigate the patchwork of shutdowns we’ve had nationwide.”
The discussion pivoted to strategies for managing fixed income in the current environment, as it is challenging to find meaningful returns with yields hovering near all-time lows. Eddy explained his approach, which includes rotating among sectors, as there historically is substantial dispersion among Treasuries, corporates, and mortgages with the investment grade universe. His fund is currently significantly overweight mortgages, slightly overweight corporates, and significantly underweight Treasuries.
To read the full text of Bob’s recap, which is published on Advisor Perspectives, click here.
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The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index (BC Agg) is an unmanaged index which is widely regarded as the standard for measuring U.S. investment grade bond market performance. This index does not incur expenses and is not available for investment. The index includes reinvestment of dividends and/or interest income.
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Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio is the ratio of the stock price to the trailing 12 months diluted EPS.
Investment grade bonds are bonds with high and medium credit quality assigned by a rating agency. For Standard and Poor’s, investment grade bonds include BBB ratings or higher. For Moody’s, the cutoff is Baa.
Yield is the income return on an investment, such as the interest or dividends received from holding a particular security.
Duration measures the sensitivity of a fixed income security’s price (or the aggregate market value of a portfolio of fixed income securities) to changes in interest rates. Fixed income securities with longer durations generally have more volatile prices than those of comparable quality with shorter durations.
A basis point is a unit that is equal to 1/100th of 1%.
Spread is the difference in yield between a risk-free asset such as a U.S. Treasury bond and another security with the same maturity but of lesser quality.
Option-Adjusted Spread is a spread calculation for securities with embedded options and takes into account that expected cash flows will fluctuate as interest rates change.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was an initiative created and run by the U.S. Treasury to stabilize the country’s financial system, restore economic growth, and mitigate foreclosures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. TARP sought to achieve these targets by purchasing troubled companies’ assets and stock.
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