One of the top financial stories in 2023 so far is the hot bond market. But it’s not just true for institutional investors, retail traders are also piling into bonds. One reason for this is that it has never been easier to buy Treasuries. They can be bought directly from the Treasury Department, at discount brokerages, or accessed through ETFs. It is also due to a huge shift in fixed income as rate expectations have sent yields on bonds to their highest in years. The 2-year, 10-year, and 30-year treasuries are all yielding around 4%. In fact, retail traders are so honed in on buying bonds, they've crashed the TreasuryDirect website repeatedly. Shawn Cruz, Head Trading Strategist at TD Ameritrade, recently told Yahoo Finance that “For pretty much the entire decade, leading up to this year, when people asked about retail and fixed income, I could just simply say, ‘no one really cares.’ The past year, that has significantly changed.” Sales of Treasury bills with maturities of one year or less through TreasuryDirect were $12.0 billion in January, a new record. BlackRock, the largest provider of ETFs by assets, has also benefited from this boom. So far in 2023, investors have poured $9.9 billion into U.S. iShares fixed-income ETFs.


Finsum:Retail traders are piling into bonds this year due to easier access to Treasuries and the highest bond yields in years.

Is there a little something something between bonds and James Bond?

Well, bonds, at least, are expected back this year, according to schwab.com

James? Filming a movie somewhere. Yeah, yeah; unreliable as ever.

Thing is, in the aftermath of an extended period of low yields -- not to mention last year’s to eagerly forget price dip, three tries at what’s on the precipice of a comeback: returns in the fixed income market, according to the site.

So, why so upbeat about returns? It goes like this:

Both nominally and in reality, starting yields are the highest in years;

The bulk of the Fed tightening cycle has wrapped up; and

A deceleration of Inflation’s likely

Following a prolonged dry spell, the bond market’s replete with yields that – compared to other investments – are appealing. A portfolio consisting of bonds; and high quality at that, like Treasuries, can translate -- without an excessively long period – around 4% to 5%.

Bonds, explained Ted Stephenson, professor of Accounting and finance at George Brown College, continue to be part of a diversified investment portfolio – an indispensable one at that, according to usnews.com.

"Regardless of correlation, bonds have done well versus stocks in six out of seven historical recessions. Ultimately, the correlation between stocks and bonds is not as important as relative performance."

Based on Cerulli Associates' research analysis of mutual fund and exchange-traded product trends in January, institutional investors expect to increase allocations to active investment strategies. According to the data, while mutual funds lost $1.9 billion to start 2023, a few asset classes are generating positive inflows. For instance, taxable bond mutual funds added more than $15 billion of inflows during January, while municipal bond mutual funds added $7.7 billion during the month. This bucked the trend in 2022 in which outflows were $148.7 billion. The release from Cerulli stated, “The gap between active and passively managed funds hit new lows in December 2022; however, [the] Cerulli survey [shows], most institutional investors still want a majority of their portfolios to be actively managed. A noteworthy number of institutional investors indicate increasing their allocations to active strategies in equities (28%) and fixed income (20%).” The release also stated that “Although mutual funds closed 2022 on a “sour note,”—having dropped 4.5% in December—they have so far reversed course in 2023, with assets climbing 5.8% to $17.2 trillion.” The report noted that the data was based on a survey administrated in the second quarter of 2022.


Finsum:According to the results of a recent Cerulli Associates report, institutional investors plan to increase allocations to active strategies as taxable bond mutual funds and municipal bond mutual funds saw a combined $22.7 in inflows during January.

U.S. government and corporate bond ETFs took a hit in February, as Treasury yields rose due to continuing fears over high inflation. According to a February 28 note from Lawrence Gillum, fixed income strategist for LPL Financial, “While bonds are back, 2023 may be bumpy. We don’t think we’ll see another year like 2022 anytime soon, but despite the higher starting yield levels, we could see periods of negative returns.” For instance, according to FactSet data, the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) fell 2.7% last month, while the iShares 20+ Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) dropped 4.9% in February. When bond yields rise, prices of debt fall. However, shorter-duration Treasury bonds fared much better than longer-term U.S. debt last month as investors adjusted their rate expectations. For example, the SPDR Bloomberg 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) posted a small return of 0.3% in February. In addition, two-year Treasury yields, ended February at 4.795%, up from 0.730% at the end of 2021 as higher yields have been attracting investors after rates surged last year.


Finsum:While longer-duration bond ETFs faltered last month due to continuing fears over inflation, shorter-duration Treasury bond ETFs such as the SPDR Bloomberg 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) fared much better.

Following the bouncing…fixed income ETFs? On the heels of last year, during which fixed income funds took a licking, they’re rediscovering their mojo. That stems at least partially from  an inverted yield curve, according to cnbc.com.

In January in alone? Well, bond exchange-traded funds accumulated $20 billion. By contrast, all of last year, the total came to around $200 billion in bonds.

“There’s now income within the fixed income ETFs that are available,” Todd Rosenbluth, head of research at VettaFi, told Mike Santoli on CNBC’s “ETF Edge.” “We’ve seen higher-quality investment-grade corporate bond ETFs. We’ve seen high-yield fixed income ETFs see inflows this year, as well as some of the safer products.”

A rebound, seems to be in -- of all places -- the air, for bonds this year, in bonds, according to schwab.com. The returns in the fixed income markets, according to schawb.com. 

Despite a host of challenges – including a tumultuous global economy and an unstable U.S political climate, also a factor abroad – this year, there are opportunities for the bond market that translate into handsome yields for investors at lower risk than has been the case for years.

Volatility? For at least the immediate future, when it comes to the market, it seems to about the only stable thing going.

Volatility’s on pace to remain on the high side – with the volatility index averaging about 25, according to jpmorgan.com. As the Fed over squeezes into weaker fundamentals, the S&P’s expected to again test last year’s lows.

“In the first half of 2023, we expect the S&P 500 to re-test the lows of 2022 as the Fed overtightens into weaker fundamentals. This sell-off combined with disinflation, rising unemployment and declining corporate sentiment should be enough for the Fed to start signaling a pivot, subsequently driving an asset recovery and pushing the S&P 500 to 4,200 by year-end 2023,” said Dubravko Lakos-Bujas, global head of Equity Macro Research at J.P. Morgan.

“We all know it’s been a tough year for investors. We’ve been through monetary tightening and persistent inflation across global economies,” said Ryan Murray, CFP, with Vanguard. “We’ve seen an unprecedented period of volatility in the bond market, where such fluctuations are highly unusual.”

Give the inherently unpredictability of markets, in the face of extreme volatility, shucking aside your long term plan will certainly cross the minds of investors, he noted. “But it’s important not to let emotions get the better of you or push you to make a reactive decision that could put your hard-earned savings at risk.

The strong demand for bonds this year has led to a windfall for BlackRock’s fixed-income exchange-traded funds. The fund giant has attracted more investor cash since U.S. rates started rising than all of its competitors combined. The inflows to fixed-income funds are being driven by regulatory changes and creative uses by wealth managers and other bond funds. Deborah Fuhr, the founder of the ETFGI consultancy, told FinancialTimes that “There have been significant changes about the way people think about fixed-income ETFs in the past year. We have seen large funds and asset managers put their portfolios in ETFs . . . rather than buying bonds and trying to manage them themselves.” Salim Ramji, BlackRock’s global head of ETF and index investments added, “We’re finding and expanding into all parts of the bond market in multiple different slices . . . Any part of the bond market that can be accessed through an ETF, we’re capturing that.” This includes ETFs such as IBTG, which only holds U.S. Treasury bonds maturing in 2026. Another fund is LQDB, which purely contains BBB-rated corporate bonds. These ETFs allow active fund managers to use them in different ways. For instance, some use a specific slice to tilt their portfolio either to longer or shorter-duration bonds, which depends on their view of the economy. Ramji also noted that BlackRock ETF users include nine of the ten largest active managers and eight of the ten largest U.S. insurance companies.


Finsum:As demand for fixed income increases, Blackrock has created ETFs that track a small slice of the bond market that active managers can use in a variety of ways.

Several fund firms are looking to expand their fixed-income product lines to take advantage of the growing interest in the asset class. Fixed income had experienced a couple of turbulent years as the Federal Reserve's rate increases impacted yields and made equities more volatile. Plus, actively managed fixed-income mutual funds experienced one of their worst years on record in terms of outflows. However, the demand for fixed income this year appears to be gaining steam with several firms positioning themselves to take advantage of this trend. For instance, BlackRock has been rolling out new products to meet fixed-income demand. In January, the firm launched the BlackRock AAA CLO ETF, which has already taken in more than $30 million in assets as of Feb. 21st. Plus, last year, BlackRock launched a first-of-its-kind series of fixed-income ETFs that are designed to provide access to buy-write investment strategies on baskets of fixed-income securities. According to Steve Laipply, U.S. head of iShares Fixed Income at BlackRock, “The theme here is building out different tools for investors to navigate the environment so you continue to see this floating rate theme across the credit spectrum.” The firm is eyeing additional products in the future. Laipply also added that the industry will begin to get more creative when it comes to rolling out new products in the fixed-income space.


Finsum:After a couple of turbulent years, fixed-income funds are seeing increased demand, leading fund firms to take advantage of the trend by launching new products.

Fidelity Investments recently announced it was adding to its active fixed-income strategies lineup with the launch of the Fidelity Municipal Core Plus Bond Fund (FMBAX). According to Fidelity, FMBAX is available commission-free and with no investment minimum to individual investors and financial advisors through Fidelity’s online brokerage platforms. The fund has a 0.37% net expense ratio and a 1.28% gross expense ratio. FMBAX is measured against the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index and the Fidelity Municipal Core Plus Bond Composite Index, and aims to provide a high current yield exempt from federal income taxes, and may also consider capital growth. Co-managers Cormac Cullen, Michael Maka, and Elizah McLaughlin will analyze the credit quality of the issuer, security-specific features, current and potential future valuation, and trading opportunities to select investments. The fund launch comes at a time when the retail and institutional demand for higher-yielding municipal bond funds is growing. According to the fund giant, this new product seeks to offer a strong yield and total return profile, with potentially lower volatility than pure high-yield funds. Jamie Pagliocco, Fidelity’s fixed income head has this to say about the fund launch, “Fidelity’s growing suite of active fixed income investment products leverage Fidelity’s breadth and depth of resources and expertise as an active manager to identify investment opportunities across the credit spectrum.”


Finsum:Fidelity Investments launched an active municipal bond mutual fund amid increased retail and institutional demand for higher-yielding municipal bond funds.

While fixed-income ETFs are seeing strong inflows this year, academics from a trio of U.S. business schools suggest fixed-income ETFs can suck the liquidity out of corporate bonds during times of market stress. According to them, the potential problem stems from the creation and redemption baskets that ETF issuers trade with market makers, known as authorized participants (APs), to handle inflows or outflows from their ETFs. Unlike equity ETFs, bond funds’ creation and redemption baskets typically do not include every bond in the index they are tracking as this could include hundreds or even thousands of separate issues. In their paper, Steering a Ship in Illiquid Waters: Active Management of Passive Funds, the academics argue that in normal times a bond’s inclusion in an ETF basket makes the bond more liquid. This is due to a random mix of creations and redemptions increasing trading activity. But, during a crisis, when many investors are running for the exits, redemptions hugely outweigh creations. When that happens, if a bond is included in the basket, the APs “may then become reluctant to purchase more of the same bonds, reducing their liquidity,” according to the paper. However, other bond strategists disagree, including Dan Izzo, chief executive of GHCO, an ETF market maker. Izzo, who argues that the rise of ETFs had actually increased liquidity during periods of market stress, stated that “The causality ran in the opposite direction — it is because some bonds are illiquid that they increasingly feature in redemption baskets as sell-offs intensify, not vice versa.”


Finsum:While fixed-income ETFs continue to see strong inflows, a trio of academics argues that bond funds make the market less liquid during periods of stress.

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