Bonds: Total Market
One of the ways that investors or advisors might think to diversify their risk is to invest in a number of different managers. The reality is, however, that many of those managers, especially within an asset class, will all have similar looking portfolios, which means you may be much less diversified than you think. The obvious analogue is index tracking funds. There would be no point in buying multiple ETFs from different providers that all track the same index. Yet that is what investors are doing in some markets. This concept is particularly relevant for the riskier end of the credit markets right now, where the market seems to be poised for the same kind of correlated fall as happened during the Crisis. In CLOs for instance, many of the largest loans are held by a majority of the major managers.
FINSUM: This seems like a smart and timely warning. Correlation can doom even the best diversification efforts, especially when it is credit driven.
Retail investors have often had trouble accessing the corporate bond markets. Bond are traded in $1,000 increments and usually move in multi-million Dollar transactions, putting the asset out of the reach of most (new corporate bond ETFs aside). However, there is an easier way to directly own bonds—so-called baby bonds, or bonds sold on stock exchanges like the NYSE in $25 increments. The total market size for the bonds is around $20 bn and the securities are usually senior unsecured. Issuers like them because they are callable after just five years. Frequently the bonds have higher yields than their convention counterparts. Finally, they pay interest four times a year rather than twice.
FINSUM: This is an interesting if niche asset class, but there is some appeal in the unique terms these “baby bonds” have. There are also some big name issuers like AT&T and eBay.
One of Wall Street’s favorite trades has gone down the tubes this year, and for a classic reason. One of the hottest trades of this year has been to short ten-year Treasury bonds. Many institutional money managers believed that the bonds would see their yields rise and prices fall as the Fed raised rates and the US continued to grow at a quick pace. However, the opposite has happened recently, and ten-year Treasury bonds have seen their yields fall from well over 3% to just 2.83%. The reason why is a short squeeze. Short interest in the bonds rose from a net short position of around 75,000 futures contracts at the beginning of the year to almost 700,000 now.
FINSUM: We think there are a lot more factors keeping yields low than a short squeeze, but it is definitely a considerable component.
When the Republican tax reform package came out last year, there were fears that the changes could cause weakness in the muni market. However, while those potential long-term challenges remain, the reality is that the tax changes have helped the muni market considerably. The reason why is that the lack of SALT deductions means that many more investors have a strong inventive to buy muni bonds. This has kept yields low and demand robust, as for a high income couple in states like New York, a local muni bond yielding 3% is equivalent to a taxable corporate bond yielding over 6%.
FINSUM: Given the way that the new tax package heavily incentivizes muni income, we expect demand and prices to remain robust.
Anyone who pays attention to the bond markets will know that there has been an extraordinary run up in BBB rated bonds since the Financial Crisis. From just $700 bn worth of bonds in 2008, to a whopping $3 tn now. Using the metaphor that such bonds, which are just one rung above junk, are like the dead trees and limbs in the forest before a fire, Barron’s is predicting big problems. The trigger is likely to be the next recession, which would cause many BBB bonds to fall down into the junk category. This would spark mandatory selling by many funds, leading to sharp losses for investors. What’s worse, such bonds, at an average yield of 4.3%, are not compensating investors for this risk, as they have only a 60 bp spread to A rated bonds.
FINSUM: There are bound to be a lot of fallen angels and losses in the next economic downturn. As one analyst summed it up, “With all this dry tinder lying around, it wouldn’t take much to set off a raging fire”.
A lot of investors are worried about the potential for an inverted yield curve, and not just because of what it could mean for markets and the economy. If you are holding long-term bonds that will be yielding less than shorter-term bonds, you are likely going to be incentivized to reshuffle your holdings. Accordingly, Citigroup has come out with a first of its kind product that allows retail investors to fully redeem the principal on their bonds if the yield curve inverts. According to Bloomberg the “30-year constant maturity swap rate can sink as much as 10 basis points below the two-year rate before holders start incurring losses”. Continuing, “The products pay a coupon and return full principal as long as the spread remains greater than that level”.
FINSUM: This seems a bit sophisticated for most retail investors, but it is definitely an interesting product and potentially a good one for hedging.