As investors increasingly buy ESG funds, there has also been an increase in academic research on the impact of implementing ESG constraints on equity portfolios. However, there hasn't been as much attention paid to research on ESG fixed-income investing. Inna Zorina and Lux Corlett-Roy published their study “The Hunt for Alpha in ESG Fixed Income: Fund Evidence from Around the World,” in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal of Impact and ESG Investing. In the study, they examined whether ESG fixed-income funds generate out- or under-performance after controlling for systematic fixed-income factors. They found that while ESG fixed-income funds with a higher level of risk generally produced higher returns, most ESG fixed-income funds did not produce statistically significant positive or negative gross alphas. In fact, only 7% of funds managed to deliver greater returns at a lower level of risk relative to the respective benchmark. The study revealed that across ESG fixed-income funds with a European, U.S., and global focus, performance was mainly driven by systematic fixed-income factor exposures such as term and default risk. The results led Zorina and Corlett-Roy to conclude: “ESG fixed-income mutual funds and ETFs have not consistently delivered statistically significant gross alpha controlling for key fixed-income factors. The majority of alphas are statistically insignificant and therefore indistinguishable from zero. This conclusion is similar across fixed-income funds with a European, US, and Global ESG investment focus.”

Finsum:A recent study that looked into whether fixed-income ESG funds provided outperformance revealed that ESG fixed-income mutual funds and ETFs have not consistently delivered statistically significant gross alpha.

Investors are piling into the investment-grade market at a record rate due to higher yields and concerns over riskier debt. A total of $19 billion has been poured into funds that buy investment-grade corporate debt since the start of 2023. That marks the most ever at this point in the year, according to data from fund flow tracker EPFR. The money pouring into the asset class underscores an eagerness among investors to buy historically high yields provided by safer corporate debt after years of investing in riskier debt in search of returns. According to Matt Mish, head of credit strategy at UBS, “People basically think that fixed income, in general, looks a lot more attractive than it has in prior years. The euphoria around investment grade is basically more broadly this euphoria around yields. At least relative to last year and really relative to most of the last decade, [high-grade corporate debt] is offering yields that are considerably higher.” For instance, average US investment grade yields have jumped to 5.45% from 3.1% a year ago. The soaring yields come as a result of the broad sell-off in fixed income over the past year as the Federal Reserve rapidly lifted interest rates to help tame sky-high inflation.

Finsum: Investors are piling into investment-grade bond funds due to historically high yields on safer debt after years of investing in riskier debt in search of returns.

Last year was a tough year for bond investors, even pension funds. With the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond index down 14.6%, funds had to look elsewhere to bolster returns. According to a recent Pensions & Investments survey, a significant portion of defined benefit plans reported smaller bond portfolios as of September 30th, with many dropping more than 20%. For instance, the $430.4 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) saw its U.S. fixed-income exposure drop 38.3% in the year ending on September 30th to $77.2 billion. In addition, the $288.6 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System saw its domestic bond exposure fall 12.9% in the 12 months ending on September 30th to $41.3 billion. With pension funds not wanting a repeat of 2022, many are turning to active bond strategies. For example, CalPERS is looking toward active management to turn things around. The pension fund's active and passive fixed-income exposure amounted to $77.4 billion and -$206 million as of September 30th, 2022, compared to $91.6 billion and $33.6 billion a year earlier. Arnold Phillips, managing investment director for global fixed income at the pension fund, noted that the current market could provide "opportunities to tactically deploy assets when managed through an active risk governance model," which could help turn performance around.

Finsum:With pension funds seeing their bond exposures plummet last year, many are turning to active fixed-income strategies this year in the hope of turning performance around.

Last year was a dismal year for fixed-income funds as bonds had their worst year on record. But this year, bonds are regaining steam partly due to an inverted yield curve. Fixed-income ETFs saw roughly $26 billion in inflows last month. Todd Rosenbluth, head of research at VettaFi, told Mike Santoli on CNBC’s “ETF Edge” that “There’s now income within the fixed income ETFs that are available. 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.” For example, the 10-year Treasury yield was trading at 3.759%, while the yield on the 2-year Treasury rose to 4.644% on Wednesday. In addition, the yield on the 6-month Treasury hit 5.022%, its highest level since July 2007. With yields at their highest in decades and lofty stock valuations, investors are looking for areas of strength in the market. In the same ETF Edge segment, James McNerny, portfolio manager at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, added “When we break down the flows that we’re seeing, we’re seeing flows into higher-quality, longer-duration products, and credit products on the front end of the curve. Those have been the lion’s share of the majority of the flows that we’ve seen.” Jerome Schneider, managing director at Pimco, told CNBC “That fixed income funds are gaining popularity because they offer investors attractive yields in an uncertain economic environment.”

Finsum:With yields at their highest in decades, bond ETFs are seeing strong inflows as investors seek income in an uncertain economic environment.

If you’re looking to hedge your client’s portfolio from inflation, consider investment-grade ETFs. That is according to American Century Investments client portfolio manager Balaji Venkataraman. He spoke at the recent ETF Exchange conference in Miami Beach and noted how the Fed’s moves played a role in the dismal performance of bonds last year. However, he also added that investors may see increased value in fixed-income vehicles this year. He stated, “The rate risk has subsided meaningfully because the fixed income market tends to price in where the Fed is going well before the Fed gets there. And that’s why we’ve seen a decline in yields here today.” Venkataraman also noted that investment-grade bonds, which are a debt of higher-grade securities, could be critical investments during periods of heightened inflation, as yields begin to fall in response to the Fed easing rates. He stated, “The beauty of fixed income in this environment, if the Fed eventually does [come to] its peak in terms of the terminal rate, bond yields should probably continue to come down.” While bonds saw their worst year on record last year, fixed-income ETFs continued to see inflows. That trend continued into this year, as bond funds saw $20.8 billion in inflows in January, the most of any asset class last month, according to data.  

Finsum:According to American Century Investments client portfolio manager Balaji Venkataraman, investors should consider investment grade bond ETFs during periods of heightened inflation, as yields begin to fall in response to the Fed easing rates.

Morgan Stanley recently announced the launch of an exchange-traded fund platform with the listing of six Calvert ETFs on NYSE Arca, including an actively managed fixed-income ETF. The Calvert Ultra-Short Investment Grade ETF (CVSB) will focus on investment-grade debt issuers. Managers Eric Jesionowski and Brian S. Ellis seek to maximize income, to the extent consistent with the preservation of capital, through investment in short-term bonds and income-producing securities. Investors will gain diversified short-term fixed-income exposure to an actively managed portfolio of high-quality bonds of issuers that Calvert believes are demonstrating effective management of key ESG risks and opportunities. The other five ETFs include four indexed ESG equity strategies and an active ESG strategy. The funds include the Calvert US Large-Cap Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Index ETF (CDEI), the Calvert US Large-Cap Core Responsible Index ETF (CVLC), the Calvert International Responsible Index ETF (CVIE), the Calvert US-Mid Cap Core Responsible Index ETF (CVMC), and the Calvert US Select Equity ETF (CVSE). As part of the announcement, Dan Simkowitz, head of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, said the following in a statement. “This launch is the first step in MSIM’s development of a robust ETF platform that supports products across our businesses, asset classes, jurisdictions, and brands.”

Finsum:Morgan Stanley announced the launch of an ETF platform and the listing of six Calvert ETFs, including an actively managed ultra-short investment grade ETF.

Last month, fixed-income ETFs saw more inflows than equity ETFs. Elisabeth Kashner, director of global fund analytics at FactSet said in a phone interview with MarketWatch that “You don’t see that every day. That’s kind of a big deal.” According to Kashner, fixed-income ETFs brought in around $23.7 billion in January, while equity ETFs raked in a total of $22.9 billion. In 2022, rates rose quickly amid sky-high inflation. Due to this, investors embraced more “targeted products” than broad fixed-income funds, according to Kashner. This continued into January as the Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO) and the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT0) were among the top 10 funds for inflows. Kashner noted that the Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF “is what you buy defensively if you want to be in high-quality” fixed income “but you don’t want too much duration exposure,” due to concern about rising rates. She also said that the “iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF, which provides duration exposure, tends to attract investors worried about a recession.” Other fixed-income ETFs that saw strong inflows last month include the iShares JP Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF (EMB) and the iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD), according to FactSet data.

Finsum:Fixed-income ETF inflows outpaced equity ETF inflows last month as investors continued to embrace more targeted fixed-income products amid high inflation.

While many investors kept cash on the sidelines last year, that should change this year, according to Goldman Sachs. Ashish Shah, chief investment officer of public markets at Goldman Sachs says “A lot of investors last year were frozen because of the volatility and uncertainty. As that uncertainty narrows, it’s really important for investors to take action.” Shah believes the Fed is closer to the end of the rate-hike cycle than it is to the beginning and rising inflation has begun to slow. With that in mind, Goldman is suggesting that now is the time to add duration to a portfolio through fixed income. Shah says “Cash in the portfolio of investors is still incredibly high. What we’re advocating [is that investors should] come out of cash in the bank and go into the market and capture some of this yield.” He added that while bonds are generating income, they also can rally even further than they already have. However, selection matters more now than it used to. According to Shah, investment-grade credit and municipal bonds with longer durations could be effective in achieving portfolio goals. He also noted that lower-quality muni bonds also have room to generate attractive yields and they’re tax-exempt.

Finsum:Goldman Sachs CIO Ashish Shah believes that now is the time to put cash to work in investment grade credit and municipal bonds as the Fed is nearing the end of its tightening cycle and inflation is starting to slow.

No matter where you look, fixed-income analysts are proclaiming 2023 as the year of the bond. But why will that be the case? According to fund firm Nuveen, “The anticipated rate decline, along with the higher starting yield, creates an attractive outlook for bonds this year.” The firm believes that the high starting yields this year could be setting the stage for a bond market comeback. According to Nuveen’s latest fixed-income report, over the last four and half decades, years that feature higher yields early on often produce higher returns by the end of the year. For example, in 1982, when the starting yield was 14.6 percent, the bond market gained 32.6 percent over the next 12 months. After consecutive rate hikes in 2022, the bond yield in early 2023 is at the highest level since the global financial crisis. The firm also believes that a slowdown in rate hikes could generate higher returns. While the Fed raised rates aggressively last year to curb inflation, it has indicated plans to move more gradually this year with recession fears growing. Since bond prices move inversely with yields, the firm says a drop in yields could create “potential price return opportunities.”

Finsum:Fund firm Nuveen is bullish on bonds this year due to an anticipated rate decline and a high starting yield.

Based on the latest treasury yield movements, investors are bracing for a recession. Yields on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note have fallen by around 83 basis points from their October high of 4.338% as investors sent $4.89 billion into U.S. bond funds last week. That marks the third straight week of net inflows. The bond rally comes after Treasuries had the worst year ever, driven by the Fed's tightening policy. The key driver for the current rally has been concerns over the Fed's rate increases sending the U.S. economy into a recession. Treasuries are typically seen as a safe haven during economic uncertainty. Investors expect the Fed to raise rates by another 25 basis points at the end of its monetary policy meeting today, while Wall Street is also looking for signs that the Fed will pull back on its hawkish stance amid falling inflation. Rob Daly, director of fixed income at Glenmede Investment Management told Reuters that "Things are coming off the boil here. There is a de-risking that's happening, and we're seeing flows out of equities into higher quality parts of the market such as fixed income." Although stocks have been rallying since late last year, investors are playing it safe, expecting the rally to end if a recession hits.

Finsum:While stocks have been in a mini rally since the end of last year, investors are playing it safe flooding U.S. bonds funds in the expectation of a recession.

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