Fixed income opportunities: Positioning for the next wave of bond market volatility
Bond markets have enjoyed a strong run recently, with yields moving close to and in some cases reaching all-time lows in July, but we believe there are potentially further gains to come - despite the current backdrop of uncertainty.
Given that further market volatility is strongly anticipated, agility will of course be key. But we believe attractive risk-adjusted returns can be found across the sovereign and credit spectrum.
Bonds were not exempt from the pressure felt earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic sent shock waves through global markets. However, since the market nadir in March - amid the ongoing uncertainty around coronavirus – many areas of the fixed income universe have subsequently delivered robust returns.
The JP Morgan Global Government Bond Index has returned 7.6% year-to-date while the Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index has risen 2.1% in US dollar terms.1
Supportive monetary policy and fundamentals
But we think there are many tailwinds that should help ensure bond markets remain attractive, especially as central banks continue to deliver unprecedented levels of stimulus.
Asset purchases are helping provide liquidity and shore up prices in bond markets. Not only do we not see quantitative easing being switched off any time soon, it is also possible that central banks will step in to support markets further if we see renewed volatility.
In addition, we have recently witnessed spreads getting tighter, meaning the difference in yield on offer between government bonds and more risky corporate bonds is smaller.
The rally has naturally made bonds more expensive, but we believe there are still opportunities for investors to access the market, or add to fixed income portfolios, at attractive valuations. Presently, we see potential opportunities in long-duration government bonds, certain developed and emerging market credit as well as in credit default swaps, which can be a useful tool for increasing or decreasing levels of risk in high yield during volatile periods.
Headwinds challenge the recovery
While we are some way away from the equity market low seen in March – with the US Nasdaq and S&P 500 Index reaching record highs in September - there is a great deal of uncertainty still on the horizon.
Coronavirus cases continue to increase in some parts of the world, including the US, and there are concerns that a second wave could be on its way. This will have huge implications for the strength and shape of the global economic recovery – and how it varies country by country.
We also expect the recovery to be quite different to that seen after the 2008/2009 financial crisis – unlike 2008, this is an exogenous crisis, and not about a fundamental mispricing of assets.
This time, given the liquidity and central bank support, it is reasonable to think the rebound will be quicker – but as the crisis is different in nature to anything we have seen before, it is difficult to predict the exact path of the recovery.
What’s more, there are numerous other headwinds, aside from the pandemic, which could challenge the recovery - including the US Presidential Election in November as well as ongoing tensions between the world’s largest economy and China.
Navigating market opportunities
We believe that the best strategy for fixed income investors is to combine a structural and tactical approach, blending together both a long-term and a short-term view.
While bonds may seem expensive in the short term, it’s worth remembering that the asset class as a whole has a low correlation to other risk assets, such as shares, and often can perform better in periods of equity market volatility. Investment-grade credit currently has attractive spreads but has a higher correlation to equities and so could potentially form part of a diversified fixed income portfolio.
Diversification across different fixed income assets is particularly important in these kind of market conditions – essentially, not putting all your eggs in one basket to bank on a recovery at a particular time. What’s more, diversification is necessary for investors who look to fixed income strategies not only to try to preserve capital, but also to seek returns.
We continue to favour a barbell strategy, holding roughly equal amounts of defensive and more aggressive bonds. Defensive assets tend to consist of developed market government bonds and inflation-linked bonds, while high-yield and emerging market bonds are at the riskier, more aggressive, end of the spectrum – but we see parts of this market as attractively priced.
As we continue to witness, the yield on offer on any given bond does not equate to potential realised returns. Nowhere is this more relevant than traditional safe-haven government bonds where, despite bearish sentiment and ultra-low yields, we continue to witness new historic multi-century lows in yields. Once demand for fixed income remains greater than supply, then we believe that bonds should continue to generate decent returns over the medium term.
Some investors also believe that yield curve control – where the central bank commits to buying the amount of bonds that the market wants to supply at its target price – is on its way, a view that is also contributing to the current rally. Up to now most central banks, with a couple of exceptions, have shied away from this tactic - but equally their huge asset purchase programmes have a similar effect of helping keep borrowing costs low.
While the overall global economic picture does appear to be improving, we expect liquidity to remain relatively strong, but anticipate further volatility – therefore taking a long-term approach is vital. Our conviction-driven active investment strategy is designed to weather short-term noise, rather than aggressively time markets. While we expect a weak macroeconomic backdrop for some time, strong technical factors – particularly central bank policies – should continue to support asset prices and provide further opportunities for active fixed income investors.
 Factset, data as of 03/09/20