Tag Archives:

outlook

Emerging markets outlook: seven themes for 2021

Markets ended 2020 in a buoyant mood, with emerging market spreads tightening in the final quarter as the US election result and positive vaccine news provided a boost to investor sentiment. While nobody has been blind to the global recession, focus has shifted to expectations of an economic recovery.

Most people were happy to see the back of 2020. It was an eventful and challenging ye…

Read the article

EM bonds YTD review and outlook

While emerging market bonds have notably underperformed in the year-to-date period, Fund Manager Claudia Calich believes the longer-term fundamental case for the asset class remains intact. The outlook for broad-based global economic growth is still in place, for example, which should help fiscal improvements and deleveraging in emerging countries. In this Bond Vigilantes video, Claudia also no…

Watch the video

Emerging markets debt: 2017 post-mortem and 2018 outlook

Emerging markets debt posted strong returns in 2017, driven by the stabilisation of fundamentals, ongoing global and EM economic recovery, a small rebound in commodity prices and a geopolitical environment in which the usual suspects (Trump, North Korea, China) have behaved in a more benign fashion thus far. One had to struggle to find an asset that produced negative returns and the only two th…

Read the article

2017 investment grade review – a rising tide lifts all boats

Let’s be honest, 2017 won’t go down in history as the most exciting year for investment grade (IG) credit markets. IG credit spreads have moved more or less in one direction only: lower and lower. Still, there are valuable lessons to be learnt. Here are our key takeaways.

Positive mood swing in Europe drove EUR IG outperformance vs USD IG.

Back in early 2017 the logic was as follows: After the…

Read the article

“The Wealth of Humans” by Ryan Avent. Our interview with the author and a chance to win his book.

Earlier this year we interviewed both Robert Gordon (here) and Martin Ford (here) about their books examining the impact of technology on the modern economy.  In the latest of our author interviews I talked to the Economist’s senior editor and economics columnist Ryan Avent about his new book, “The Wealth of Humans”, that develops this same theme.  In particular he looks at how we will be able …

Read the article

Armageddon fatigue: reasons to be optimistic in the longer term

Watching the news flow on the global economy is dispiriting. Ask an economist what springs to mind when they hear the word “Europe”. They will probably reply with thoughts about negative interest rates, deflation and debt concerns. It isn’t much better when you bring up the economic outlook for the US (“the upcoming election is a concern”), Japan (“the BoJ is at the limits of monetary policy”),…

Read the article

M&G Panoramic Outlook: Quasi-Sovereigns in Emerging Markets, by Charles De Quinsonas

It has been quite an eventful year for emerging markets. The fall in oil and commodity prices, the prospect of higher interest rates in the US, the corruption scandal in Brazil and of course the growth slowdown in China have all contributed to increased uncertainty for the asset class. Naturally this uncertainty has impacted performance, weighing down on returns of both hard and local currency …

Read the article

James Tomlins’ Panoramic Outlook

High Yield Floating Rate Bonds

With many of the conditions for the economy to normalise now met, the point at which interest rates also begin to normalise is getting closer.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, Liverpool, 9 September 2014

… with the economy getting closer to our objectives, the FOMC’s emphasis is naturally shifting to …. the question of under what conditions we should begin dialling back our extraordinary accommodation.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Jackson Hole, 22 August 2014

We are entering a new era for interest rates in the developed world. The extended period of ever looser monetary policy is starting to draw to a close. In the wake of the tapering of quantitative easing (QE) from the Federal Reserve (Fed), investors now expect to see the first interest rate hikes in many years, initially in the UK and shortly afterwards in the US (see figure 1). The principal focus of the debate is over the questions of “when?” and “how fast?” interest rates should rise, not “if?” For bond investors in particular, this transition has thrown up a lot of difficult questions. Having benefited greatly from falling yields and tightening credit spreads, the move to a more hawkish cycle will create many more headwinds and challenges when it comes to delivering returns for many fixed income asset classes.

Consequently, any product or instrument that can help investors navigate this environment has rightly been receiving a lot of interest and attention. In the latest in our series of the Panoramic Outlook, we will focus on one such instrument, the high yield floating rate bond. In recent years, this instrument has gained popularity with many issuers and the market has grown to a total US$44 billion.

Slide1A high yield floating rate note (FRN) has two key defining features: (1) a floating rate coupon that is automatically adjusted in line with changes in interest rates; (2) a relatively high credit spread that reflects the additional credit risk of a non-investment grade issuer.

It is the combination of these two features which not only enables investors to receive an attractive income stream now, but also allows them to benefit from higher coupons should interest rates increase with no associated loss to capital. This last element, the lack of a hit to capital in a rising interest rate environment, is the key difference to the traditional universe of fixed coupon bonds which suffer from price declines as yields move up.

In this issue, we will take an in-depth look at the characteristics and make-up of the high yield floating rate bond market. We will also consider the key drivers of returns, as well as some of the risks and how these can be managed.

High yield floating rate bonds 101

The key features of high yield floating rate bonds can be summarised as follows:

  • It is a bond issued by a company that has a below-investment grade credit rating
  • The coupon, usually paid quarterly, is made up of:
    1. a variable component which is adjusted in line with a money market reference rate, typically every three months (throughout this article we will refer to this measure as ‘3-month Libor’)
    2. a credit spread, which is fixed for the life of the bond and reflects the additional credit risk of lending to a company
  • The bond has a fixed maturity (typically 5-7 years at the time of issue)
  • The bond is a publicly traded instrument that can be bought and sold like any other corporate or high yield bond
  • As an example, suppose that a 5-year bond is issued with a coupon of 3-month Libor + 450 basis points (bps). For the first year, 3-month Libor is 50bps, so the coupon is 500bps (or 5%) over that period. In the second year, 3-month Libor rises to 75bps, so the coupon increases to 75+450 = 525bps, or 5.25%, during that period.

Market characteristics

Table 1: High yield floating rate market compared with other fixed coupon bond markets
Index Global High Yield Floating Rate Global Government Bond Global Corporate Global High Yield
Average maturity (years) 4.5 8.9 8.7 6.1
Effective duration (years) 0.03 7.2 6.2 4.2
Spread duration (years) 2.1 6.9 6.1 4.1
Face value (US$ billion) 44 23,081 7,964 2,057
Yield to maturity (%) 4.5 1.3 2.7 6.1
Spread (vs government bonds, bps) 400 14 110 435
Composite rating B1 AA1 A3 B1
Source: M&G, BofA Merrill Lynch, 5 August 2014.

Table 1 highlights some of the characteristics of the high yield floating rate market and compares it with the more traditional government, corporate and high yield fixed coupon bond markets using data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s fixed income indices.

In terms of credit risk (measured by the composite rating) and credit spread (the yield premium above government bonds that compensates investors for the higher risk of default), the high yield floating rate market is very similar to the traditional high yield market. This is to be expected as there is a great deal of commonality between the two in terms of underlying issuers.

The big difference is revealed when we start to look at the effective duration numbers. Effective duration measures the sensitivity of bond prices to changes in yields. A duration of 4.2 years means that for every 1% increase in yields, there will be an approximately 4.2% loss of capital. The effective duration of the High Yield Floating Rate Index is very close to zero (due to the regular re-setting of coupons, cashflows are only fixed for a very short time). This means that if, all other things being equal, there is a broader sell-off in the government bond markets and all fixed income yields need to adjust upwards, the capital loss would be close to zero.

Slide2

This limited exposure to moves in the broader yields means that the high yield floating rate market tends to be much less sensitive to any wider interest rate inspired volatility in the market. Indeed, during the so-called ‘taper tantrum’ of 2013 when former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first introduced the idea that QE would begin to be phased out, the high yield floating rate market was much more resilient in terms of price impact than the other major bond markets as investors adjusted to the concept of tighter monetary policy (see figure 2).

We can also see how this might play out at an individual bond level. In July 2014 Iceland Ltd, a UK supermarket, issued both a £350 million FRN, paying Libor + 425bps maturing in 2020, and a £400 million 6.25% bond maturing in 2021. Both bonds are pari passu senior secured liabilities that are issued by the same company. In other words, the credit risk in both instruments is effectively identical. However, the interest rate risk exposure is very different. Take the following hypothetical scenario:

  • Both bonds start the year priced at 100% of par
  • For the first six months of the year, 3-month Libor is at 0.56%
  • Halfway through the year, the Bank of England unexpectedly increases the bank rate by 50bps, which pushes 3-month Libor to 1.06% and re-prices gilt yields up by the same amount across the curve
  • Credit spreads remain the same throughout the year

While this is an unlikely scenario, it does help to simplify the maths. The interest rate duration of the 6.25% 2021 bond is close to 5.5 years, so a 50bps move in underlying yields means a capital hit of around 2.7%. This is offset by 6.25% of income from the coupon, so the total return over the course of a year is 3.6%.

Iceland bond Fixed 6.25% 2021 FRN 2020 (L+425)
Change to price (%) -2.68 0.00
Coupon return (%) 6.25 5.06
Total return (%) 3.57 5.06

In contrast, the FRN has minimal interest rate duration, so does not suffer a capital loss. Indeed, as Libor goes up by 50bps for the second half of the year, the coupon rises from an annualised 4.81% to 5.31% (or 5.06% on average). So crucially, the FRN does not suffer from the broader interest rate volatility, and at the same time, actually benefits from a higher coupon as the increase in the bank rate feeds through to a higher Libor, thereby boosting total returns.

From this example, we can see the clear advantages of floating rate instruments over fixed rate equivalents in a rising interest rate environment.

It is important to note, however, that as non-investment grade instruments, there is still exposure to wider moves in credit spreads within the high yield floating rate market. From table 1, we can see that spread duration for the high yield floating rate market is 2.1 years. Accordingly, if spreads were to widen on average by 100bps to 500bps, there would be an associated capital loss of around 2.1%, and vice versa if spreads were to tighten.

However, the spread duration is around half that of the more traditional high yield universe at 4.1 years. This means that in times of risk aversion and widening credit spreads, the impact on prices for the high yield floating rate market should be comparatively lower. During the recent weakness in late July and August 2014, we can see this expected relationship did indeed play out (see figure 3).

 

Slide3

On the other hand, if spreads were to tighten from current levels, we would expect the high yield floating rate market to see an associated capital gain smaller than the more traditional high yield universe, given lower spread duration and, on average, a smaller degree of call protection (a provision designed to protect bondholders by preventing the early redemption of a bond).

A globally diversified market

Slide4

In terms of the underlying issuers, the global high yield floating rate market is well diversified across different regions and industries (see figure 4).

At present, there is a bias towards the sterling and euro markets, driven in part by the trend for European issuers to refinance bank debt in the bond market.

By issuing FRNs, companies can retain a similar debt structure to bank loans, but access deeper and more diversified sources of debt capital. US banks are, on average, less capital constrained than the European banking system so the need to tap sources of new capital has been less pressing. Nevertheless, there has been a steady stream of issuance from both European and US issuers over recent months as we can see from table 2.

The other major trend we can see is a preponderance of industrial rather than financial issuance. We expect this to continue in the short term, increasing the proportion of industrial issuers in the market over time.

Table 2: Selection of new issues in 2014
Issue date Issuer Sector Issue spread (bps) Maturity Amount issued (million) Country
Feb-14 Innovia Group Capital goods 500 Mar-20 €342 UK
Mar-14 Premier Foods Consumer non-cyclical 500 Mar-20 £175 UK
Mar-14 Kerneos Tech Group Basic industry 475 Mar-21 €150 France
Apr-14 Eden Spring Consumer non-cyclical 550 Apr-19 €210 Israel
Apr-14 Monier Basic industry 500 Oct-20 €315 France
Apr-14 Stonegate Consumer cyclical 475 Apr-19 £140 UK
Apr-14 Quick Consumer cyclical 475 Apr-19 €440 France
Apr-14 Quick Consumer cyclical 750 Oct-19 €155 France
Apr-14 Chesapeake Energy Energy 325 Apr-19 US$1,500 USA
May-14 Galapagos Capital goods 475 Jun-21 €325 Germany
May-14 AES Corp Utility 300 Jun-19 US$775 USA
May-14 Avis Budget Group Services 275 Dec-17 US$250 USA
May-14 Novacap Basic industry 500 May-19 €310 France
Jun-14 Xefin Basic industry 375 Jun-19 €325 Germany
Jun-14 Montichem Basic industry 475 Jun-21 €175 Germany
Jun-14 HEMA Consumer cyclical 525 Jun-19 €250 Netherlands
Jun-14 Dry Mix Solutions Basic industry 425 Jun-21 €550 France
Source: M&G, Bloomberg, 2014.

Drivers of returns and key risks

For investors in the high yield floating rate bond market, the key factors that will influence returns will be:

  1. Credit spreads – Income, in the form of a credit spread over Libor, is likely to form a major component of total returns, particularly in a low interest rate environment. As the issuers in this market are rated below-investment grade, the corresponding credit spread that investors receive is higher than in other fixed income markets to compensate them for this risk (currently around 400bps).

    As mentioned previously, returns will also be governed by changes in credit spreads. At a time of tightening spreads, returns will be boosted by capital gains; at times of widening spreads, investors will see capital losses.

  2. Interest rates – The path of short-term interest rates will also have an impact. If short-term interest rates fall, total returns will also fall as the coupon is automatically reduced, and vice versa should short-term rates rise.
  3. Default rates – If high yield default rates increase, investor returns would be hit as individual bonds can suffer from writedowns of capital during a bankruptcy process.

High yield floating rate notes vs. leveraged loans

Given the characteristics outlined in this article, it is no surprise that high yield FRNs share many of the same investment characteristics as leveraged loans (floating rate coupons, senior position in the capital structure, non-investment grade issuers).

However, there are some small but important differences between the two asset classes. Most important of all for non-institutional European investors is the fact that high yield FRNs are eligible for inclusion in authorised open-ended funds (aka ‘UCITS eligible’), whereas leveraged loans are currently considered eligible only for institutional investors. To date, this has meant that non-institutional investors could only access this market through closed-ended vehicles such as investment trusts.

However, with the emergence of the high yield floating rate market, non-institutional investors across Europe will be able to access this market using a traditional open-ended fund.

  High yield FRNS Leveraged loans
Coupon LIBOR + fixed margin LIBOR + fixed margin
Credit rating Non-investment grade Non-investment grade
Security Typically first lien / senior secured Typically first lien / senior secured
Liquidity Daily trading T+3 settlement Less liquid, uncertain settlement
Public/Private Public information only Public and private information
UCITS eligible Yes – can be included in open-ended funds sold to non-institutional investors No – limited to institutional investors only. Non-institutional investors can only gain exposure through closed-ended funds

Mitigating default risk

Examples of high yield FRNs

vue

Company: Vue Cinemas
Amount issue: €290 million
Coupon: 3-month Euribor +525bps
Maturity: July 2020
Credit rating: B2/B
Region: UK and Northern Europe

Vue is a leading cinema operator in the UK and northern Europe. A consumer-focused business generating a resilient cashflow, we believe Vue is well placed to benefit from the bounce back in UK consumer confidence and retail spending.

chesapake

Company: Chesapeake Energy
Amount issued: US$1,500 million
Coupon: 3-month USD Libor +325bps
Maturity: April 2019
Credit rating: Ba1/BB+
Region: US

The largest shale gas exploration and production company in the US, with an approximately US$18 billion market capitalisation, Chesapeake benefits from a strong asset base across the major onshore gas fields and an improving balance sheet.

wind

Company: Wind Telecomunicazioni
Amount issued: €575 million
Coupon: 3-month Euribor +400bps
Maturity: July 2020
Credit rating: Ba3/BB
Region: Italy

Italian mobile telecom business Wind is one of the largest issuers of high yield bonds in Europe. Its senior secured bonds are well supported by a strong underlying cashflow.

We view default risk as the key risk to be managed through the cycle, as this is the one driver that can lead to a permanent loss of capital. How can this risk be managed? We think there are three key mitigants:

  1. Diversification – Ensuring that any investment in this market is diversified across geographies and industries helps protect investors against major idiosyncratic shocks that could precipitate defaults in any one industry or region.
  2. Credit analysis – As non-investment grade companies, the business, financial and legal risks associated with each bond issued can be very complex. Consequently, having the expertise and capability to assess these risks on a case-by-case basis is crucial.
  3. Investing in senior secured instruments – Instruments that are senior secured or first lien have prior claim over an issuer’s assets in the event of a bankruptcy. This means recovery rates are much higher on average than unsecured liabilities (see table 3). High yield FRNs are often senior secured instruments or sit alongside loans in the capital structure. Using the data below from the US as a proxy, we would expect recovery rates for this market to be in the 60-80% range over the long term.
Table 3: Average North American non-financial corporate debt recovery rates measured by ultimate recoveries, 1987-2013
Lien position Emergence year Default year
  2013 2012 1987-2013 2013 2012 1987-2013
Loans 73.3% 91.7% 80.3% 81.3% 77.2% 80.3%
Senior secured bonds 67.5% 63.6% 63.5% n/a 71.2% 63.5%
Senior unsecured bonds* 4.5% 36.0% 48.1% n/a 39.3% 48.1%
Subordinated bonds** 0.0% 9.2% 28.2% n/a 13.5% 28.2%
* 2013’s senior unsecured bond recovery rate is based on five observations
** Includes senior subordinated, subordinated, and junior subordinated bonds. 2013’s subordinated recovery rate is based on observation
Source: Moody’s, August 2014.

A new tool

As we hope to have illustrated in this article, high yield floating rate bonds offer a unique combination of characteristics for fixed income investors, namely exposure to credit spreads alongside materially lower interest rate risk. Consequently, we believe the development of this market will give bond investors a new tool that not only mitigates the potential headwinds of higher interest rates, but also gives them something that actually benefits from the next phase of the monetary policy cycle.

Anthony Doyle’s Panoramic Outlook

The yield-dampeners – will interest rates inevitably rise when QE ends?

Speak to the majority of investment strategists and economists in the world today and most will tell you that now is not the time to buy fixed income assets, particularly government bonds. Most will point to the low level of interest rates, suggesting that bond yields can only go one way and that is up. After the ‘taper tantrum’ of 2013, many predict that the catalyst for a sell-off in fixed income assets could be the end of quantitative easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve (Fed). At the current pace of tapering, the Fed’s QE experiment is due to cease in October this year.

In this latest issue of our Panoramic Outlook series, I present an alternative view to the consensus thinking that interest rates must inevitably rise. To do this, I investigate a number of dynamics in fixed income markets that have surprised investors during this period of extraordinary monetary policy. There are a number of possible reasons to suggest that the market may not see a material increase in bond yields when the Fed finishes QE. Firstly, given the fragility of the global economic recovery and high level of debt in the US economy, it is unlikely that interest rates will return to pre-crisis levels, limiting the potential downside to fixed income assets. Secondly, there are some powerful structural deflationary forces which are helping to keep inflation low. Finally, a strong technical factor – the global savings glut – is likely to remain supportive to fixed income assets as is firm demand from large institutional pension funds and central banks.

The current state of play

Over the course of 2014, Fed Chair Janet Yellen and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) have continued to slow the pace of its large-scale asset-purchase programme. The four rounds of QE have undeniably had an impact on bond yields, with the Bank of International Settlements estimating1 that the five-year forward 10-year rate is around 90-115 basis points lower than it would otherwise be. Today, the Fed owns around $2.4 trillion of US government debt, as shown in figure 1.

Slide1

The question that markets are grappling with right now is what will happen when this huge source of demand for US Treasuries, namely the US Federal Reserve, steps away from the market?

Looking at the past behaviour of 10-year US Treasury yields does not provide great insight into the future path of yields. For example, as shown in figure 2, the 10-year Treasury yield fell by around 175 basis points during QE1 before rising back up to pre-QE levels. At one point during QE2, yields increased by around 125 basis points before falling back to the 3% level. During QE3, the 10-year yield fell by around 20 basis points. In 2013, markets threw a ‘taper tantrum’ following the then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress and yields increased by over 100 basis points. This year, as the Fed has gradually reduced asset purchases, yields have actually fallen by around 50 basis points. It is too simplistic to suggest that the behaviour of bond prices is simply a function of whether the Fed is doing QE or not. There must be other forces at work in the bond market.

Slide2

Government bond yields – lower for longer?

It is a valuable exercise to attempt to identify the other forces at play in the US government bond market. Could government bond yields possibly stay lower for longer, continuing to surprise the consensus?

As the world’s largest and deepest government bond market, US Treasuries represent the risk-free rate of return. That is, the interest an investor would expect from an absolutely risk-free investment over a period of time. The risk-free rate acts as an anchor for other fixed income assets such as investment grade and high yield corporate bonds. At this point in the economic and credit cycle, there appears to be what I call three key yield-dampening forces (or ‘yield-dampeners’) at work that investors should be aware of.

Yield-dampener 1: the Fed funds rate will remain at a low level for a long time to come

Nominal US interest rate cycles have exhibited progressively lower peaks and troughs over the past 30 years (see figure 3). There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, declining inflation was an important contributor to the fall in interest rates. Secondly, the move to make central banks independent of their respective governments was a significant step in achieving credibility. Thirdly, the adoption of an inflation-targeting or price stability approach to monetary policy was also important in anchoring inflation expectations for both consumers and the market.

Slide3

The most important insight we can gain about the Fed funds rate is whether it is helping to stimulate or restrict economic growth. Broadly speaking, monetary policy can be seen as expansionary if the policy rate is below the natural rate of interest (the rate consistent with output being at its potential), with the gap between the rates measuring the extent of the policy stimulus.

The problem for economists is that the natural rate of interest is unobservable, but it can be tracked with a model2 that identifies the interest rate that would prevail when output is at its potential. Using a model developed by economists at the US Federal Reserve, a current estimate of the natural rate of interest is just -0.4% (see figure 4). The estimate has largely trended lower since the 1960s. Apart from a couple of brief periods over the past 15 years, the real interest rate has been below the natural rate of interest, indicating an expansionary setting of monetary policy. This has encouraged the build-up of debt and risk-taking behaviour.

Slide4

Nominal US rate cycles have moderated over time as leverage has grown within the US economy. This will likely continue for the current cycle, suggesting a much lower peak in interest rates than experienced during previous tightening cycles. The high levels of leverage mean that it will require fewer and more gradual rate hikes to dampen economic activity. As a result, the Fed will not have to step on the brakes as hard as it used to in order to slow down the economy and guard against inflation. The world is addicted to low interest rates, meaning that rate cycles over the next decade could consist of fewer rate hikes.

Think of an elite marathon runner in his prime. He would inevitably have a low level of body fat compared with the average person. In retirement, given the lower levels of physical activity and less focus on diet, our marathon runner puts on weight (a lot of weight). With the lack of training and increase in body size, the runner inevitably slows down and cannot compete at the same level that he used to.

This analogy is useful in describing the US debt binge at all levels of the economy – households, corporates, banks and government. Total debt to GDP stands at around 350% as shown in figure 5. For more than a generation, governments, consumers and companies were able to borrow with impunity, knowing that persistent inflation would inflate away their debts. Today, not only are these economic agents trying to fight their way out of this debt morass, deflation could increase the real value of what they owe. Economists call this paradox ‘debt deflation’. The US economy cannot work off the excess leverage that has built up over a period of 30 years unless interest rates remain low.

Slide5

Despite some moderation in recent years, the deleveraging that has occurred in the US economy is not enough. These high levels of debt are sustainable only because interest rates are at levels not seen since the 1950s. To use our runner analogy, we would not expect our retired and overweight marathon runner to compete at the level he once used to. US companies, households, banks and even the government cannot cope in a world of much higher interest rates without the economy plunging back into recession. Interest rates and yields may rise from current levels, but they are unlikely to return to pre-crisis levels.

Yellen has her own monetary policy rule book

Economists and markets are still getting used to having Janet Yellen as Fed Chair. Having worked in the Fed system and the White House for a combined 16 years, reviewing her long academic career and research papers can provide an interesting insight into her thoughts on the conduct of monetary policy.

Yellen has written a number of papers with her husband George Akerlof, an American economist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001. Yellen’s most-cited paper, “The Fair Wage – Effort Hypothesis and Unemployment”3, builds a model in which the amount of effort that a worker puts into their job depends on the difference between the wages they are getting paid against their perception of what is a ‘fair wage’. The hypothesis is that the bigger the difference, the less hard the worker works.

Another paper written with Akerlof, and perhaps the most relevant paper for monetary policy, was written in 2004. In “Stabilization Policy: A Reconsideration”4 the authors conducted a review of the existing literature, disagreeing with Milton Friedman’s view that countercyclical policy cannot affect the average level of unemployment and output. Again, Yellen has focused on the labour market, coming to the conclusion that being unemployed in a recession is worse than being unemployed when times are good. The authors conclude that “there is a solid case for stabilization policy and that there are especially strong reasons for central banks to accord it priority in the current era of low inflation”. This is a marked difference from the Alan Greenspan-led Federal Reserve, which was hesitant to raise interest rates in the face of a boom, but quick to reduce rates when the economy entered into recession.

The next paper, “Waiting for Work”5, was written in 1990, again authored with Akerlof and economist Andrew Rose, focuses on a phenomenon known as ‘lock-in’. The authors find that “workers who are laid off in a downturn rationally wait to accept jobs until business conditions improve. Workers voluntarily remain unemployed in recessions if they gain through waiting for permanently higher wages which are available in the new jobs which appear during expansions”. Yellen, Akerlof and Rose proved that workers hired in booms “lock-in” higher wages whereas workers hired in busts suffer lower wages. This partly explains why Yellen expects the participation rate to pick up in the future as workers increasingly believe the US economic recovery will last.

In Janet Yellen, the US Federal Reserve has appointed a very strong academic economist who has focused on the key economic resource of labour for a large part of her academic career. Much like Ben Bernanke who was a pre-eminent expert of the US Depression before joining the Fed and saw the economy through the dark days of the credit crisis, it appears that Janet Yellen might be in the right place at the right time to lead the FOMC. In terms of the Fed’s dual mandate of price stability and full employment – provided inflation behaves – Yellen will likely prefer to keep monetary policy accommodative. This was highlighted in Yellen’s most recent Congress Testimony, where she stated “My own expectation is that, as the labour market begins to tighten, we will see wage growth pick up, some to the point where nominal wages are rising more rapidly than inflation, so households are getting a real increase in their take home pay. If we were to fail to see that, frankly, I would worry about downside risk to consumer spending.”

Arguably there are now three key economic indicators to watch. Inflation, unemployment and wage growth. Without wage growth, it is unlikely that Chair Yellen would be calling for a rate hike any time soon. The FOMC has a new monetary policy rule book.

3http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2937787?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104376303467

Yield dampener 2: weak economic data and structural deflationary forces

Arguably, the greatest force causing rising bond prices has been a falling inflation premium that investors place on owning government debt. The performance of long-dated government bonds this year suggests that buyers believe inflation will remain at current levels (or lower) for a long time to come. This is to be expected given that the economic data has largely underwhelmed economists’ forecasts since February, as shown in figure 6. The Fed has continually stated that the pace of monetary policy tightening is data dependent. Many have blamed poor weather for the run of weak data but it seems that the Fed is justified in its dovish stance for now.

Slide6

When determining the inflation outlook, it is important to acknowledge that there may be structural deflationary forces at play in the global economy. These include debt deleveraging, globalisation and technological advances that result in large productivity gains. Given these structural forces, there is a strong case for examining the Japanese fixed income experience as it may provide some insight into the future behaviour of G7 bond yields.. See The ‘Japanification’ of Government Bond Markets for further insight.

The ‘Japanification’ of government bond markets

Back in the late 1980s, Japan was a shining example for the rest of the world in the eyes of many economists. Most saw a clear edge in Japan’s competitiveness relative to the US across a broad range of high-tech and manufacturing mass-produced tradable goods. Japan had recovered from the devastation of World War II and its economy was producing year after year of solid growth.

At the time it was argued that the Japanese work ethic was far superior to that of the West. This would likely lead to substantial benefits in labour productivity. In addition, Japan’s high savings rate and slow population growth would give the economy an edge in an increasingly globalised world. Of course, Japan’s proximity to China and the Far East would give it access to a vast pool of workers to which it could outsource lowly skilled and low-paid jobs. This would allow the Japanese economy to specialise and benefit from its large pool of highly educated workers.

Unfortunately for the Japanese economy, the reality turned out differently from the confident forecasts. Today, the economy is around 40% smaller than observers predicted back in the late 1980s, having grown at a very slow pace over the last two decades. Japanese individuals and companies have spent much of the past 30 years working off the debt that they accumulated during the 80s. Banks saddled with bad debts refused to lend, preferring instead to buy Japanese government bonds.

Recognising the economic malaise, the government offered new stimulus plans through higher public spending, although with little impact on the real economy. This resulted in government debt-to-GDP ratio increasing from around 70% in the late 80s to over 200% today. The central bank eventually chipped in as well, reducing interest rates to zero and implementing QE in 2001.

So what are the lessons that fixed income investors can learn from the Japanese experience?

Slide9

For investors, one trade that has always lost money, over any reasonable time period, has been the shorting of Japanese government bonds (JGBs). This trade, unique in its consistency, developed its own name: “the widow maker”. Over the past 24 years, JGB yields have fallen relentlessly from a peak of around 8% in 1990 to around 0.62% today. Despite the great monetary experiment of “Abenomics”, the widow maker is alive and kicking.

History might not repeat itself but it does rhyme. As shown in the accompanying chart, US, German and UK government bonds yields are following an eerily similar path to JGBs in the early 90s. The question has to be asked: is shorting developed market government bonds the new widow-maker trade?

Yield dampener 3: the global savings glut

Another reason that investors are surprised by the fall in yields this year despite the reduction of Fed purchases is because of the strong ‘technical’ support for the asset class. This is often difficult to identify in advance and is much harder to measure than economic variables such as unemployment or inflation. Some of the strong technical support for US Treasuries is illustrated in figures 7 and 8.

Low yields on government debt during the last rate hiking cycle bamboozled the then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. It was his successor, Ben Bernanke, who presented a plausible explanation in 2005. By his reckoning, falling government bond yields and the inverse yield curve was being caused by a ‘global savings glut’.

Bernanke proposed that a decade-long development of global savings was the result of a combination of strong technical factors. Firstly, the strong saving motive of ageing developed nations such as Germany and Japan was an important factor. Secondly, Bernanke proposed that the developing world was changing from being a net user to a net supplier of funds in international capital markets. The proceeds of war chests of foreign reserves that the emerging economies had built up in response to earlier crises were being used to buy US Treasuries and other assets.

Slide7

Figure 7 represents the major foreign holders of US Treasuries: China, Japan and Belgium. That’s correct; Belgium – a small country with a population of 11 million – is the third-largest holder of US government bonds. However, it is highly unlikely that Belgium is buying all those bonds, and some have speculated that the increase in holdings over the past eight months reflects the secret buying trends of other countries using Brussels as a financial centre. It could be China, it could be central banks, it could be the fact that Euroclear (the custodial service provider) is based in Brussels. Or it could be none of the above. What we do know, is that demand for US Treasuries has accelerated in 2014. The global savings glut has not disappeared.

Another strong tailwind for fixed income markets is blowing due to the fact that both equities and fixed income assets have had such a great run over the past couple of years. Both public and private pension plans are now better funded and are increasingly looking to lock in their gains before volatility begins to pick up again.

The managers of defined benefit schemes would like to lead a cautious life. It is vitally important that they make enough money to honour the promises they have made to their employees. For this reason, their allocation to safer assets – like fixed income – has historically been quite high.

Many schemes were over-funded around the start of the millennium, meaning defined benefit managers could sleep well at night. This changed after the financial crisis in 2008, when the returns of the equity allocation of many funds nose-dived into negative territory. The memories of that episode have remained fresh, with many managers vowing to de-risk their portfolios if they ever got back to fully-funded status.

Fortunately for the employees of the biggest companies in the US, many pension schemes are now clawing their way back to being 100% funded (see figure 8). The Milliman 100 Pension Funding Index – which represents the funded status of the 100 largest corporate defined benefit funds in the US (around $1.5 trillion of assets) – showed that the funded ratio rose to 87.3% at the end of 2013 from 77.3% a year earlier, representing a deficit of $193 billion. The increase in the funded ratio during 2013 was the largest percentage gain ever experienced in the 14-year history of the Milliman survey.

We would expect that as pension plans get ever closer to being fully funded, pension managers will continue to ‘reverse rotate’ out of equities and into fixed income and focus on liability-driven investing strategies to ensure future payments are met.

Slide8

Will government bond yields move higher from current levels or will the “yield-dampeners” limit the damage?

It appears that the question of where yields move from current levels is more complex than first meets the eye. This reflects the uncertain and experimental nature of unconventional monetary policy such as QE programmes. Given this uncertainty, it is a useful exercise to question the market consensus that yields must rise.

It is very much possible that those looking for yields to rise back to pre-crisis levels when QE ends may be disappointed. Be wary of the yield-dampening forces at play in the US treasury market. In addition, the ‘yield-dampeners’ could easily be applied to the UK or European government bond markets, potentially providing a useful lesson for the future path of yields. This will impact the attractiveness of other fixed income assets such as investment grade and high yield corporate bonds. Arguably, ultra-low cash rates and a stable interest rate environment for government bonds would provide a solid base for corporate bond markets as investors continue to seek positive real returns on their investments.