What a Rising Rate Environment Could Mean for Bond Funds

After the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury Bond – a widely used economic bell weather – bottomed in July 2016, interest rates have risen substantially through March of this year.  The recent upward pressure on yields has pushed bond prices lower.  Strong economic growth, ongoing interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, and recent political developments could mean higher yields ahead.  Given the current environment, we’d like to take a closer look at bonds and bond funds.  We’ll examine how they work, a key risk metric to consider, and how these investments might perform if interest rates continue to rise.

Bonds are a type of fixed income investment given the regular cash flows a bondholder receives.  Similar to your home mortgage but with the roles reversed, investors who own bonds are loaning money to an entity (usually a corporation or a government) in exchange for a variable or fixed interest rate over a specified period of time.  This interest rate is known as the bond coupon and it varies based on the credit worthiness of the entity and the length of the payback period, among other factors.

While a bond’s coupon rate, or its stated yield at issuance, remains fixed for the life of the bond its price or value on the open market will vary based on prevailing interest rates.  When interest rates rise, bond prices fall, and when interest rates fall, bond prices rise.

How sensitive a bond’s price is to a change in interest rates is measured by a term called duration.  Specifically, duration is a measure of interest rate risk.  It indicates how much a bond’s principal value will rise or fall due to a change in interest rates.  Measured in years, a bond or bond fund with a higher duration will be more sensitive to changes in interest rates than a lower duration bond or bond fund.  As a result, a portfolio of bonds with a higher duration will fall more in price as interest rates rise than a portfolio with a lower duration, all else being equal.  Fortunately, bond mutual funds or ETFs report their portfolio duration and investors can use this metric to gauge short-term risk.

I say short-term risk because while a jump in interest rates – as we’ve seen recently – will weigh on a bond fund’s near-term performance, the higher current income that comes as a result of an increase in interest rates will often offset much of the decline in a bond fund’s value over the long-term.  This is one benefit of owning multiple bonds or a fixed income fund versus an individual bond.  Because a portfolio of bonds or a bond fund doesn’t have a single maturity date (instead it contains many bonds with different maturity dates), it can provide more income flexibility.  For example, in a rising rate environment, as some bonds in the portfolio mature, the manager can reinvest proceeds from those securities into new bonds that now have higher yields.  In turn, this pushes the portfolio’s yield up and helps to offset price declines.  In particular, bond funds can offer significant diversification benefits given their exposure to many individual bonds with different durations and credit profiles often for a low fee.

While a bond fund’s duration will indicate how much it declines (or rises) in price when interest rates rise (or fall) over a given period, it also indicates how much of a boost it will get from new, higher yields.  Bond funds with higher durations – which are more sensitive to interest rates – typically offer higher current yields to compensate for their higher risk profiles.  So while bond portfolios with higher durations will experience sharper price declines when interest rates rise, they’re also more likely to benefit from higher current income over the long-term.  At the same time, bond funds with shorter duration – which are less sensitive to interest rate changes – won’t benefit as much from higher current income associated with rising interest rates, but they won’t fall in price as much either.

The point is that bond duration is a useful risk metric.  When a fund has a higher duration it tells us that its price will fall more dramatically when interest rates rise as compared to a lower duration fund, but it should benefit more from higher current income tied to higher yields.  The key, however, is your investment time-horizon.  As an investor, you’ll be able to benefit from the higher current income of a longer duration bond fund only if your time-horizon exceeds the fund’s duration.  When it does, higher income over the long-term should offset near-term price declines.

This dynamic – of higher income offsetting falling bond prices – is related to the nature of bonds and is nicely illustrated by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index.  According to Charles Schwab, since 1976 over 90% of this index’s total return has come from income payments rather than price changes.

While most investors should fair well with a bond fund that is aligned with their investment horizon, diversification is another important consideration.  As stocks have historically delivered the strongest long-term returns and have outpaced inflation since the early 1900’s, bond investments are best used when there is a specific income need.  When this is the case, having a mix of shorter and longer-duration bond funds can help an investor take advantage of a changing interest rate environment and mitigate sharp price swings.  In today’s environment, owning bond funds with varying durations – in proportion to one’s income needs, investment time horizons, and risk tolerance – an investor should be better able to take advantage of rising interest rates.  For example, let’s take a client with 20% of his bond holdings in a short duration fund, 20% in an intermediate duration bond fund, and 60% in a long duration bond fund.  If interest rates were to rise sharply, the lower duration fund would see a small if negligible decline in value. In some cases, it may make sense for the investor to sell some of those shorter duration securities and use the proceeds to add to their long duration bond fund, which would now have a higher current yield.

In addition to duration and price sensitivity, Parsec’s Research Committee considers many other factors when constructing a client’s fixed income portfolio.  We also look at where we are in the credit cycle, the underlying quality of each bond asset category, valuation levels, and inflation sensitivity, among others.  Although thorough and well thought out research is critical to meeting your financial goals, staying invested for the long-term is even more important.  When appropriate, doing so with a fixed income portfolio can help you better weather significant price swings and ultimately benefit from current income.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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34th Annual Crystal Ball Seminar

We are excited again to co-sponsor the 34th Annual Crystal Ball with the University of North Carolina at Asheville. This has been a long-standing tradition that we look forward to every year.

On May 3, economists David W. Berson and James F. Smith will make forecasts on the business and financial outlook for the coming year and will explore the implications of those predictions on a state, national, and international level.

To learn more about the speakers and the presentation, please visit the crystal ball website:

https://events.unca.edu/event/34th-annual-economic-crystal-ball-seminar

EVENT DETAILS

Speakers:
David W. Berson of Nationwide Insurance
James F. Smith of Parsec Financial

Location:
Lipinsky Hall Auditorium – UNC Asheville campus

Date:
Thursday, May 3, 2018

Agenda:
6:15 PM – Reception with light hors-d’oeuvres & refreshments
7:00 PM – Economic Outlook
7:30 PM – Financial Outlook
8:00 PM – Q&A

Admission is free, however, seating is limited. To register, contact UNC Asheville’s Economics Department at 828.251.6550 or email kmoore@unca.edu.

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Are We Heading Towards a Recession?

The stock market is considered one of several leading economic indicators. Since 1949 markets have turned lower on average seven months prior to recessions, with a median pullback of about 9%.  However, this includes a wide range of numbers and in six out of the last nine recessions stocks were actually positive for the preceding twelve month period. Recently, investors’ recession fears have jumped in light of increased market volatility. While these concerns are understandable, we prefer to take a broader view when gauging the health of the U.S. economy. Doing so suggests more factors are working in favor of the current expansion than against it, and we could have more room to run.

As of March 1st, the United States entered its 105th month of economic expansion – the third longest on record. If gross domestic product (GDP) remains positive through May, the current expansion will become the second longest in U.S. history. While subpar growth has helped extend the length of this economic cycle, it’s important to acknowledge that we are likely in the later innings of the expansion that started in 2009.

Despite its unusual length, our economy has several factors working in its favor. These include strong corporate earnings growth, a healthy consumer, and improving business spending. Corporate earnings have improved significantly following a decline in 2015 that was tied to lower oil prices and an appreciating U.S. dollar. Likewise, the recently passed tax law — which reduced the U.S. corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% — should provide a significant boost to corporate spending in the months and years ahead. In fact, we’ve already seen a pick-up in capital expenditures from businesses as they’ve been able to return more cash held abroad at lower tax levels.

Although business spending has been notably weak for most of this economic cycle, the consumer has been a major contributor to GDP growth since 2009 and remains healthy. Strong jobs growth and recent gains in wage growth should continue to support household spending. While markets are concerned that the recent gains in wage growth suggest inflation may be heating up, it’s important to remember that for the last nine years investors were more worried about deflation. We would suggest the recent increases in wage growth reflect a healthy development, one that indicates a return to more normal conditions.

To that point, U.S. inflation has been persistently below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target since the Financial Crisis.  With the recent uptick in wage growth, the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index (PCE) – what the Fed uses to track inflation – is now up only 1.7% on a year-over-year basis.  Contrary to investor concerns, this would not suggest an over-heating price environment but a return to healthy inflation levels. Gradually rising inflation will also allow the Federal Reserve Open Markets Committee (FOMC) to continue to normalize interest rates, which have been at unusually low levels. Higher yields will help support millions of retirees on fixed incomes, stabilize many pension funds, and most importantly give the FOMC wiggle room to lower rates when the next downturn occurs.

As the FOMC continues to raise rates this year, investors and economists will be closely monitoring the yield curve. The yield curve is a line that plots the interest rates of bonds with the same credit ratings but different maturities. During economic expansions, the yield curve is usually upward sloping as bonds with longer maturities typically have higher yields. However, since 1901 there have been seventeen inverted yield curves (when the yields on shorter maturity bonds exceed those on longer maturity bonds) that have persisted four months or longer, all of which have been followed by a recession. Thus, an inverted yield curve that stays inverted for at least four months has never produced a “false positive” recession reading. This stands in contrast with the stock market, which as the late Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson once said, “has accurately predicted 9 of the last 5 recessions”.

Towards the end of 2017 the yield curve began to flatten. This caused some investors to worry it would invert, indicating a recession was around the corner. Starting in late January stock market volatility and bond yields jumped, amplifying investors’ recession fears. Ironically, the stock market turbulence and higher interest rates helped push the yield curve higher. Although the recent market swings and decline in bond prices (resulting from higher yields) were unpleasant, they are helping to avoid an inverted yield curve – one of our most reliable recession predictors.

In short, we see more positives than negatives regarding the economy. At the same time, it’s evident that we are in the later innings of the current expansion and risks such as high corporate debt levels, rising interest rates, and above-average asset valuations could trigger the next recession. Accurately predicting when that will happen, however, is a difficult job for even the most astute economists and investors. Fortunately when looking at the prior nine recessions since 1957, stocks have declined just 1.5% on average and market returns one-, three-, and five-years following past recessions have been significantly positive. Granted, the stock market during any individual recession may be significantly negative, but in four out of the last nine recessions, stocks actually rose. These statistics support our belief in long-term investing and using market pullbacks as opportunities to add to positions at lower prices.

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Mid-Year Market Update

Now that we’re half-way through 2017, it’s time to take a look at market and economic trends year-to-date. The big picture view is that asset classes across the board have delivered strong returns through June. This is despite interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). In fact, Treasury yields have actually fallen in the face of two interest rate increases this year, pushing bond prices higher. International stocks and bonds have also risen in 2017, boosted by stabilizing global growth rates, depressed yields world-wide, and improving corporate earnings.

Looking a little more closely at the U.S., stocks continued their upward trajectory early in the year following the post-Presidential election results in November. While the new administration has not made much traction in passing new legislation, relatively healthy economic data – including good jobs growth, higher wages, and a strong housing market – have supported stocks. At the time of this writing (June 15, 2017), the S&P 500 Index is up 8.5% on a price-basis and up 9.7% on a total return basis (which includes dividends).

Technology stocks have led U.S. equity markets this year. Within the S&P 500 Index, the sector is up over 17% year-to-date given healthy earnings growth expectations for the group. The more tech-heavy NASDAQ Index is up a whopping 14% this year, almost 6% ahead of the S&P 500 Index. However, we’ve started to see some signs of weakness among tech stalwarts recently and are watching the group closely. On the flip side, energy and telecom stocks have lagged the index, with price declines of 13% and 9%, respectively. Of note, energy and telecom stocks were two of the three best-performing sectors in the S&P 500 Index last year, with prices returns of +24% and +18%, respectively. This marked turnaround in performance provides a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of market timing: last year’s leaders may well become this year’s laggards. In general we’ve found that it’s difficult, if not impossible to predict which sectors or industries will outperform in any given year. As a result, we recommend maintaining a diversified portfolio through all market cycles and rebalancing regularly.

Another wide disparity arose among growth and value stocks. Year-to-date, growth stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Growth Index) are up almost 14% on a price return basis versus a 3% return for value stocks (as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index). Much of the outperformance by growth stocks stems from strong returns among technology stocks – many of which are growth-oriented and trade at higher valuation levels.

After years of underperforming U.S. stocks, international equities have outperformed year-to-date. In aggregate, developed stocks from Japan, Europe, and Australia are up 14% on a price return basis through June. While this group has lagged U.S. stocks over the past four consecutive years, improving economies in most of these regions, positive consumer sentiment, and accommodative central banks are starting to turn the tide. Likewise, Emerging Markets stocks are up over 17% on a price return basis so far this year. The marked turnaround comes as corporate earnings growth for many of these countries is starting to improve and global growth is stabilizing.

Other interesting observations for 2017 include record-low stock volatility levels, lower yields despite higher interest rates by the FOMC, and an eventful (if unproductive) six-months in Washington.

Looking forward, we see risks and opportunities. The Federal Reserve is set to reduce its bloated balance sheet later this year which could pose a risk to above-average stock valuation levels. Despite the potential for unintended consequences, we view the move as a vote of confidence in the U.S. economy and as a much needed step towards more normalized monetary policy. While a more restrictive Federal Reserve is a headwind to asset prices, interest rates remain very low (with no signs of rising) and the U.S. economy remains on stable footing. These factors, along with improving U.S. corporate earnings growth, bode well for continued stock gains over the long-term.

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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32nd Annual Economic Crystal Ball Seminar

Each year we co-sponsor the Annual Economic Crystal Ball with UNC Asheville.  This is a great opportunity to hear Parsec’s Chief Economist, Dr. James F. Smith, and Nationwide’s VP and Chief Economist, Dr. David W. Berson, discuss the economic and financial outlook through 2017.  To register please email Kimberly Moore at kmoore@unca.edu or call at 828-251-6550.   A copy of the brochure can be found here.

  • Location: Lipinsky Hall Auditorium (Next to Ramsey Library)                                               UNC Asheville Campus
  • Date: Thursday, April 28, 2016
  • Reception: 6:15 p.m.
  • Economic Outlook:  7:00 p.m.
  • Financial Outlook: 7:30 p.m.
  • Q & A: 8:00 p.m.

The Economic Outlook will focus on inflation, employment, interest rates, the strength of the dollar and the housing market. The Financial Outlook will explore the implications of Federal Reserve policy for the financial markets. Various investments will be addressed, with an emphasis on interest rates and the bond market.

About our Speakers

David W. Berson, Ph.D                                                                                                              Dr. Berson is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at Nationwide Insurance, where his responsibilities involve leading a team of economist that act as internal consultants to the company’s business units.  His numerous professional experiences include Vice President and Chief Economist at Fannie Mae from 1989-2007, past president of the National Association of Business Economists, and senior management position with Wharton Econometrics Forecasting.

James F. Smith, Ph.D.                                                                                                              Dr. Smith is the chief economist at Parsec Financial.  He has more than 30 years of experience as an economic forecaster. Dr. Smith’s career spans private industry, government and academic institutions, and includes tenures with Wharton Econometrics, Union Carbide, the Federal Reserve and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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