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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Why Don’t We Trade in Round Lots (or at least round off the shares)?

Over the last two years, you may have noticed that some of your individual stock holdings have gone from neatly-rounded share amounts, to odd-numbered share amounts. Why did this happen?

First, a little history.

In the days before computers, market specialists traded shares on paper in a physical stock exchange (think Trading Places). In order to make the math easier, they traded in what are called “round lots” or shares in multiples of 100. If you wanted to trade an odd lot back then, you would incur an additional cost. Once computers took over the trading landscape, odd-lot trading was no longer difficult. It’s just as easy for a computer to match round lots as it is for them to match odd lots, so there’s no extra fee associated with trading an odd lot. In addition, the advent of algorithmic trading has contributed to the increase in odd-lot trading.

Since there is no longer any impediment to trading odd lots, this is how we’ve purchased shares of stocks and ETFs for our clients for many years. Up until a couple of years ago, however, we still rounded off the share amounts to the closest 5 or 10 shares, primarily because those of us who work with numbers tend to appreciate evenly-rounded shares, neatly made beds, and spice cabinets where all the labels are lined up (and in my house, parsley/sage/rosemary/thyme must always be arranged thusly).

Alas, two years ago, our hospital corners came untucked by none other than a software program called iRebal. A fantastic program in so many ways, one of its features is, that it likes to calculate trades in dollars. This makes a lot of sense for the type of rebalancing that we do, which is always dollar-based. With our previous software, Portfolio Managers took an extra step to manually round-off the stock shares to the closest 5 or 10 before sending the trades to the blotter to be executed. iRebal saves the rounding to the last minute, so that it happens AFTER the trades reach the blotter. Prior to execution, the trader refreshes the stock prices and the share amount is calculated at that time. In this way, we are protected from buying or selling too much based on stale pricing. In addition, we found that having the software round the shares to the nearest 1 (rather than 5) resulted in a more accurate portfolio rebalance. And yes, we did have a lengthy discussion about switching to a nearest-one rounding convention, but decided that 1) since odd-lot trading does not result in a price disadvantage, and 2) it helps us achieve our stated rebalancing goals on behalf of our clients, it’s worth wrinkling the sheets a little bit.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

Sarah DerGarabedian

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Why Trying to Time the Market is a Losing Game

The U.S. stock market has returned 282% since bottoming in March 2009, following the Financial Crisis.  Since that time, the S&P 500 Index has delivered positive returns in seven out of the last eight years and appears poised to produce another gain in 2017.  While it’s true that valuation levels are above long-term historical averages, in this email we’ll explore why trying to time the market is a losing game.

As a client you may be concerned that higher stock valuation levels coupled with a long-running bull market could mean an imminent pullback.  If so, you’re not alone.  Many investors have noted that it’s been a while since we’ve had a major stock market correction (defined as a drop of 10% or more).  This makes sense given that historically, the stock market has averaged three pullbacks of about 5% per year, with one of those corrections typically turning into a 10% or greater decline.  While it has been twenty-two months since our last market correction, we’ve seen longer.  Since 1990, we’ve experienced three periods lasting longer than twenty-two months over which markets did not experience a 10% or greater pullback.  So although we’re not in uncharted territory, the historical record suggests we could be closer to a market decline than not.

Given the above facts, clients often ask why we don’t sell stocks and raise cash in order to avoid the next market correction.  It’s a fair question, but when examined more closely we find that it’s a very difficult strategy to implement successfully.

Research has shown that trying to time the market is a losing game.  One reason is that an investor has to accurately predict both when to get out of the market and when to get back in.  While it’s difficult enough to time an exit right, the odds of then correctly calling a market bottom are even lower.  Part of this relates to the nature of market declines.  Looking back to 1945, the average stock market correction has lasted just fourteen weeks.  This suggests that investors who correctly sell their stocks to cash may be sitting on the sidelines when equities surge higher, often without warning.  While moving into cash may avoid some near-term losses, it could come at the higher cost of not participating in significant market upside.

Another reason to avoid market timing relates to the nature of market returns.  History shows that since 1926, U.S. large cap stocks have delivered positive returns slightly more than two thirds of the time.  As a result, you’re much more likely to realize higher long-term gains by remaining fully invested in stocks and weathering some of the market’s admittedly unpleasant downturns.

At Parsec, instead of market timing, we recommend investors stay invested throughout market cycles.  While this can be difficult at times, investing in a well-diversified portfolio has been shown to help mitigate market volatility and provide a slightly smoother ride during market downturns.  This is because portfolios that incorporate a thoughtful mix of asset classes with different correlations can provide the same level of return for a lower level of risk than a concentrated or undiversified portfolio.  It also ensures that investors participate in market gains, which often materialize unexpectedly.

In addition to constructing well-diversified portfolios, we believe in setting and maintaining an appropriate asset allocation based on your financial objectives and risk tolerance.  We then rebalance your portfolio to its target weights on a regular basis.  This increases the odds that you sell high and buy low.

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How Parsec Monitors Investment Securities

Parsec invests in a variety of securities for its clients.  These may include mutual funds, exchange traded funds or ETFs, and individual stocks, among others.  All of these investments can and do experience significant price pullbacks from time to time.  While Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee (IPC) focuses on investments it can hold for the long-term and performs significant research before adding any new positions, price declines still happen.  In this email we’ll discuss how the IPC monitors investment securities and we’ll share with you our process for when a stock or fund doesn’t perform as expected.

Investment security returns are driven by a number of factors.  For individual stocks, earnings growth, competitive environment, and exogenous events can significantly affect price performance.  For mutual funds and ETFs, the general capital market environment as well as portfolio management departures or changes at the parent company can influence both fund flows and price changes.  At Parsec, in addition to reviewing all covered securities at regularly-scheduled meetings, the Investment Policy Committee continually monitors client investments for these types of factors in between our ongoing investment reviews.

We do this by reading sell-side research reports, company government filings, and the news.  Likewise, the financial software we use alerts us to any new developments on our covered securities and helps us manage the large volume of news flow in order to focus on the most important stories of the day.  When a significant event does happen that negatively affects a security, we research the development by listening to a company’s conference call, reading industry reports, and conducting our own due diligence.  We review our thesis on the fund or stock and determine if and how the latest events could affect the security’s long-term prospects going forward.  In order to gauge an investment’s upside potential we adjust our growth assumptions to reflect the new information and evaluate the security’s risk/reward profile in light of its new price level.

Oftentimes when a major story surfaces there is minimal information on which to make a decision.  At the same time, the market has a tendency to overreact to news events.  For these reasons, Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee may intentionally wait before taking action when a stock or fund experiences a significant negative development.  Although it may appear that we are not responding to the event in question, we are in fact working diligently behind the scenes to gather as much data as possible while reviewing our thesis and assumptions.  This can be a frustrating time for clients who would, understandably, prefer us to take immediate action.  However, we have found that taking a wait-and-see approach allows us to collect more information and answer important questions before making an uninformed or premature decision.

Waiting for the dust to settle while collecting additional information also allows us to better understand how a development could affect a stock or fund’s long-term prospects.  If we determine that a company or fund can recover from an adverse event and the security has fallen significantly in price, it’s often an attractive buying opportunity.

However, on other occasions it may be clear that it’s time to sell a position.  This can happen when an investigation surrounding a security is new but affects multiple divisions or aspects of the underlying company’s or fund’s operations.  Another example may include an environmental disaster or a significant product recall that could take years to resolve.  In these instances the best action may involve taking a modest loss now in order to avoid a much larger loss in the months or years to follow.

While our bias towards higher-quality stocks and funds may mean we’re more likely to hold a security or even add to positions following a negative news event, we are closely monitoring client investments and performing in-depth due diligence as new developments arise.  Our intention is to make objective and thoughtful decisions that will benefit clients and their portfolios over the long-term.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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(Tax loss) Harvest Season is Almost Here!

The kids are back in school, the leaves are changing colors, and pumpkin spice lattes – the age-old harbingers of harvest season – are everywhere. At Parsec, we are preparing for the harvest…of tax losses.

Every year, beginning in late October/early November, Parsec’s portfolio managers will scour clients’ taxable accounts for meaningful losses, which we can use to offset realized gains created from trading throughout the year. These tax-efficient trading strategies provide value to clients by minimizing their tax burden while keeping the portfolio aligned with their financial planning goals.

You might see trades from one security into another one that is similar, but not exactly the same – we do this so that you can recognize a loss while maintaining exposure to the same industry or sector, yet avoid incurring a wash sale. According to IRS publication 550, “a wash sale occurs when you sell or trade stock or securities at a loss and within 30 days before or after the sale, you buy substantially identical stock or securities,” either in the same account or in another household account, including IRAs and Roth IRAs. Stocks of different companies in the same industry are not considered “substantially identical,” nor are ETFs that track the same sector but are managed by different companies (like a Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF vs. an iShares Emerging Markets ETF).

Sometimes it makes sense to place a loss-harvesting trade and leave the proceeds in cash for 31 days, then repurchase the same security. We may do this for clients who have cash needs during the holiday season, with the intention of placing rebalancing trades in January when there is no more need for liquidity. When liquidity is not an issue, however, we prefer to keep the funds fully invested in another high-quality name. We may later choose to reverse the trade, once the wash sale period has expired, or we may leave the trade in place if we think it is appropriate and suits the clients’ needs.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

 

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Value Stocks May be Poised to Outperform

Since Parsec’s founding in 1980, we’ve touted the benefits of long-only equity investing.  This includes owning individual stocks, mutual funds, and exchange traded funds (ETFs).  We’ve also maintained the same investment style over the last thirty-seven years.  Regarding funds, Parsec’s investment policy committee (IPC) focuses on low fees, higher-quality holdings, and managers with long track records of outperformance.  When researching individual stocks, we take a value approach, favoring higher-quality companies that trade at a discount to history or peers.

While history shows that value stocks have outperformed growth stocks over most market periods, in recent years growth stocks have delivered higher returns.  In this email we’ll discuss what we mean by value versus growth investing and why we believe value stocks are poised to outperform going forward.

Different stock investors define “value investing” differently.  However, most agree on a few basic principles.  In general, value investors prefer stocks that trade at discounts to their intrinsic values.  Often this happens when a stock’s valuation falls below its long-term historical average or that of its peers.  Another tenet of value investing is margin of safety.  This means selecting stocks that can deliver healthy total returns even if current growth assumptions fall short of expectations.  While we consider ourselves value investors, we will add select growth stocks to the Parsec buy list when expectations look reasonable and a company has a competitive advantage.  In other words, when we think a stock has a reasonable margin of safety.

In addition to a value-based stock selection approach, Parsec’s investment philosophy also has a quality bias.  This means we prefer companies with strong cash flows, consistent earnings growth, a long history of dividends, and above average returns on invested capital.  We also favor companies with strong balance sheets that can withstand different market environments and even gain market share during difficult economic periods.

Looking back over the market’s history, value stocks have outperformed growth stocks by an average of 4.4% annually from 1926 to 2016 (Bank of America/Merrill Lynch).  More recently from 1990 to 2015, value stocks outperformed growth stocks by just 0.43% annually.  The spread has since reversed and in the last ten years value stocks have lagged growth stocks by 3% annually through the second quarter of 2017*.

The shift in leadership from value to growth stocks coincided with the start and continuation of the Federal Reserve’s massive monetary accommodation programs known collectively as quantitative easing (QE I, II, and III).  Those programs put additional downward pressure on interest rates.  In the face of low or no yields and the slowest economic expansion after a deep recession in over 120 years, investors demonstrated a preference for growth stocks over value stocks.  They were willing to pay up for companies delivering higher growth in a world where growth had become scarce.  Throughout the last ten years value stocks have occasionally outperformed, but usually in tandem with a steepening Treasury yield curve and thus improving growth expectations.

Because asset prices and interest rates are inversely correlated, very low interest rates over the last decade have led to above-average asset valuation levels.  This has been even more pronounced among growth stocks as investors have been willing to pay a premium to own them in a slow growth environment.  As a result, typically higher-priced growth stocks are even more expensive today.

Sticking to our value- and quality-biased investment approach has admittedly been a headwind in recent years.  However, we believe higher-quality stocks trading at a discount are poised to outperform.  Growth stocks currently trading at premium valuation levels will have further to fall in the event of a market downturn.  As well, low interest rates have prompted corporations to take out record debt levels.  As rates begin to rise, higher-quality companies or those with strong balance sheets and robust cash flows will be better able to service their debt levels, even during an economic downturn.  While maintaining our investment approach through the current environment has been challenging, we feel confident that investing in higher-quality companies trading at discounted valuations will reward clients over the long-term.

*References the Russell 3000 Growth Index and the Russell 3000 Value Index

The Parsec Team

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March Update – Trading

Trading is an important, albeit often underappreciated part of investment management.  In this email, we’ll share with you our investment philosophy and how it drives our trading approach.  While Parsec uses both funds and individual securities across client accounts, this blog applies more to those portfolios with individual stock holdings.  In general, we use funds for smaller-sized accounts because of the immediate diversity it provides, at a relatively low cost.  We generally use individual securities for larger client portfolios as these portfolios offer economies of scale that can overcome trading costs.  Over the years, we have fine-tuned our trading approach with an eye towards minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency.

As you’ve heard us say time-and-again, Parsec does not engage in market timing.  Instead of trying to determine when one asset class will underperform and another outperform, we select our securities using a bottom-up fundamental research approach.   Using individual equities as an example, this means that we first screen any new stock ideas for attractive financial characteristics and then perform additional due diligence to determine its total return potential over the next several years.  Once a stock is added to a Parsec portfolio, we monitor the company regularly for changes in its competitive environment, its growth drivers, and valuation levels.  However, we do all of this in light of our long-term thesis on the stock, as opposed to the market’s near-term noise.

Taking a long-term investment approach in which we focus on a security’s total return potential often allows us to buy and hold securities for many years.  This keeps our portfolio turnover – a measure of how frequently assets are bought and sold – low, and in turn keeps our trading costs low.  When we do trade we use block trades whenever possible.  By aggregating all of our trades into one large transaction we can better assure that clients receive the same price when a given security is bought or sold.

In addition, our focus on a security’s long-term potential largely circumvents the need for specialized trade orders.  Typically short-term traders, and not long-term investors, utilize limit orders, stop orders, or other types of non-market orders.  These specialized trades often come with additional costs, including higher transaction fees for retail investors and various opportunity costs.

One such opportunity cost can arise when setting short-term price targets.  For example, using a limit order to purchase a security requires an investor to set a price target.  However, without thoroughly researching a security using fundamental analysis, price targets are often based on “a gut feel” or are knee-jerk reactions to an investor’s past experience with an asset.  In effect, unconscious emotions can drive the trading decision and lead to even higher costs.  These can come in the form of missed opportunities, as when a stock declines but doesn’t quite reach an investor’s price target to buy.  In this case if the stock then continues higher an investor may have missed-out on significant upside potential.

Another opportunity cost is possible when a security pays a dividend, but because an investor was waiting for a slightly lower price before buying, he or she inadvertently forfeited the added income.  In some cases the dividend payout might have amounted to more than the savings associated with buying at a lower price.

While there are many types of trades, and some that do add value, in general we’ve found that specialized trade orders often come with more costs than benefits.  This is why Parsec identifies assets using fundamental research and takes the long-term view on a security’s total return potential.  Doing so inherently reduces security turnover in a portfolio and thus trading costs.  It also avoids incurring hidden opportunity costs and, we believe, increases the likelihood of reaching your longer-term financial goals.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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