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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High-Yield Turbulence

You may have read some scary headlines on high-yield bonds recently.  We’d like to take a moment to update you on the situation and provide our perspective.  First a little background.  High-yield bonds are debt securities issued by companies with credit ratings below investment-grade.  These bonds are commonly called “junk bonds” because of the weaker balance sheets and growth prospects of the companies that issue them.  As a result of increased default risk, investors typically demand higher interest rates on these types of bonds to compensate for the additional risk they take on.  When things are going well, high-yield or junk bonds can deliver above-average interest payments and price appreciation.  When things are not going well, investors can experience sharp price declines and some companies may even default on bond payments.  In a nut shell, higher reward comes with higher risk.

Many advisors, including Parsec, include a modest amount of high-yield bonds in client portfolios.  Junk bonds are considered an asset class and can improve the diversification of a portfolio because they have lower correlations to regular bonds and even stocks.  This means when regular bonds are flat or down, high-yield bonds could actually rise.  The same goes for stocks – high-yield bonds and equities do not always move in the same direction, which confers some diversification benefits.

In addition to diversification benefits, junk bonds have historically delivered healthy returns.  The group tends to do well in the early years of an economic expansion when tight credit starts to loosen and company balance sheets improve.  On the flip side, high-yield bond performance becomes more volatile as an economic expansion starts to slow down and the spread between higher-quality bonds and junk bonds widen.  This indicates investors once again require more return to hold these higher-risk assets.

Earlier this year, interest rate spreads – the difference between high quality bond interest rates and low quality or “junk” interest rates – started to widen as energy company profits came under pressure and debt default rates ticked higher.  Since May 2015 through mid-December, high-yield bond prices have fallen over 12%*.  However, on a total return basis, the group is down about 8% as higher coupon payments were a partial offset.  While debt default rates on speculative-grade companies are below the 20-year average of 4.3%, at around 2.8%, they’ve jumped from 1.4% a year ago due to falling commodity prices that negatively affect profits**.

As high-yield returns tumbled over the summer, many investors ran for the exits.  Unfortunately, diminished bond liquidity following the 2008-2009 financial crisis made redeeming shares difficult for some.  Regulations that strengthened the banking and financial systems via higher capital requirements and reduced leverage have had the unintended side-effects of raising costs for banks and primary dealers to hold fixed income inventory.  With lower inventory levels, these critical market makers are less able to provide liquidity in the debt markets.  This was highlighted recently when investment firm Third Avenue froze investor redemptions in its high-yield fund (which is not a Parsec holding) due to liquidity constraints.  The Third Avenue fund was heavily invested in some of the lowest-ranked credit bonds, which exacerbated the management team’s ability to find willing buyers.  In the end, Third Avenue chose to freeze investor redemptions for one month.

The Third Avenue situation is unusual, but does it reflect deeper issues for the high yield space?  Our view is that current U.S. economic expansion is maturing, which suggests higher credit spreads and potentially more volatility (including downside risk) for the group.  At the same time, falling commodity prices and a strong dollar are headwinds for high-yield.  That said, U.S. jobs growth remains robust, the housing market continues to advance, and consumers are the healthiest they’ve been since before the Great Recession.  The recent Federal Reserve interest rate hike echoes our sentiments that the U.S. economy is on healthy footing.

While high-yield may see more downside, we believe investors are becoming more discerning after years of indiscriminate investing across high and low-risk asset classes alike.  This is a good thing.  It means that fundamentals, and not accommodative monetary policy, will once again drive asset returns.  Although high-yield bonds may face more headwinds in the near-term, our focus on higher-quality, higher-liquidity, high-yield debt should help us better weather a difficult environment.

Despite potential high-yield headwinds, we continue to recommend that clients remain fully invested.  This is based on our experience that market timing is a losing game, as asset class leadership can change sharply, and often without warning.  The historical record has shown that through various market cycles, both stocks and bonds have out-paced inflation over the long-term.  As a result, we recommend investors stick with their high-yield holdings.

*The BofA Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index

**S&P 500 data

Carrie A.  Tallman, CFA

Director of Research

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