After the turnaround, where to? How to look at bonds now

Beyond the twin tragedies of COVID-19 and the related economic damage, the talk of markets this year has doubtless been the speed of drawdown and recovery. A bear market that took just weeks preceded a complete recovery, at least measured by the S&P 500 Index, that took under five months¹. Even though it takes a lot less time to tear down a building than to construct one, the time it took for markets to come back was astonishingly brief.

With an eye on stocks, the recovery has been, while certainly not an illusion, a biased move. The work-from-home world has energized some of the largest-cap, highest-growth stocks, although smaller stocks have recovered as well, mostly to a smaller degree.²

Bonds too have rallied back sharply from March’s drawdown. The key questions are now how to allocate between stocks and bonds, the appropriate role for bonds in a portfolio, and the right selections within bond portfolios.

Fed actions led to historic bond issuance

The U.S. Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) actions to support a variety of fixed-income markets led to a remarkable turnaround and level of new bond issuance. Those with dry powder when the markets bottomed and the new issuance started have been able to put up solid numbers for the year. According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, investment-grade and high-yield issuance for March through June 2020 was $1,123 billion, compared with $483 million for the comparable period of 2019.³ This doesn’t include a record stretch of convertible bond issuance, which was at a pace to threaten previous annual records⁴ after a long stretch of dull years.

Experienced managers recognized that the pandemic-driven drop didn’t reflect a deeply broken system as in the 2008 global financial crisis, which we’ve called a “slow-motion train wreck.” Such managers bought oversold yet highly solvent credits in the March debacle. While these managers weren’t necessarily relying on the Fed’s actions, they weren’t surprised to see the Fed come to the markets’ rescue and took advantage of new issuance, both quality and speculative. But that run may have played itself out as we reach late summer.

Some of the questions we’re asking are: Which sectors may be most vulnerable to another downturn, and which sectors have run the risk of missing the opportunity to strengthen their liquidity during this powerhouse stretch of capital raising? With no good way to measure the length and future severity of the pandemic, businesses with a high degree of indoor activity and people coming together, as well as economically sensitive issuers, might have substantial further capital needs. Bottom-up analysis can identify the issuers to avoid as well as the ones well positioned both before and after the Fed actions.

Measuring the turnaround

As of August 19, AA spreads, were only 75 basis points (bps), above the 52-week low of 48bps but well below the crisis high of at least 250bps.⁵ The heavily populated BBB sector tightened from 457bps basis points to 160bps, well above the 52-week low of 119bps but still evidencing a forceful comeback. It’s also worth noting that U.S. Treasuries were seeing their yields rise briefly in March, as investors wanted cash above all else. Now the 10-year has been straddling 70bps for some time. While there could be room for additional tightening, it may be more likely that fixed-income investors now could be hoping simply to earn their coupons. This adds to the attractiveness of bonds with somewhat higher coupons while being mindful of the incremental credit risk.

The risk in BBB bonds, especially energy

Regarding BBB bonds, there has been widespread concern about the potential for some of them to lose their investment-grade rating in the economic downturn. One of the Fed’s programs has been to buy not only investment-grade debt but also the fallen angels, or credits that have lost their investment-grade rating and fallen into the high-yield category. Well over a year ago, global BBB debt exceeded $7 trillion,⁶ with more than half coming from U.S. issuers.

Candidates for downgrade include larger energy companies, which threaten a reprisal of their 2015 collapse. Oil has bounced back from a quirky but still nearly unimaginable negative price, for a brief moment in April, to around $40 per barrel, but has stagnated there, and that may not be enough for many industry participants to generate positive cash flow. Standard & Poor’s said in March it would review energy credits assuming $35 oil instead of the previous $55,⁷ with nearly half a trillion dollars potentially at stake. Perversely, the impact of the significant number of BBB credits becoming high yield would lead to a higher-quality, lower-yielding investment-grade index, potentially causing investors to add more credit risk to find income.

The following corporate yield chart suggests a downgrade from BBB to BB might result, as a rough estimate, in a widening of 150bps to 350bps. It’s becoming increasingly important to use bottom-up analysis to avoid downgrades to fallen angel status. While a yield widening of 350bps implies a drop straight to single B—a very rare event—markets typically price in downgrade risk well in advance. Bottom-up analysis can help managers understand risk/reward dynamics and seek to avoid exposure to unexpected downgrades.  

Treasury yield curve, showing rates centered around 0.7% on the 10-year.

Bonds today in a balanced portfolio

At the same time, with equities having made such a phenomenal comeback, there’s a case for considering a traditional (if not greater) bond allocation. The debt of banks, healthier than in the last crisis, along with appropriately priced and diversified corporates, can have an essential place in many balanced portfolios. This means a mix of investment-grade and carefully chosen high-yield securities. Investment-grade issuers typically have the luxury of issuing for longer terms with lower coupons, a recipe for duration risk. Higher-yielding bonds tend to have somewhat lower duration risk thanks to their cash flows and generally shorter maturities.

With cash yielding essentially nothing, a modest amount of duration risk, measured carefully with a blend of investment-grade and high-yield bonds when mandates permit, also seems like a good fit even with rates near historic lows and the likelihood of further fiscal stimulus against the pandemic. The key is an approach that doesn’t sway when the markets do but relies on companies with strong fundamentals that can weather storms and whose bonds are appropriately priced for a world with a high degree of uncertainty. After all, we have not only the pandemic but all manner of government response in the air.

Corporate bond yields rising in the initial pandemic shock and then falling sharply.

Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2020. According to, the S&P Midcap 400 Index was still more than 9% below its 52-week high., August 4, 2020. Retirementestateplan, July 2020., August 19, 2020., May 29, 2020., March 16, 2020.

A widespread health crisis such as a global pandemic could cause substantial market volatility, exchange trading suspensions and closures, and affect portfolio performance. For example, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in significant disruptions to global business activity. The impact of a health crisis and other epidemics and pandemics that may arise in the future, could affect the global economy in ways that cannot necessarily be foreseen at the present time. A health crisis may exacerbate other preexisting political, social, and economic risks. Any such impact could adversely affect the portfolio’s performance, resulting in losses to your investment

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person. You should consider the suitability of any type of investment for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.

This material, intended for the exclusive use by the recipients who are allowable to receive this document under the applicable laws and regulations of the relevant jurisdictions, was produced by, and the opinions expressed are those of, Manulife Investment Management as of the date of this publication and are subject to change based on market and other conditions. The information and/or analysis contained in this material has been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable, but Manulife Investment Management does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness, or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use of the information and/or analysis contained. The information in this material may contain projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets, management discipline, or other expectations, and is only as current as of the date indicated. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife Investment Management disclaims any responsibility to update such information.

Neither Manulife Investment Management or its affiliates, nor any of their directors, officers, or employees shall assume any liability or responsibility for any direct or indirect loss or damage or any other consequence of any person acting or not acting in reliance on the information contained herein. All overviews and commentary are intended to be general in nature and for current interest. While helpful, these overviews are no substitute for professional tax, investment, or legal advice. Clients should seek professional advice for their particular situation. Neither Manulife, Manulife Investment Management, nor any of their affiliates or representatives is providing tax, investment, or legal advice. This material was prepared solely for informational purposes, does not constitute a recommendation, professional advice, an offer, or an invitation by or on behalf of Manulife Investment Management to any person to buy or sell any security or adopt any investment strategy, and is no indication of trading intent in any fund or account managed by Manulife Investment Management. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risk in any market environment. Diversification or asset allocation does not guarantee a profit or protect against a loss in any market. Unless otherwise specified, all data is sourced from Manulife Investment Management. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Manulife Investment Management

Manulife Investment Management is the global wealth and asset management segment of Manulife Financial Corporation. We draw on more than a century of financial stewardship to partner with clients across our institutional, retail, and retirement businesses globally. Our specialist approach to money management includes the highly differentiated strategies of our fixed-income, specialized equity, multi-asset solutions, and private markets teams, along with access to specialized, unaffiliated asset managers from around the world through our multimanager model. 

These materials have not been reviewed by and are not registered with any securities or other regulatory authority, and may, where appropriate, be distributed by the following Manulife entities in their respective jurisdictions. Additional information about Manulife Investment Management may be found at

Australia: Hancock Natural Resource Group Australasia Pty Limited, Manulife Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited. Brazil: Hancock Asset Management Brasil Ltda. Canada: Manulife Investment Management Limited, Manulife Investment Management Distributors Inc., Manulife Investment Management (North America) Limited, Manulife Investment Management Private Markets (Canada) Corp. China: Manulife Overseas Investment Fund Management (Shanghai) Limited Company. European Economic Area and United Kingdom: Manulife Investment Management (Europe) Ltd.which is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct AuthorityManulife Investment Management (Ireland) Ltd., which is authorized and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland Hong Kong: Manulife Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited. Indonesia: PT Manulife Aset Manajemen Indonesia. Japan: Manulife Investment Management (Japan) Limited. Malaysia: Manulife Investment Management (M) Berhad (formerly known as Manulife Asset Management Services Berhad) 200801033087 (834424-U). Philippines: Manulife Asset Management and Trust Corporation. Singapore: Manulife Investment Management (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. (Company Registration No. 200709952G). South Korea: Manulife Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited. Switzerland: Manulife IM (Switzerland) LLC. Taiwan: Manulife Investment Management (Taiwan) Co. Ltd. United States: John Hancock Investment Management LLC, Manulife Investment Management (US) LLC, Manulife Investment Management Private Markets (US) LLC, and Hancock Natural Resource Group, Inc. Vietnam: Manulife Investment Fund Management (Vietnam) Company Limited.

Manulife Investment Management, the Stylized M Design, and Manulife Investment Management & Stylized M Design are trademarks of The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company and are used by it, and by its affiliates, under license.


Howard C. Greene, CFA

Howard C. Greene, CFA, 

Senior Portfolio Manager, Co-Head of U.S. Core and Core Plus Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

Read bio
Jeffrey N. Given, CFA

Jeffrey N. Given, CFA, 

Senior Portfolio Manager, Co-Head of U.S. Core and Core Plus Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

Read bio