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The case for core: fixed-income investing in an era of yield scarcity

Key takeaways

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns threw global economies into disarray, central banks responded in force and to surprising effect: Bond market dislocations essentially disappeared by the end of the third quarter of 2020.
  • Investors who had fled to cash throughout the past year now face a fixed-income market in which there aren’t many obvious drivers of attractive future returns and the economic outlook is far from certain.
  • Despite the headwinds, we believe there are a number of fundamental reasons why core and core-plus strategies still have an important role to play in a range of portfolios, particularly when weighed against cash as an alternative.

Of all the unforgettable and unprecedented moments the past year has delivered, what transpired in the developed bond markets probably didn’t make anyone’s list—but it was, in many respects, a year worth remembering. 

In March, as the scope and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was coming into focus, central banks around the world were rapidly deploying loosely coordinated stimulative efforts, slashing short-term rates to zero or close to it while rolling out massive bond-buying measures to maintain market liquidity. The spring felt very much like a return to the policies from the wake of the global financial crisis, only this time, the central bank response was bigger, faster, and wider in scope.

And it was for good reason. Economies around the world were devastated by government-imposed lockdowns virtually overnight; unemployment in the United States soared from 3.5% in February to 14.7% in April, while current estimates show U.S. GDP contracted by 31.4% in the second quarter. Those economists with optimistic tendencies speculated we could see a so-called V-shaped recovery, and in hindsight, they weren’t far off the mark: U.S. GDP rebounded dramatically in the third quarter, growing by 33.1%. 

After a sharp repricing of risk in March, many investors foresaw that markets would eventually return to “normal”—the surprise was in how quickly that return came.

Unemployment still remains elevated—6.7% as of the November report—but, with COVID-19 vaccines already being deployed worldwide, there are reasons to believe the worst economic pain is behind us.1

The worst economic pain is likely behind us

Initial weekly jobless claims (in millions)

Line chart showing weekly jobless claims in the United States from January through December 2020. The chart shows a spike in March and April, with weekly jobless claims rising from well under 1 million to nearly 7 million, followed by a gradual decline in the following months. The rate in December was just under 1 million weekly claims.
Source: U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of December 31, 2020.

The window of opportunity closed quickly

In the capital markets, stocks and economically sensitive segments of the bond market were hammered in the first few months of the year but have staged a fairly dramatic recovery since then. High-yield spreads widened to more than 10.0% during the sell-off—levels not seen since the global financial crisis—but today, even with the economy on uncertain footing, spreads have tightened significantly and are back down to around 4.0%, which is even tighter than they were at the end of February.1 Investment-grade debt followed the same trajectory; those spreads were 1.3% at the end of February but have been below that level since early November.1 Throughout the spring and summer, the much-anticipated wave of downgrades finally materialized, particularly in the BBB-rated segment of the market, but there was no tsunami of defaults, and the second half of the year has seen relatively little ratings movement. After a sharp repricing of risk in March, many investors foresaw that markets would eventually return to “normal”—the surprise was in how quickly that return came.

Spreads have already tightened to pre-pandemic levels

Corporate debt option-adjusted spreads (%)

Line chart showing the option-adjusted spreads for investment-grade and high-yield debt. The chart shows spreads for both segments of the bond market widening out significantly in April—to nearly 11% for high yield and over 4% for investment grade—before gradually compressing over the course of 2020, finishing the year at or below where they started.
Source: U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of December 31, 2020.

Like 2008, these significant and relatively indiscriminate dislocations in the bond market created a number of buying opportunities. But in contrast to 2008, that window closed very quickly; the U.S. Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) virtually unlimited backstop was about all the coaxing yield-starved investors needed to reenter the market. While the calendar year returns for many bond funds may ultimately look fairly attractive in 2020, the good performance overshadows a larger problem now that the easy money has been made. Today, valuations in many segments of the bond market are even tighter than they were at the start of the year, but the economic backdrop is much less promising. The markets’ recoveries, leading indicators that they are, have dramatically outpaced the economic healing. In many segments of the bond market, the potential returns a year ago seemed relatively paltry relative to the risks; that situation has only been exacerbated in the months that have passed since. Yields have once again evaporated, and the Fed insists that it has no intention of raising rates anytime soon. Given the multitude of headwinds, it’s not an entirely unreasonable question to ask whether, in today’s environment, fixed income is an asset class worth owning in the first place.

Why bother with bonds

While it’s to be expected that the environment for any investment will be cyclical, favorable one year and challenging the next, it’s also worth remembering why an asset is owned at all and what function it serves in the context of a diversified portfolio.

  • Bonds are built for defense—While there are always exceptions, it’s safe to say that virtually no one has successfully built a retirement nest egg on T-bills alone; that’s not what bonds do. Rather, bonds are built to provide stability to a portfolio, either as a goal unto itself or as ballast for a portfolio geared toward growth. Consider that only three times in the past 40 calendar years has the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index recorded a loss.2 It’s that kind of consistency that makes fixed income attractive in the first place. Every portfolio—whether it’s an individual’s 401(k) or a sovereign wealth fund—has an associated investment objective, and the role a fixed-income allocation plays needs to be assessed in that light.
  • Cash is a poor substitute—Given today’s outlook and the fact that fixed income, broadly speaking, is not a risk-free investment, many investors have been opting for cash as an alternative through money market funds, short duration funds, and other short-term investments. As of early December, U.S. households had a record $16 trillion in cash sitting on the sidelines.3 In fairness, cash too has a role to play in a portfolio, but it’s a poor substitute for a core bond fund. For a growth-oriented portfolio, the key to offsetting the risk posed by equities—which is to say the economic risk at both the macro and security level—is to take pure duration risk, which means owning high-quality government debt. It’s the only mainstream asset class that offers meaningfully negative correlation to equities; cash has a correlation of zero, while commodities tend to be just slightly positive. This isn’t to suggest that growth investors should consider loading up on long-dated U.S. Treasuries, but rather that duration itself can and does serve a purpose—a reality that’s most acutely felt when risk assets are selling off.
  • Income itself is rarely the point—The most reliable source of income since the Industrial Revolution hasn’t been any segment of the bond market—it’s a steady job. While income, naturally, is a key feature of the vast majority of debt securities, it’s not often the characteristic that makes the asset class worth owning. In any portfolio designed to match income to liabilities—whether it’s an IRA or a pension fund—the goal isn’t typically to generate 100% of the desired cash flow through current yield; the point is to generate a total return sufficient to cover the projected outflows with minimal volatility along the way. On the surface, that may seem like a nuanced difference, but it actually has profound implications for portfolio construction. If the goal were, for example, to allocate capital so that it produced—either through current income or capital appreciation—an average of 5% a year over the course of two decades, it would hardly be prudent to build a portfolio of nothing but long-dated corporate bonds with 5% coupons. Such a portfolio wouldn’t benefit from diversifying the sources of risk, nor would it offer much recourse in the event of the occasional default or called bond. It would also, in effect, be highly illiquid; if the goal changed along the way, it would be difficult to correct the course. Ultimately, there are much more prudent ways to pursue those types of liability-matching goals.

Short duration strategies offer a form of insurance, but at a cost

While there’s no arguing that the low interest rates that have been a fixture of the bond markets for more than a decade are a headwind, the scarcity of yield does little to explain investors’ newfound interest in cash and related investments. Specifically, short duration strategies today hold over $2.7 trillion in institutional assets in the United States alone, and it’s not clear they’re being used entirely as they’re intended.4 In general, short duration products are appropriate for investors who have relatively short time horizons—typically one to three years—or for those investors concerned about the prospect of sharply rising interest rates. While we'd expect some volatility on the longer end of the curve, the odds of meaningfully higher short-term rates are virtually nonexistent at the moment; the Fed and a majority of market watchers expect that rates will be anchored at zero until the end of 2023.5 Unless the yield curve steepens dramatically from current levels, short duration products are in a sense a relatively expensive hedge against an unlikely event. As for those investors with compressed holding periods, the benefits offered come with relatively high opportunity costs. 

"None of the drivers of passive returns—clipping coupons, or tightening spreads, or falling rates—will likely be meaningful drivers of performance in 2021."

As we said, the easy money has already been made as spreads recompressed starting in April, and the current opportunity set for short duration fund managers—which includes us—isn’t exactly an abundance. As issues mature and need to be rolled over, the valuations in the market make attractive opportunities relatively scarce.

The case for core: a broad mandate and flexible approach could make a big difference in 2021

Looking ahead to 2021, we’ll be the first to admit there are plenty of uncertainties and potential pitfalls facing fixed-income investors. But the fundamental need for a fixed-income allocation hasn’t changed, and we think cash and short duration products really only serve the needs of a minority of short-term investors. The better bet for long-term investors is a mandate that can tap into multiple segments of the bond market, pursuing opportunities as the investment landscape changes. And despite the challenges, we believe a number of compelling opportunities do exist.

  • Corporate credit—Barring another nationwide shuttering of nonessential businesses, we see revenue growth continuing to rebound in 2021, returning to long-term trends somewhere toward the middle of the year. Downgrades in such an environment may continue, but likely at a slower pace, and we see them as more likely to occur within the upper tranches of the investment-grade universe, rather than in the BBB-rated space. We also believe there’s a good chance that upgrades will outnumber the downgrades next year, which would generally be supportive. It’s also worth noting that the yield curve is materially steeper now than it was a year ago. While short-term rates are lower after the Fed’s actions this spring, the longer end of the curve didn’t move nearly as much.6 Steeper yield curves historically have been supportive of credit spreads and in general provide more opportunities for active managers.
Despite falling rates, the yield curve steepened in 2020

U.S. Treasury yield curve (%)

Line chart showing the yields of U.S. Treasury securities of all maturities, from 1 month to 30 years, at the beginning and end of 2020. Yields in January 2020 were higher than they were in December, but the curve itself was quite flat, with less than 1% difference in yield looking at 3-month vs. 30-year debt. In December, that gap was wider, with a more than 1.5% spread between 3-month and 30-year debt.

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury, as of December 31, 2020.

Turning to technical factors, we’ve seen that corporations tend to hit peak leverage levels soon after the end of a recession and pare down their ratios for several years thereafter. With that process likely already under way, and with projections for lower issuance levels in 2021, we could see fairly tight supply in the corporate debt space, which would be another positive.

  • Consumer debt—Although it may not be a straight line as policy makers take steps toward fully reopening the U.S. economy, the trend has been unmistakably in the right direction. Unemployment, in our view, should continue to trend down throughout the next year, which will have a number of positive knock-on effects in the consumer credit space. Delinquency rates for various asset-backed securities (ABS)—credit card receivables and auto loans, for example—have been falling across the spectrum of borrower tranches, and we believe this trend will continue or possibly accelerate. ABS backed by prime borrowers have been the most insulated from the effects of the lockdowns; as we fully exit the COVID-19 recession, some opportunities may exist among subprime borrowers in this space.
  • Real estate and mortgage debt—The technicals in the residential space were quite strong going into the pandemic, and nearly a year later, not much has changed. Inventory remains historically tight and the volume of new single-family homes coming to market is limited. Household formation, meanwhile, after years of below trend growth, we believe will remain strong in 2021. Mortgage rates have made borrowing more affordable on the margins, with 30-year rates currently sitting near all-time lows; this, of course, is partially offset by rising home prices, but the net result we think is generally positive.1 Some investors have voiced concerns that a rise in mortgage rates could introduce instability into the market, but we think those fears are overblown. Historically, when mortgage rates have begun trending higher, we’ve seen strong demand for at least another year as homebuyers scramble to lock in low rates.
Mortgage rates have fallen to near all-time lows

U.S. 30-year fixed-rate mortgage average (%)

Line chart of the average rate for 30-year fixed mortgages in the United States over the past 10 years. The chart shows that mortgage rates have been somewhat cyclical, rising to around 5% in some years and falling to lows of around 3.5% in others. Throughout 2020, rates fell rather dramatically, finishing the year around 2.5%, which is near their all-time low.
Source: U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of December 31, 2020.

Even within commercial mortgages, by any measure the most maligned segment of today’s bond market, we see some pockets of opportunity. We believe self-storage spaces (which will continue to benefit from the increased demands families place on their homes) and cold storage spaces (which serve as hubs for food distributors) are both poised for continued growth. Commercial real estate that serves the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical fields has generally proven resilient to a variety of hostile conditions over the past year, and we see continued upside. We think the laggards in the space will likely continue to be office buildings and shopping malls, neither of which began 2020 on particularly strong footing and have only struggled since.

Looking out over the next year, we see an investment environment in which active managers will have a chance to earn their pay. None of the drivers of passive returns—clipping coupons, or tightening spreads, or falling rates—will likely be meaningful drivers of performance in 2021. And a passive allocation to an Agg-like market-cap-weighted strategy means, by definition, making a massive investment in a single segment of the bond market, and the one we believe may offer the least upside potential: U.S. Treasury debt.

Nonetheless, we believe fixed income—and especially core and core-plus strategies—still represents the best ballast there is for offsetting risk in a growth portfolio or for laying a strong foundation in a capital preservation portfolio. The fundamental benefits of fixed income haven’t been erased by the challenges of today’s environment; rather, the challenges of today’s environment have underscored the need for a flexible, deliberate, and ultimately active approach to the space.

 

 

1 U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of December 22, 2020. 2 Bloomberg, thebalance.com, as of December 22, 2020. 3 barrons.com, as of December 7, 2020. 4 eVestment, as of September 30, 2020. 5 U.S. Federal Reserve, “Summary of Economic Projections,” as of December 16, 2020. 6 U.S. Department of the Treasury, as of December 31, 2020.

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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

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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