actively managed bond funds in a rising interest rate environment

During my working career as an equity portfolio manager, I experienced the US bear markets of 1980-82, 1987, 1990-91 and 2000-2002. Because I spent the majority of my career as a global manager, I also lived through the collapse of the Japanese stock market (then by far the largest in the world) in 1989 and the currency-triggered bear market in many smaller Asian countries in the late 1990s. I started writing this blog as a way of helping myself think about the bear market of 2007-09 and what would follow.

In other words, for equity managers there have been lots of bad times to help us along with the painful process of being able to, as they say, make the critical distinction between brains and a bull market.

Also, the bad periods themselves have been long enough to force us to recognize that different investment styles (growth or value) work best in different economic circumstances.  We certainly won’t change our overall philosophies.  However, successful equity managers all realize that for them there are some times to be in fifth gear with the gas pedal to the floor and others to be in second gear and tapping on the brakes.

 

Looking at the bond world from the outside, it seems to me that little of this has been the case for bonds and bond managers since the early 1980s.  Yes, junk bonds or emerging markets debt may have gotten ugly now and again.  Nevertheless, the continual decline in interest rates from the early Volcker years to the present has made for a remarkably smooth, and consistently bullish, ride for bond investors and managers.

The amazing part is not a long bullish period–after all, equities in the US had that for most of the 1990s–but the fact that the benign environment lasted over thirty years.  To have experienced an ugly time for bonds comparable to what happens to stocks every business cycle, you would have to have been a bond manager in the 1970s!

This is my main concern for actively managed bond funds.

We’re (already) in a period in which interest rates are not going to decline.  They may fluctuate for a while, even a long while, but the new main trend is going to be for rates to rise.  And we haven’t had circumstances that have forced bond managers to cope with a situation like this for decades.

Instead, the recipe for success over the past thirty-five years has been to throw caution to the winds and bet as heavily as possible on continuously declining rates.  The most successful managers would have been the most aggressive, the ones willing to double down on any bet gone wrong and to stack their portfolios full of risk.  Brash, bold, stubborn, no sense of nuance, not the brightest crayon but tenacious.  Think Jon Corzine and what happened to him.

 

Will bond fund managers be able to adjust to the changing trend?  I don’t know.

Bill Gross is another interesting case in point.  He became the “bond king” by betting aggressively on lower interest rates.  My reading of his results for his last several years at Pimco is that he tried to keep his performance numbers up by layering on extra amounts of risk to the main bet that had stopped providing results.  That didn’t work so well, in my view.  Since leaving for Janus, where he could express his ideas in his portfolio without an outside sanity check (outside interference?), he’s done poorly.

This is not about old dogs and new tricks in the sense of age but only in having the temperament and mental flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances.

 

a turning point for bond funds? …stocks, too?

I’ve been noticing commercials on financial TV and radio–why I turn on the functional equivalent of the WWE, I don’t completely understand–for gold.  They tend to go like this:  NOW is the time to buy gold!!!  Why?  …because it’s 4x the price it was ten years ago.

In other words, buy because prices are very high.  That’s crazy.

Bond funds have had a similar pitch over the past few years.  Faced with near-zero, emergency low, interest rates, which imply sky-high bond prices, bond fund managers invented a marketing pitch that became known as the “new normal.”  The thrust is that we are in a post-apocalyptic world, where the earth’s economy has been scorched and will be incapable of growth anywhere on its surface for, say, a decade.  Therefore, buy bonds, avoid stocks.

Interestingly, bond funds haven’t had much trouble popularizing this view.  Bonds, like gold, have performed much better than stocks for a long time.  So bond funds have collected lots of assets and are big advertisers in the media.  And, of itself, the fact that rich and successful people would be predicting a global “lost decade” is a newsworthy story.

As I’ve noted a number of times, one characteristic of this point of view is that it’s very self-serving for bond people.  It’s the only scenario I can think o of where it doesn’t make sense to rebalance your portfolio–to take money out of the strong-performing, high-priced asset, bonds, and put it into the weaker-performing, lower-priced asset, stocks.

Cynics would say that bond managers just told investors a story that would keep them from taking money out of bonds, thus reducing the managers’ income.  They’d probably also point out the quiet diversification of Pimco, the largest bond manager, into stock funds about a year ago.  But, however implausible the idea might have been, it’s possible that bond managers actually believed it.  After all, there’s a powerful psychological tendency, that professional investors have to constantly fight, to screen out facts that call into question the way your portfolio is set up.  And after twenty-five years of almost non-stop success, it must be very hard even to conceive that things might not go your way.

Four factors are beginning to call into question the new normal/by bonds thesis:

1.  Economic growth, which has been very strong in the emerging markets (40%+ of the world), is beginning to pick up in a meaningful way in the US as well.

2.  Stocks are starting to outperfrom bonds in a meaningful way.  According to Barrons, over the past year, actively managed bond funds are up 6%+and their US stock counterparts are up 18%+ (compared with the S&P 500 being up 12%+).

3.  Individual investors have stopped putting new money into bond funds.  For some time, they have been selling municipal bond funds on concerns about credit risk.  But the most recent data suggest withdrawals are spreading to taxable bond funds as well.

It’s not clear what people are doing.  Some data sources show funds beginning to flow into equities.  Others indicate most is being parked in money market funds.

4.  Last week, the Pimco Total Return Fund, perhaps the most famous bond fund in the world (as well as the home of the “new normal”), has announced it will change its investment guidelines so it can put 10% of its money into equity-linked securities, like convertibles.  According to Bloomberg, many other bond funds have been investing in equities for a while and ar leaving Pimco behind in the dust.

my thoughts

I think these developments are bullish for stocks.

In the counterintuitive way that Wall Street thinks, it’s a little worrisome to have the last great equity bear, Pimco, capitulate.  Still, stocks appear cheap, the US is growing again, and the flow of funds data don’t yet show a great deal of investor enthusiasm for equities. It’s not to soon to start to worry that the best may be behind us for this equity cycle (after all, we are about to enter year three of bull market), but it’s way too soon to act.

On a technical note:

If history is any guide, the current active manager outperformance of the S&P 500 can’t continue.  It would explain, however, why professional equity investors appear to have closed up shop for the year a couple of weeks earlier than usual.

I haven’t looked to see what kinds of equity-linked securities bond funds are buying.  But S&P companies typically don’t issue convertibles.  So the risk exposure the funds are taking on may be somewhat different (probably higher) than what one might expect.