Bonds = Risks
In all of the PIMCO/Bill Gross excitement and speculation about what money will stay and what will go where, no one is asking whether some or all of the money should exit the bond arena.
I am asking the question both as a professional investment manager and as a member of a number of investment committees. There seems to be a fundamental belief that once serious investment money is devoted to bonds, one can change managers, durations, and credits, but the allocation to bonds is almost sacrosanct. I believe, as Socrates believed, that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” My proclivity — almost childlike — is always asking why.
The Classic Reasons to Own Bonds
Bonds are a contract to pay interest and principal in a timely fashion. Thus, there is no uncertainty about the future when you purchase a bond. Bonds provide income that can be spent or reinvested (particularly in open-end mutual funds). Historically, bond prices have moved inversely to stock prices. In addition, bond prices rarely go down.
The Siren Song of Bonds Is Global
Ever since the bottom of the stock market, if not before, individual investors and many institutional investors have been adding to their bond holdings at a much faster rate than their appreciating equity holdings. I see this rush throughout the mutual fund world in almost every country that has a sizable bond fund market. While the rush is understandable for those who suffered equity losses by selling in the decline or seeing their wealth on paper shrink, I nevertheless find any stampede a bit scary.
While I don’t often agree with the SEC, I was heartened to read what SEC Commissioner Daniel Gallagher said in a speech to the Securities Traders Association in reference to the $10 trillion US corporate bond market. Commissioner Gallagher said “It clearly looks like a bubble.” He indicated that roughly one-quarter of the total is owned directly by retail investors and 73% of the $3.2 trillion of outstanding municipal debt is owned by “small investors.”
I don’t know whether the Commissioner’s numbers include bonds owned directly in open- and closed-end funds, defined contribution plans, and variable annuities. My sense is that direct and indirect holdings of debt issues represent ownership of over half by individuals. He felt that in their chase for yield they did not stop to understand the risks of what they owned.
Commissioner Gallagher made another important point: In 2008, the average daily trading volume was $1.04 trillion; in 2013, it dropped to $809 billion. I believe trading has constricted even more in 2014 due to government regulations restricting the size of inventories that major banks and broker/dealers can own in their market making activities. Greater demand and smaller capital bases seem likely to lead to an increase in bond price volatility.
On a temporary basis, Money Market funds appear to be a resting place. Weekly numbers on flows into Money Market funds seem to be growing at a rapid rate this week through Wednesday, according to Lipper, Inc., my old firm. I find this encouraging on two fronts.
First, the former owners of PIMCO funds may be reassessing where they should invest. (I would hope that they will reduce their bond investment.) Second, investors have not been scared off from using Money Market funds despite the SEC’s misguided attempts to prevent a run on these funds. (They actually made a run much more likely, I fear.) Editor’s note: Read this article for CFA Institute’s perspective on money market fund reforms.
What Are the Risks in Bonds?
The first risk is that high-quality bonds can go down in price. Over the last 15 years, the Barclays Bond Market Index Fund on a capital basis fell in six years — 40% of the time. (Please note that this calculation is ignoring the income produced.) Unfortunately, most bond investors utilize the income produced for their spending needs. They are ignoring the fact that with long maturities issues, the reinvestment of the interest in the then-current interest rate market can produce more capital than the eventual return of their principal when it matures. A slightly less foreboding view is the last 40 quarters for the Vanguard Intermediate Term Investment Grade Fund, during which time it declined on a total reinvested basis 12 times — 30% of the time.
Second, the potential gains of investing in high-quality paper is not going to be large enough to restore the starting capital of a balanced account with at least 50% in general equities.
Third, there isn’t much, if any, room for interest rates to decline and thereby add to the value of existing bonds. At some point the manipulation by the major central banks can not ignore the misallocation of capital to higher credit risk issuers, which will lead to lenders demanding higher rates. My guess is that this will happen sooner than the governments are expecting.
Fourth, the traditional concept behind a balanced fund is that when stocks periodically decline, bond prices will rise as governments force interest rates down. In a major way, this can not happen now. Bond prices and stock prices, instead of being inversely correlated, will move in the same direction, but at different momentums.
Fifth, the bond investor craves certainty, but we are living in an uncertain world. I believe that we are going to be surprised by one or more of the following changes:
- Tax realizations
- Contracts abrogated by courts and governments
- Unforeseen crises which change cash flows
Sixth, a popular measure of risk is, how much can I lose? With bonds there is, perhaps, for an investment manager, a bigger risk. Bonds are essentially contracts, and they are expected to perform in a specified manner. If they don’t for any of the identified elements listed above, the expectational gap could lead to career risk for the manager.
The Weakness of “My Word Is My Bond”
I grew up in a world where stock exchanges were run by their member communities, which enforced personal verbal contracts. You did not have to like the counter-party to a trade, but you believed that the counter-party was good for his or her contract. The community would not tolerate any breaking of the contract. Under the current environment, I hope and believe that my word is taken as acceptable. With what is happening today I don’t know that I would have the same reliance on someone’s else’s bond!
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