Active bond managers have dazzled investors by outpacing the bond market in recent years. But it’s a simple sleight of hand, and the big reveal is coming.
The trick is that bond managers have been quietly loading up on low-quality bonds. They pay a higher yield than top-quality ones to compensate for their greater risk of default — in technical parlance, a credit premium.
When times are good, as they have been in recent years, there are few defaults because borrowers have little trouble paying their debts. Bond managers collect their credit premiums and easily beat the broad bond market indexes, which tend to be dominated by high-quality bonds.
When the economy slows, however, the defaults start to pile up, handing losses to holders of low-quality debt. And suddenly bond managers don’t look so smart.
It’s a worthwhile trade-off for managers. The booms normally last longer than the busts, which means that credit premiums are usually a boost to performance. And nothing attracts investors like a hot hand, or the appearance of one.
But it’s not great for investors. They often don’t realize that their bond manager is taking more risk until the losses show up. And investors who want riskier bonds can almost always buy them more cheaply through index funds. They would be better served by a closer inspection of bond managers’ tricks of the trade.
Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, sent a shiver through investors last week.
In an interview on “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV, Greenspan warned that the U.S. may be poised for a period of stagflation, a rare combination of high inflation and high unemployment.
The U.S. last experienced such an episode in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the memory still haunts those who lived through it. The annual inflation rate jumped to 9.8 percent in 1980 from 2.9 percent in 1972, according to the core PCE price index, a measure of personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy and the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate swelled to 10.8 percent in 1982 from 3.5 percent in 1969, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For members of Generation X — which includes me — and subsequent generations, stagflation is ancient history. Annual inflation hasn’t topped 3 percent since 1993 and has averaged just 1.8 percent since then. And the current unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is the lowest since 1969.
Still, the implications for investors of skyrocketing inflation and unemployment come quickly to mind. According to lore, a surge in inflation would lift interest rates, causing bond prices to decline and thereby wrecking bond portfolios. Higher interest rates would also thump stock prices because future corporate earnings would be worth less when discounted at higher rates. And all of that would come when many investors would lean on their savings to offset higher living costs and possible bouts of unemployment.
It’s not clear, however, how much of that received wisdom is reliable. Yes, when inflation creeps up, interest rates tend to follow. The correlation between annual inflation and the yield on 10-year Treasuries has been strongly positive (0.76) since 1959, the first year for which numbers are available for the core CPE price index. (A correlation of 1 implies that two variables move perfectly in the same direction, whereas a correlation of negative 1 implies that two variables move perfectly in the opposite direction.)
The U.S. stock market is dominating again this year, and money managers may soon face some unpalatable choices.
It’s not even close. The S&P 500 Index is up 9.9 percent in the eight months through August, including dividends. Meanwhile, overseas stocks, as measuredby the MSCI ACWI ex-USA Index, are down 3.2 percent. U.S. bonds, as represented by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, are down 1 percent. And hedge funds, as tracked by the HFRI Fund Weighted Composite Index, are up a modest 1.7 percent.
It’s too soon to know how private assets, such as venture capital, private equity and real estate, have done because their results are generally reported on a multi-month lag. But it’s not likely to matter. Even the most ardent admirers of private assets, such as elite university endowments, allocate only a portion of their portfolios to them. So the results, however good, are unlikely to make up for the drag from other assets.
Watch volatility spike, and then watch investors scatter for safety. Only this time, they don’t seem to know where to hide.
After years of calm, market turbulence has returned. The annualized daily standard deviation of the S&P 500 Index — a common measure of volatility — has been 18.6 percent from 1928 through March. But the market was much quieter from 2012 through January, with a standard deviation of 12 percent.
That quiet ended abruptly in February. The S&P 500 tumbled 8.5 percent in just five trading days from Feb. 2 to Feb. 8, and its standard deviation has spiked to 23.4 percent since February.