The advantage of flexibility

Jim Leaviss, manager of the Global Macro Bond fund, at M&G Investments, discusses how he has been investing through the crisis and the prospects for fixed income markets today.

HOW HAVE YOU ADJUSTED THE GLOBAL MACRO BOND THROUGH THE CRISIS?

“As we came into 2020, trade wars were already causing a slowdown in growth. There were other signs of pressure in the global economy: Germany had had a couple of quarters of zero growth and inflation rates were below target; the yield curve was negative. As a result, we were already wondering whether credit spreads should be as highly valued as they were. Equally, we were also asking whether government bonds should have sold off so quickly. As a result, we moved from an underweight position in government bonds and got rid of most of our corporate bond exposure. When the crisis hit, we had almost zero in emerging markets, credit and high yield. We also had duration of around eight years. We can’t claim to have anticipated the pandemic but we responded to unrelated warning signals.”

WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE?

In March and April, we saw a complete reversal of valuations. It wasn’t quite the global financial crisis, but we did see significant distress in fixed income markets. It was an opportune moment to add back risk. As a result, we took government bond exposure lower, raised investment grade credit to 50% of the portfolio, high yield to 20% and emerging markets to 15%. This wasn’t a question of knowing whether the recovery would be V-shaped or L-shaped, but just that at some stage there would be a recovery, given the actions taken by central banks, and that this would be positive for risk assets. We needed to be selective. There have been some defaults – Argentina, for example, Hertz in the US. That said, it is clear that governments don’t want companies to go bust and the ECB, Bank of England and Federal Reserve are providing a backstop.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO INCOME ON THE FUND?

This is a fixed income fund and people buy fixed income for yield. This crisis may have prompted investors to reevaluate the way they look at equity versus bond yields as dividends are cut. The yield on a corporate bond can’t be cut without the company defaulting. Yields on government bonds have moved down significantly. The yield tipped below 0.5% for US treasuries and, even today, a 10-year gilt pays just 0.15%. However, the yields on some corporate bonds started to look attractive, peaking at over 4% in March. In many cases they weren’t there for long, but it presented an opportunity. The question is whether defaults are priced in. It should be said that defaults are relatively rare for investment grade companies. In the 1980s, we saw 3-4% of investment grade companies default over a span of five years, the highest level in history. At one point, investment grade markets were suggesting a default rate of 18% within one year – and 40% for higher yield. Was capitalism going to end? If not, we saw that we would outperform by being invested in corporate bonds. We found that even short-duration high quality corporate bonds were sold off, when these should have been the most solid area. Often they were being sold in order to raise money because they were the most liquid option.

ARE COMPANIES STILL ISSUING NEW BONDS?

March was the high point in history for corporate bond issuance. Even though investment bankers and fund managers were all at home, there was real demand for the asset class, while companies also wanted to lock in long-term borrowing. Companies drew down credit lines and borrowed aggressively. It was also possible to pick up a new issuance premium. Companies issuing new bonds tended to be doing so at around a 50bps premium to their existing bonds.

ARE YOU ANTICIPATING MORE ACTION FROM CENTRAL BANKS?

If the global economy doesn’t recover, central banks will do more. That said, it is notable that while the Bank of England and Federal Reserve cuts rates, the ECB didn’t. This suggests they don’t think negative rates are very effective – there are always unintended consequences. As it stands, central banks are buying up a lot of the new issuance. The Bank of England has bought more gilts than the Treasury has issued. It is effectively borrowing from itself – quantitative easing is soaking up the excess supply. The government may ultimately make banks or insurance companies buy more government bonds.

WHAT IS YOUR POSITIONING TODAY?

We are more tentative on risk, but still in a broadly ‘risk on’ position. We are reducing those areas that have rallied a long way. Today, the bond markets are more finely balanced and therefore stock selection has become a lot more important. We went into March with a lot of US dollar exposure to take advantage of the flight to safety. The dollar rallied throughout the early weeks of coronavirus, but this has started to tail off again. Investors expected the Eurozone to be in a far worse position and therefore no longer need the safe haven quality of the US dollar. Equally, the US appears to have the worst coronavirus problem, plus rioting and dysfunctional government.

WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT ABOUT THE CURRENT SITUATION?

Certainly, the potential for the virus to become more serious and thereby present a greater risk to people’s health and the global economy. Also, could there be more austerity? Society is fragile and getting people into jobs is very important. The US election is another risk. It is quite a worrying, scary world.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE ROLE FOR A FLEXIBLE FIXED INCOME FUND?

It depends on the client. Some people want to allocate to individual asset classes within fixed income. We find that many clients would rather we took the strain: we have the time, the access to information. Flexible bond funds can help take away responsibility for allocating to different areas at a complex moment.

Listen to Jim’s podcast ‘Uncle Jim’s World Of Bonds’ - https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/uncle-jims-world-of-bonds/id1511287804


Article taken from Hub News Issue 46.