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Should You Still Invest in Bonds?

We know that lower returns are expected from bonds in the future and the sensitivity to interest rates is higher

Mark Preskett 1 November, 2017 | 9:34AM Tanguy De Lauzon

Fixed-income markets have enjoyed one of the greatest 30- to 40-year bull markets in history. With 10-year government bond yields falling from highs of over 15% in the early 1980s to lows of 2% today, the asset class has delivered unprecedented returns for cautiously-minded investors.

The theory is that when stocks go up, bonds go down; and vice versa

At this juncture, it is therefore healthy to remind ourselves of the two key roles lower-risk bonds play in a portfolio: 1) as a source of return, and 2) to diversify equity risk. But these two roles are impacted by the current market framework.

Fixed Income as a Source of Return

When considering the opportunity presented by bonds at current prices, investors should focus on what is knowable and draw lessons from history. We know that lower returns are expected in the future and the sensitivity to interest rates is higher.

The lower return expectations tie in to valuations. With low bond yields, valuations are generally considered at the outer bounds of normality. The prognosis from such a position is one of two viable scenarios. First, valuations could remain at the outer bounds of normality, where yields remain low. In this case, major declines from bond markets are unlikely, although the return backdrop is likely to be lower due to the compressed starting yield. The alternative would be for valuations to revert, where we would likely see negative returns followed by something closer to normality.

The greater sensitivity to interest rates is a result of duration. As inflation pressures have subsided, governments have been incentivised to lock in low rates for longer periods of time. This phenomenon is far more prevalent in some markets than others, but the basic premise has been lower rates locked in for longer.

Diversification Against Falling Stocks

It is useful to pause at this point and contemplate what a bond truly is – if held to maturity, it is an instrument that offers a capped upside – a fixed coupon payout – with an extremely low risk of default. However, the majority of investors don’t buy government bonds directly, and thus, need to consider the secondary market to understand how protective these assets will be during periods of stress.

Specifically, it is the ability to buy and sell in a secondary market where the diversification benefit is obtained. Typically, a conversation about diversification will inevitably end in an assessment of correlations. The theory is that when stocks go up, bonds go down; and vice versa. Yet, it is worth contemplating broader history because this can be grossly misleading over extended timeframes.

Correlation between stocks and bonds

In the chart above, we can see the correlation between stocks and bonds over time. By charting the rolling five-year average, we look through the noise and can see a material difference in the average correlations between the late 1900s and the post-2000 era. While some may justify this by pointing to distinctly different inflationary pressures during each period – for example, 1970 to 1990 was a period of high inflation, while the 2000s have been benign – we believe that generalisations of this nature rarely help the investor and may not be representative of the future.

More dangerously, in our view, is to extrapolate the last 15 years of negative correlations and simply expect it to continue into perpetuity. This would ignore the current state of yields and entrench an investor in the recency bias.

Specifically, we want to go beyond generalisations and average correlations – instead focusing on the possibility for different types of equity shocks and how it might affect bond yields. A particular emphasis on the pre-1980 period could be useful in this regard, as rising interest rates had a meaningfully depressive impact on both equity and fixed-income returns. This must be respected as a potential scenario from current levels, with a recent uptick in inflation showing that this is indeed possible.

In fact, by looking back through the 1963 to 1980 inflationary period we find that the average correlation between equities and bonds was mildly positive, however, bonds were still protective when they were needed, averaging an annual return of 3.1% when equities fell in value.

What Does this Mean for Your Portfolio

The above information helps us to differentiate between longer-term returns and crash protection. By extension, it also helps to determine whether fixed income should play a role in a portfolio if it offers low return expectations. We find that when equities sell off and diversification is needed, fixed income can indeed be useful as a true diversifier. Therefore, the lesson when determining the size of your portfolio positions is to think holistically about the benefits and avoid the temptation to use average correlations.

Conceptually, this might sound complicated with a lot of moving parts. Yet, what we are really trying to understand is the holistic profile of the investment universe and how the bond markets can best be utilised given the state of the broader opportunity set. It may be an onerous process, but by putting a lot of effort into understanding true diversification at a portfolio level, we can understand the intricacies of the exposure and ultimately our portfolio risk.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

About Author

Mark Preskett  is a Senior Investment Consultant & Portfolio Manager for Morningstar UK