Are Bonds Still Sufficient Diversifiers?

Equities and bonds fell simultaneously in February's market correction. Is this the end of the negative correlation for bonds and equities that has served investors so well for four decades?

David Brenchley 8 May, 2018 | 1:54PM
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One of the biggest risks facing investors today is the potential for the equity-bond correlation to decouple, according to Sebastian Lyon, chief investment officer at Troy Asset Management.

For decades, bonds have been the perfect portfolio diversifier, providing protection from sharp equity market falls. The two asset classes have been perfectly negatively correlated for the past 35 years, meaning if the latter fell in value, the former would appreciate.

But February’s equity market correction coincided with a simultaneous drop in the bond market. As equities took a downward turn, so did bond prices. As a result, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury bond breached 3% for the first time since 2014.

With yields on both equities and fixed interest instruments at such low levels, Lyon, manager of the Troy Trojan fund, worries this will continue to be the case in the future. Lyon told delegates at the Morningstar Investment Conference he’s worried that the traditional 60%, 40% equity-bond barbell portfolio strategy won’t work in the future.

The rise in the US bond yield is also of concern from a portfolio construction perspective, particularly in times of ultra-low yields and high valuations across the board. “People are rightly concerned about the US bond yield because all assets that generate income are priced off it,” Lyon explains.

“Whether that be equity, property, credit ultimately everything is priced off Treasuries. And if we are at the end of this 36-year bond bull market as some suspect, it has huge implications for such asset prices.”

For his part, Lyon reckons there’s “one last fall in the bond yield before we really see a major bear market in bonds”. “But I wouldn’t necessarily be investing strategically on that basis because we’ve been in a bull market for such a long time and I’m concerned about those correlations.”

An Absence Of Value

A decade of cheap money since the end of the financials crisis has led to the third bubble for asset prices in 20 years. As a result, such prices “need to be taken with much circumspection”, Lyon says. This is worrying for investors because there is currently an absence of value in markets.

“Back in 1999-2000, there were ways of hiding your assets in non-tech companies,” Lyon says. “You could buy value companies, you could buy bonds; there were an awful lot of areas you could hide and protect, if not grow, capital following the dotcom crash.

“Similarly, during and post the housing bubble, there were also places to hide, whether it be in fixed interest, whether it be in gold, whether it be in currencies, particularly in the US dollar.

“But in this cycle, all assets have risen, so it’s going to be much harder on the downside to protect capital. There aren’t nearly as many places to hide.”

The cyclically adjusted price/earnings (CAPE) ratio is currently running at levels seen only two other times in the last century. The Shiller PE peaked at 32 times in 1929, shortly before Black Tuesday; in January 2018 it reached 35 times.

While there’s every chance it could go higher – during the dotcom boom it hit over 40 times – “from those levels, returns were generally pretty poor”. For this reason, the equity-bond correlation we have historically seen is worrying.

Where to Invest?

Lyon says overvalued assets with low prospective returns means investors have been forced to reach for yield. This has, in turn, meant they’ve added risk to their portfolios. The manager thinks this is a mistake, and says his fund has a relatively low allocation to risk.

“Our emphasis is on quality in equities, short duration, index linked and liquidity. We will not be picking the proverbial pennies up in front of the steam-roller.”

James Clunie, manager of the Morningstar Bronze Rated Jupiter Absolute Return fund, shares Lyon’s worries. “I think these are exceptional times in markets,” he told the conference. Echoing Lyon, he says the winners in this environment have been those that have taken risks, and reached for yield.

Clunie admits that an absolute return strategy is not suited to this environment. However, he claims, the ability for a fund manager like himself to short certain assets will be a handy diversifier for investors’ portfolios in these times.

A portfolio whose short positions matched, or even exceeded, its long positions would profit if the market fell, says Clunie. Uniquely, it could also have a negative duration. This would, in turn, lead to a low or negative correlation with other assets.

“That low or negative correlation can be really useful for investors because if you’ve got something that is negatively correlated you know that’ll bring down your overall risk if you blend it into a suite of funds.”

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.

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David Brenchley

David Brenchley  is a Reporter for Morningstar.co.uk