Insights on short- and long-term changes within the global fixed-income markets.
“Governments have become heavy issuers of debt, running huge deficits. We expect that their outstanding debt â€” and, consequently, the weighting of government securities in fixed-income market benchmarks — will grow.”
— Brad Adams
Senior Fixed Income Product Manager, Northern Trust
The fixed-income crisis that shook global markets from mid-2007 through early 2009 reverberated far and wide. During the worst of it, markets that were normally liquid froze. Even low-risk, stable investments, such as money market instruments, faced difficulty and raised investorsâ€™ fears. Terms such as â€śstructured,â€ť â€śsecuritizedâ€ť and â€śleveraged,â€ť which previously promised enhanced yield, became red flags, warning risk-averse investors to steer clear of securities that were too complex to understand fully.
The impact that all this will have on investment opportunities and risk perceptions is significant, according to Northern Trust investment executives. Among the changes they see are changing supply and demand dynamics, increased regulation, better risk management, a focus on liquidity and a return to more historical return levels following the extreme volatility of 2007 to 2009.
As economies recover from the broadest and deepest downturn in decades, one of the most profound changes the Northern Trust team sees is a shift in the composition of global fixed-income markets. â€śWith governments deeply in debt, issuance of government securities is rising and is likely to remain high for years,â€ť says Brad Adams, senior fixed income product manager at Northern Trust. â€śGovernments have become heavy issuers of debt, running huge deficits. We expect that their outstanding debt â€” and, consequently, the weighting of government securities in fixed-income market benchmarks â€” will grow.â€ť
Over the past year there also has been increased issuance of corporate debt. One factor contributing to the rise in the supply of these types of securities has been banksâ€™ greater caution to engage in lending. Also, it has been much easier and less expensive for corporations to obtain funding in the capital markets. Investors leaving the securitized sectors perceive diversified corporate exposure as a decidedly better way to pick up yield with less volatility.
In addition to the expansion of debt issuance, there is a rising aversion to structured products, such as asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities. â€śInstitutional investors now find simple, straightforward securities, such as government and corporate bonds, more appealing than complex products that may carry unknown risks,â€ť notes Wayne Bowers, chief executive officer, Northern Trust Global Investments, London.
As a result of these supply and demand trends, the composition of fixed-income indexes is expected to shift toward government bonds and relatively high-quality corporate credit and away from structured products, which are out of favor with investors.
“Institutional investors now find simple, straightforward securities, such as government and corporate bonds, more appealing than complex products that may carry unknown risks.”
— Wayne Bowers
Chief Executive Officer, Northern Trust Global Investments, London
The move toward a more basic approach to debt management dovetails with another investor trend: a growing interest to shift from active to passive investment management. â€śWith investors wanting less complicated investment solutions,â€ť says David Rothon, director of cash and fixed income product development, Northern Trust, London, â€śthe increased use of passive strategies will magnify the impact of shifts in issuance. And as the dynamic of rising government bond issuance changes the composition of fixed-income benchmarks, we will likely see a cycle that perpetuates further demand for government securities.â€ť
This points to a concern investors have with index strategies tied to broad benchmarks such as the Barclays Capital Aggregate Index; index composition is driven by issuance. â€śIn recent years, this meant that investors employing passive strategies held a higher weighting in mortgages than they might have wanted and less Treasury debt,â€ť says Adams. â€śThat decision was made for managers of indexed products by the composition of the overall market rather than the merit of the investments themselves, although the index concentrates on the best, most liquid securitized products.â€ť
An additional risk facing investors using a passive fixed-income strategy is that the largest issuers of debt within an index universe typically will have a large weighting within the benchmark. Depending on the health of a bond issuerâ€™s balance sheet, investors could be exposed to hidden risks. â€śOne way that we have seen clients manage around that in a global fixed-income mandate,â€ť Rothon says, â€śis to exclude a country that is considered particularly high risk from a passive portfolio in the design phase, and then work with us to manage the remaining market exposure passively.â€ť
Uncover Hidden Risks
Whether pursuing passive or active strategies, investors must be aware of hidden risks. For instance, just as investors in passive strategies are subject to the benchmarkâ€™s default asset allocation, active investing has typical biases as well. â€śActive managers tend to be overweight spread product,â€ť Adams says. â€śWhen spread products such as mortgage-backed or asset backed, and even corporate securities, perform handsomely, active managers generally do well. But when spread products falter, active managers have tended to underperform the benchmark, sometimes significantly.â€ť
Active managers regularly invest in â€śout of benchmarkâ€ť securities (e.g., emerging market debt and high yield securities), which is a key tool they use to generate excess return, but with added risk.
Another major risk associated with active management involves manager selection. Only a handful of active managers have consistently outperformed the market over long periods. Choosing the wrong manager could substantially affect returns.
When investing passively, investors must first decide on which index to track. For U.S. bonds, the Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index and the Government/Credit Index present material differences. The Aggregate Index holds a weight of more than 40% in asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities while the Government/Credit benchmark excludes these, Adams says. Investors should consider very carefully the type of risk exposure they prefer.
The unraveling of complex structured investments, and the ensuing negative impact on investorsâ€™ portfolios, has understandably fueled a back-to-basics movement. â€śIn practical terms, it means that corporate bonds with a basic, plain vanilla flavor are more attractive than structured debt products, reflecting a growing distaste for risk,â€ť notes Adams.
A logical outcome of this move toward simpler solutions will directly affect the behavior of institutions such as banks. â€śBanks will act more like banks,â€ť Bowers says. â€śTheyâ€™ll have smaller balance sheets. Theyâ€™ll take deposits and use that money to lend, rather than issue securitized products. And theyâ€™ll rely less on leverage or structure for the creation of lending products.â€ť
Bowers also foresees more stringent capital reserve requirements against a business line that supports structured credit or securitized products. Should such requirements come into being, he sees basic profitability equations driving behavior. â€śBanks wonâ€™t sell asset-backed commercial paper to money market funds any more, and they wonâ€™t look to buy longer-dated, lower-rated, higher-yielding, securitized products on their balance sheet.â€ť
In the United Kingdom, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has proposed that all banks with a branch in the country will need to demonstrate that they have a liquidity buffer. â€śIn essence, theyâ€™ll be required to own high-quality U.K.-issued government bonds,â€ť observes Bowers. â€śThe thinking is that this liquidity buffer is needed in order to protect the depositors, shareholders and the banks themselves in times of crisis.â€ť
In some cases, a bank may have had a buffer during the recent liquidity crisis but couldnâ€™t access it because it had invested in asset-backed commercial paper, floating rate notes or collateralized debt obligations. Although these products had attractive yields and contributed to bank profitability, they didnâ€™t help when liquidity was needed. The regulatory proposals aim to prevent a repeat of that situation. â€śThis also has the effect of increasing demand for government bonds, whilst reducing demand for structured and securitized bonds,â€ť Bowers says.
“Rather than continue to be thirsty for yield, investors have to accept a changing scenario and reel in their expectations for higher returns because of the fundamental changes that are leading to greater government bond issuance.”
— David Rothon
Director of Cash and Fixed Income Product Development, Northern Trust, London
In terms of fixed-income market performance, the unusually strong across-the-board market bounce in 2009 canâ€™t be expected to last, Rothon says. â€śRather than continue to be thirsty for yield, investors have to accept a changing scenario and reel in their expectations for higher returns because of the fundamental changes that are leading to greater government bond issuance.â€ť
However, institutional investors must assess their organizationsâ€™ investment goals. A pension plan sponsor, for example, will need to weigh tradeoffs such as seeking higher returns â€“â€“ and accepting more volatility â€“â€“ through greater equities exposure or focusing on matching the pension planâ€™s liabilities with more fixed-income exposure. â€śAn underfunded pension plan might be under pressure to seek additional return,â€ť Rothon says. â€śThat might lead it to take on more risk in an effort to reduce its deficit. In the big picture however, investors generally have to accept that the road to recovery will be bumpy and understand that we may not see double-digit returns in the fixed-income markets again for some time.â€ť
Bowers observes that because emerging markets bonds made very significant gains last year, theyâ€™ve attracted a great deal of interest. However, he cautions that they comprise less than 1% of global bond issuance. â€śBefore investors take on emerging markets exposure, they should be diversified in the major markets of the United States, Europe, Japan and the U.K.,â€ť he says. â€śThat provides exposure to four distinct economic, policy, fiscal stimulus and inflation cycles.â€ť
Bowers also sees value in ramping up sovereign bond research capabilities to be able to understand the factors that affect the creditworthiness and risks of exposure to troubled countries, such as Greece and Ireland. With increasing government bond issuance, he says it makes sense to focus research â€śon the balance sheets of countries rather than just companies.â€ť
A critical opportunity may arise when governments decide how to unwind their fiscal support based on their countryâ€™s specific economic circumstances. â€śWhat will be the impact on fixed-income markets when countries begin to withdraw some of these stimulative policies?â€ť Rothon asks. â€śItâ€™s like switching off a life support machine. We wonâ€™t know how robust any economy is until that happens.â€ť
Globally, regulatory bodies have been considering risk-limiting rules that are designed to further stabilize money market funds and increase the safety and liquidity for money market fund shareholders. In the United States the Securities and Exchange Commission recently approved rule changes to tighten existing requirements regarding the maturity, quality, liquidity and disclosure of money market fund portfolios. A dozen more organizations around the globe, including the Institutional Money Market Funds Association in Europe, have proposed similar changes designed to reduce credit, interest rate and liquidity risk.
The anticipated impact of these actions, Bowers says, would be to reduce demand for securitized asset-backed products by money market funds and force them to own safer, lower-yielding securities, from Treasury bills to short-dated government debt. â€śThis will tighten the focus of money markets on preserving principal and providing liquidity, and limit the chasing of yield, which is how Northern Trust manages these pools,â€ť he says.
As the markets move forward from the credit crisis to the creation of a more normal and healthy market, itâ€™s important to distinguish between any temporary market phenomena and longer-term or permanent changes. â€śThe move to greater government bond issuance and away from structured product was prompted by the credit market disaster of 2008,â€ť Adams says, â€śbut these and other major trends, such as increased pension plan focus on matching liabilities, are long-term changes. We all need to move in step with the market as it evolves, adjust our expectations and capitalize on new developments.â€ť