Bond Investing: Finding Opportunities Takes Patience

Morningstar panelists say the Fed will hike rates this year, maybe even twice

Elaine Stokes of Loomis Sayles spoke at a Morningstar Investment Conference panel in Chicago. Elaine Stokes of Loomis Sayles spoke at a Morningstar Investment Conference panel in Chicago.

The Federal Reserve will raise rates this year, probably twice, agreed three bond fund managers on the Unearthing Bond Value panel at the 2015 Morningstar Conference in Chicago on Thursday.

Laird Landmann, portfolio manager at TCW, said when the Fed moves, it will be fast. Likewise, Gibson Smith, chief investment officer for fixed income at Janus Capital Group, concurred that two rate hikes will come this year. 

Elaine Stokes, a vice president of Loomis, Sayles and portfolio manager for the Loomis Sayles fixed-income group, added that the Fed will raise rates because it “needs the tools” for flexibility and they’ll do it “when the market is ready.” How much the Fed raises rates will be determined by demographics, technology and growth outside the United States, she said.

Landmann said TCW also expects the yield curve to flatten “as they unglue the front end of the curve…and whether modest or extreme, it will have an impact, especially on mortgage backed securities.” He added that as a conservative investment firm, “what goes on in Europe and Greece doesn’t really impact our portfolio.” And he urged caution, saying that the “excess returns in bonds have been extraordinary in last few years,” but won’t go on forever. 

Where Are the Opportunities? 

Stokes thought Greece volatility was a short-term opportunity. She also thought Russia was showing potentially interesting signs, while Loomis also is looking more closely at corporate bonds.

Smith agreed about corporate bonds, stating that as firms move into defensive positions with lower yields, “management teams make mistakes” and this repricing creates opportunities. “Always look for these opportunities [in] missed earnings, buy backs,” he said. 

High yield bonds still had value and “could be a nice coupon clipping environment,” Stokes noted. She said it was time to be bond pickers of specific opportunities, but investors had to be patient. Landmann advised to “dig a hole [looking for value] but not too deep.” He recommended building a nice liquidity reserve.

Investing in emerging markets got big thumbs down from all the managers. 

“If a shock comes from outside U.S., maybe in China, it will ripple through and affect other emerging markets,” Landmann say. “Today’s headlines are understated…we don’t see advantageous returns in [emerging market debt].”

(For a different view on EM investing, see The Risks and Rewards of Frontier Market Investing.)

Gibson echoed Landmann, stating, for example, if the Bank of Japan decides to devalue the yen, it would put strains on all Asia region markets. And emerging market credit constitute “real time bombs [that could] go off in that market.” He added that the legal headaches alone are worth staying away. “What happens when you go to [an emerging market] to claim assets?” 

Growth, More risk?

The growth of the taxable bond market funds, which was $750 billion in 2005 and pegged at $2.75 trillion today, led to the question: what happens if the market turns? All panelists agreed the liquidity crunch could be brutal.

Landmann said the bond market isn’t “that much different than when I got in 30 years ago” except he sees it as a “bigger house with smaller exits,” hence when the market turns, it will be hard to get out.

Gibson agreed, noting some major price differentials. “[If] we had a $30 million position on two years ago, it was an easy sell. Today [the market would only take] $1 million, so we [do] nothing.” Stokes believes there’s a new willingness to hold reserves today and take long-term positions.

All three managers said they are holding more cash. Janus’ Gibson said he usually holds about 2% -3% in high yields but now it’s about 7%-10%.  At Loomis, Stokes said she is about 5%-7% high yield, with liquid reserves at 25% to 30%. 

Landmann said a large amount of TCW’s bond funds could be liquidated easily, and it had about 12% unconstrained liquidity to be able to take advantage of market opportunities.

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