News about possible Fed tapering led to a sell-off in the early summer months, even though no action actually was taken by monetary authorities.
To understand what caused the dramatic response and how it affected some popular bond funds, Morningstar recently shared the views of senior fund analyst Eric Jacobson, who outlined some important lessons for bond investors and advisors to keep in mind.
“Things get priced in early sometimes,” Jacobson said in a videotaped interview with Christine Benz, director of personal finance for the Chicago-based research firm. “So in this case, it’s all about fear. Everybody is worried … and that just sent shock waves through the marketplace and triggered all that worry in a sell-off and brought yields up to a place where they hadn’t been for quite a while.”
In the intermediate bond category, the analyst says, one of the best performers during the early summer was the Dodge & Cox Income Fund (DODIX), which lost about 2%. One of the worst, he adds, was the PIMCO Investment Grade Corporate Fund (PIGIX); it dropped by more than 6% during those two months.
Working against the PIMCO fund, Jacobson explains, is its use of a longer benchmark.
“It uses a credit index and doesn’t have the mortgages that are in the Barclays U.S. Aggregate, and those mortgages tend to have shorter, lower durations,” he said. “So this fund even at neutral to its benchmark is fairly long in its maturity and its duration.”
In addition, there are sector issues. The PIMCO fund had part of its portfolio in lower-rated natural gas pipelines, along with an overweighting to metals and mining.
As for the PIMCO Total Return Fund (PTTRX), Jacobson says, one of its problems was that portfolio manager Bill Gross “came into the period a little bit long, and in particular, the fund also had a reasonable allocation to TIPS,” which “sold off quite badly during the interest-rate shock.”
In other words, even when a fund has a minor allocation in a certain holding, that holding can play a significant role in a fund’s overall performance.
Still, Jacobson believes that “very often Gross has been early and still right. I’m not saying that’s automatically going to be the case here, but I still think he is one of the best managers in the business.”
Working in favor of the Dodge & Cox fund has been its short duration vs. that of other funds in the category. The fund’s managers have been “very concerned and cautious” about the interest-rate markets, according to the analyst, which has “been a huge help.”
In addition, the portfolio has had slightly more exposure to credit-sensitive bonds, which performed better than the worst-hit bonds, i.e., municipals and long-duration Treasuries, he adds.
The Janus Flexible Bond Fund (JAFIX) also has more of a short-duration flavor relative to its benchmark and some peers. Plus, Jacobson points out, it has a lot of mid-quality corporate bonds, which performed relatively well during the May-June period.