Strategies for Today’s Environment
In our view, bond investors can thrive in today’s environment by adopting a balanced stance and applying these strategies:
1. Get invested. We’ve recently observed that many investors, despite believing that yields will remain flat or fall over the next year, are underweight fixed income, with insufficient duration and credit exposure but meaningful exposure to the volatility of the equities market. We think that’s a dangerous game. The odds of meeting your investment goals over any reasonable horizon are much poorer when you’re not fully invested.
If you’re still parked in cash or cash equivalents in lieu of bonds—the T-bill-and-chill strategy made popular in 2022—you’re losing out on the daily income accrual provided by higher-yielding bonds. Indeed, overall income levels are the highest they’ve been in 16 years. For example, as of September 27, the global high-yield market offered yields of 9.4%, on average, compared to three-month T-bills at 5.6%. Remember, fixed-income returns are mainly derived from earning income with the passage of time.
What’s more, markets move swiftly, making market timing next to impossible. Once the tide begins to turn, sidelined cash tends to flood back into the market, rapidly driving yields down and prices up.
To us, it makes more sense to be early in this environment—locking in high starting yields and putting up with some near-term volatility as markets react to economic releases—than to risk being too late.
2. Extend duration. If your portfolio’s duration, or sensitivity to interest rates, has veered toward the ultra-short end, consider lengthening your portfolio’s duration. As inflation falls, the economy slows and interest rates decline, duration tends to benefit portfolios. Then get tactical, modestly shortening the portfolio’s average interest-rate exposure when yields drift lower and modestly lengthening when yields rise. Government bonds, the purest source of duration, additionally provide ample liquidity and help to offset equity market volatility.
3. Hold credit. Yields across risk assets are higher today than they’ve been in years, giving income-oriented investors a long-awaited opportunity to fill their tanks. “Spread sectors” such as investment-grade corporates, high-yield corporates and securitized assets—including credit-risk-transfer securities—can also serve as a buffer against inflation by providing a bigger current income stream.
But credit investors should be selective and pay attention to liquidity. CCC-rated corporates (particularly in cyclical industries), lower-rated emerging-market sovereigns and lower-rated securitized debt are most vulnerable in an economic downturn. Conversely, short-duration high-yield debt offers higher yields and lower default risk than longer debt, thanks to an inverted yield curve. Careful security selection remains critical.
4. Adopt a balanced stance. Striking the right balance between interest-rate and credit risks can be a good idea in the late stages of a credit cycle. Among the most effective strategies are those that pair government bonds and other interest-rate-sensitive assets with growth-oriented credit assets in a single, dynamically managed portfolio. This approach can help managers get a handle on the interplay between risks and make better decisions about which way to lean at a given moment.
Correlated sell-offs of government bonds and credit assets have been exceedingly rare over the last 30 years. Yet even when the two types of assets do decline in tandem, a barbell strategy may help to minimize the damage. Those who segregate rate-sensitive and credit assets in different portfolios may be tempted in such situations to sell—and lock in losses—in both.
5. Consider an active systematic approach. Today’s environment of higher rates and challenging economic conditions also increases opportunities in the form of higher potential real returns and active fixed-income security selection. We believe that systematic fixed-income investing approaches, which are highly customizable, can help investors harvest these opportunities. Because systematic approaches depend on different performance drivers, their returns will likely differ from—and complement—traditional active strategies.
Take in the View from Higher (Yield) Elevations
Active investors should stay nimble and prepare to take advantage of quickly shifting valuations and fleeting windows of opportunity as the year progresses. Most important, investors should get off the sidelines and fully invest in the bond markets to take advantage of today’s high yields and potential return opportunities. After all, the view up here is hard to beat.