It’s never happened before: bonds are about to deliver a third year of negative returns. The BofA Merrill Lynch 10+ Year Treasury Total Return Index in the US was recently more than 40% off its highs – more than double its previous worst drawdown.
It’s left a lot of shell-shocked investors scratching their heads wondering how what’s supposed to be the defensive part of a portfolio could perform so badly, and a whole lot of other investors wondering if there are bargains to be had.
Why were bond returns negative?
The first thing to know about bonds is that inflation is like kryptonite for them. If investors believe inflation is going up, they will demand higher compensation in the form of a higher yield.
The second thing to know is if you hold a government bond to maturity you are assured of getting the principal back, which is always a face value of $100 per bond.
When a plain old government bond is first issued, the interest rate it will pay the holder (which in bond speak is called a ‘coupon’) is fixed and doesn’t change over the life of the bond.
If you bought a newly issued Australian 10-year government bond today you’d receive a yield of about 4.6 per cent per year, and after 10 years you’d get $100 back for each bond. So the annual return is dead easy to calculate: 4.6 per cent.
However, if you wanted to sell that bond and inflation expectations have gone up since it was issued, any potential buyer will insist on a higher yield. Because the coupon is fixed, the only way to compensate the buyer is to reduce the price of the bond. Then, if the buyer hangs on to it until maturity, they’ll get the $100 back but on a lower entry price, thus compensating them.
Since the inflationary outbreak of the late 1970s and early 1980s, inflation has trended downwards over the medium to longer-term, which has been fantastic for bond investors, because the price of those bonds has risen over that medium to longer-term – see chart 1.
However, the inflationary outbreak of the past few years has thrown that into reverse, and as expectations of higher inflation and interest rates has grown, so the price of bonds has fallen.
Is it time to hunt for a bargain?
It’s hardly surprising that any investor accustomed to market cycles would look at an asset that’s dropped 40 per cent and presume there’s a bargain to be had, and there are bond fund managers banging the table insisting now is the time to be buying bonds. But, as with anything in financial markets, unfortunately it’s not that easy.
Government bonds are issued with different lifespans, from 90 days to 30-plus years. The most popular bond yield that gets quoted is the 10-year bond.
The longer-dated the bond, so the more life it has until it matures, the more volatile it will be. The fancy name for that is ‘duration risk’, and it’s something that can be worked out for every bond. Australian 10-year government bonds currently have a duration risk of 8.7, which means if the yield increases by 1 per cent, the price of those bonds will fall by 8.7 per cent, and vice versa.
It’s that duration risk, and the volatility it causes, that’s the trickiest part about investing in bonds, even after they’ve copped a beating.
For a real world example, you can buy an Australian government bond through the ASX. A quick Google of “ASX listed bonds” should take you to the page that lists them. There’s one with the ticker GSBG33, which was originally a 20-year bond issued in 2013, so it has 10 years left until maturity. As you’d expect, its current yield is pretty much bang in line with the quoted 10-year yield, so about 4.5 per cent, and its last traded price was around $100. In other words, what you’d expect from a 10-year bond.
However, in August 2019, that same bond was trading at a price of $147, and at the start of November it was $97, so its price had dropped by 34 per cent – see chart 2. That’s some serious volatility for a supposedly defensive asset; clearly, it’s only defensive if you are certain you’ll hold onto it until maturity, in which case you’ll receive a return of 4.5 per cent, which compares to the September inflation rate of 5.4 per cent.
For a long-dated bond to provide a better return than 4.5 per cent will require inflation expectations to fall, which is likely to happen if the economy slows down or goes into recession, and importantly, that extra return will effectively come from the price going up, so capital growth.
There are shorter-term bonds, that have lower duration risk and are therefore not as volatile, but the yield is lower. Alternatively, for investors purely interested in locking in a yield, term deposits are now paying as much as 5.25 per cent for 12 months and come with a capital guarantee. The risk you run there is it’s only good for 12 months.
You can also buy bond ETFs, however, they never mature. The ETF will always have some duration risk in it, meaning it will always be potentially volatile.
Another option is to invest through a fixed income fund manager and leave it to their expertise. There are some that specialise only in government bonds and others that operate under a more flexible mandate and can invest in corporate bonds as well. Andrew Papageorgiou, a portfolio manager at Realm Investment House, argues credit spreads on corporate bonds are historically far less volatile than interest rates. Also, good managers can employ fancy strategies to minimise the effect of volatility by using derivatives.
It’s possible those arguing it’s a great time to buy bonds are affected by recency bias: it wasn’t so long ago bond yields were negative, how can they possibly stay above 4.5 per cent? But bond yields don’t necessarily mean revert, the recent downward trend went for 40 years. There are legendary bond commentators, like Jim Grant and Barry Eichengreen, warning of a multi-decade bond bear market.
What’s more, investing in bonds to back a view that yields will decline is effectively targeting a capital return, which rings of a growth investment, whereas bonds are normally part of the defensive fixed income part of a portfolio.
On the bearish side of the fence are the many economists arguing rates will stay “higher for longer”. It really depends on what happens to inflation, and if smart investors have learned nothing else over the past couple of years, it should be that trying to guess where inflation will be years from now is a mug’s game.