Tag Archives: Bond Funds

How’s Your Bond Fund Doing?

It’s been a tough year for bonds so far. Of course, a tough year for bonds can be a tough day for stocks. But investors seem equally disturbed by a 2% loss in bonds as by a 10% or more loss in stocks, so it’s worth looking at how bond funds have weathered the most recent storm. We looked at some of the most popular funds that reside in Morningstar’s intermediate term bond fund category. That category contains funds whose duration is moderate and whose holdings tend to be almost all investment grade, and so those funds tend to be the workhorses of most investors’ portfolios.

Through May 1, the BloombergBarclays US Aggregate is down 2.42%. That’s a total return number, so it includes the difference in price plus interest payments. The Morningstar intermediate term bond fund category average is down 2.11%, a slightly better showing likely owing to the higher corporate bond exposure and slightly lower duration of many funds compared to the Treasury -heavy index.

Duration Hurts

First, all of our selected funds have beaten the index so far this year except for the Western Asset Core Bond fund. The fund’s portfolio doesn’t appear unusual, although it has more of its assets in Agency Pass-Throughs than its peers (35% versus 21%), according to Morningstar. It has nearly 22% of its portfolio in Government bonds, according to Morningstar. Almost all of that is in U.S. Treasuries with a small part scattered in U.S. Agencies and Non-U.S. government debt. Nearly 8% of the fund’s portfolio is in emerging markets debt.

However, the fund’s average effective duration, a measure of interest rate risk, is nearly seven years, and that has likely contributed to its underperformance. No other fund’s duration is over seven, and the next highest three are barely over six. Five of the funds have durations around 4 years, and they’ve tended to hold up better this year.

Things Besides Duration Matter Too

Two funds stand out for bucking the trend of duration dictating performance. First, the Delaware Diversified Income Fund clocks in with a duration of 6.09, but the fund has still been able to eke out a gain over the Morningstar intermediate term category average and the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate. This fund has traditionally held a lot of corporate bonds, including more high yield bonds than its peers. Currently the fund has 13% of its portfolio in BB-rated bonds (the highest level of junk or high yield), and those have held up better than more highly rated bonds this year. So the fund’s credit risk has likely helped it in an environment when interest rate risk has inflicted more pain.

Second, PIMCO Total Return has the lowest duration of the group at 3.99 years, but has lost more than the category average. The fund has been lighter in corporates than its peers – 19% versus 30%, according to Morningstar. It also has a significant allocation to what it classifies as “US Government Related,” which, according to PIMCO’s website, could include “nominal and inflation-protected Treasuries, Treasury futures and options, agencies, FDIC-guaranteed and government-guaranteed corporate securities, and interest-rate swaps.” Morningstar has its Agency MBS Pass-Through allocation at 39%, relative to 22% for its peer average. The fund’s most recent quarterly commentary mentions that positions in Agency MBS along with short exposure to the Japanese Yen, short exposure to duration in Japan and Canada, and exposure to high yield corporates” detracted from performance. The fund’s most recent monthly commentary lists non-U.S. rate strategies, positions in non-Agency MBS, and high yield corporates as the largest detractors.

It should be said that the new managers of PIMCO Total Return have done quite well since taking over in the fall of 2014. The new management team has been running the fund for a little over three years now, and, after a choppy start, the fund ranks in the 28th percentile of Morningstar’s intermediate term category for the three-year period ending in April 2018. A quarter’s worth of underperformance shouldn’t discourage any investor from choosing a particular fund or manager, though it’s useful to check in on asset classes and particular funds from time to time.

The Other Face Of Risk – Bonds

Usually, when it’s a good time to own high quality intermediate term bonds – those that serve as workhorses of most investors’ portfolios, it’s a bad time to own “high yield” (a nice marketing term for “junk”) bonds, and vice versa. That’s because lower interest rates provide a good climate for relatively safe bonds that don’t deliver much yield, and because the economic weakness that low rates signal is often a danger to shaky borrowers.

Conversely, the rising rates that can inflict duration-related damage to safer, lower yielding bonds usually coincide with a robust economy that’s good for junk bonds. So it’s not often that the climate is good or bad for both high-quality intermediate term bonds and high yielding junk bonds.

But, in a note to its investors, the Los Angeles-based value investment firm FPA Funds has just argued that the current environment is bad for both the typical portfolio bond workhorses and more exotic high yielding fare. First, there is a disagreement between the yield curve and the implied inflation that the 10-Year TIPS bond is signaling. The yield curve is flat, implying that investors anticipate deflation. After all, the only reason an investor in longer term bonds would accept a marginally higher yield over a shorter term bond is if the investor anticipates deflation and lower rates in the future. However, that seems unlikely to FPA New Income Fund (FPNIX) portfolio managers Thomas Atteberry and Abhijeet Patwardhan and FPA product specialist Ryan Leggio, since the difference in yield between the 10-year TIPS bond and the 10-Year Treasury is around 2 percentage points now, indicating an anticipation of 2% inflation.

But if inflation – or at least some tepid alternative to deflation – is on the horizon, doesn’t that mean that it’s a good environment for junk bonds? Not so fast say Atteberry, Patwardhan, and Leggio. The high yield “spread” – the difference in yield between high yielding corporate bonds and Treasuries – is very low. That means investors aren’t getting paid much to take the credit risk of owning high yield bonds. That’s especially true since leverage is high among corporate borrowers and covenant quality levels are low. A covenant is a legally binding agreement between borrowers and lenders designed to protect the interests of both parties. Low covenant quality means borrowers don’t have to meet specific requirements.

The authors note that “this is only the third time in the past twenty years when the yield curve has been this flat while at the same time high yield spreads have been this tight.” The upshot of their analysis is that it’s a good time for bond investors to reduce both credit and duration risks. The FPA New Income fund, accordingly, has a short duration, and is reducing credit risk. The fund is avoiding unsecured corporate bonds, and favors secured bonds, for example. It has around 8% of its portfolio in corporate bonds overall compared to 31% and 39%, respectively for funds in the Morningstar Intermediate-Term  Bond and Short-Term Bond Fund categories. As an alternative the fund prefers highly rated asset-backed securities which absorb 57% of its assets. Altogether, 71% of the fund’s assets are in AAA-rated securities.

FPA New Income has always been a “belt-and-suspenders” bond fund from the time legendary investor Bob Rodriguez ran it. It’s managers dislike posting negative return numbers. This has caused them to miss some rallies in bonds. For example, the fund has posted a 2.04% annualized return for the past decade ending in February 2018, while the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Index has delivered a 3.60% annualized return over that time. But the fund’s willingness to “shoot only in a target rich environment” also means it has kept investors safe since 1984, including a 4.31% return during the financial crisis year of 2008 when so many bond funds missed the credit problems of their holdings and faltered as a result. Also, besides never posting a negative return in a calendar year since inception, over the 30 year period ending in February 2018, the fund achieved a 5.85% annualized return versus the 6.13% annualized return of the index. Ten years is a long time, but it’s worth considering whether the fund’s underperformance over the last decade indicates more alarming things about the prevailing credit and interest rate conditions than about its approach.

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