The 40 Don’t Protect
Will Bonds Protect in the Next Bear Market?
Portfolio protection is now top of mind right for many investors.
With U.S. equities pushing all-time highs, a flattening of the yield curve, and the unknown impact of potential trade wars, many investors are justifiably concerned.
Advisors usually recommended significant bond allocations to hedge their clients’ portfolios, and historically, it has worked. For example, during the most recent bear market from November 2007 until March of 2009, the Barclay’s Bond Index rose 6% while the S&P 500 Index fell 50%. Thus, a balanced portfolio of 60% stock / 40% bonds fell around 27%, and a 40/60 portfolio fell only 15%.
But the landscape has changed.
The environment of low but rising rates presents a challenge to those investors seeking protection and capital preservation from bonds.
How Low Can You Go?
Over the last 30 years there have been three times in which the Fed entered an extended period of loose, accommodative monetary policy in order to help ease the economy through a recession. In all three cases bonds performed admirably well. As rates fell, bond values increased, helping offset losses associated with the equity markets. If the standard, balanced portfolio contained 60% in equities and 40% in fixed income, that 40% allocation to bonds was vindicated.
The previous three recessions started with the Federal Fund rate over 5%. In each case the Fed was able to cut over 500 basis points from short term lending in order to help boost the economy during a recession. The Barclays Aggregate U.S. Bond Index performed quite well during these periods, providing positive returns that offset losses in the equity markets.
Were a recession to start today with short term rates in the 1.75%-2.00% range, the Federal Reserve would have much less scope to implement a loose monetary policy. They might push rates back to 0.00%, but the gains to bonds will likely be less due to the lower starting point. With less of a value increase, the protection role of bonds is much weaker than before.
Keeping an Eye on the Yield Curve
Is a recession imminent? No one knows for sure. Debating the relative strength or weakness of the economy keeps thousands of people occupied and gainfully employed. But one yellow flag is the recent flattening of the yield curve.
Over the last year the short end of the curve has moved up significantly, while the long-end has barely budged. While the yield curve hasn’t yet inverted, long time market watchers know this is a bad omen. For those needing a refresher on the importance of flat or inverted yield curves, the New York Times recently ran this piece in June: “What’s the Yield Curve? ‘A Powerful Signal of Recessions’ Has Wall Street’s Attention.”
Rising Rates Hurt Capital Preservation
Maybe you’re of the opinion that the economic expansion has room to grow, and you don’t see a recession on the horizon. Assuming the Fed continues on its path of tightening under healthy market conditions, the impact on bond prices will be negative. As prices and yields are inversely related, bond holders could feel a lot of pain as rates increased by 3% to their historic average levels. While this may mean good things for those who want income, it’s a problem for those who are seeking capital preservation.
The table below shows the average durations of different types of fixed income managers and how susceptible they are to losses in the face of rising interest rates.
We’ve already seen this bear out a bit in 2018, as many bonds have lost money in the first half of the year.
If rates continue to rise in a healthy economy, bond holders can expect more losses.
Rethinking Capital Preservation and the Traditional Portfolio
The capital preservation role hasn’t been truly tested in almost a decade, as the market has not witnessed a 20% sell-off since 2007-09. The current low rates leave little room for a loose policy during a possible future recession, and rising rates hurt the principal of bond holders now.
Those depending on bonds to fulfill the conservative portion of the portfolio may be facing some tough times ahead. Luckily, there are many money managers employing various strategies and techniques that don’t depend on bonds for capital preservation. Investors have more options than before.
Shifting allocations from bonds to strategies that directly hedge market risk may feel risky. But it may be a riskier move to stay with the familiar that isn’t working than to try something new that might provide the protection many need.
About the Author
Marc Odo, CFA®, CAIA®, CIPM®, CFP®, Client Portfolio Manager, is responsible for helping clients and prospects gain a detailed understanding of Swan’s Defined Risk Strategy, including how it fits into an overall investment strategy. Formerly, Marc was the Director of Research at Zephyr Associates for 11 years.
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