Stocks and bonds saw increased prices last week, but it is leading many financial experts to sound the alarm, or at least let everyone know their hand is on the alarm and ready to pull.
Low-interest rates are fueling demand for bonds in safe havens, but many economists think people are paying too little attention to the relatively sluggish growth that the world economy is seeing.
Brexit and the world economy
Many think this rally is just a temporary jolt rather than a facet of a positive long-term economic outlook.
Laurence Fink, renowned economist, said that unless we see better than expected corporate earnings, the upturn in the global market would be reversed.
Although a large chunk was wiped off global markets in the immediate hours following Brexit, this was mainly just panic.
- Around $2.5 trillion was lost on June 24
- The pound fell to its lowest level in 30 years against the dollar
- The price of gold rose while other assets and commodities fell
Since then, a whopping $4 trillion has been added to global equities.
This is mainly thanks to the anticipation of central bank policy being one of increasing liquidity through quantitative easing.
This would be aimed at providing a stimulus to the economy.
Brexit is significant here because every single forecast made by economists prior to the vote was one of stagnant or reversed growth.
Though it hasn’t been the case so far, but the rhetoric from the Bank of England govern Mark Carney has been one of just this: ensuring central bank policy can encourage growth.
Thus, investors have been heartened by these predictions of quantitative easing and have been stuffing money in equities and safe havens like the Yen and US treasuries.
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The name’s bond, rallying bond
The bond market, especially US Treasuries, have seen a rocket in demand in the last few weeks.
This was on the back of extremely bearish calls by analysts coming into 2016, and so far there has been a growth in bond prices of 12%, with record-low yields (see below for graph).
However, many are sheepish about this.
The fact is, this is all based on a very low-interest rate environment.
Central banks feel like they need to be doing something to help a stagnant economy.
The Eurozone is barely seeing growth.
Japan obviously hasn’t had any for a while.
Low, zero, or even negative interest rates are nothing more than a band-aid approach to the problem.
Structural reform and innovation will be the long term answer, but that is a whole other huge topic.
Howard Marks is the co-chairman of the Oaktree Capital Group LLC.
He tells us that the current climate is a difficult and low-return one that is completely ignoring significant risk incidents.
Markets shrugging off problems only makes them come back.
The band aid problem.
Any up-cycle will hit a wall eventually, and the accumulated problems will come back with a vengeance.
The conclusion is that if investors want to get in on liquid-light assets, they will also have to be willing to see through the storm that occurs in the bad times.
The name’s yield, negative yield
Risk assets will see heartache and price falls in the tough periods, and so if you need cash in the immediate short term, the best thing is probably not to put it all into illiquid assets.
Groups like Janus Capital Group and Capital LP agree with this.
Governing sources said that with the yields at the current low levels that they are, bonds were simply too risky for the return.
Jeffrey Gundlach of Capital LP spoke of a ‘psychosis’ amongst investors caught in a yield-seeking frenzy.
He quipped, “Call me old school, but I’m not a fan of an investment where your correct prediction is money-losing one.”
The graph below shows the rising amount of negative-yielding debt.
From almost nothing in 2014, we have now seen some fifth of debt being negative-yielding.
Many others agree that it is now highly unlikely that the Federal Reserve will increase rates again.
The Brexit vote has simply thrown too much uncertainty into the global economy, and the predictions for global economic growth look grim indeed.
Earnings fall for Blackrock as investors move to illiquid assets
Blackrock reported a decline in earnings for the second quarter of 2016.
They reported a 3.7% fall in total earnings, as their clients decided to shift money over from stocks to things with lower fees, like fixed income (bonds most notably) and cash investments.
They are significant as they are one of the largest professional and financial services firms in the world, with a total of $4.6 trillion worth of assets under management.
Their performance is indicative of the wider financial market.
They claim their losses are thanks to clients having to navigate a never before experienced financial market atmosphere and investment environment.
One person who we should listen to is Laszlo Birinyi.
He used to be an analyst at Salomon Brothers, one of the oldest operating financial services firms, founded in 1910.
He predicted the post-crisis bottoming out of US stocks in the last quarter of 2008.
He says that because of the investor skepticism evident today, the S&P 500 could rally further, “Were sentiment even more optimistic, we could even see a market top.”
He does not see the end of the bull market coming anytime soon, and his official stance as director of Birinyi associates is that the market will continue to rise.
Heeding his advice recently would have made investors wealthy people.
People are asking whether there will be a soft landing for the current environment of low yields, zero or negative interest rates, and slowed growth.
Safe havens are a prime target right now, but how safe they are, remains to be seen, as Tom Keene of Bloomberg explains.
For example, the yen is renowned as a safe haven for investors, but with the recent announcement by the emperor, Akihito, that he will abdicate, a spanner in the works has potentially been thrown.
The yen is a safe haven because Japan owns more foreign assets than has assets owned by foreign investors.
In fact, this surplus is over $3 trillion, making Japan the world’s largest creditor before (in respective order):
- Switzerland (thanks to its Swiss Franc mainly)
- Saudi Arabia
And credit ratings are falling fast, with analysts cutting predictions left right and center.
Britain had its slashed from AAA to AA after the Brexit vote, while some 15 others have seen downgrading.
For comparison, the record for a year is 20 in 2011, when the Eurozone crisis was in full flow, and it looked like the world was going to end.
With the market so comfy with low yields, it is understandable why talk of raising interest rates is so scrutinized.
Many investors would lose plenty with a raise in rates, or a reduction in the quantitative easing stimulus programs of the last few years.
When the Fed even so much as discussed putting it on hold, it sparked a huge sell-off of Treasuries.
The low yields are also indicating to some that a recession is looming, as historically it has been associated with a slowing economy.
However, for now, the US economy looks strong in comparison to the rest of the developed world.
The recent payroll report was a heartening one for policymakers, as the best performance for eight months was seen.
So talk of a recession is for the pessimists. Besides, there is always someone trying to predict one next month. Chances are they are hoping to increase sales of their book, in case it actually happens.
U.S. Bonds’ “Elephant In The Room”
Posted on | Options Trading Strategies
There are many “short hand” methods of gauging the market view of average investors at any given moment. One of the simplest of these “short hand” analytical tools is to review yearly and monthly “Funds Flows” within ETFs. According to data from Bloomberg, flows into equity ETFs during 2014 were quite strong, which is hardly surprising given equities’ positive performance during the year.
What might seem surprising, however, is that eight of the top spots within 2014’s list of “Top Ten ETF Inflows” were equity-based ETFs. By way of comparison, in former years there was a broader mix of top asset gatherers.
This dominance by equity ETFs during 2014 does not mean that fixed income ETFs were neglected. In fact, funds flows into fixed income ETFs during 2014 were so strong that they set a new record for the bond ETF space!
However, investing in bonds during 2014 was not for the faint of heart. During late January’s bigETF.com Conference that drew almost 2,000 financial industry professionals and investors toHollywood, Florida, one of the most vocal and heartfelt topics of conversation (including some handwringing) was a “Monday Morning Analysis” regarding why the bond market acted as it did during 2014. The fact is that the key dynamic that most impacted U.S. bonds in 2014 was what I refer to as the “Head Scratching Syndrome”!!
Here is why I describe the 2014 bond space in that way:
1) For the past three to four years, most of the financial advisors from whom I heard have warned of the danger lurking in bonds because (some variation upon the following:) “Historically low interest rates are extremely vulnerable to a rise in rates, which inevitably leads to lower bond prices.” During each of those years, such advisors looked like the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”.
2) Especially as we approached the beginning of 2014 (following the 2013 mid-year swoon in equity and bond prices following Ben Bernanke’s “Taper Tantrum”… Wall Street Analysts were fairly unanimous that higher U.S rates (and lower prices) were imminent. Hence, they warned all buyers of bonds that they should “Beware!”
3) What was the “Result?”
a) At the end of 2013/beginning of 2014, U.S. 10-year Treasury Notes yielded close to3 percent.
b) By the end of 2014, the 10-year had fallen to a 1.8% yield!
c) As a result, the hate mail and vitriolic voice messages left for financial advisors escalated considerably during 2014!
d) A growing lack of faith in the efficacy of investment counsel from Wall Street has prompted a growing number of investors to seek out “new” sources of guidance regarding investment ideas and asset allocation… including the proliferation of “Robo Advisors” who offer model asset allocation portfolios which include “built in” automated rebalancing and tax loss harvesting!! 
At that Hollywood, Florida conference, the Chief Investment Officer at ETF.com, David Nadig, offered this observation: “There’s a lack of understanding about what the hell happened last year.”
Building on this theme of Wall Street “confusion”, Jeffrey Gundlach pointed this out: “Last year was one of the best years ever for 30-year bonds. Now, a lot of investors are afraid not to own Treasuries because they performed so well.” Of course, there are twin dangers contained within the truth of that observation:
1) Longer-term bonds are the ones that carry the highest interest rate risk;
2) One should never assume that “past results are in any way indicative of future performance.”
It appears that 2015 will be no easier an environment within which to invest! Just take a look at the performance of the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond (TLT) during January… as the U.S. exhibited positive growth in production and earnings while most of the rest of the world was struggling with sluggish growth … including widespread fear of deflation! Combine that with ongoing strength within the U.S. Dollar and a combination of weakness and volatility within U.S. equity markets and (as you see below) TLT looked like a prime thoroughbred horse rounding the curve at the Derby, anxious to win the race! (its candlesticks took a path straight upward!).
That was the backdrop within which investors pulled almost $16 billion from U.S. Equity ETFs during January (2015) while (seemingly) piling into bonds. In fact, if investor interest in bonds between this month (February) and this coming December averages out to be approximately the same per month as was invested bonds during January, then 2015 will see $41 billion morefunds flowing into bonds than that asset class attracted during all of 2014!!
But as February started, there was just one problem — severe skittishness among investors because the bond market has not been acting “normally” for a long, long time! All it took to put the skids on bond enthusiasm was the February 6th labor report from the notoriously unreliable U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics … combined with more news regarding how the new Greek government was handling (or not) the servicing of that country’s debt load. Here is what TLT has done so far in February (through February 9th):
Consider these ironies:
1) Yes, the Nonfarm Payroll numbers for January were a big surprise on the upside! However, this data from the BLS comes from the very same folks who somehow misplaced147,000 workers in November and December (the number of workers added through prior month revisions to the November and December NFP reports!);
2) Since the Financial Crisis began, the U.S. Markets have (upon several occasions) been held hostage (so to speak) by news regarding how Eurozone leaders (and more significantly, Euro banks) were handling Greece’s struggles in servicing their outsized debt.
With all this attention focused upon Greece, one might think that its debt (relative to Euro debt as a whole) was astronomical. But consider this – what U.S. economic region could be considered equivalent to Greece relative to its GDP? California, perhaps? Not even close. Illinois? No! Connecticut? Absolutely not!
Instead, the apt parallel with regard to Greek GDP is the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas! Keep that in mind the next time you see that news from Greece is shaking up the investment markets in the U.S.
Showing how jittery the market was on the day of the January Nonfarm Payroll Report, take a look at this graph of iShares Barclays 1-3 Year Credit Bond Fund (CSJ). As its name implies, CSJ sits well toward the conservative side of fixed income risk, and yet the candle on February 6th gapped down at the open and never significantly recovered. The measured move on that day was over 15% greater than normal… which is high for short-term bonds.
Reflecting this skittishness, is the fact that on a 2015 year-to-date basis, five of the top ten highest ETF fund flows have been into bond funds – with the leader being one fund even more conservative than CSJ. That leading ETF was the iShares Short Treasury Bond ETF (SHV). During this period, $2.5 billion was drawn into SHV — with $2 billion of those funds arriving on a single day!
Getting to the Point:
What has caused this enigmatic behavior within the fixed income universe? The following graph can not account for all of the factors that have made fixed income investing much more complicated these days… but it absolutely illustrates the single most significant factor which has “rocked” the fixed income world (and the investing universe in general):
Consider these graphs that breakdown ownership of U.S. Treasury Securities as of the Third Quarter of 2012:
The U.S. Federal Reserve then held 14.6% of U.S. Treasury Debt. A significant amount to be sure. However, between then and 2014, the FED increased its holdings by (an amazing) 47%!! Performing the precise math with regard to the percent the FED held by 2014 is beyond the scope of my analysis here… but a “back of the envelope” calculation puts its percentage owned by 2014 atalmost 21.5%!!
Through the years, we have all heard the repeated refrain that our mounting U.S. Federal Debthas made us “beholden” to major foreign holders of our debt – primarily Japan and China (see graph below). There is no denying that entities across the globe have been heavily invested in our bonds. However, given that aggregate foreign holders accounted for over 48% of U.S. debt in 2012… and China held 21% of those foreign holdings (ie. 10% of U.S. Debt in 2012), while Japan held 20% (ie. 9.6%) … the FED now dwarfs both countries vis-à-vis U.S. Debt.
It can be said that the FED became the “Elephant in the Room” regarding the trading/pricing of U.S. Treasury Debt!
Some of you might think – “Hey, that’s OK. After all, it is natural for the U.S. central bank to hold U.S. Treasury Debt!!”
But this is the key point: What is entirely “Unnatural” about the above is that the FED bulked up its Balance Sheet by a factor of four between 2007 and 2014 in order to purchase most of that debt! The FED accomplished this through its several “Quantitative Easing” programs (QE I, QE II, QE III).
So I ask you:
1) Given these dislocations and artificial mega doses of sovereign-sourced liquidity “sloshing” around within global economies and marketplaces; and
2) Given that those forces have conspired to make the normally more predictable, more reliable bond market both less reward (rate wise) and more risky (volatility wise).
Where can investors find a “haven” for their investable funds?
Alas, that has become the perplexing, “$64 Million Question” within the global investing universe? Since the world we live in carries U.S. interest rates that are much lower than anyone could have predicted as recently as 2-3 years ago … a world in which West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil sank lower than most would have guessed as recently as 2-3 years ago… a world within which the U.S. Dollar has risen further (and Gold priced in dollars has fallen further) than anyone would have imagined 3-4 years ago… precisely where should we invest our own personal capital?
Confirming the dilemma we face — a number of major investment concerns have warned that we are in a much more challenging investment environment than we have been since 2010! For example, the chief economist at Vanguard Group (Joe Davis) [Vanguard is a mega-giant mutual fund and ETF vendor] recently offered this warning: “[we have] the most guarded outlook for markets since 2006. It’s going to be challenging going forward.”
Specifically, Vanguard projects that a “generic basket of stocks and bonds” will return less than 6% during the course of the next five years! That is done from the average return since 1926 (8.7%) and the return generated in 2014 (7.3%).
In days (long) gone by, one could invest in U.S. Treasury Bonds and as long as those bonds were held over a 3-7 year period, the average return received was relatively stable and dependable. In 2014, rates were so low that investors were pushed to stretch their normal, comfortable “risk tolerance” profile in order to garner reasonable returns. The unfortunate result was that many investors became unsuspecting victims of volatility levels higher than projected … and therefore returns that can hardly be categorized as either “stable” or “dependable”.
In our next article, we will explore some logical reasons for fixed income volatility… moving beyondjust the U.S. Federal Reserve’s several “QE” programs to explore the implications of bond guruBill Gross having been so utterly wrong regarding his 2011 prediction (and warning) regardingU.S. Treasury Securities … as well as how a bold (but arcane) fixed income trade made in London by Bruno Iksil rattled the markets, made Jamie Dimon suffer through innumerable headaches and sleepless nights, and will be remembered (forever) as ignominious within the annals of “trades gone bad”!
Following that purview, we will offer some real life options that investors can consider if they are interested in reviewing fixed income returns vis-à-vis various levels of risk.
The author currently holds an iron condor position within TLT… as well as a wide range of fixed income funds and ETFs that have not been mentioned in the text above. Nothing in this article is intended as a recommendation to buy or sell anything. Always consult with your financial advisor regarding changes in your portfolio – either subtractions or additions.
 “Funds Flows” is simply the measurement of investor funds into and out of each ETF. Over the course of a month, a quarter, or a year, a review of “NET” flows (inflows minus outflows) can serve as a barometer of market sentiment regarding equities vs. fixed income, U.S. equities vs. global equities, US Treasury bonds vs. corporate bonds, etc. Flows can also suggest market opinion regarding particular sectors within the equity space.
 Recall that international financial giant USB issued a blanket warning to their clients who held or purchased bonds that interest rate risk had heightened considerably (the investment world equivalent to the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packs).
 At least them, if the investment decisions are wrong, you can “kick” the computer or an algorithm!
 Gundlach has grown in stature to become almost a “twin” of Bill Gross in terms of the frequency with which his quotes about bonds appear in the financial press. He runs DoubleLine Capital LP.
 A debt accumulated over a number of years as the result of what many German leaders and a high number of financial experts consider to have been profligate governmental spending.
 Yes, I know that Greece is currently serving as a “totem” for all of the debt issues tied to thePIIGS (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). So although Greece is the “smallest” component of that mix… what the EuroZone does to resolve Greece’s debt will set a precedent, for good or ill, for the rest. Let it be noted, as well, that Ireland has made great progress in bringing its debt load into manageable condition.
 NOTE: I did not use the adjective “safe” before haven!
 The second largest asset manager, following BlackRock Capital (number one).
5 Main Types of Financial Bonds
If you plan to invest in bonds, you have a lot of options. Here’s a list of the main categories of bonds.
Table of Contents:
• Treasury Bonds
• Agency Bonds
• Municipal Bonds
• Corporate Bonds
• Mortgage Bonds
In case you don’t know what a bond is, here’s a quick definition: a bond is an IOU. It means someone is indebted to you and must pay you back the loan with interest.
Now let’s look at the 5 main types of bonds:
1. Treasury Bonds
The United States Department of the Treasury issues treasury bonds. These are widely considered to be the safest bonds to purchase. The U.S. government is one of the richest and most stable governments on the planet.
The Treasury also issues treasury bills and treasury notes. Here’s the difference:
• Treasury bills (T-bills) have a maturity date of fewer than 2 years.
• Treasury notes (T-notes) have a maturity date between 2 and 10 years.
• Treasury bonds (T-bonds) have a maturity date over 10 years.
Interest on treasury bonds is exempt from Federal taxes. Local and state taxes may still apply.
2. Agency Bonds
Agency bonds come from quasi-government institutions. These groups raise money with the intention of helping the economy.
The three biggest examples are:
• The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae)
• The Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae)
• The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac)
The U.S. Federal government is not obligated to financially back these agencies. However, some investors speculate the government would help them if they needed it.
These agencies have minimal credit risk. Many consider these relatively safe bonds to purchase.
Agency bonds usually pay higher interest rates since they are slightly riskier than treasury bonds.
They are usually taxed at federal and state levels.
3. Municipal Bonds
Municipal bonds (munis) come from local governments. They are categorized into investment-grade or high-yield classes.
Investment-grade means the local government is less likely to default, but they typically pay lower interest.
High-yield means the local government is more likely to default on its loans, but they pay higher interest.
Local governments do default on their loans from time to time. A modern example is Detroit.
Municipals bonds are exempt from taxes. That doesn’t mean they produce more money though. Other bonds may be taxed, but they can still give higher yields.
4. Corporate Bonds
Corporate bonds fall into two categories:
• Investment-grade corporate bonds (high quality)
• High-yield corporate bonds (low quality). High-yield bonds are sometimes called ‘Junk bonds.’
Investment-grade corporate bonds mean the company is less likely to default on its loans. They typically offer lower interest rates.
High-yield corporate bonds mean the company is more likely to default on its loans. Therefore they offer higher interest rates.
Standard and Poor’s ranks companies on their risk of defaulting. The top of the scale begins at AAA, then descends to AA, A, BBB, BB, B… and so on.
If a company ranks BBB or higher, then it has investment-grade bonds. If a company ranks lower than BBB, then it has high-yield bonds.
Corporate bonds are taxed.
5. Mortgage Bonds
Mortgage bonds finance real estate assets such as houses. Fannie Mae, Ginnie Mae, and Freddie Mac issue most of these bonds. Investment banks can also issue them.
When a bank issues a mortgage, it rarely keeps ownership of the mortgage. The bank will sell the mortgage to a government agency or investment bank.
These institutions take on a lot of mortgages. In turn, they issue bonds using the real estate as backing.
They’re essentially passing a loan onto investors.
Once a bank or agency receives mortgage payments, they will pass on the money to bondholders in the form of interest.
If homeowners default, their property and equipment can be liquidated to repay bondholders. Typically, homeowners pay off their mortgage, since they want to keep their homes.
A glaring exception to this rule is the 2008 housing market crash. Consequently, some investors buy these bonds with caution. Today, institutions have regained a lot of trust from investors.
If homeowners default on their mortgages, their property is collateral for bondholders.
These bonds are taxed at all levels.
Which bonds will you invest in?
Financial Bonds Made Simple
If you need a crash course on financial bonds, you’re in the right place.
In this post I’ll explain:
- What a bond is
- The components of a bond
- How bonds are issued
- How to buy bonds
Let’s jump in.
What is a Bond?
A bond is an IOU. It’s a paper that says, ‘So-and-so owes you money.’ So-and-so is usually a company or a government.
Whoever owns the bond is called a bondholder. Whoever issued the bond is called the bond issuer.
The bond issuer took out a loan. Now he must pay off that loan with interest. He makes payments to the bondholder.
A bond is a security that guarantees the debt will be paid. The company or government must honor the bond by paying money to the bondholder.
For example, if you own a treasury bond, it means you’re lending money to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Now the Treasury must make interest payments to you until the debt is paid off. The bond designates a time when the Treasury must fully pay its debt.
What are the Components of a Bond?
There are many different kinds of bonds. Some include more sections than others.
But almost all bonds have 6 essential parts:
1. The Principal
The principal is the amount of money on the bond. It’s the amount originally loaned. It’s also the amount that must be paid back.
A common principal amount for Treasury bonds is $10,000.
2. The Coupon (Interest Rate)
The coupon is the interest rate. It’s based on the principal amount. In our example, the principal for the Treasury bond is $10,000. Let’s say the interest rate is 4%.
The interest payment comes out to $400. In the case of Treasury bonds, they pay interest every 6 months. That comes to $800 dollars a year.
3. The Maturity Date
The maturity date is when the bond issuer pays back all the money. It’s the ‘due date’ for the loan.
Some bonds have a maturity date as early as one year. Others have a maturity date as late as 35 years.
4. The Yield
The yield is how much money the bond is producing in a year. In our example, our Treasury bond is giving us $800 a year.
5. The Market Price
You can buy and sell bonds. A lot of factors affect the price of a bond:
Who’s the bond issuer?
How much does the bond yield?
What’s the bond’s maturity date?
What are the prices of other bonds?
These variables affect the price of a bond on the market.
6. Credit Quality
There’s a chance that the bond issuer can’t pay the money back. That’s where credit quality comes in.
Credit quality analyzes a bond and says, ‘Yeah, the bond will be paid at the end’ or it says ‘No way this bond will be paid off at the end.’
Worried a bond issuer can’t pay what they owe? Check out the bond’s credit quality.
How are Bonds Issued?
There are a few ways a company or government can issue bonds.
In the case of government bonds, they are issued by an auction. The public, banks, and organizations can attend the auction and bid on bonds.
In the case of business bonds, they usually need the service of an external organization. They can go to a public authority, the government, an institution, or another company.
Typically a bond issuer will use the help of banks and security firms.
The organization will buy all of the bonds from the bond issuer. Then the organization will resell the bonds on the market.
After that, the bonds are in the hands of people like you and me.
How do I Buy Bonds?
There are a few ways to acquire bonds. Here are three options:
The U.S. Treasury Department – The Treasury has a website called TreasuryDirect. You can learn how to buy bonds there.
A Brokerage – There are online brokerages who sell bonds. You can view a list of brokerages here.
An Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) – There are many kinds of ETFs, and one option is a bond ETF. This is a portfolio of bonds that are traded on the market. ETFs are usually managed by a broker.
There’s still a lot to learn about bonds, but that gives you a solid introduction to the subject.
Are you considering buying bonds? Do you have more questions about bonds? Leave a comment and let us know!
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