Bond selling is at an all-time high right now, and this is not only happening in the U.S.
Global bonds of all types, including debt, securities, company bonds, and others were selling quickly as negatively yielding securities grew.
Rates have reached record lows, prompting buyers to grab up everything that they can.
Portugal, Spain, and the U.S. all sold massive amounts of long-term debt.
This week has seen very high numbers on corporate borrowing. The U.S. and Europe did well in this sector.
Japan went and sold notes for a 30-year term at a rate of 0.319%, making them very attractive to buyers, given that this rate hit a record for a low point.
The amount of securities that have a negative yield has grown so much that the total value of these bonds has gone over $9 trillion.
This rise is partly due to the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank going in the negative with interest rates.
Speculation is that the global bond market will have a great 2016 with all of these purchases and the reduction in global debt supply.
Yields are expected to be at an all-time low.
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In the 2nd half of 2006, global yields maxed at about 4.5%.
It has been a rollercoaster ride since then, spiking and then falling drastically, but the overall trend has been downward.
Thus far in 2016, global yields have dropped to a record low of about 1.25%.
It is unclear yet as to how much lower they will go, but in the meantime, bond selling is on a massive binge with these incredibly low rates.
Investors Going Beyond the Norm
Investors are going for yield and the avenues that they will pursue to get it have expanded beyond what they would normally do.
Some investors are buying credit while others are going for longer maturity periods. Some investors are even doing both.
What Investors Risk
When buying debt, one of the worst things that can happen is higher rates.
Losses will only grow if prices go up, so they are counting on them to stay small.
Investors are also more easily convinced to take greater risks with their investments, something that has been difficult for banks to pull off in the past.
It seems easier now to get investors out of their comfort zone, which is good for the banks.
The other potential occurrence that could hand investors massive losses is if there are corporate defaults.
To recap, here are the risks investors face:
- Corporate defaults
- Long-term maturation risks if interest rates increase
- Drop in demand
- Other risks associated with debt buying
Global bond market durations have grown over the last 20 years, now sitting at an all-time high.
Current length is approximately 6.8.
Investors will be set to gain if interest rates remain low, so they are watching the Federal Reserve very carefully.
All of this buying and selling seems chaotic for the moment.
The demand is still high, and should interest rates continue at their weak points; the market will undoubtedly continue as-is if not rise even higher.
Treasury Department Sales
10-year U.S. debt did well at auction, with high levels of bidding going on. The Treasury Department is poised to sell 30-year bonds and a lot of them. The total value of the bonds they are set to sell is around $15 billion.
Portuguese 10-year securities sold beyond the target, causing them to do well versus other countries on the euro.
It seems that Portuguese bonds are doing quite well with the extra amounts of 10-year sold securities.
Spain and Japan
Long-term relationships appear to be the thing in Europe and Asia, with Spain selling bonds with a 50-year term.
France and Belgium also followed similar term bond sales.
Spain only issued about 3 billion euros worth, but the delivery was over 10 billion euros worth.
Italy may get into the 50-year bond game as well, pending the results of demand evaluation.
Japan sold 30-year bonds easily, although some said they were way too expensive.
Even those opinions from veterans in the game did nothing to thwart the sales.
Negative yields on Japanese debt will come from any 15-year or fewer maturation periods.
Japan bought over $45 billion in U.S. sovereign bonds.
They issued over $41 billion in debt this week alone.
So much debt has changed hands since interest rates reached their record lows.
There is no fear of debt and bond buying at the moment, and that fearless attitude is expected to continue for some time.
To recap significant moves by several countries over the last week:
- U.S. sells over $41 billion in debt issuance
- Japan sells 30-year bonds with no problem
- Spain issues 50-year bonds, with issue of orders going over 7 billion euros
- Italy considers doing 50-year bonds themselves
Fed Intervention Will Now Include Buying Individual Corporate Bonds
Because it can’t just let the free markets be free, the Federal Reserve will now begin buying individual corporate bonds. It will do so to apparently keep the financial markets from ever going down.
The announcement came yesterday in the midst of a 760-point selloff in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This, however, quickly reversed and saw the index close the day up 157 points.
Capitalism and the idea of free markets have become even more threatened. With this, the Fed will begin “to create a corporate bond portfolio that is based on a broad, diversified market index of U.S. corporate bonds” to go along with the $5.5 billion in corporate bond ETFs and junk bonds that it is already buying.
“This index is made up of all the bonds in the secondary market that have been issued by U.S. companies that satisfy the facility’s minimum rating, maximum maturity, and other criteria. This indexing approach will complement the facility’s current purchases of exchange-traded funds,” the official statement said.
The Fed’s Plan
The Fed will run the purchases through its Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility. The facility serves as the same one used to buy up the corporate bond ETF and junk bonds. The Fed also has a Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility. It will use the said facility to buy bonds directly from the issuer.
Both credit facilities will use about $75 billion of equity from the US Treasury to make the purchases. Although, the amount could balloon as high as $750 billion if needed. The funding pushed through as part of the CARES Act. Lawmakers passed the said act in March as the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
The goal of the latest bond purchases is to “support market liquidity and the availability of credit for large employers” according to the Fed. This will require that any bonds purchased carry an investment-grade rating and mature in five years or less. There is a carve-out, however, that would grant eligibility to “fallen angels” that were investment-grade prior to March 22. However, these have since been re-rated to junk status.
Economists and Investors React
Steven Friedman, senior macroeconomist at MacKay Shields, says the move “to buy a broad portfolio of corporate bonds represents a shift to a more active strategy for the secondary market corporate credit facility, rather than the passive approach originally envisioned.”
Friedman added the latest initiative “may also reflect the Committee’s view that the economic recovery from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis will be an extended and challenging one, with credit markets requiring extensive support.”
In other words, the Fed sees the recovery from the pandemic to be a much tougher slog than the equity markets are currently pricing in. Also, it is preemptively going to take action to keep credit markets from freezing up.
At least one investor says the Fed has really stepped over the line with its latest plan.
Christopher Whalen, a former investment banker and now head of Whalen Global Advisors says, “I think [the bond purchases are] a mistake, because they already achieved their objective. The Fed doesn’t need to get distracted. What they care about is that markets work and spreads don’t go crazy. The Fed has to realize that other than assuring that market conditions are acceptable, they really shouldn’t go diving into this stuff.”
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?
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