Episode 60 : 08/08/2018

It’s all about the income: Insights from the BMO Credit Forum

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Daniela Mardarovici, CFA®

Portfolio Manager
BMO Global Asset Management

Adam Phillips

Client Portfolio Manager
BMO Global Asset Management

Janelle Woodward, CFA®

Global Co-Head of Income
BMO Global Asset Management


Ben D. Jones
Managing Director, Intermediary Distribution
BMO Global Asset Management

Emily Larsen
Product Strategy Manager
BMO Global Asset Management

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The credit forum is an annual event held by BMO’s fixed income teams, where credit analysts from around the globe discuss the current environment and prepare for upcoming challenges and opportunities in the fixed income markets.

Janelle Woodward, Daniela Mardarovici and Adam Phillips share their thoughts about the team’s recent paper, A bond bear market? Bring it on! We also provide historical context to the fears of a rising rate environment with key talking points for advisors to use with their clients.

In this episode:

  • What creates a bond bear market?
  • How to explain the portfolio impact when interest rates rise
  • Back to the basics on how bonds work
  • What is a normalized interest rate?
  • Does going above 3% matter?

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Adam Phillips – People have been saying rising rates are invariably bad for fixed income and we’re saying take a step back, do the actual math, look at the history.  Higher rates would actually be very good for fixed income investors.  There’s no question there will be a transition period.  But investors should welcome this.

Ben Jones – Welcome to Better conversations. Better outcomes. presented by BMO Global Asset Management.  I’m Ben Jones.

Emily Larsen – And I’m Emily Larsen.  In each episode, we’ll explore topics relevant to today’s trusted financial advisors, interviewing experts and investigating the world of wealth advising from every angle.  We’ll also provide you with actionable ideas designed to improve outcomes for advisors and their clients.

Ben Jones – To access the resources we discuss in today’s show, or just to learn more about our guests, visit bmogam.com/betterconversations.  Again, that’s bmogam.com/betterconversations.  Thanks for joining us.

Emily Larsen – Before we get started, one quick request. If you have enjoyed the show and found them a value, please take a moment to leave us a rating or review on iTunes. It would really mean a lot to us.

Disclosure – The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of BMO Global Asset Management, its affiliates, or subsidiaries.

Emily Larsen – Today we’re whisking you off to Miami, Florida but we’re not going to the beach.  We’re going to the credit forum, an annual event held by BMO’s fixed income teams.

Janelle Woodward – I think we have a really unique opportunity being a global organization that on an annual basis we can bring together our credit analysts across the globe into a single location and really build upon the regular conversations we’re having as it relates to what’s happening across the world in local markets and really enhance the delivery of our research product to our clients.

Ben Jones – That’s Janelle Woodward, global co-head of income.  Janelle led and hosted this year’s forum out of our Miami office.  Now often time’s bond analysts get a bad rap for being boring.  But as I attended the forum it was full of personalities and all sorts of interesting opinions.

Emily Larsen – We sat down with two members of our investment team in attendance to talk about the primary topic in fixed income today, the impact of rising interest rates which continues to dominate the headlines.  They discuss the recent paper the team published titled “A Bond bear market? Bring it on!

Daniela Mardarovici – Daniela Mardarovici, Portfolio Manager, BMO Fixed Income.

Adam Phillips – Adam Phillips, Client Portfolio Manager, BMO Fixed Income.

Ben Jones – Adam and Daniela were kind enough to sit down with me for an extensive talk about the thesis of their recent paper and why they feel so positive about a bond bear market.  We talked about the advice they would give to advisors, what you should do with that advice and how to explain the concept of rising interest rate and fixed income to your clients.

Emily Larsen – We’ll have a link to the paper in the show notes for this episode at bmogam.com/betterconversations if you’d like to read more about why this team says bring it on.

Ben Jones – Now you don’t hear a lot of portfolio managers, especially fixed income portfolio managers saying that they are super excited about a rising interest rate environment like we find ourselves in today.  Let’s dive in a little bit deeper into the content.  I had a lot of questions that I think our audience is going to be particularly interested in.  First of all, with the recent rise in interest rates and I think maybe even a little bit more rapidly than people expected in the first half or maybe even just the first quarter of 2018, are we at the end of a bond bull market?

Adam Phillips – It’s a good question.  I think we’re a little bit skeptical to say that the bond bull market is fully over.  I think it’s fair to say we’re not going to see the kind of decline in rates that we’ve seen since 1981 when rates were in the 15.8% range and they’ve fallen all the way to two-seven at the end of the first quarter.  I don’t think we’re going to see the continued kind of linear decline in rates but that also doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll enter a bond bear market and see rates reversed back, certainly not to the levels that they were at in the mid or early ’80s.

Ben Jones – Daniela, what actually creates a bond bear market?  Because it seems to me that an orderly increase in interest rates doesn’t kind of create the chaos that I generally associate with a bear market.

Daniela Mardarovici – I think that’s precisely the question to ask.  The narrative so far this year really has been around the notion that we have seen the low in interest rates for the past four decades or so.  That’s plausible.  But that in and of itself does not necessarily mean that this is where we start this campfire scary story about how these terrible things will happen in the bond market because believe it or not total returns are not necessarily in fixed income total returns are not necessarily the same thing as changes in interest rates.

Ben Jones – There is some discussion in your paper about the fact that a bear market would be welcomed by you as a fixed income team or at least an incremental bear market.  How’s that?

Adam Phillips – Sure.

Ben Jones – We’ll be loose on the definition since we’re thinking orderly rather than in-orderly.  There’s discussion that you’d welcome that type of environment.  Could you maybe just kind of explain why, Adam?

Adam Phillips – Yeah.  I think part of this goes to your question that a bear market in bond doesn’t have the some kind of definition that a bear market in equities does.  In equities we’re talking about a specific decline in value.  Here what we’re talking about is rates moving higher and if rates move higher what we’re really mean is that the total return expectation for investors is going to be moving higher.  Yes short-term the bond math still holds.  If bond yields go up, bond prices go down.  But that’s a relatively short-term period where you’re having that adjustment.  After that adjustment you now have higher yields and therefore higher total return expectations and we think that’s what a lot of investors in fixed income would very much like to see.

Daniela Mardarovici – As a matter of fact we debated a bit what would be the optimal way to illustrate this notion that ultimately it’s all about the income stupid.  In fixed income consider an alternative.  Let’s say interest rates did not decline at all.  They did absolutely nothing since 1981.  What do you think the return during this 37-year investment horizon would have been?

Ben Jones – I’m guessing it’s somewhere around the average of 4.5%.

Daniela Mardarovici –As a matter of fact it is not.  It is precisely 15% per year.  This is how simple bond math really is.

Ben Jones – Oh, right, oh, I’m following.

Daniela Mardarovici – And as a result, the total return and mind you we’re comparing this with the 1,600% number we’ve been working with, your total return would have been a very cool 16,000%.

Ben Jones – Right.  Oh that makes sense.  I got it.  Okay this makes a lot more sense to me.  Now last year when rates were at 1% and you saw a 50 basis point move on a percentage basis pretty significant.  But this year as rates are approaching 3% or 2.75, 50 basis points is not the same percentage increase.  In fact every increase the percentage gets less and less.  So walk me through how this kind of slow and steady increase will affect the ability of portfolio managers and advisors to manage portfolios over the long term or to adjust to this kind of slow and steady pace.

Adam Phillips – Sure.  Certainly we don’t expect the world to unfold linearly.  But if you took the situation we saw from the bull market and said roughly 30 basis points a year of decline and then flip that on its head and said you started to see 30 basis points a year of increase what you’d find is that one the damage done by rates moving higher decreases in relative importance each year because the total return expectation becomes higher and then the second thing is as your return gets higher and higher just the outlook becomes more attractive for fixed income relative to the other opportunity set.

Ben Jones – Now, that’s great in a world where you have this perfect interest rate increase policy.  Daniela, can you talk a little bit about what happened earlier this year?  Because this is well telegraphed interest rate environment and then in the end of first quarter things went a bit haywire.  Was that a psychological barrier that was tripped around this 3% notion or did it have some sort of sustained impact that investors need to be concerned about?

Daniela Mardarovici – I think it’s important to take a step back and think about a few other things before we talked about this bear market and negative returns.  What’s really relevant as with all investments is to determine one’s investment horizon.  Ben if you ask me whether or not I care about the changes or even Fed policy for the next one year, my answer would be yeah.  I care a bit.  However, the average investor with an allocation to a core portfolio if their investment horizon is about six years the actions of the federal reserve do not matter to them at all, not a little bit, not at all.  The reason is that bond math is a bit magical.  I know it can stump others sometime.  In essence, the yield on a portfolio — core bonds right now are in about a 3.3% yield.  It tells you precisely what the return for this particular portfolio will be over the average life of this portfolio or we call it duration, looked at it differently.  Over the next six years it cannot mathematically be possible for us to experience a bond bear market no matter what happens to interest rates because in the next six years we already know that default aside we will absolutely earn approximately 3.3% per year.  Thus there is a bit of a disconnect between the notion of a bear market in general and the degree of concern, the typical investor allocated to core bonds should have with a short-term developments in the market, be it EMEA, Italy, monetary policy, et cetera.

Ben Jones – Daniela makes a good point here and it’s something important to keep in mind for your clients.  Explaining the basics of how a bond works might be something worth revisiting with your clients at your next quarterly review.  Daniela explains how rising interest rates affects the bond markets as well as equity markets and if going above 3% really matters – or not. This psychological barrier of 3% occurred and then now we’re back down below it.  At the time that it occurred there was a period in which it seemed as though equities took a bigger hit than fixed income.  Just walk me through kind of how interest rates impact fixed income using your simple bond math and then why they would impact equities as well.

Daniela Mardarovici – Right.  You do make a fair point particularly as investors have to absorb the news.  3% in and of itself is not a particularly magical number but perhaps somehow the total change of interest rates just concern investors enough to react.  The result of an increase in interest rates clearly is a decline in bond prices and that’s the immediate impact if you don’t have the time to wait for the coupon payments to come in you will experience a negative return.  However, while generally speaking the relationship between bond prices and equity prices are inversely correlation.  The problem is that a — what any time arise is perceived as precipitous in interest rates that will be perceived as slowing down the economy to quickly worsening financial conditions in the market of the time and as a consequence risk asset classes like high-yield, like emerging markets, like equities would suddenly decline.  They are likely to decline materially more than fixed income would.  And that was exemplified precisely in February when we saw core bonds decline by about 2% whereas equities on the other hand decline by a healthier 10%.

Emily Larsen – Most advisor portfolios in the fixed income space have changed dramatically over the years and many people are taking on more and more risk in order to chase yield.  Ben and Adam discussed why this is and why a key take-away from the paper is that rising interest rate environments can present an opportunity to chase yields while taking on less risk.

Ben Jones – Adam, advisors and their clients traditionally have bought fixed income to do four primary things:  income, diversification, capital preservation or liquidity.  These factors over the last decade or so have really kind of come into odds with one another at times.  Can you kind of discuss a little bit about how these things have impacted portfolio composition kind of over the last couple of decades?  Because the composition of most advisors fixed income portfolios has changed dramatically.

Adam Phillips – Yeah.  We looked at what it would take historically to create the 5% return, which we think is a nice kind of round number that people associate with the fixed income return.  What’s interest is if you go back to the mid-’90s you could have gotten that return from just a diversified pool of Treasuries.  Treasuries, if you think about what they represent really it’s kind of the epitome of diversification against equity risk, capital preservation.  Right there the one asset that you can call risk-free.  At 5% they’re generating the income.  And they are an incredibly liquid asset class.  Over time what’s happened is as yields have come down you really had to change the balance of fixed income assets to generate that 5% return.  First that includes on the margin adding things like agency mortgages, investment grade credit.  These are kind of tweaks on the margin you start to have a fixed income pool that looks more like a core or US aggregate benchmark.  But as you get — rates get lower and lower what you see is that by the end of 2017 you had to have almost 70% high-yield to generate a 5% return.  When you have that kind of portfolio composition you no longer have the diversification against equity.  You no longer have the liquidity component.  You no longer have capital preservation.  And so what fixed income does in your portfolio becomes very, very different.

Ben Jones – This is something that took a long time for me to get my head around because I think you’re classically trained in finance to think about equities and bonds or fixed income and equities.  And it wasn’t an easy concept to understand that some bonds behave more like equities like say some high yield or components of the plus category and some equities behave more like bonds like a diversified equity income strategy.  I believe the point that I really took away from this paper is that the search for yield has driven advisors and their investors to take on more risk than they historically have to get the same amount of yield.  Would that be a fair representation of your work here?

Adam Phillips – I think that’s a very good representation and I think why this moment and time is so interesting is this could be the inflection point.  As investors look at the 10-year Treasury kind of dancing around 3%, this may be an opportunity for them to generate the yields they have been looking to generate but now start to do it at a lower risk profile.

Ben Jones – This is something where you could potentially see advisors look to take risk off the table to generate those same yields?

Adam Phillips – Yeah.  That’s some of the conversations we’ve been having recently where investors, advisors are looking at saying I can get the same yields now that I could get a year ago, 18 months, two years ago and take dramatically less risk.  This is something I want to do for my clients.  This is the prudent course given the evolution of the market.

Ben Jones – I think listeners would be really upset if I didn’t ask this question so I’m going to ask it.  And then, let you guys opine.  I should have asked you separately to see if it’s the same answer.  What is a normalized interest rate?

Adam Phillips – There are multiple answers to that because the real answer is that there is not an interest rate.  Sometimes we talked about rising rates and really there are multiple components to that.  So the Fed has been raising rates.  They’ve really been raising a rate.  They’ve been raising the Fed funds rate.  At the same time what’s going on in the 10-year Treasury is a little bit disconnected from the Fed funds rate.  So when we talk about a normalized rate environment, there are multiple pieces to that.  The Fed in their dot plot has basically called the normalized rate about 2.9%, a little bit below 3%.  That puts us kind of another 100 basis points or so from reaching that normalized level.  If you look at what the normalized level is in terms of longer-term rates I think people anchor back to again a magic number like five, maybe 4%.  The interesting thing if you look back 10 years for the last 10 years the average rate on the 10-year Treasury is actually below where we are right now.  And so for investors who are anchoring back to kind of a mean reversion idea they might be surprised to see that rates would actually have to go down to hit their “normalized level.”

Ben Jones – That’s a great point.  If you did it on a 20-year basis we’re still not there yet.

Adam Phillips – Yeah.  But we’re not meaningfully different.  What’s interesting I think people think 20 years ago that rates were some astronomically number.  Rates were definitely higher but the average for the last 20 years is about 3.6%.  Last month we had 3.1.  That’s within the realm of possibility that we could get to.  We’re no longer talking about a kind of Draconian move in rates to get to what people are thinking of as some normalized level.

Ben Jones – Now I want to talk a little bit about what you think the advisors listening to this show should do with this information because I think that’s really where the rubber hits the road is there’s a lot of really good information in the paper.  We’ll put a link in the show notes so that people have it.  But what do you think an advisor listening to this or reading the paper should do with this newly armed information?

Adam Phillips – The biggest goal of this paper was to tell people to pause, question conventional wisdom.  We’ve all been hammered with this idea that rates are going up.  For the last 10 years we’ve been tell rates are going higher, get out of bonds, shorten duration.  Do all these things to avoid this pain of rising rates.  One of the things — What we’ve tried to highlight in this paper is: One, rising rates are not as dangerous, even short-term as you think they might be.  The February example highlights that rates rise, maybe worse for equities than it is for fixed income.  But that this is also a transition period.  If you can manage that transition period, you’re then setting yourself up and your clients up for a much more attractive total return expectations with potentially lower risk going forward and so I think that’s what the real take-away here is.  People are dogmatic.  They’re telling us that rising rates is definitely bad.  And I think it’s really worth pausing, rethinking and then reacting.

Ben Jones – Now Daniela, advisors that have clients that are super concerned, they read the papers.  They hear all the bad news, the — as you called it — the campfire scary stories about interest rate rises.  How can an advisor explain these concepts to their clients to help them better understand the role that fixed income plays in their portfolio?

Daniela Mardarovici – Taking a step back in general, as is just advisable in any situation, one of the key things in approaching the possibility of rising rates in fixed income should be very, very simple.  That is to make sure that your client’s investment horizon is consistent with the type of fixed income portfolio that the client has.  To the extent that the client does not have any near-term liquidity needs that those are well aligned, a typical investor allocated in fixed income today as we talked about earlier, is guaranteed just by the virtue of that magical bond math we talked about to earn an annualized, so not total return for the period, annualized, 3.3% return for the next six years.  That’s for core bonds.  Just expressing just the comfort level in expressing that notion that even if you think interest rates might be higher there which is what you think about equity returns of negative 10%, 15%, has nothing to do with the type of returns that can actually be realized in fixed income.  By the very nature of the fact that you earn every single year those coupons that come back and that can be reinvested at higher interest rates.  It’s just key to reiterate the nature of how fixed income works.  Sometimes to me people tend to be a little bit more comfortable in understanding how a single bond works right?  So think about it this way.  You have a six-year bond.  And I picked six for no other reason than that happens to be the duration of your typical core portfolio.  Six years it has a 3.3% coupon.  You know that if you wait for this bond to mature, you will have earned precisely 3.3% per year.  It turns out that even though bond portfolios are a bit more complicated, the math is very, very similar in that regard.  Matching investor horizon and having a good understanding of liquidity needs certainly if somebody has unexpected liquidity needs in the near term selling any asset class that may be subject to negative returns would be undesirable.  That aside, reassuring investors that income is still all that matters about fixed income with a sufficiently long investment horizon becomes key.

Ben Jones – One of the key things that you may want to put into your client conversation roadmap coming out of this episode is creating a dialog about the current interest rate environment and using bond math with one bond to illustrate this for your clients.  Even though much of the dialog in today’s headlines is about rising interest rates Daniela is quick to remind us that there are no certainties in interest rates and fixed income has a role as a diversifier for many investors’ portfolios that should not be overlooked.

Daniela Mardarovici – If we were to point to one concern about investors’ portfolios generally speaking be it institutional or private investors, it’s the fact that over the past 10 years in this perpetual bull market in fixed income as it’s been called, investors have progressively not only maxed out, so to speak, their allocation to equities but simultaneously the nature that their fixed income portfolios by as we discussed earlier, making them more equity like.  And while we talk about interest rates as if they’re some sort of a guarantee.  They’re very much not and going back to this notion of a normal interest rate for quant geeks they would remember that there’s no mean stability in this particular series and in layman’s term it simply means the answer is there is no such thing as a normal interest rate, not for the 10-year, not for the Fed funds rate.  As a consequence there is no such thing as a guaranteed path for interest rates and we have to continue to function in a probabilistic world.  While in this particular probabilistic world and as we face a fairly long economic recovery and yes things are looking awfully good at the moment and we’re all excited about that, it’s particularly in these types of environments when external shocks perhaps, and we’ve had a number of examples that may become external shocks can cause a destabilization in a financial markets.  That is precisely when investors should want to have an allocation to proper fixed income and by proper; I mean those higher quality traditional core bond portfolios.  Here’s why.  In an environment where we have an external shock and we’ve seen this over and over again or perhaps The Fed makes a mistake or perhaps the economic recovery is not as strong as we believed; bond portfolios would be the ones that would provide both the stability and, as a matter of fact, counter out some of the negative returns that would in this environment be experienced in equities.

Ben Jones – They’d get that capital preservation.

Daniela Mardarovici – That is precisely right.  Being overly aggressive about being concerned with one of the scenarios and the one scenario is that interest rates may rise, they will not — it’s again not a guarantee.  Interest rates are not guaranteed to rise.  They may rise.  Protecting or preparing for this environment, one has to continue to be very aware that either paths are still entirely plausible.

Ben Jones – So the thing about sure things is that there’s no sure thing.

Daniela Mardarovici – That’s the one.

Ben Jones – Now, I want to move quick.  You guys have been very generous with your time today while we’re here at the credit forum.  So Adam if you wouldn’t mind could you talk me through this?  So Daniela brought this up a couple of times – if you buy a bond and you hold it you’re going to get 3.3% because when it matures you’re going to get par.  But I hear a lot of advisors say this is why they’re moving to holding the individual bonds versus owning a mutual fund or a pooled vehicle like a collective trust institutionally.  Could you just walk through the compare and contrast of those two says, of holding kind of the actual securities in a SMA versus holding a bond fund.  Does it really matter and are there pros or cons?

Adam Phillips – I think part of the appeal of a laddered portfolio, the idea that eventually these will mature and you’ll get your cash back or your principal back, it avoids the reality of a mark to market.  And if you were going to look at the valuations of those bonds over their life you would see the same impact that you would see in a bond fund.  The nice thing about the bond fund is that it is more diversified.  You do have individual securities maturing with greater frequency.  So as rates move higher – if they move higher – than you have the ability to reinvest at those higher rates kind of dollar cost average into a more attractive landscape than if you only had a smaller, more concentrated laddered portfolio.  You’re really beholden into the period of time in which an individual bond matures.  And the truth with the ladder is if you needed to sell an individual bond because you need cash, whatever the reason is for the client, they’re still subject to the same mark to market constraints.

Emily Larsen – Adam’s compare and contrast of how you consider implementation of fixed income is a critical one as you think of your client’s portfolio implementation as there are pros and cons to both approaches.

Ben Jones – The credit forum covered a wide range of topics, current events and sectors and the team will be releasing more insights on that in the months ahead.  You can watch our Viewpoints website for more.  Now I want to give a special thanks to all the participants in the credit forum for many really fun and robust conversations throughout the forum.

Emily Larsen – And a big thank you to Adam and Daniela for sitting down with us to explain their perspectives about the potential of a bond bear market.  We hope they’ve turned your feeling of “oh no” into one of “bring it on.”

Ben Jones – Thanks for listening to Better conversations. Better outcomes.  This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management.  To learn more about what BMO can do for you, visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.

Emily Larsen – We value listener feedback and would love to hear what you have thought about today’s episode.  Or, if you’re willing to share your own experiences or insights related to today’s topic, please e-mail us at betterconversations@bmo.com.  Of course, the greatest compliment of all is if you tell your friends and coworkers to subscribe to the show.  You can subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play, the Stitcher app, or your favorite podcast platform.  Until next time, I’m Emily Larsen.

Ben Jones – And I’m Ben Jones.  From all of us at BMO Global Asset Management, hoping you have a productive and wonderful week.

Emily Larsen – This show and resources are supported by a talented team of dedicated professionals at BMO, including Pat Bordak, Gayle Gipson, Matt Perry, and Derek Devereaux.  This show is edited and produced by Jonah Geil-Neufeld and Annie Fassler of Puddle Creative.  

Disclosure – The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of BMO Global Asset Management, its affiliates, or subsidiaries. This is not intended to serve as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any company, industry, or security. This presentation may contain forward-looking statements. Investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on such statements, as actual results could vary. This presentation is for general information purposes only and does not constitute investment advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment product or service. Individual investors should consult with an investment professional about their personal situation. Past performance is not indicative of future results. BMO Asset Management Corp is the investment advisor to the BMO funds. BMO Investment Distributors LLC is the distributor. Member FINRA/SIPC. BMO Asset Management Corp and BMO Investment Distributors are affiliated companies. Further information can be found at www.bmo.com.

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