Last updated: 11:13 / Wednesday, 9 June 2021
Interview with M&G

James Tomlins: "High Yield Floating-Rate Bonds Provide an Attractive Way to Play the Reflation Theme"

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  • "These bonds retained the relatively high yield levels that are not present in government bonds or investment grade credit"
  • "The unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary stimulus, combined with the release of pent-up demand as the global economy reopens, could indeed push inflation higher"
  • "Our preference is to focus on issues that offer investors more protection in the event of a default, such as senior secured bonds"

In times of economic uncertainty, high yield floating rate notes (FRNs) often offer an attractive source of income. That's why we spoke to James Tomlins, manager of the M&G (Lux) Global Floating High Yield fund, about how the asset class has performed and what role it can play in portfolios today.

Question. Has this asset class lived up to expectations? How would you assess its performance over the past year?

Answer. The crisis should probably be viewed in isolation given its scale and the lack of any modern-day precedent. The high yield floating rate market faced the same uncertainties as other risk assets when the pandemic struck, so it initially sold off, before recovering strongly during the rest of 2020. The bonds retained the relatively high yield levels that are not present in government bonds or investment grade credit however. High yield FRNs are insulated from rising bond yields, and would even benefit through higher interest coupons if central banks were to begin to increase interest rates. Overall, the asset class has performed largely as one might expect in the prevailing circumstances as the crisis took hold and as the world has tackled it.

Q. Investors have now turned their minds to the economic recovery, which is set to arrive with the vaccination roll-out. In this recovery scenario, what can these assets contribute to investors’ portfolio?

A. Investors should probably express some caution as much of that optimism is already factored into credit spreads, which have returned to levels that prevailed as 2020 dawned. Nevertheless, if bond yields continue to increase, undercutting fixed rate bond values, floating rate bonds will not see the same hit to capital. If, in due course, central banks decide to begin increasing interest rates to combat rising inflation, high yield FRNs will actually benefit from those higher short term interest rates in the form of higher interest coupons, thus being able to provide larger income streams. Such a scenario is the so called “FRN Happy Place”.

Q. Higher inflation is also expected. What are your expectations for inflation and how will it impact this asset class?

A. The prospect of higher inflation and what this means for financial markets has become a key area of focus for investors in recent months. Some factors could indeed push inflation higher, in our view, in particular the unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary stimulus, combined with the release of pent-up demand as the global economy reopens.

I believe high yield FRNs provide an attractive way to play the reflation theme and to protect against rising interest rates. This was demonstrated in February as concerns over rising inflation triggered a sharp sell-off in global government bonds. In contrast to many fixed income assets, high yield FRNs proved resilient during this period, with their floating rate nature helping to offset the negative impact of rising bond yields. Indeed, if central banks respond to the inflationary threat by hiking short term interest rates, FRNS benefit from higher coupons and therefore higher returns.

Q. In the same vein, what are your expectations for the interest rate horizon and how is this reflected in your M&G (Lux) Global Floating Rate High Yield fund?

A. At present, none of the main central banks appear likely to change their policy stance of being supportive, and begin increasing interest rates. They are likely to prefer to allow economies more time to build on their respective recoveries, even if it means higher inflation begins to become more entrenched. We typically do not attempt to position the fund for particular interest rate moves, preferring to look manage the fund conservatively and invest in value opportunities as we identify them. The more important question though is what does the market expect and can these expectations change. It’s this that will drive the volatility in the fixed rate market. If investors are concerned that this volatility will hurt their fixed income holdings, what FRNS do is provide a safe harbour from such stormy conditions in the bond market.

Q. Where do you see the main opportunities right now?

A. One of our key preferences is to hold lower-priced issues in the fund, as we believe the prevailing market climate offers them greater scope to generate returns than issues that are less market-sensitive and priced closer to par (100), as high yield FRNs typically have lower call prices than their fixed rate counterparts. We also retain underweight allocations relative to the benchmark, to some of the more economically sensitive sectors such as energy and leisure. While the economic backdrop of ongoing stimulus and low interest rates is supportive of companies and risk assets, such as high yield credit, there is a risk that the recoveries may falter and put pressure on credit valuations.

Q. The COVID-19 crisis and governments’ and central banks’ stimulus measures have generated a debate about what is underpinning the quality of fixed income assets. In the case of high yield floating rate bonds, are you concerned about asset quality?

A. Investing in high yield markets means taking on some additional degree of credit risk compared to investment grade markets and even in the most benign conditions, defaults can occur. This is why having a large and deeply experienced team of analysts, dedicated to undertaking the most robust assessments of the credits we hold, is so crucial. Our preference is to focus on issues that offer investors more protection in the event of a default, such as senior secured bonds.

Q. What can the M&G (Lux) Global Floating Rate High Yield strategy provide investors' portfolios?

A. We believe the strategy, with our careful and conservative management approach, can offer investors the opportunity to achieve an appealing level of returns in a low interest rate environment. It is insulated from the negative effects that rising yields can have on fixed rate bond strategies and actually benefits from rising interest rates, through higher interest receipts.

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