Last updated: 05:10 / Wednesday, 28 July 2021
AXA WF Global Strategic Bonds

Nick Hayes: "Yields Could Continue to Rally on Any Undershoot of Investors’ High Expectations for the Recovery"

  • The Global Strategic Bonds strategy, managed by Nick Hayes, is a flexible strategy that invests across the fixed income spectrum: government bonds, inflation-linked, investment grade credit, high yield and emerging market debt
  • This means that there is no single point in time when it is appropriate to invest in the fund, as it has the ability to adapt its allocation and positioning to the point of the economic cycle

The Global Strategic Bonds strategy, managed by Nick Hayes, Head of Asset Allocation for AXA Investments Managers' Total Return and Fixed Income Asset Allocation strategies, is a flexible strategy that invests across the fixed income spectrum: government bonds, inflation-linked, investment grade credit, high yield and emerging market debt. This means that there is no single point in time when it is appropriate to invest in the fund, as it has the ability to adapt its allocation and positioning to the point of the economic cycle.

However, this does not mean that the fund provides strong positive returns in any environment. So far this year, the strategy has been able to navigate the bear market in fixed income with flat performance and, in recent months, has managed to begin obtaining positive returns as the bond rally has gained momentum. While the management team does not rule out the possibility for higher bond yields, it believes the worst of the sell-off in the fixed income market is over and attentions have now turned to the uncertainty in economic data and fragility of the ongoing recovery following the COVID outbreak. 

According to Hayes, yields could continue to rally on any undershoot of investors’ high expectations for the recovery. As a result, the risk/reward trade-off has shifted to a more constructive view on duration. It could also be argued that the Global Strategic Bonds strategy offers investors benefits beyond attractive risk-adjustedtotalreturns, i.e. it provides much-needed diversification to complement an equity allocation and a strong focus on ESG integration.

The Inflation Debate

Reflation is the buzzword in 2021; inflation levels have reached much higher levels, and both expected economic growth and investor optimism are high. U.S. Treasuries have led the rise in yields throughout Q1, with the 10-year US Treasury bond reaching a yield of 1.74% at the end of March, with an apparent market consensus for 2% yields at some point in 2021. Despite this, however, bond markets have actually rallied since April, with much of the market caught underweight duration.

The reasons for this rally, according to Hayes, are much more driven by sentiment and technical factors than pure macroeconomic or fundamental. Although US inflation has printed much higher than in recent memory, the data has increasingly failed to meet or beat the even higher market expectations for inflation, leading to a consensus that it will be transitory and return to much lower levels at an undetermined point. Rather irrationally, investors sometimes place too much emphasis on key levels and round numbers. A 1% yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note is the starting point for the year, a 1.5% yield is halfway there, and a 2% yield would be the target that many investors think the market is headed for. If the market stays below 1.5%, bond investors will begin to focus on inflation data for the second half of the year, which will likely be lower than recent months and many will be concerned about the possibility of inflation falling below the central bank's target, as has been the trend for many years.

Furthermore, at its June meeting, the Fed took a more hawkish tone by advancing the expectation of a rate hike with its dot plot, which summarizes Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants' outlook for interest rates, now suggesting two increases in 2023. A more hawkish Fed should point to higher yields, but other factors come into play, crucially that it might not allow inflation to run as hot as previously expected, adding credibility to the transitory inflation theory.

With yields rallying since April, investors have been rushing to close their short duration positions, creating technical demand for duration and compounding the move lower in yields. According to Hayes, for the time being, there is still reason to believe that the rally can continue with these factors in play.

Exposure to the yield curve

Looking at the spread between five-year and thirty-year U.S. treasury bonds, there has been a large steepening in yield curves in late 2020 and early 2021. With little movement in short-term bonds, the selling sprees have been focused on longer-term bonds that have substantially underperformed through March.

In recent months, however,stimulated by the transitory inflation momentum, the curve has been flattening, a move that accelerated during the week of the Fed's June meeting. The scale and speed of the move appears to have forced many investors to rotate out of short-dated bonds and into long-dated bonds, unwinding many of the reflationary positions that were so consensual throughout the first quarter.

Over this period, the Global Strategic Bonds strategy has actively managed its duration position in line with market events. In mid-February, all the momentum seemed to be with the reflation trade, meaning much higher bond yields than expected, causing the team to significantly reduce duration from over 5 years to 1.5 years, stripping out nearly all outright US duration exposure but with a steepening position on the US curve. This worked well to protect the portfolio from the worst of the rates-driven sell-off in the first quarter. Since April 2021, however, the team has started building up a duration position once more, concentrated in long-dated US duration, which has worked well as the curve has flattened aggressively, sitting in early July with over 4 years of exposure.

Credit exposure

In the high yield corporate bond market, spreads continue to move sideways or tighten, supported by relentless demand from investor appetite for a bit more yield than that offered in the investment grade bond market. While these spread levels seem increasingly stretched from a valuation perspective, they appear to be well anchored with strong demand from both investors and central banks.

At the individual security level, there has been a greater level of dispersion in 2021 than there was in 2020, meaning lots of bonds with very compressed spreads as well as others trading at much more attractive valuations, making bottom-up credit fundamental analysis absolutely key. Increasingly, however, these levels of dispersion are beginning to decrease as spreads grind tighter and valuations appear stretched across the board, potentially making a more prudent approach to credit necessary in the coming months.

Currently, the Global Strategic Bonds strategy has a 36% allocation in emerging markets and high yield and 30% in investment grade credit. Its investment-grade bias is toward BBB-rated securities, investing primarily in bank and insurance company debt, and other companies that could benefit from the recovery following the COVID crisis. In high yield, the team has reduced exposure to some of the more cyclical companies and is focusing on shorter-dated high carry names. In emerging markets, they are moving away from traditional commodity sensitive areas, towards sectors that are influenced by the middle class consumer and increasing exposure to renewable energy brands.