Sunday, January 8, 2017

Re-Risking with Bonds, China Near-Term


I have learned that one of the most risky periods to trade is when the market is open. Without the regular flow of transaction prices, one doesn't know if one is winning or losing. Thus, during all trading hours one is at risk to a significant price adjustment. Or to the contrary: opportunities to recognize investment profits. But some periods have been more prone than others to substantial price moves. We may be in such a period after a light volume expansion which appears to have topped out, and at the same time little in the way of successful shorting  and low volatility.

Re-Risking with Bonds

After 35 years of substantial gains, bond prices for high-quality paper experienced some falls. By year end it appears that the declines have just about slowed to a gentle fall, at least temporarily. Bond trading has attracted hedge funds and other speculative players. Many of these have taken losses as markets have signaled higher interest rates. These losses were  relatively small for un-leveraged portfolios, many portfolio managers feel that they have been insulted by "Mr. Market." They plan to get even with the market by re-risking their portfolios utilizing below-investment grade paper,  be it floating rate paper, loans, or high yield bonds. One can be concerned that they are creating the next large bubble. We should pay attention to that great portfolio manager William Shakespeare when he wrote the following words for the witches in Macbeth:

"Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn, cauldron bubble...."

The re-risking has already begun with high yield bonds gaining +17.18% and floating rate paper +10.57% compared to 5.98% for the bonds issued by the S&P 500 participants. For a number of mutual fund management companies the appeal of this paper hopefully will add to their dominant bond funds which could be very useful to the groups, but particularly Eaton Vance*, Franklin Resources*, and T Rowe Price* among others. The flows are presumed to come from new shareholders who wish to participate in the rising interest rate phenomena. One sign of the popularity of intermediate quality bonds is that their average yield for the week fell 23 basis points vs. a fall of only 7 basis points for the previous week, according to Barron's. If interest and inflation rates grow slowly, and stay below a pre-determined yield point, many bond investors will not focus on the decline in the price of their bonds.

 At this point that breakaway yield is probably about 4%. Another concern is the likely default rate that is expected on this paper. Moody's* believes that currently the bid/ask spread on speculative issues is 60 basis points too narrow or phrased another way, Moody's expects greater default rate than the market does.
* Personally owned  or through a private financial services fund that I manage.

Must be in the China Funds Business

On the fifth of January two of the global fund industry’s leading groups announced long term commitments to the Chinese mutual fund business. Fidelity was given permission to establish a wholly owned fund management subsidiary in China. On the very same day it was announced that two arms of the Power Corporation of Canada* would become the second largest owners of the largest mutual fund company in China. Both of these two groups are long-term strategic thinkers that have successfully entered markets beyond their home and appear to the locals that they are local themselves. (Fidelity is one of the largest fund providers in the UK, Hong Kong, and Japan among others. Power Corp. has big positions in Great West Life both in Canada and US as well as Putnam and substantial investments within Europe.) While I don't know whether these Chinese ventures plan to offer domestic and international funds in China, I am impressed with the commitment these two giants have to their long-term expansion plans. Each has benefitted from multiple generations of their senior management families who have worked their way up to their current command positions. On the basis of my respect for these families and their companies, I feel in the future one can not afford to disregard China and the Chinese investors as even more portent powers in the fund business globally.


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A. Michael Lipper, C.F.A.,
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