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Interest rate risk looms large for bonds

By David Katimbo-Mugwanya, manager of the Amity Short-Dated Bond Fund
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Considering Duration

Market forecasters have consistently, albeit unsuccessfully, predicted the demise of a bond bull market that has lasted for three decades. As they begin to unravel the implications of exiting the greatest financial experiment in history however, investors should exercise prudence by taking stock of fixed income allocations – considering whether interest rate duration risk is being appropriately compensated as the favourable tide recedes. 

Duration is the common term applied to risk associated with the sensitivity of a bond's price to movement in interest rates. The higher a bond's duration, the greater its sensitivity to interest rate changes and vice versa. So should bond investors with heavy duration risk exposure be worried? The prevailing monetary policy guidance is a useful barometer to determine whether we can anticipate a rising rate environment. Gilt yields leaped recently on hawkish Bank of England commentary noting that rate hikes may occur sooner and at a faster pace than currently anticipated. 

Further Brexit clarity, upon the agreement of transition arrangements, could also support the case for higher interest rates whilst recent credit spread widening serves as a timely reminder that the prolonged period of depressed yields may be drawing to a close. As we navigate the final stages of this extended market cycle therefore, the risk of duration looms large for bonds.

Positioning for the Next Phase

Given the low levels of yield and risk premia on offer by the broad market, we do not believe duration risk is being adequately compensated by the markets. This particularly rings true in the face of what looks like an inevitable global monetary policy tightening cycle, led by the US Federal Reserve. By investing in high-quality and short-dated corporate bonds, investors are able to gain exposure to yield in excess of cash without material exposure to interest rate sensitivity, thereby preserving capital. 

In a market driven to lofty heights by extraordinary levels of policy stimulus, it is, nevertheless, imperative that investors adopt a discerning strategy seize opportunities at the short end of the yield curve. A cautious yet dynamic approach could prove crucial amidst potentially volatile conditions ahead. While corporate bonds are relatively expensive in a historic spread context, we continue to find value in niche areas of investment grade debt.

Credit Quality Control

Within the asset class, a look back over the last decade has shown that lower credit quality underperforms in periods of credit stress, with spreads widening more considerably in this segment of the corporate bond universe. With over 90% of its holdings possessing an average rating of single-A or higher, the Amity Short Dated Bond Fund’s exposures seek to mitigate against such a scenario. 

By way of example, one of the fund’s largest holdings is in A2 Dominion 4.75% 2022. A2 Dominion is a socially-conscious residential property group providing affordable, private and social rented homes in London and southern England. The bond is A+ rated by Fitch and has an attractive a yield of 2.6%. 

Another holding is the European Investment Bank (EIB) 2.5% 2020 which, despite a yield of 1%, directly funds projects that address climate change including the production of green energy via solar, geothermal, waste-to-energy plants and offshore wind farms. The EIB is the world’s largest multi-lateral bank, possessing the highest average credit rating of AAA. 

The fund also has a significant allocation to floating rate notes (FRNs), most of which are collateralised against a high quality pool of assets and whose returns have a positive correlation with benchmark interest rates. FRN coupons automatically track interest rates. 

In an environment where yields achievable by holding cash look meagre, coupled with the potential adverse impacts from duration and credit risks, we view high quality short-dated debt as a better alternative for the impending tightening rate cycle. 

The value of an investment can fall as well as rise as a result of market and currency fluctuations, you may not get back the amount originally invested. Past performance should not be seen as a guide to future performance. If you are unsure which investment is most suited to you, the advice of a qualified financial adviser should be sought. EdenTree Investment Management Limited (EdenTree) Reg. No. 2519319. Registered in England at Beaufort House, Brunswick Road, Gloucester, GL1 1JZ, UK. EdenTree is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is a member of the Investment Association.