European investors have shown mounting interest in unconstrained bond strategies, but allocations need to strike a well-thought-out balance, Morningstar has warned.
According to Last Word Research, the share of European investors intending to increase exposure to unconstrained bonds this year rose to 20% in Q4, up from 14% in Q3, the strongest increase for 2019.
The share of investors intending to decrease allocations to these funds dropped slightly, to 7% from 8%.
Those maintaining their current level of unconstrained bonds dipped to 25% from 27%, while fewer investors are opting not to use them at all (48% vs 51% in Q3 – see chart below).
Source: Last Word Research
However, the trend was not reflected in actual fund flows into unconstrained bond funds.
These fell to €3.5bn in December 2019, from €4.5bn in November, showing an overall decreasing trend into the asset class, according to Morningstar data.
Source: Morningstar data
Balancing unconstrained bond investments
Flexible, unconstrained, fixed-interest strategies have the reputation that they are able to handle higher-bond yields better than more-traditional options, Morningstar said.
Commenting in a research report titled Have Flexible-Bond Strategies Hit their Mark?, the investment research house stated: “In the main, an unconstrained bond portfolio can be a useful aid if interest rates increase, but we think it should be a component, rather than the entirety, of a fixed-interest allocation.”
US asset manager Pimco, which holds the largest such fund in Europe, the Pimco Gis Income Fund with €72.2bn of assets, argued similarly that these strategies have merit when used in a complementary way.
It wrote in a blog in 2019: “We believe strategic exposure to these types of benchmark-agnostic or opportunistic bond strategies, if well designed, can be a beneficial complement to a core bond portfolio in periods of higher volatility, a characteristic of the late-cycle environment we’re facing today.”
When analysing Australian flexible fixed interest funds, Morningstar found that “flexible fixed-interest strategies have generally handled periods of higher US government bond yields better than more-traditional index-relative vehicles”.
Flexible-bond portfolios almost universally limited the damage when US interest rates rose during 2018, with 10-year yields rising to 2.87% from 2.46% in January and February of that year, and similarly in April and September to October.
Almost all beat the Bloomberg AusBond Composite Bond and Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate indexes on average during these periods, Morningstar said.
Among the funds, the Bentham Global Income Fund and the Franklin Templeton Multisector Bond Fund fared best, returning on average 0.75% and 1.1% respectively, the analysis found.
Interest rate hikes
Yet, given the current prevailing low interest rate environment, flexible fixed-interest portfolios have typically lagged bond indexes over medium- and longer-term horizons, Morningstar said.
“The flip side of shortening duration is the potential opportunity cost in carry [is] foregone, which can be amplified when maintaining an outright negative duration stance,” its analysts explained.
“While a capital gains payoff can be significant if yields rise, it can be costly to maintain this stance and take much time to pay dividends.”
They pointed to the difficulty in getting this call right, adding that “it’s easy to believe that the US will lift interest rates, but profiting on it is much harder…”.
Morningstar particularly cautioned that a sensible approach to portfolio construction is needed to deal with unforeseen circumstances stemming from unpredictable investment markets.
Pimco warned in its blog that flexible mandates could run the danger of making too much use of the freedom that they are given without a limiting benchmark or framework.
It argued that “flexible strategies should not be unpredictable”.
Some approaches, it said, could assume too much directional risk or focus too heavily on a single, predominant driver of performance.
“To be successful, we believe flexible strategies must strike the right balance between defensive positioning in volatile markets and the opportunistic pursuit of alpha over the long-term – all within a well-understood investment framework,” it suggested.
Pimco concluded that greater flexibility of “well-designed dynamic or opportunistic bond strategies” may help them to, potentially, capitalise on market shifts, compared to other traditional strategies.
In particular, during periods of market volatility, flexible strategies may:
- Make an overall portfolio more resilient by reducing directional risk, lowering beta exposure to duration and credit risk, and tilting toward relative value opportunities; and
- Seize opportunities that arise in volatile periods, providing debt capital to liquidity-hungry issuers when they are most in need (ie, when they are more willing to pay a premium to issue a bond).