Recent times have been tough for bond prices due to rising interest rates and inflation concerns, but there are signs that the bond market could now offer some interesting opportunities for investors.
Are bonds back?
By Portugal team
This article is published on: 27th October 2023
The bond market is much larger than the stock market with figures from Morningstar valuing the market at approx. $300 trillion compared with the stock market at approx. $124 trillion, so it is a significant market for investors to understand.
What are bonds?
A bond is simply a loan that an investor makes to a government or company in return for a set interest rate, known as a coupon. For example, if you buy a 10-year 5% US Treasury bond for $100, you are lending $100 to the US government who will pay you $5 each year for 10 years and at the end of the term, you get your original capital of $100 back.
Investors like the predictable income and the relative stability of bond investments. They also complement shares which tend to be more volatile e.g. when share prices fall and investors are nervous, they often flock to the relative safety of bonds, which pushes up the value of bonds to compensate.
There are many bonds to choose from, each with different levels of risk, and therefore return expectations. For example, instead of buying a US treasury bond, you could buy a bond in Apple or BP and because there is more risk in lending to a company than there in lending to the US government, you can expect a higher coupon of say 6% or 7% to compensate for this increased risk.
Recent market issues – an exceptional period
In simple terms, traditionally, the prices of bonds move in an opposite direction to interest rates so when interest rates rise, bond prices fall.
Given that interest rates globally have been steadily increasing for the last couple of years, bond prices have naturally suffered.
One unusual phenomenon we have seen is that stock markets have also performed relatively poorly so we have seen bonds and stocks falling at the same time. This is a very rare event which has only happened three times in the last 45 years and many commentators believe the normal diversification and inverse relationship between bonds and shares will resume going forward.
Last week, we saw that UK 30-year bond yields rose to their highest level since 1998 and similarly, US Treasury yields are at a 16-year high, despite high interest rates. So why is this?
From a UK perspective, the recent mini-budget included tax cuts and increased spending, something that will need to be paid for through increased borrowing. The government does this by selling more bonds. But more government debt without the economic growth to support it spells increased risk for the economy and it is this that triggered a large-scale sell-off of UK bonds, reducing the price and therefore increasing yields.
There are three supporting factors for a positive outlook for bonds:
1. As bond prices have fallen, the yield available to investors has increased substantially which supports bonds and the outlook for prices going forward. As a result, bonds may provide an attractive level of income, and at relatively low risk levels, which has not been seen for many years.
2. Figures from Vanguard, the world’s second-largest fund manager, show that bonds typically outperform cash in the three years following peak rate hikes dating back to 1980. The Federal Reserve, Bank of England and European Central Bank have all signalled interest rates are close to or have peaked already. The consensus is therefore that interest rates and yields should fall over time, and as prices move opposite to interest rates, bond prices should rise.
3. Bonds have historically performed better than shares and cash during recessions. With concerns still lingering about economies entering recessions, bonds could again offer value in a portfolio.
Of course, we always have to point out that history does not always repeat itself and things may happen differently this time, but the alignment of several tailwinds for bonds is a positive signal.
When a bond is not a bond
Please note that there are also tax structures known as “investment bonds” which are not to be confused with the bonds we’ve discussed in this article. Investment bonds are a form of tax wrapper and they are often used by residents of Portugal (as well as being efficient from a UK tax perspective) to hold and manage investment portfolios.