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Holly LaFon
Holly LaFon
Articles (10163)  | Author's Website |

Sierra Mutual Funds Commentary: The Stealth Bull Market in Bonds of the Past Year

By Terri Spath, chief investment officer

June 14, 2019 | About:

For many, summer means days at the beach and, ideally, nights at the ice cream parlor. Picking a flavor of ice cream is never an easy decision. The same can be said for bonds. Like ice cream, bonds come in 31 flavors (or so). U.S. government bonds are really different flavors of vanilla, from just plain vanilla to French to New York. Interest rates are the driver of the prices of government bonds; a rise in rates pressures prices down and vice-versa. A risk of default is virtually nil so credit risk does not influence the price.

Default risk becomes more important to investors considering buying the bonds of corporations, emerging markets or municipalities. With ice cream still on my mind, high yield corporate bonds, or “junk,” are the equivalent of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor “Everything but the Ice Cream”; there is a good chance you don’t care for something in the scoop, but it can still be a great choice. In addition to interest rates, junk bonds come with other risk considerations such as management quality, industry position or total debt service. For these reasons, junk bond prices are influenced not just by interest rate movements, but anything that could influence the ability of the issuer to pay back its debt.

Interestingly, the entire spectrum of bonds has participated in a stealth bull market for the past year. Over the 12 months ended May 31, 2019, the S&P 500 eked out a 3.8% gain. Any flavor of bonds earned better than that. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond was up nearly 7% over the same time period. Municipal bonds, high yield corporate bonds and emerging markets debt all outpaced the broad U.S. stock market too and, even better, did so with less drawdown. The S&P 500 shed just over 6% in May and nearly 20% in late 2018. No bond asset class suffered those kinds of losses. Bottom line: all flavors of bonds have provided better return with less risk than U.S. stocks over the past year.

This bull market in bonds, though, has hardly been noticed. It could be due to the difficulties and challenges that come with choosing between such different flavors of bonds and then participating in uptrends while stepping aside during declines. We use a rules-based approach. Rather than trying to predict the outcomes of tariff negotiations, of Federal Reserve meetings, of the shape of the yield curve or the weather next month, we study what the market is telling us and react with a truly tactical discipline.

Last month, a few of our holdings in high yield corporate bond funds fell enough to reach sell signals. Those monies were redeployed into long-term government bond funds, which have been in a strong upward trend. Our rules are currently guiding us to a preference for municipal bond, preferred stock and long-duration Treasury fund where the trends are strong. Now, if only choosing an ice cream flavor were this easy.

Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against market loss and there can be no guarantee that the process described will be successful.

Definitions & Disclosures:

A drawdown is a peak-to-trough decline during a specific period for an investment, trading account, or fund. A drawdown is usually quoted as the percentage between the peak and the subsequent trough.

The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is a broad-based flagship benchmark that measures the investment grade, U.S. dollar-denominated, fixed-rate taxable bond market.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) is a market-capitalization-weighted-index of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies. It is widely regarded as the best gauge of large-cap U.S. equities.

Investors cannot directly invest in an index and unmanaged index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses or sales charges.

Past performance does not guarantee future results. Investors cannot invest in an index and unmanaged index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses, or sales charges.

This publication is for general information only and is not intended to provide specific advice to any individual or institution. Some information provided herein was obtained from third-party resources deemed to be reliable.

Important Risks:

When the Fund invests in Underlying Funds that invest in fixed-income securities, the value of your investment in the Fund will fluctuate with changes in interest rates, as well as other factors. The Adviser’s dependence on multi-asset diversification and judgments about the attractiveness, value and potential appreciation of particular Asset Classes in which the Fund invests will in some cases prove to be incorrect and have negative impacts on performance. As to the portion of the portfolio invested in ETFs and closed-end investment companies, turnover may result in higher brokerage commissions, dealer mark-ups and other transaction costs. The Fund’s investment style will result in most capital gains within the portfolio being realized as short-term capital gains. It is possible that the U.S. Government would not provide financial support to its agencies or instrumentalities if it is not required to do so by law. The Fund engages in hedging or declining-market strategies by investing in inverse Underlying Funds. Any strategy that includes inverse securities could cause the Fund to suffer significant losses.

About the author:

Holly LaFon
I'm a financial journalist with a Master of Science in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University.

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