What You Need to Know

It’s a brave new world for fixed-income investors. A multi-decade bull market for bonds is ending. The potential hazards—rising interest rates, stretched valuations, divergent credit cycles, geopolitical change—are many. In this paper, we look at how balancing interest-rate-sensitive bonds and growth-sensitive credit assets in your portfolio can keep the income flowing without exposing you to too much risk.

Number of correlated quarterly sell-offs

of US Treasuries and global high yield 1997–2016

Share of quarterly periods when US Treasury

and global high-yield returns were positive 1997–2016

Return per unit of risk

for a risk-weighted barbell, 20 years ending 2016

Taking Control of Your Bond Market Risk

Investors often ask us which of the two main bond market risks they should focus on - interest rate or credit. Our answer? Both - and the way they interact with each other.

Most investors know they need to take both risks if they want to generate more income and diversify their stock exposure. But in today's bond market, it's more important than ever to get a handle on how to manage interest-rate and credit risk in an integrated way.

Investors typically view interest-rate-sensitive bonds (global government bonds, inflation-linked bonds) and growth-sensitive credit assets (high-yield corporate bonds, bank loans, emerging-market debt) as two separate groups. And they use different managers for each.

In theory, the divide-and-conquer approach works like this: if the assets in the credit-oriented portfolio get too expensive to justify the risk, a manager might sell some of them and shift those assets into the rate-sensitive portfolio.

But there's a problem with this approach. Managing these pools of assets separately can cause investors to miss income-generating opportunities and take on too much exposure to the risk of losses.

Investors who manage interest-rate and credit risk separately may overlook the crucial interplay between the two.

The Problem With Divide And Conquer

It's not easy to shift money quickly from one portfolio to another. For one thing. nobody who manages assets for a riving has a crystal ball. It's hard to forecast interest-rate changes or credit events. Anyone can get lucky once or twice. But even the most seasoned investors struggle to get it right consistently.

Even if crystal balls did exist, they probably wouldn't do bond investors much good, because credit markets—especially high-yield bonds—are relatively illiquid. With about 5.000 global credit issuers and a dizzying array of securities, it can be a major challenge to buy or sell a specific bond or block of bonds.

Some investors may try to address this hurdle by putting their bonds on autopilot—and taking active managers out of the equation. But that's not much of a solution. Strategies that passively track a market index can't pick and choose their exposures at all—they're locked into exposures just because those issuers are part of the index.

What's more, most passive managers don't even try to own every security in the index. They compensate by buying more of the biggest ones. This should worry investors, because bond issuers with the biggest weights in indices are countries or companies that issue the most debt. If any of these issuers run into trouble, there's no way passive investors can limit their exposure.

Finally—and maybe most importantly—investors who manage interest-rate and credit risk separately, whether in active or passive strategies, may overlook the crucial interplay between the two.

This is something market participants haven't had to think much about over the last decade. Interest rates plunged after the global financial crisis, inflation evaporated and central bank policy—not the real economy—became the most important variable for global bond markets. For years, investors could almost ignore interest-rate risk. At the same time, central banks' easy money policies made companies less likely to default, leaving investors tree to load upon credit risk to boost returns.

With Bonds, Combine And Conquer Is Better

But the long bull market for bonds was the exception that proves the rule. More recently, the macroeconomic sands around the world have started to shift. The global economy is gaining traction, and interest rates have started to rise.

The US Federal Reserve began lifting borrowing costs in 2015 and may soon sell some of the US Treasuries and mortgage-backed bonds it acquired during the crisis. If the world economy strengthens further and inflation rises, the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan may soon follow suit. How the three go about shrinking balance sheets totaling nearly US$13 trillion could have major implications for market stability (Display).

Governments, meanwhile, are moving toward more expansionary fiscal policies, which could stoke inflation, especially in economies at or near full employment. At the same time, many corporate bond valuations are stretched, and credit cycles are diverging across sectors and regions, with some nearing the end of a multiyear expansion .

In other words, investors today must pay constant attention to interest-rate and credit risk. That means having a manager who understands how the two interact and has the flexibility to tilt toward one or the other, depending on rapidly changing conditions.

Doing this effectively calls for a "combine-and-conquer" approach: pairing the two groups of assets in a single strategy known as a credit barbell and letting managers adjust the balance as conditions and valuations change.

Past performance, historical and current analyses, and expectations do not guarantee future results. There can be no assurance that any investment objectives will be achieved. The information contained here reflects the views of AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates and sources it believes are reliable as of the date of this publication. AllianceBernstein L.P. makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this publication. This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AB or its affiliates.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice, or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations, and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein. The MSCI data may not be further redistributed or used as a basis for other indices or any securities or financial products. This report is not approved, reviewed or produced by MSCI.

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