Submitted by David Galland and Kevin Brekke at Casey Research
The other day, I came across an article that said, while
individuals may be moving their money out of equities, they have been
moving into bond funds – and in a big way.
It’s called jumping from the frying fan into the fire.
Based on my experience as a co-founder of a mutual fund group, I
can tell you that if there is one sure thing in this world, it’s that
when investors rush en masse into an investment category, it is
invariably at almost exactly the wrong time to do so. Is that the case
with today’s rush into bonds?
To shed some light on that point, Casey Research Switzerland-based
editor Kevin Brekke volunteered to look into the correlation between
bond flows and performance. Here’s his report…
Thinking About Bonds
By Kevin Brekke
With the great bond stampede that began in 2009 continuing, giving
rise to the very real possibility of a bond bubble, we decided to check
the relationship between bond returns and bond fund inflows to see if
there might be a correlation. Take a look at this chart:
(1) Measured as the year-over-year change in the Citigroup Broad Investment Grade Bond Index.
(2) Plotted as the three-month moving average of net new cash flow
as a percentage of previous month-end assets. The data exclude flows to
high-yield bond funds.
As suspected, the rise and fall in total return from bond funds is
accompanied by an influx or exodus of bond investors. Data to construct
the chart were taken from the Investment Company Institute’s (ICI) 2010 Fact Book where they state,
In 2009, investors added a record $376
billion to their bond fund holdings, up substantially from the $28
billion pace of net investment in the previous year. Traditionally,
cash flow into bond funds is highly correlated with the performance of
bonds. The U.S. interest rate environment typically has played a
prominent role in the demand for bond funds. Movements in short- and
long-term interest rates can significantly impact the returns offered
by these types of funds and, in turn, influence retail and
institutional investor demand for bond funds.”
ICI continues by noting that secular and demographic trends have
tempered the appetite for equities. An aging population tends to become
risk averse, and the Baby Boomers are entering retirement and seeking a
safer alternative to the stock market. This occurrence is clearly
shown on the right side of the chart. Following the stock market crash
in 2008, investors exited stocks and bonds as general panic
prevailed. As investor calm returned, a tidal wave of new money flowed
into bond funds, turning 2009 into a record year.
And the popularity of bond funds continues. So far this year,
investors have funneled $200 billion in new money into bond funds. 2009
was also a record year for total assets and net new capital in bond
funds from retirement accounts.
That is the view through the macro lens. Switching to a wide-angle lens gives one pause.
We can’t help but draw similarities to the housing bubble that
began inflating at the start of the new century. As home prices started
escalating, they drew the attention of a growing pool of investors. And
soon this becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon; higher prices attract
greater numbers of investors that drive prices higher. Likewise for
bonds. Bond returns are rising because bond returns are rising. Got it?
We have entered the terminal phase of a bond bull market ushered in
thirty years ago by Paul Volcker, who drove interest rates over 20%.
With 30-year U.S. government paper now under 4%, the easy profits have
been made and the low-hanging fruit consumed. Investors today are
shimmying out on a very tall and thin branch in search of higher “total
return.” The snapping of the branch – sending investors big losses –
may not be imminent, but it is inevitable.
As we at Casey Research have discussed and warned about often, the
fiscal misadventures of the U.S. government will have their
consequences. And one of the first victims will be bond investors as
interest rates are forced higher, much higher, to attract buyers,
particularly foreign buyers. When this happens, the total return on
bond funds will be smashed.
The sad and pathetic irony: to escape the beatings endured in the
stock markets, millions have sought safety in bonds. The punishment is
We are afraid an awful lot of investors will be left asking, “What was I thinking?”