Bond Portfolio Management: Part I

reminiscences of a stock operator pdf

 

 

 

You might remember my “Education of a Corporate Bond Manager” 12-part series.  That was fun to write, and a labor of love, but before I was a corporate bond manager, I was a Mortgage Bond Manager.  There is one main similarity between the two series — I started out as a novice, with people willing to thrust a promising novice into the big time.  It was scary, fun, and allowed me to innovate, because in each case, I had to rebuild the wheel.  I did not have a mentor training me; I had to figure it out, and fast.  Also, in this era of my career, I had many other projects, because I was the investment risk manager for a rapidly growing life insurer.  (Should I do a series, “The Education of a Financial Risk Manager?”)

One thing my boss did that I imitated was keep notebooks of everything that I did; if this series grows, I will go down to the basement, find the notebooks, and mine them for ideas.  When you are thrust into a situation like this, it is like getting a sip from a firehose.  Anyway, I hope to do justice to my time as a mortgage bond manager; I have been a little more reluctant to write this, because things may have changed more since I was a manager.  With that, here we go!

Liquidity for a Moment

In any vanilla corporate bond deal, when it comes to market for its public offering, there is a period of information dissemination, followed by taking orders, followed by cutoff, followed by allocation, then the grey market, then the bonds are free to trade, then a flurry of trading, after which little trading occurs in the bonds.

Why is it this way?  Let me take each point:

  1. period of information dissemination — depending on how hot the market is, and deal complexity, this can vary from a several weeks to seven minutes.
  2. taking orders — you place your orders, and the syndicate desks scale back your orders on hot deals to reflect what you ordinarily buy and even then reduce it further when deals are massively oversubscribed.  When deals are barely subscribed, odd dynamics take place — you get your full order, and then you wonder, “Why am I the lucky one?”  After that, you panic.
  3. cutoff — it is exceedingly difficult to get an order in after the cutoff.  You have to have a really good reason, and a sterling reputation, and even that is likely not enough.
  4. allocation — I’ve gone through this mostly in point 2.
  5. grey market — you have received your allocation but formal trading has not begun with the manager running the books.  Other brokers may approach you with offers to buy.  Usually good to avoid this, because if they want to buy, it is probably a good deal.
  6. bonds are free to trade — the manager running the books announces his initial yield spreads for buying and selling the bonds.  If you really like the deal at those spreads and buy more, you can become a favorite of the syndicate, because it indicates real demand.  They might allocate more to you in the future.
  7. flurry of trading — many brokers will post bids and offers, and buying and selling will be active that day, and there might be some trades the next day, but…
  8. after which little trading occurs in the bonds — yeh, after that, few trades occur.  Why?

Corporate bonds are not like stocks; they tend to get salted away by institutions wanting income in order to pay off liabilities; they mature or default, but they are not often traded.

By this point, you are wondering, if the title is about mortgage bonds, why is he writing about corporate bonds?  The answer is: for contrast.

  1. period of information dissemination — depending on how hot the market is, and deal complexity, this can vary from a several weeks to a few days.  Sometimes the rating agencies provide “pre-sale” reports.  Collateral inside ABS, MBS & CMBS vary considerably, so aside from very vanilla deals, there is time for analysis.
  2. taking orders — you place your orders, and the syndicate desks scale back your orders on hot deals to reflect what you ordinarily buy and even then reduce it further when deals are massively oversubscribed.  When deals are barely subscribed, odd dynamics take place — you get your full order, and then you wonder, “Why am I the lucky one?”  After that, you panic.
  3. cutoff — it is exceedingly difficult to get an order in after the cutoff.  You have to have a really good reason, and a sterling reputation, and even that is likely not enough.
  4. allocation — I’ve gone through this mostly in point 2.
  5. grey market — there is almost no grey market.  There is a lot of work that goes into issuing a mortgage bond, so there will not be competing dealers looking to trade.
  6. bonds are free to trade — the manager running the books announces his initial yield spreads for buying and selling the bonds.  If you really like the deal at those spreads and buy more, you can become a favorite of the syndicate, because it indicates real demand.  They might allocate more to you in the future.
  7. no flurry of trading — aside from the large AAA/Aaa tranches very little will trade.  Those buying mezzanine and subordinated bonds are buy-and-hold investors.  Same for the junk tranches, should they be sold.  These are thin slices of the deal, and few will do the research necessary to try to pry bonds out of their hands at a later date.
  8. after which little trading occurs in the AAA bonds — yeh, after that, few trades occur.  Same reason as above as for why.  Institutions buy them to fund promises they have made.

Like corporate bonds, but more so, mortgage bonds do not trade much after their initial offering.  The deal is done, and there is liquidity for a moment, and little liquidity thereafter.

Again, if you’ve known me for a while, you know that I believe that liquidity can’t be created through securitization and derivatives.  Imagine yourself as an insurance company holding a bunch of commercial mortgage loans.  You could sell them into a trust and securitize them.  Well, guess what?  Only the AAA/Aaa tranches will trade rarely, and the rest will trade even more rarely.  The mortgages are illiquid because they are unique, with a lot of data.  You would have a hard time selling them individually.

Selling them as a group, you have a better chance.  But as you do so, investors ramp up their efforts, because the whole thing will be sold, and it justifies the analysts spending the time to do so.  But after it is sold, and months go by, few institutions have a concentrated interest to re-analyze deals on their own.

And so, with mortgage bond deals, even more than corporate bond deals, liquidity is but for a moment, and that affects everything that a mortgage bond manager does.  More in part 2.

By David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog



About the Author

David Merkel
David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.