The Dilemma of Searching for Bond Yields

The Dilemma of Searching for Bond Yields

Back when I was exclusively a bond manager, 2001-2003, which I chronicled in my series “The Education of a Corporate Bond Manager,” I successfully struggled with one concept: when do you try to add more yield to your portfolio, and when don’t you?

This is a tough question, because in the short run, it almost always makes sense to add yield to any portfolio.  Additional yield seems like free money.  What’s worse, your sales coverages at the major investment banks are programmed to offer more yield, so what do you do?

I had to learn the hard way myself, with few to teach me.  There are two aspects to this question: the micro, and the macro.

Micro

Know how to compare bonds so that you are able to figure out what a good swap is.  Thus you must understand:

  • The yield gained for illiquidity — public, 144A, private.
  • The yield lost for size — micro, small, medium, large.
  • The yield gained from duration — what is the proper yield give-up for investing “x” fewer years?
  • The yield gained from going down in credit — what names are mispriced, and offer value, though lower-rated?  What is the proper yield give up at various ratings, and how do you adjust them to reflect reality?
  • The yield differences regarding premium vs discount bonds — this is a relatively simple one, as you can take any spread of a bond over Treasuries, and recalculate it to be the spread against a par bond.  You’d be surprised how few people do that.  As a result two things happen: people buy expensive premium bonds that look cheap but aren’t, and some firms never buy premium bonds, even in cases where it makes sense.
  • The yield change for optionality, whether positive for puts, or negative for calls.
  • The yield differences across industries
  • The yield differences across special names — there are always a variety of names that trade wide or narrow — consult your analysts to understand which ones are mispriced.
  • The risk of a “special situation.”  Why are you the smart one, and others not?

Macro

This is the risk cycle. Think about:

  • How quickly are deals completed
  • How tight is the pricing in new deals
  • The tone of voice from your brokers
  • Your intermediate-term view of economics — if things are getting better be bullish, if worse be bearish.
  • Failures. Be wary as they begin, but be a buyer when you think things are at their worst. You will get the best prices for the recovery.  Few do this.

As a Wall Street Journal article pointed out, many bond mutual funds are reaching for yield now.  This is a time to be wary, but if you are playing for the end of cycle we aren’t there yet.  We have not had a significant default, or a series of small defaults.

So be on your guard, I am neutral at present, but I am watching for items that would make me more bullish or bearish.

By Daivd Merkel CFA, of  alephblog

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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.

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