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Our views 01 March 2021

JP’s Journal: Are rising yields a precursor to changing policy?

5 min read

Government bond yields continued to rise sharply over last week, although appeared to have stabilised towards the end, and equities moved back from their recent highs. All of this was met with some relief throughout global markets.

The key observation of my colleague Craig Inches, RLAM’s Head of Rates and Cash, around recent government bond yield curve movements is the speed, rather than the extent, with which these have occurred. One has to ask: has such large and rapid re-pricing of interest rate, growth and inflation expectations been justified, and are central banks about to change policy rates – perhaps even in response? A key observation in answering is that the moves have occurred despite the absence of any major economic developments or hawkish (less dovish) shifts in tone from policy makers. We will have higher inflation, not least from oil price-related base effects, but we will not know the extent of core inflation until it occurs. The conclusion is that markets have gotten well ahead of themselves in pricing in years of future post-recovery economic growth and inflation when the recovery itself has not even yet been achieved.

Central bankers will look at the market pricing of rates and inflation in their policy determinations, but they will be relied upon to look through short-term panic or exuberance. Indeed, in Australia, the reaction of central bankers was intervention with asset purchases, while in Asia and Europe it was to signal plans and possibilities for stimulus. Even if such actions do not reverse recent market moves, they signal that central banks remain focused on recovery, which is still underway. In the UK only weeks ago, the Bank of England asked banks to prepare for negative rates; while this is perhaps more a retreating possibility than likelihood, and while the prospects for release from lockdown grow brighter, the outlook has not changed so dramatically for such preparations to be discarded.

Such moves do provide opportunities; Craig points out to me that while 30-year gilt yields are 1.4%, AAA-rated 30-year Australian government bonds now yield 2.9% (on a currency hedged basis). Compare this with a yield of 2.1% for AA-rated ‘100-year’ bonds of the University of Oxford.

Cash, government bonds and currencies

The trend of higher 3-month GBP LIBOR continued last week as markets factored the retreating prospect of negative rates in the UK, and 3-month USD LIBOR also moved marginally higher. Sterling versus the US dollar was fairly volatile; after reaching 1.42, intra-day, the rate fell as low as 1.39 before ending the week at 1.40.

There was little economic data of dramatic consequence over the week; while data releases broadly continue to be positive, there has been an absence of major economic developments.

10-year gilt yields moved higher to 0.82%, versus 0.70% the previous week, and the 50-year gilt ended at 1.22%, versus 1.10% the previous week. This move broadly featured across all major government bond markets, including to some extent in index linked markets, the consequence of this limited extent being higher implied inflation; 30-year UK breakeven inflation at over 3.2% is the highest since August 2019.

Following the week’s sharply-higher moves in yields, we have taken the opportunity to broadly neutralise our previously short duration position.

Sterling credit

Sterling investment grade credit indices moved lower over the week, as they generally have done year-to-date, reflecting the continuing rise in gilt yields; while credit spreads are now tighter than they were at the beginning of the year, they are broadly unchanged over the last two weeks.

In this environment, the relative benefit of shorter-dated bonds is clear, and active strategies that combine this with a focus on income as a source of return continue to offer the possibility of positive returns in an otherwise generally negative market.

Global credit

Global credit markets moved lower with government bond prices, and this included the high yield market where spreads were broadly unchanged over the week.

The high yield market remains attractive to investors, including those more strategically-focused on investment grade credit; again, the yield advantage available in funds where income generation is high will offer material compensation for credit risk, which is higher for high yield bonds.

ESG is one component of the overall risk associated with any bond that must be evaluated. In relation to this and the broader area of responsible investment, some issuers have taken it upon themselves to issue ‘green bonds’. Such issuance has typically been focused in investment grade so it is good to see such issuance from Ardagh Metal Packaging, a spin-off of a well-known high yield issuer. Interestingly, whereas this issuer is typically focused on the US market, the new issuance will be tilted to the European market, where “green” investor appetite is stronger. Given pricing, however, this bond will likely be of more interest to those investment grade investors.

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results. The value of investments and the income from them is not guaranteed and may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested. Portfolio characteristics and holdings are subject to change without notice. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not constitute investment advice.