Bonds: Total Market
The Fed announced an unprecedented monetary stimulus package this morning. The central bank declared that its new bond buying program was unlimited, and that it would immediately start buying hundreds of billions of different types of bonds in an effort to unclog credit markets. They also extended lending facilities to new markets such as municipal bonds.
FINSUM: The Fed has been far from shy to in reacting to this crisis, but nothing it is doing seems to be helping markets much. Post-announcement, the Dow is already down over 3%.
It has taken a long time for bond ETFs to begin getting even a tiny bit of the attention stock ETFs have gotten, but the trend has finally taken hold in earnest, and that s good news for investors. While active bond funds have done well in recent years (perhaps due to it being considered easier to outperform a bond index than a stock index), bond ETFs have now started to surpass them in growth. This is adding much more liquidity to bond funds, which benefits investors substantially. Both active and passive bond funds have taken in over $200 bn each in 2019.
FINSUM: While “liquidity mismatch” worries will continue to linger, the fact is that bond ETFs make a lot of sense (perhaps even more than stock ETFs?) because they circumvent minimum-buy and illiquidity issues, allowing many more people to access hard-to-reach corners of the bond market.
Jay Powell, head of the Fed, has been working on a year-long project to overhaul one of the Fed’s most important goals. That goal is full employment. The Fed only has two mandates, stable prices in the economy, and maximum employment. Yet the definition of maximum employment is now up for debate. At the core of the consideration is the idea that having a job is different than having a good job. The difference between the two means the Fed may use a different calculation for measuring employment. That potential change has huge implications, as it would likely lead to looser monetary policy both in the immediate future and further out.
FINSUM: We think there is a big difference between the quality of different jobs in the economy which needs to be accounted for by the Fed. The current way of measuring employment was designed when most jobs were permanent and full-time, but with the rise of the gig economy, measuring methods need to shift to account for the changing nature of the labor market.
Bond ETFs ae set to break a landmark record this year—$1 tn in AUM. The number is a big deal for bond ETFs, which got off to a slower start than their equity counterparts. In recent years, though, bond ETFs have seen huge inflows as they allow investors a more liquid option for both strategic and longer-term allocations. The market is also seeing a good deal of innovation, with more nuanced approaches spreading much like they have in equities.
FINSUM: Overall this is excellent news for investors. More AUM means more liquidity, more options, and lower costs. There are still some fears about a liquidity mismatch between the ETF and the underlying blowing up during a crisis, but those have never materialized.
Investors are anxious about the chances of a recession right now. While the Fed doesn’t seem likely to hike us into one any longer, economic fundamentals have just begun to show cracks. It started with housing, then job growth for February, and now it is jobless claims. Jobless claims rose by 6,000 last week after a long stretch of falling numbers. Weekly numbers are seen as less reliable than monthly figures because of random gyrations, but the data could indicate the economy is starting to soften.
FINSUM: It is too early to tell whether this is indicative of a coming softening or just an aberration, but certainly something to pay attention to.
The reality is that the Fed has been hiking steadily, and investors should expect 2-3 more hikes in 2019. That means that adjusting one’s portfolio is a must. One thing to remember is that there are now plenty of ETFs that are designed to not lose from rates rising and still give an easy 2-3% yield. This is a big change from the post-Crisis paradigm, where safety meant negligible yields. One conservative way to play the environment is the SPDR Barclays 1-3 Treasury Bill ETF (BIL). Another is the iShares Floating Rate Bond ETF (FLOT), which only yields 2.5%, but with very little rate risk. One much more intriguing option is the WisdomTree Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Negative Duration ETF (AGDN). This fund holds a long bond position coupled with a short Treasury position with a target duration of -5 years, meaning it is designed to gain when rates rise.
FINSUM: This is a good selection of ETFs, and that Wisdomtree option looks quite interesting. It truly seems a way to profit as rates rise.