Bonds: Total Market

While fixed-income ETFs are seeing strong inflows this year, academics from a trio of U.S. business schools suggest fixed-income ETFs can suck the liquidity out of corporate bonds during times of market stress. According to them, the potential problem stems from the creation and redemption baskets that ETF issuers trade with market makers, known as authorized participants (APs), to handle inflows or outflows from their ETFs. Unlike equity ETFs, bond funds’ creation and redemption baskets typically do not include every bond in the index they are tracking as this could include hundreds or even thousands of separate issues. In their paper, Steering a Ship in Illiquid Waters: Active Management of Passive Funds, the academics argue that in normal times a bond’s inclusion in an ETF basket makes the bond more liquid. This is due to a random mix of creations and redemptions increasing trading activity. But, during a crisis, when many investors are running for the exits, redemptions hugely outweigh creations. When that happens, if a bond is included in the basket, the APs “may then become reluctant to purchase more of the same bonds, reducing their liquidity,” according to the paper. However, other bond strategists disagree, including Dan Izzo, chief executive of GHCO, an ETF market maker. Izzo, who argues that the rise of ETFs had actually increased liquidity during periods of market stress, stated that “The causality ran in the opposite direction — it is because some bonds are illiquid that they increasingly feature in redemption baskets as sell-offs intensify, not vice versa.”

Finsum:While fixed-income ETFs continue to see strong inflows, a trio of academics argues that bond funds make the market less liquid during periods of stress.

As investors increasingly buy ESG funds, there has also been an increase in academic research on the impact of implementing ESG constraints on equity portfolios. However, there hasn't been as much attention paid to research on ESG fixed-income investing. Inna Zorina and Lux Corlett-Roy published their study “The Hunt for Alpha in ESG Fixed Income: Fund Evidence from Around the World,” in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal of Impact and ESG Investing. In the study, they examined whether ESG fixed-income funds generate out- or under-performance after controlling for systematic fixed-income factors. They found that while ESG fixed-income funds with a higher level of risk generally produced higher returns, most ESG fixed-income funds did not produce statistically significant positive or negative gross alphas. In fact, only 7% of funds managed to deliver greater returns at a lower level of risk relative to the respective benchmark. The study revealed that across ESG fixed-income funds with a European, U.S., and global focus, performance was mainly driven by systematic fixed-income factor exposures such as term and default risk. The results led Zorina and Corlett-Roy to conclude: “ESG fixed-income mutual funds and ETFs have not consistently delivered statistically significant gross alpha controlling for key fixed-income factors. The majority of alphas are statistically insignificant and therefore indistinguishable from zero. This conclusion is similar across fixed-income funds with a European, US, and Global ESG investment focus.”

Finsum:A recent study that looked into whether fixed-income ESG funds provided outperformance revealed that ESG fixed-income mutual funds and ETFs have not consistently delivered statistically significant gross alpha.

Based on the latest treasury yield movements, investors are bracing for a recession. Yields on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note have fallen by around 83 basis points from their October high of 4.338% as investors sent $4.89 billion into U.S. bond funds last week. That marks the third straight week of net inflows. The bond rally comes after Treasuries had the worst year ever, driven by the Fed's tightening policy. The key driver for the current rally has been concerns over the Fed's rate increases sending the U.S. economy into a recession. Treasuries are typically seen as a safe haven during economic uncertainty. Investors expect the Fed to raise rates by another 25 basis points at the end of its monetary policy meeting today, while Wall Street is also looking for signs that the Fed will pull back on its hawkish stance amid falling inflation. Rob Daly, director of fixed income at Glenmede Investment Management told Reuters that "Things are coming off the boil here. There is a de-risking that's happening, and we're seeing flows out of equities into higher quality parts of the market such as fixed income." Although stocks have been rallying since late last year, investors are playing it safe, expecting the rally to end if a recession hits.

Finsum:While stocks have been in a mini rally since the end of last year, investors are playing it safe flooding U.S. bonds funds in the expectation of a recession.

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