About US$ 13 trillion worth of bonds in the global marketplace now offer a negative yield. Perhaps most starkly, a rising number of riskier, so-called 'high yield' (or 'junk') bonds in Europe are offering a negative yield. Understandably, many investors question why they would lend to an entity, and assume credit risk, knowing they will get back less money tomorrow than they have today.
Even if an investor does not invest in bonds carrying a negative yield, the phenomenon begs the question: how does one generate a regular income in a world with falling bond yields? For - let's lay it out upfront - a major rebound in bond yields is unlikely for the next few quarters, in our view, given expectations of subdued growth and inflation and increasing chances of rate cuts by central banks worldwide.
Against this backdrop of declining bond yields, the 'search for yield' is likely to remain in place for an extended period of time.
BEING CHOOSY ABOUT RISK: For bond investors, this raises some potentially uncomfortable questions.Let's take the case of US$-based investors looking to earn a regular income.The sharp decline in yields on US government bonds (considered one of the safest worldwide) this year means they will need to consider whether it is worth taking on additional risks in order to maintain a specific nominal level of yield, or simply reduce yield expectations in line with those of the market. There is, after all, no free lunch!
We are not averse to adding risk in specific situations. However, it is important to consider what kind of risk is worth adding:
The bond asset class ranking second in our preference order are Asian US$-denominated corporate bonds. While the absolute yield on offer is not as exciting as on Emerging Market US$ bonds, the relatively low volatility of this type of bonds per unit of yield is very attractive, in our view. These bonds have historically been supported by sustainably strong regional demand from a loyal Asian investor base (from investors looking for US$-denominated assets).
SEARCH FOR YIELD, BUT MIND THE LANDMINES: We have been here before - low and falling government bonds yields can trigger a rush to add risk in order to lock in a relatively higher level of yield. This is not bad in itself - as investors, we are ultimately paid a return in order for taking on a risk. However, not all risks are the same and some inevitably can turn out to be landmines, especially if the economic cycle comes to an end. In the ongoing search for yield, we see specific types of bonds - Emerging Market US$ government bonds and, to a lesser extent, Asia US$ bonds - as offering risks that are worth taking on today to earn an attractive regular income, especially as part of a broader diversified investment allocation.
Manpreet Gill is Head of Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity Strategy at Standard Chartered Bank.
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