Stocking fillers for your bond portfolio

Dec 9th, 2019 | By | Category: Fixed Income

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By the Cross Asset & ETF Research Team at Lyxor Asset Management.

It’s that time of year when we look back at what might have been – and what’s to come in 2020.

Stocking fillers for your bond portfolio

Stocking fillers for your bond portfolio

The decade-long global economic cycle has held up in spite of heightened political uncertainty across the globe. The substantial reduction in recent weeks of two of the major risks faced by the global economy – a no-deal Brexit and the escalation of the US-China trade dispute – has also been a market changer for risk assets into year-end.

Looking into 2020, there’s a lot to look forward to (or worry about) so here we share our views on fixed income portfolio allocation before the party season kicks in.

US bonds: Threat of US recession is not imminent

Despite signs of weakness from the business sector, we believe US economic growth will hold up in 2020, supported by the resilient private sector. Tight labour, rising wage costs and the difficulty of passing these costs on to consumers should narrow margins and dis-incentivize investment and hiring. An intensifying profit squeeze will ultimately trigger economic contraction; however, we do not expect such a US recession to materialize before 2021.

A mild pick-up in economic activity over H1 2020 and upside pressure on wages should push inflation expectations higher. In our view, inflation-linked bonds should prove more resilient versus nominal bonds in the year ahead. We maintain a preference for US inflation breakeven bonds, which remain attractively valued and hold no duration risks. The Fed should maintain policy rates at current levels over that period, allowing for further upward pressure on the long end of the US Treasuries yield curve. We, therefore, stick to our preference for the short end of the curve. Further steepening of the 2-10 year curve should materialize in the first part of the year.

Downside risks may be more prevalent in H2 during the US presidential election campaign. Inflation expectations would be vulnerable to a worsening of financial conditions (notably wider credit spreads and weaker equities), especially in an environment of slowing growth. As late-cycle assets, commodities can act as a hedge against higher inflation and downside pressure on the US dollar.

EUR rates and curve: A more favourable outlook

The growth outlook is more favourable for the euro area economy than for the US. Domestic demand proved resilient over the past year and should remain so in the year ahead. The contribution from net trade to growth has been more complex to assess. However, some easing in trade tensions between the US and China would benefit global trade and Germany. A mild cyclical upswing looks to be on the cards.

With the ECB running low on ammunition, calls for fiscal stimulus to pick up the baton have intensified. While large fiscal stimulus would be only considered if growth disappoints further, modest fiscal easing can be expected from the Netherlands and Germany. A more coordinated effort at the European level via public investment would prove the most beneficial to boost growth in the euro area. However, there are many political hurdles for this to materialize. All in all, budget balance expansion will maintain upside pressure on the long end of the European curve, while short-term rates should stay anchored.

Given the outlook, the hunt for yield will likely remain a key driver of performance in the euro area’s bond market in the medium term. The restart of the ECB’s Asset Purchase Programme (APP) should be supportive for Italian bonds. BTPs’ performance lagged other peripheral bond markets and still offers good carry. The recently instated pro-Europe government allowed for improved relations with the European Commission, and an Emergency Debt Procedure now seems unlikely. The rating outlook is currently stable, a supportive factor for flows into the market.

Even if it is unlikely that inflation expectations move much higher in the near term, there are reasons to hold inflation-linked bonds. The inflation breakeven rate is currently priced well below surveys of long-term inflation expectations. Moreover, with the ECB expected to stay put next year as a mild economic recovery is expected to materialize, this should allow for further normalization in inflation expectations.

EM debt: Stick to hard currency

The path of monetary policy across most EM economies will likely continue to differ, although the general trend remains towards an easier policy. We expect EM central banks to ease rates further by another ~45bps on average in a context of subdued inflation pressures. The Indian economy suffered from a severe slowdown – from 8% to 5% within one year – with low inflation outside of food. Therefore, even after 135bp of rate cuts over the past 11 months, more is expected in the year ahead. In China, the PBoC should also remain supportive and look through supply-driven CPI inflation to support the real economy. On the downside, even if there were a ‘phase one’ deal, US-China tensions would probably persist, with the epicentre potentially shifting to the tech and financial sectors.

In our view, EM debt will benefit from ample liquidity conditions across the globe and an attractive carry versus most developed markets. Default rates remain low. While we do not expect 2019’s stellar performance, we expect high single-digit upside for hard currency debt in the context of stronger debt issuance.

ESG: Go green!

In Europe, there have been increasing discussions on whether, and if so how, central banks and banking supervisors can contribute to mitigating climate change. This is still early stages, but newly appointed ECB President Christine Lagarde made it a priority.

Despite the absence of an explicit environmental target in the APP, the ECB has purchased green bonds under both the CSPP and the public sector purchase programme. Since the CSPP launch in March 2016, green bond spreads have steadily declined and a significant part of this can be attributed to the Eurosystem’s purchases.

Looking ahead, given the global commitment to shift to a low-carbon economy, the green bond market is likely to continue to grow and attract more diverse issuers and investors. The ECB’s new round of asset purchases should act as additional support for the market.

(The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ETF Strategy.)

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