A quick guide to bond investing
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A quick guide to bond investing

5 Jan
21 Apr

Making up a $120 trillion global market, bonds are sold by both countries and companies to investors so as to raise money for their financing needs. Investors are effectively lending money to the borrowers and receiving a coupon (interest) on their lending. 

Given the importance of the trillion-dollar global bond marketplace, here’s a primer on bonds and why they should be part of your portfolio. We also explain how bond funds have been impacted by the latest Fed hike decisions, and what that means for your portfolio.

Defining bonds

Very simply put, a bond is a financial instrument that represents a loan. 

There are essentially three components of a bond. The first component is the face value, or the par value or the principal. This is the amount of money that is being borrowed. 

The second component is the coupon rate. Bonds issue coupons — or interest payments — that are generally paid out on a quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis. Think of the coupon rate as an interest rate that is paid on a loan or a mortgage. 

The third component is the maturity of the bond. The time from issue to the time of maturity is the life of the bond. When the bond matures, the principal is returned to the buyer of the bond (creditor).

How are bonds constructed for sale?

There are three main factors that determine the coupon rate on bonds. Firstly, what is the credit worthiness of the company issuing the bond? These borrowers are judged on the probability that they can honour the commitment of paying both the coupon (interest) that they are offering to entice investors, and returning the principal. Failing to do either would mean that the bond issuer has defaulted on the bond. The measure of the probability that a borrower would default on the bonds they sell is known as the credit rating. 

The second factor comes down to how the bond is structured, such as the loan term, known also as the tenor. In return for borrowing money from investors for a longer period of time, bond issuers would typically need to pay a higher coupon rate for longer dated bonds. This is to compensate investors for the opportunity cost in lending the money to the bond issuer instead of investing the money elsewhere.

The third and final factor is the prevailing interest rate. Most borrowers would price on top of the benchmark rate (e.g. U.S treasury yields) to entice investors to buy their bonds over government-issued bonds that are the least risky form of bonds. 

Assessing credit worthiness, maturity, and interest rate together gives us the coupon rate.

Bond cash flows
Figure 1. Bond cash flows

Bonds are typically traded, which means bond holders can buy and sell the asset based on the price quoted to interested buyers and sellers. An important thing to note here is that the bond price can and will often differ from the par value.

If the price is greater than the par value, the bond is trading at a premium. Bonds trade at a premium under three circumstances:

  • When the demand for a bond is greater than the supply
  • When the prevailing interest rate declines below the coupon rate. This means new bonds will be issued with lower coupon rates so bonds paying higher interest will be in greater demand
  • When the credit rating of an issuer improves

Conversely, if the price is lower than the par value, the bond is trading at a discount. This could be happening for the following reasons:

  • When the prevailing interest rate increases above the coupon rate. This means new bonds are issued at a higher interest rate
  • When the credit rating of an issue declines
  • When the supply for a bond is greater than the demand

Why you should have bonds in your portfolio

Many investors find bonds attractive because they can be a predictable source of income. Barring a default, regular coupon payments will continue until the maturity date, at which point, the principal amount is returned. That’s why bonds are also known as fixed income. 

Another reason for investing in bonds is the diversification benefit the asset class brings to a portfolio. Traditionally, correlations between fixed income and equities have been low — this tells us that the two asset classes do not move in the same direction or magnitude as each other at the same time. Having these assets put together in a portfolio helps to diversify away portfolio risks. The lower correlation means that there is a lower likelihood of equities and fixed income securities underperforming at the same time.

Although 2022 was a year of exception whereby both bonds and equities recorded losses as a result of rapid rate hikes by the Fed and the 3-year monthly return correlation between the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI) and the Bloomberg Global Aggregate Index as of end of Feb 2023 stands at 0.74. The correlation decreases as the time period gets longer, with the 10-year correction at 0.5 and 20-year correlation at 0.45 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Correlations between global stocks and global bonds

Getting bond exposure

Now that the benefits of having bonds in your portfolio is clear, the next natural question pops up: how should you get that exposure? 

The average investor in Hong Kong can buy retail bonds such as Silver Bond, Green Bond or ibonds issued by the Hong Kong government (AA+ credit rating) for just HK$10,000, but having a more diversified bond portfolio allows investors to extract a larger coupon payout from bonds from different issuers from different markets. For example, investment grade bonds issued by top blue-chip companies have a higher coupon than Treasury bills, and are much less likely to default than those from companies with poorer financial health that issue high-yield bonds. Having a diversified mix of bonds — so long as that meets your risk appetite — can bring stronger income streams. 

Yet, purchasing corporate bonds issued by blue-chip companies and industry stalwarts requires a much heftier investment in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So to reap additional diversification benefits, an easier approach might be to invest in bond funds. 

Bond funds give investors exposure to different sub-asset classes such as sovereign debt, corporate debt and mortgages. Investing in a globally diversified bond fund also means that the risk of changing interest rates in one country or region would be mitigated by exposure to other countries experiencing a different phase of the economic cycle.

If bond funds are great, why did they post negative returns in 2022?

With all that said, 2022 was characterised to be one of the worst bear markets for fixed income in the last few decades. 

The reason is something called a rate hike, and it was triggered by major central banks. As red-hot inflation surges higher, the Fed — the authority behind US monetary policy — has an important mandate to ensure price stability. In other words, its job is to curb inflation. It does so by raising the interest rate to make it more expensive to access money. By doing so, it aims to cool consumer demand, and bring inflation down to more sustainable levels.

Remember that a bond is essentially a loan from the investor to the issuer. If an investor sees that the opportunity cost of his investment has increased because he or she can now invest in a newly issued bond that pays a higher interest as the result of rate hikes, he or she will likely consider selling the current bond to purchase another with a higher coupon rate. 

As investors move into higher yielding bonds, bonds that pay a lower coupon become less attractive. When they are sold in the market, their prices fall. This is why there is an inverse relationship between the change in prevailing interest rate and the bond price: when rates increase, bond prices decrease. 

A bond fund, with its portfolio of bonds with varying exposure and maturities would also see the same relationship. As the bonds’ market prices decrease, a bond fund’s net asset value (NAV) follows accordingly and registers a negative return as well.

What do we do with bond funds now then?

After major interest-rate increases in 2022, the pace of rate hikes slowed in 2023 and global bonds recovered YTD as of end March 2023, much to the delight of investors. 

Based on Endowus’ 2023 market outlook survey, where we had surveyed 60 fund management companies, most managers expect interest rates to peak this year and the best opportunities in fixed income lie in Investment Grade (IG). 

Active management by bond fund managers

As interest rates peak, bond prices should recover. On top of that, active bond fund managers can also take advantage of mispricings in the market.

To recap, the NAV (the market value of the bond fund) reflects the value of the bonds that make up this key trillion-dollar market. These price movements have zero impact on the face value or your coupon payments — with those cash flows reflected in the income that you receive via your bond fund. You will get the principal and coupons all back unless there are bonds that default.  

Active bond fund managers can outperform bond indices and generate extra return by a number of different techniques. For example by using bottom-up analysis and picking bonds with better credit fundamentals, or expressing a view on interest rate changes by adjusting the duration of their bond portfolios.

Another example is by exploiting bond mispricings, say the bond price is down to $950. If you buy it now and hold to maturity, you get $1,000 back. The bond also comes with the coupons that you are now entitled to as the asset owner. If the annual coupon is 6% at par or $60, and the bond matures that at the end of that same year, you get a rough 6.3% yield by buying the bond at $950. At the point of the bond maturity, you would get a total of $1,060 by year-end off an investment of $950. This is the value that active fund managers bring to portfolio management, especially in volatile times like these.

The life of a bond

The active bond funds that Endowus invests in are already managed by managers that have passed our screening. Their job is to execute this active management effectively, generating slightly better returns from exploiting market mispricings than solely holding bonds to maturity. 

At Endowus, we advocate staying invested and diversified both in equities and bonds, especially amid a market downturn. Selecting diversified, well-managed bond funds gives you access to best-in-class portfolio management teams who are better equipped to navigate the fixed income markets in these choppy times.

We would like to take the opportunity to highlight a selection of fixed income funds on the Endowus Fund Smart platform.

Spotlight on fixed income funds

Fund name, ISIN Exposure Why it's worth a look Fund-level fees after Cashback*
AB American Income Portfolio Fund

HKD: LU0897863048
USD: LU0871809306
US • Highly diversified and invests primarily in US debt, providing income and capital preservation
• Barbell approach to balance credit and duration risk with US Treasuries, US IG and HY Corp and others
JP Morgan Income Fund

HKD: LU1128926307
USD: LU1128926489
US • Seeks income flexibly across full spectrum of fixed income
• Investing in almost 2,000 securities, the fund seeks out income opportunities across the entire fixed income spectrum with active duration management amid a changing interest rate environment
PIMCO GIS Global Bond Fund

USD: IE0002460198
Global • Seeks to maximise total return, consistent with preservation of capital and prudent investment management, by investing at least two-thirds of its assets in a diversified portfolio of fixed income instruments denominated in major world currencies
• Offers a diversified, global investment-grade fixed income exposure to investors with various sources of excess returns generation
PIMCO GIS Income Fund

US • Largely US focused, multi-sector portfolio of both high-yielding assets and high-quality assets
• Actively managed and uses a broad range of fixed income securities that seek to produce an attractive level of income while maintaining a relatively low risk profile, with a secondary goal of capital appreciation

*Where a fund has both HKD and USD share classes, the fees of the HKD share class are shown. Fund-level fees after Cashback on trailer fees include the fund's total expense ratio (TER) and the trailer fee rebate, but do not include the all-in Endowus Fee.

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Complex Products

Some of the funds contained in this article are complex products and investors should exercise caution when investing in these products. Though these products have been authorised by the SFC, authorization does not imply official recommendation. SFC authorization is not a recommendation or endorsement of a product nor does it guarantee the commercial merits of a product or its performance.

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