When central banks tighten, stuff happens
How to turn volatility into opportunity
The resolve of central banks to fight inflation has caused increased volatility across capital markets – particularly in the U.S. Treasury yield curve – owing to considerable uncertainty regarding the outlooks for inflation, growth, and a potential U.S. recession.1 Even though the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) clearly stated it does not anticipate cutting interest rates later this year, the market has a sharply different view, pricing in significant Fed easing by January 2024.
Do market participants “know” what is going to happen more than the central banks? No, quite the opposite. The uncertainty of investors is reflected in the elevated volatility of interest rates in the first half of 2023.
Adding to the “known unknowns” are the recent stresses in the banking sector, which themselves were due in large part to rapidly rising interest rates. That serves as another reminder that when central banks tighten, “stuff happens.”
This time, bitter irony compounds the misery of commercial banks. In part, they face potentially large losses on their holdings of U.S. Treasuries (i.e., Silicon Valley Bank) because regulators were keen to see banks remain liquid and safe, and nudged them in that direction over the years.
Talk about unintended consequences!
In short, monetary policy uncertainty, financial fragility, and hard-to-predict outcomes for growth and profits confronted investors. But the solution is not despair. Rather, the appropriate response (at least in our view) is to take advantage of what is on offer – including higher fixed income yields at shorter maturities – and complement that approach with judicious allocations to risk assets, particularly when volatility offers opportunity.
Opportunity of (nearly) a lifetime
We begin by noting that for the first time in 15 years, investors are offered 5% returns on near-cash instruments, such as money market funds. We believe they can boost that return, with little risk, by investing in high-quality corporate bonds of less than two years’ duration. Those returns easily beat bank deposit rates, which also remain restricted to a statutory US$250,000 deposit insurance cap.
Money market funds and short-duration, high-quality bonds may seem an uninspired choice for many investors, but there are times when they make sense, above all when volatility is high, uncertainty prevails, and fundamental risks (i.e., recession) loom for corporate credit and equity markets.
Pounce on opportunity
That is not, however, to say that portfolios should be 100% parked in instruments of less than one year in duration. Not only might that be tax inefficient, but it also misses our second key point.
Specifically, by holding onto a larger fraction of interest-bearing and highly liquid assets, investors can act nimbly when opportunities present themselves. High volatility and market dislocations, which are historically probable when the Fed and other central banks are tightening aggressively, create more attractive entry points for stocks, government bonds, and corporate credit. When bought at discounts, those assets typically offer outsized returns for investors.
Moreover, by increasing holdings of (nearly) riskless assets, investors are better placed to take selective risk today.
What do we mean by selective? Consider the challenges of buying Treasury bonds. Taking duration risk when the yield curve is inverted (as it is presently) requires high levels of confidence that inflation will rapidly decline to the Fed’s target or that a significant U.S. recession is on its way. That’s because longer-dated bonds offer yields as much as 170 basis points below shorter-dated Treasuries. That means the total returns on long maturity bonds will be lower unless yields fall further. That’s a lot of risk relative to the potential rewards.
As noted, within fixed income markets, a tilt toward shorter-dated (1-2 year) baskets of investment-grade corporate bonds seems prudent, with average yields above 5%. This is a way for investors to create steady returns in the face of earnings weakness (investment-grade companies are less likely to be downgraded) without taking unappealing duration risk.
When looking at high-yield corporate bonds compared to other fixed income opportunities, risk versus reward looks challenged given headwinds facing corporate profits and cash flows. However, a large proportion of the high-yield universe has increased in credit quality. We believe this creates a reasonable case to swap equity exposure with selected high-yield debt that is facing lower default risk than the asset class in general. This provides the protection of the currently elevated shorter-duration yield (averaging roughly 8.6%) while still providing exposure to the upside to any improvement in underlying company fundamentals.
Through funds, diversification is also a benefit. Similarly, we prefer local currency emerging market debt securities. They should benefit from stronger Chinese growth this year (many emerging economies are exporters to China), as well as from a probable weakening of the U.S. dollar once the Fed has concluded its tightening cycle.
Here’s the case we are making in a nutshell. Because of aggressive monetary policy tightening, we believe the Federal Reserve is making short-term money market and shorter-duration fixed income returns attractive, while at the same time creating the conditions in which equities, as well as longer-dated bonds, are unattractive, in our view. We think investors should take what the Fed is offering, and limit broad exposures to the rest.
But that’s not the end of the story. By taking refuge in safe, attractive yielding positions at the very front end of the yield curve, investors can also be prepared to seize opportunity when it presents itself.
Also worth noting, the recovery of the Chinese economy and a probable peak in the U.S. dollar already offer investors opportunities via measured allocations in emerging market local currency debt.
The Fed remains the straw that stirs the drink. When it stirs this vigorously, stuff happens. Investors should take note, seize the more certain returns on offer, and be prepared to take more risk when opportunity becomes present. This is a phase, but a phase worth managing well.
Stephen Dover, CFA, is Franklin Templeton’s Chief Market Strategist and Head of the Franklin Templeton Investment Institute. Originally published in Stephen Dover’s LinkedIn Newsletter Global Market Perspectives. Follow Stephen Dover on LinkedIn where he posts his thoughts and comments as well as his Global Market Perspectives newsletter.
Content copyright © 2023 by Franklin Templeton. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
What are the risks? All investments involve risks, including the possible loss of principal. The value of investments can go down as well as up, and investors may not get back the full amount invested. Investing in the natural resources sector involves special risks, including increased susceptibility to adverse economic and regulatory developments affecting the sector. Special risks are associated with investing in foreign securities, including risks associated with political and economic developments, trading practices, availability of information, limited markets and currency exchange rate fluctuations and policies. Investments in foreign securities involve special risks including currency fluctuations, economic instability and political developments. Investments in emerging markets, of which frontier markets are a subset, involve heightened risks related to the same factors, in addition to those associated with these markets’ smaller size, lesser liquidity and lack of established legal, political, business and social frameworks to support securities markets. Because these frameworks are typically even less developed in frontier markets, as well as various factors including the increased potential for extreme price volatility, illiquidity, trade barriers and exchange controls, the risks associated with emerging markets are magnified in frontier markets. To the extent a strategy focuses on particular countries, regions, industries, sectors or types of investment from time to time, it may be subject to greater risks of adverse developments in such areas of focus than a strategy that invests in a wider variety of countries, regions, industries, sectors or investments.
Important legal information. This material is intended to be of general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax advice.
The views expressed are those of the investment manager and the comments, opinions and analyses are rendered as at publication date and may change without notice. The information provided in this material is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any country, region or market.
Data from third party sources may have been used in the preparation of this material and Franklin Templeton Investments (“FTI”) has not independently verified, validated or audited such data. FTI accepts no liability whatsoever for any loss arising from use of this information and reliance upon the comments opinions and analyses in the material is at the sole discretion of the user.
Products, services and information may not be available in all jurisdictions and are offered outside the U.S. by other FTI affiliates and/or their distributors as local laws and regulation permits. Please consult your own professional adviser or Franklin Templeton institutional contact for further information on availability of products and services in your jurisdiction.
Issued in the U.S. by Franklin Templeton Distributors, Inc., One Franklin Parkway, San Mateo, California 94403-1906, (800) DIAL BEN/342-5236, franklintempleton.com - Franklin Templeton Distributors, Inc. is the principal distributor of Franklin Templeton Investments’ U.S. registered products, which are not FDIC insured; may lose value; and are not bank guaranteed and are available only in jurisdictions where an offer or solicitation of such products is permitted under applicable laws and regulation.