Fuss Making a Fuss About Bonds

December 4, 2009 at 1:45 am 2 comments

Photo Source: Evan Kafka (BusinessWeek)

Dan Fuss has been managing bond investments since 1958, longer than many of his competing managers have lived on this planet. At 75 years old, he is as sharp, if not sharper, than ever as he manages the flagship $18.7 billion Loomis Sayles Bond Fund (LSBRX). Over his 33-year tenure at Loomis, Sayles & Company (he started in 1976), he has virtually seen it all. After a challenging 2008, which saw his bond fund fall -22%, the bond markets have been kinder to him this year – Fuss’s fund performance registers in the top quartile on a 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year basis, according to Morningstar.com (through 12/3/09). With a track record like that, investors are listening. Unfortunately, based on his outlook, he now is making a loud fuss about the dreadful potential for bonds.

Rising Yields, Declining Prices

Fuss sees the bond market at the beginning stages of a rate-increase cycle. In his Barron’s interview earlier this year, Fuss made a forecast that the 10-Year Treasury Note yield will reach 6.25% in the next 4-5 years (the yield currently is at 3.38%). Not mincing words when describing the current dynamics of the federal and municipal bond markets, Fuss calls the fundamentals “absolutely awful.” Driving the lousy environment is a massive budget deficit that Fuss does not foresee declining below 4.5% of (GDP) Gross Domestic Product – approximately two times the historical average. Making matters worse, our massive debt loads will require an ever increasing supply of U.S. issuance, which is unsustainable in light of the aggressive domestic expansion plans in emerging markets. This issuance pace cannot be maintained because the emerging markets will eventually need to fund their development plans with excess reserves. Those foreign reserves are currently funding our deficits and Fuss believes our days of going to the foreign financing “well” are numbered.

Fuss also doesn’t see true economic expansion materializing from the 2007 peak for another four years due to lackluster employment trends and excess capacity in our economy. What does a bond guru do in a situation like this? Well, if you follow Fuss’ lead, then you need to shorten the duration of your bond portfolio and focus on individual bond selection. In July 2009, the average maturity of Fuss’ portfolio was 12.8 years (versus 13.8 years in the previous year) and he expects it to go lower as his thesis of higher future interest rates plays out. Under optimistic expectations of declining rates, Fuss would normally carry a portfolio with an average maturity of about 20 years. In Barron’s, he also discussed selling longer maturity, high-grade corporate bonds and buying shorter duration high-yield bonds because he expects spreads to narrow selectively in this area of the market.

Unwinding Carry Trade – Pricking the Bubble

How does Fuss envisage the bond bubble bursting? Quite simply, the carry trade ending. In trading stocks, the goal is to buy low and sell high. In executing a bond carry trade, you borrow at low rates (yields), and invest at high rates (yields). This playbook looks terrific on paper, especially when money is essentially free (short-term interest rates in the U.S. are near 0%). Unfortunately, just like a stock-based margin accounts, when investment prices start moving south, the vicious cycle of debt repayment (i.e., margin call) and cratering asset prices builds on itself.  Most investors think they can escape before the unwind occurs, but Fuss intelligently underscores, “Markets have a ferocious tendency to get there before you think they should.” This can happen in a so-called “crowded trade” when there are, what Fuss points out, “so many people doing this.”

The Pro Predictor

Mr. Fuss spoke to an audience at Marquette University within three days of the market bottom (March 12, 2009), and he had these prescient remarks to make:

“I’ve never seen markets so cheap…stocks and bonds…not Treasury bonds.”

 

He goes on to rhetorically ask the audience:

“Is there good value in my personal opinion? You darn bethcha!”

 

Bill Gross, the “Bond King” of Newport Beach (read more) receives most of the media accolades in major bond circles for his thoughtful and witty commentary on the markets, but investors should start making a larger fuss about the 75 year-old I like to call the “Leader of Loomis!”

Adviser Perspectives Article on Dan Fuss and Interest Rates

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including fixed-income) and is short TLT. At time of publishing, SCM had no positions in LSBRX. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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