Two Questions on Fixed Income from the Mailbag

From my readers:

What are your thoughts on Pimco’s new strategy for its flagship fund?

This concerns me because its one of the few “safe” funds in my company’s 401k plan.

I haven’t heard anyone critique this and thought you’d be the best that I know of.

It seems to me that its a disproportional risk. And that due to its size could potentially cause problems.

 http://blogs.barrons.com/focusonfunds/2014/09/17/deriving-returns-at-pimco-total-return/

This is not a new problem with Pimco.  You can review these two articles here:

Pimco has always used a lot of derivatives, though for marketing reasons some of their funds have fewer derivatives, even as Pimco tries to follow the same strategies.  You can view this three ways:

  • It hasn’t had horrible effects in the past, so why worry now?
  • We haven’t had the market event that would test the limits of this strategy yet, but can it really get that bad?
  • Now that the bond market is more crowded, Pimco’s quantitative bond strategies have less punch.  They don’t have the same room to maneuver.  Like the London Whale, have they become the market?

I lean toward the last of these views.  When you manage so much money, it becomes difficult to wrench alpha out of the market because mispricings are limited, and it is difficult to keep your trades from moving the market.

You might want to split your “safe monies” in your 401(k) plan if you have other credible investments.  That said, the likelihood of a large disaster harming Pimco is small — but you could try to cover that risk by setting a relative stop loss where you would exit Pimco versus a similar maturity fund run by Vanguard.

Another letter:

I’m a fledgling portfolio manager and blog reader.  Would you care to comment on the bounce we’ve seen in Treasury rates this month? (28 bp on the 10-year month to date).  I just don’t get it.  I see global growth continuing to underwhelm, more monetary opiates out of Asia, persistent dovishness from the Fed and the arrival (?) of the Godot that has been ECB stimulus.  These circumstances plus ongoing geopolitical issues make me wonder why Treasury yields have not gone further down or at least held the line.  I know it might be mean reversion or a supply/demand phenomenon but do not feel qualified to say and would enjoy reading your perspective.

Separately, are you aware of any Readers’ Digest Condensed summaries of monetary policy in Europe since 2007?  My career is not so old and each time I read about their approach to sorcery I encounter yet another acronym of which I am ignorant.

Best and thank you!

Back when I was a corporate bond manager, and things were moving against me, I would do a few things:

  • Seek out contrary opinion, and see if there was something I was missing.
  • Go out to lunch for Chinese food, dragging my trading notebook, and a sheaf of research with me, and schmooze over the data while there was no Bloomberg terminal in front of me.

Now, my own current views are conflicted, because I view the global economy like you do.  There is no great growth anywhere.  Geopolitical events should lead to a Treasury rally, and sanctions should weaken growth prospects.  I’m still long a moderate amount of the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond (TLT), for myself and clients — it is difficult to see too much of a bear market with monetary velocity so weak.

That said, my recent 2-part series on the shape of the yield curve suggested that the curve shape was the sort where we often get negative surprises.  Despite the Fed’s confident mutterings that amount to little more than “Trust us!” the Fed has never been in a situation like this one and does not have the vaguest idea as to what it is doing.  They are proceeding largely off of untested theories that so far haven’t done much good or bad, aside from allowing the US Government to finance its deficits cheaply, thus cheating savers who deserve a better return on their money.

This is my thought: the slightest hint of tightening coming sooner moves the forward yield curve up, particularly in the 3-5 year region of the curve, but extending to 2- and 10-year notes as well.  But the questions remain how well growth holds up, how sensitive will the economy be to higher interest rates, and whether banks start genuinely lending against their expanded liabilities.

Personally, I expect rates to go lower after further growth disappointments, but I could be wrong, very wrong, so don’t be too bold here — scale into positions as you see opportunity.

Full disclosure: long TLT