Worthwhile Worries As Sept Rate Hike Looms

July 06, 2015

This article is part of a regular series of thought leadership pieces from some of the more influential ETF strategists in the money management industry. Today’s article is by K. Sean Clark, chief investment officer of Philadelphia-based Clark Capital Management.

 

The Federal Reserve left the benchmark overnight lending rate unchanged at its meeting in June. However, the Fed upgraded its assessment of the economy in light of the alleviation of transitory factors that weighed on growth in the first quarter.

 

That puts a possible September rate hike squarely on the table, which seems to be the consensus view. In a speech to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said that the pace of increases will be gradual and that it will take several years for rates to normalize.

 

Here is some of Yellen’s speech, verbatim: “If the economy continues to improve as I expect, I think it will be appropriate at some point this year to take the initial step to raise the federal funds rate target and begin the process of normalizing monetary policy. To support taking this step, though, I will need to see continued improvement in labor market conditions, and I will need to be reasonably confident that inflation will move back to 2 percent over the medium term.”

 

Yellen acknowledged recent economic sluggishness but said that the first-quarter slowdown was largely transitory and that she expects U.S. economic data will improve. The economy declined 0.2 percent in the first quarter, but it appears to be tracking better than 2.0 percent growth in the second quarter. More to the point, signs are pointing to a strong second half.

 

All this is by way of saying it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when” the Fed will start raising rates. And by extension, investors need to take measure of the challenges ahead. Those include liquidity issues in the bond markets and whether bond funds such as the iShares iBoxx $ High Yield (HYG | B-64) will add to those challenges or help investors overcome them.

 

But before plunging into the ETF angle, let’s examine the contemporary bond market and the way it differs from before the financial crisis.

 

Looming Challenges

First, given the degree to which the Fed is telegraphing its next move, market participants are growing more concerned with the specter of rate hikes, liquidity concerns and increased bond market volatility.

 

Several factors, including dwindling dealer positionsand the large holding of bonds by the Federal Reserve, have us watching closely to see if any stress develops in the credit markets that could result in heightened volatility.

 

All is fine on that front currently, but when the market comes under stress, liquidity concerns may intensify due to regulations, including those mandated under the Dodd-Frank Act such as the Volcker Rule. Not least, there’s been a reduction in dealer risk-taking in the years since the financial crisis.

 

Declining Dealer Inventories

Of great concern is the fact that dealer positions have declined noticeably since before the financial crisis. In particular, dealer positions in corporate securities have seen the biggest decrease, plummeting 90 percent from its peak in 2007, from $286 billion before the financial crisis to $23 billion now, according to data from Ned Davis Research. 

 

 

 

Deepening Trend

The trend has continued this year. According to Ned Davis Research, over the past 52 weeks, dealer positions in high-yield debt have averaged only $5.6 billion per day, down from nearly $7.5 billion per day last year. In addition, investment-grade corporate debt positions are averaging $13.6 billion per day, down from 

 

 

The Long Arm Of The Fed

Finally, securities held by the Federal Re­serve exceed $4.2 trillion.

 

To put that into perspective, the Fed now owns about a fifth of all Treasury, agency and agency mortgage-backed securities outstanding. Quantitative easing is a tool that has been unleashed to combat an extraordinary event, but it has never been tried before. 

 

Therefore, going back to what the Fed believes is normalized policy may not be as seamless as they want. So there are multiple scenarios here for interest rates.

 

Stay Tactical To Navigate Risk

We believe all of this points to a manager that can tactically adjust its portfolio to the future changing interest-rate environment. That’s certainly our focus at Clark Capital right now.

 

Combined, the trend of less primary dealer inventory and more Fed ownership means there’s less liquidity available, particularly during pe­riods of market stress.

 

That makes it all the more important to effectively manage risk in the bond markets.

 

We advocate a personalized approach to managing risk in the bond market—one that focuses on an individual investor’s needs as they relate to market conditions. I developed this idea of a personalized approach to risk management in detail in a recent ETF.com article.

 

ETFs: The Problem Or The Solution?

There’s concern that the adoption rate of fixed-income ETFs could exacerbate volatility during stress points in the market. While we wouldn’t dismiss that concern out of hand, we’re not as fearful, and view ETFs as an additional source of liquidity.

 

Let’s take high-yield ETFs, such as:

 

Sure, these ETFs are very liquid and make it easy for investors and asset managers to express a view about high yield, but we would hardly consider them to be the market and don’t think they are the tail that wags the dog.

 

High-yield ETFs represent only about 3 percent of the high-yield debt outstanding in the marketplace. In comparison, high-yield mutual funds own more than 25 percent of the high-yield market. The real liquidity risk is not likely to be from ETFs but rather traditional mutual funds as they sell bonds to meet investor redemptions.


At the time of writing, the author's firm owned shares of HYG, JNK and SJNK in client portfolios. Clark Capital Management Group is an independent investment advisory firm providing institutional-quality investment solutions to individual investors, corporations, foundations and retirement plans. Clark Capital was founded in 1986 and has been entrusted with approximately $3 billion in assets. For more information about Clark, contact Advisor Support at 800-766-2264 or [email protected]. Please click here for a complete list of relevant disclosures and definitions.

 

 

 

 

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