Given the economic backdrop where can bond markets go from here?

16th March 2015

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In the busy macroeconomic backdrop for global bond markets in recent months, huge stimulus programmes from the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BoJ) have been among the biggest headlines writes Jim Leaviss, head of retail fixed interest at M&G Investments…

Both central banks were responding to the low growth and inflation outlooks in Europe and Japan, aggressively expanding their quantitative easing (QE) measures in ways that have important implications for bond investors.

Government bond yields have been compressed even further against the prospect of these central bank bond-buying programmes. In Europe yields have even fallen into negative territory in the shorter dated segments of the German government bond market.

Expansive market stimulus positive for areas of bond markets

This environment is expected to provide a highly supportive technical driver towards other areas of the bond markets. The ‘big four’ central banks effectively represent a new and very sizeable investor class, with their massive combined balance sheets. Largely due to the ECB’s purchases, eurozone government bond markets face a particularly marked reduction of net supply in 2015. This should contribute to keeping yields low.

The amount of government bond assets whose yields have turned negative has also continued to rise steadily since last year’s fourth quarter. By late January this year, the total size of these assets had reached over US$2.5 trillion. The potential for investor outflows from these bonds should notably reinforce demand for riskier, positive-yielding assets including investment grade and high yield corporate bonds. In turn, this compelling technical factor should help to move credit spreads tighter.

Improving economy, good for credit

Looking at the fundamentals of the corporate bond asset class, corporate net leverage in both the US and Europe remains at levels that do not cause concern. In terms of the wider economic outlook, the US economy continues to strengthen, oil prices have collapsed, and the ECB’s looser monetary policy should stimulate the eurozone economy with a time lag, making concerns about recession and deflation in the region over-exaggerated. This makes such key macro themes provide reasonable grounds for optimism in weighing up global economic prospects for the year ahead. Helped by these conditions, corporate bond default rates should remain low.

Oil prices provide grounds for optimism, particularly for corporate bonds

Events in the oil market also provide a potentially important tailwind for the global economic outlook. The knock-on benefits of the huge price move should be significant on economies that are big users of the commodity, such as in the G7 countries. The current very low oil price levels helps limit recessionary risk in the outlook for these key industrialised nations and provides an environment that tends to favour corporate bonds.

Room for spreads to narrow

In assessing corporate bond valuations, there is room for spreads to narrow from what are elevated levels in the investment grade and high yield corporate bond markets. Spreads are currently wider compared to the end of 2013 across these asset classes in the US and Europe, with the exception of European investment grade bonds. Importantly, however, the latter is still considered to offer value as within this period spreads were tighter than their current levels for nearly 60% of the time.

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