The craziness of markets over the last few months caused by the Coronavirus have been incredible. As in investor, I am trying to forecast where we go from here, and what are the best and worst possible outcomes. While the stock market and its disconnect from the economy seems to be getting most of the headlines, I think the bigger story is the bond market and where it goes from here.
As seen in the chart above, the 2 year treasury bond has dropped from near 3.00% in late 2018 to 0.13% in September of 2020. This, along with the government’s fiscal stimulus is probably most responsible for the stock market’s disconnect from the economy.
The stimulus here is unprecedented – dwarfing the financial crisis of 2009:
The stock market is fueled by stimulus, and seems to be signalling full speed ahead. Given the government intervention, it is nearly impossible to determine if the market is overvalued or undervalued, as the economy is a secondary factor to stimulus.
I also think the stock market is being fueled by Bond investors jumping ship. Risk averse bond investors not reinvesting bonds that mature at .14% – instead invest in Apple or Microsoft that has a growing yield and is ‘safe’. I understand the appeal of this strategy, but at these prices it seems like a lot or risk is being taken on out of desperation.
At any rate, one almost sure bet is that the bond market will be a loser. This bet does assume that the aversion to negative interest rates in the US will persist. Given that assumption, the best case for the investors in 2 year treasuries would be a no inflation or deflationary economy, with rates at or near zero. Given that assumption, the rate of return on bonds is still near zero.
The worst case scenario for bond investors is all this stimulus in the hands of consumers, combined with an economy waking from the COVID shutdown, leads to inflation. The only hope the government has of reducing the debt is to increase inflation, and so those in charge of the money press are incented to cause some inflation. The government has targeted and pretty much achieved a 2% inflation rate for the last few years. The Federal Reserve recently adjusted its inflation mandate to declare they may allow overshooting their 2% target rate – a further sign of inflation in the medium to long term. This does not bode well for a T-Bill yielding .14%.
So what to do with my bond portfolio. My asset allocation currently has a percentage in US Bonds, and if I am to reduce that allocation, where to I put it? Lots of options, but none that I really like:
- Increase Allocation to the stock market. One option is to increase allocation to the stock market- maybe in the ‘bond proxy’ sectors. Options such as Utilities and Financials (JP Morgan is yielding over 3.6%%, and the government won’t let anything happen to that bank. Most local and regional ‘safe’ utilities yield in the 2-4 % range. Other options might be focusing on reasonable yielding low valuation stocks. Rocky Brands comes to mind with a near 2% yield and Price/Book around 1, P/E of 9, and a little growth. Many bond investors have already flocked to the market and these sectors, so it may be too late here to buy these possibly inflated assets. Definitely adding risk with this strategy.
- Increase Allocation to Gold. I have an allocation in gold already, though I hate the idea of holding rocks in my portfolio. But the way the world if printing money, Gold has had a pretty good year and the money printing wont be stopping anytime soon. I have been experimenting with buying quality Gold miners, then selling covered calls in the +10% range which generates pretty good income. This is still an experimental strategy, but it seems to be doing no worse than just holding gold (via BAR) and gold mining stocks, and makes me feel better about holding this asset class.
- Increase Allocation to TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protection Securities). An interesting play here – TIPS are pegged to the inflation rate – so if inflation does hit, your interest rate increases. If we have deflation, yields will turn negative (unless you buy IBonds via Treasury Direct – which have a floor of 0% rate – but there is a limit on annual purchases). Probably worth taking your chances with TIPS over fixed rate bonds, The Vanguard TIPS Mutual Fund is currently yielding over 2%, so that might be an interesting option, but its not going to make you rich. Its also moved up alot over the last few months, as other people have figured this out several months ago.
- Increase Allocation to Real Estate/REITs. This is my least favorite diversification play. In volatile times, REITs move more like stocks than bonds, so its a huge risk increase to move from bonds to economy dependant real estate. There are certain areas of REITs that my be interesting for ‘safer’ diversification (i.e. farmland REITs), but historically they haven’t performed well. I also believe the fallout from COVID has yet to be reflected in the commercial REITS.
I am not alone facing these choices – most investors saving for retirement or in retirement are facing this dilemma. Right now I am leaning toward increasing my allocations to the stock market – but really emphasizing low P/E or low Price to Book stocks in defensive sectors that haven’t participated in this recent tech bubble run-up. Those stocks are out there, it just requires some digging.