Puzzle

Is the Government’s word really its bond?

8 months ago

In some ways, markets had little to digest in the immediate wake of the Budget, as so much of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech had made its way into the newspapers the weekend before. Mr Sunak did come up with a couple of surprises all the same, in the form of the superdeduction for capital investment and his plan for eight freeports – designed to boost the UK’s trade flows in a post-Brexit world – but the key questions raised by the Budget, at least from an investment perspective, passed unasked.

  • Why should anyone lend the UK money (and therefore buy its Government bonds, or Gilts) when it oh-so-clearly does not have the means to pay them back?
  • Why should anyone lend money to someone who cannot pay them back in return for a yield of just 0.77% a year for the next 10 years (assuming they buy the benchmark 10-year Gilt)?
  • Why would anyone buy a 10-year Gilt with a yield of 0.77% when inflation is already 0.7%, according to the consumer price index, and potentially heading higher, especially if oil prices stay firm, money supply growth remains rampant and the global economy finally begins to recover if, as and when the pandemic is finally beaten off? Anyone who buys a bond with a yield of 0.77% is locking in a guaranteed real-terms loss if inflation goes above that mark and stays there for the next decade.

“In sum, do UK Government bonds represent return-free risk? And if so, what are the implications for asset allocation strategies and investors’ portfolios?”

In sum, do UK Government bonds represent return-free risk? And if so, what are the implications for asset allocation strategies and investors’ portfolios?

Gilt yields on the charge

The benchmark 10-year Gilt yield in the UK has surged of late. It is not easy to divine whether this is due to the fixed-income market worrying about inflation or a gathering acknowledgement that the UK’s aggregate £2 trillion debt is only going one way – up. But the effect on Gilt prices is clear, since bond prices go down as yields go up (as is also the case with equities).

Gilt prices are tumbling as yields rise

Source: Refinitiv data

This is inevitably filtering through to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) dedicated to the UK fixed-income market. The prices of two benchmark-tracking ETFs have fallen, albeit to varying degrees. The instrument which follows shorter-dated (zero-to-five year) Gilts has fallen just 2% since the August low in yields.

The price of short-duration Gilts has barely flickered…

Source: Refinitiv data

Meanwhile, the ETF which tracks and delivers the performance of a wider basket of UK Gilts (once its running costs are taken into account) has fallen 8% since yields bottomed last summer.

… although a broader basket has fallen quite a bit more

Source: Refinitiv data

That 8% capital loss is at least a paper-only one, unless an adviser or client chooses to sell now, but the yield on offer does not come even close to compensating the holder for that paper loss, which supports the view that bonds now represent ‘return-free risk’.

Saving graces

“The higher bond yields go, the greater the return they offer – and that means, at some point, advisers and clients may decide that the rewards are sufficient compensation for the risks, especially as three arguments could still support exposure to UK Gilts.”

However, the higher bond yields go, the greater the return they offer – and that means, at some point, advisers and clients may decide that the rewards are sufficient compensation for the risks, especially as three arguments could still support exposure to UK Gilts.

  • The market’s fears of inflation could be misplaced. Bears of bonds have been growling about record-low interest rates and how record doses of quantitative easing would lead to inflation for over a decade – and it has not happened yet. If the West does turn Japanese and tip into deflation, even bonds with small nominal yields would look good in real terms and possibly better than equities, which would do poorly in a deflationary environment, at least if the Japanese experience from 1990 until very recently is a reliable guide.

Fears of inflation have yet to be borne out

Source: Refinitiv data

“The UK’s financial situation may not be quite as bad as it seems because the Bank of England’s monetary policy means the Government’s interest bill as a percentage of GDP has hardly ever been lower, at least in modern times.”

  • The UK’s financial situation may not be quite as bad as it seems. Yes, the national debt is growing but the Bank of England’s monetary policy is keeping the interest bill to manageable levels. The Government’s interest bill as a percentage of GDP has hardly ever been lower, at least in modern times. That buys everyone time and is also why Mr Sunak is tinkering with taxes, to convince bond vigilantes and lenders alike that the UK can and will repay its debts, as it has every year since 1672’s Stop of the Exchequer under King Charles II. A big leap in bond yields (borrowing costs) would be expensive.

UK interest costs are low, relative to GDP

Source: Refinitiv data

  • The Bank of England could yet move to calm bond markets with more active policy. Whether that calms inflation fears is open to questioning but financial repression (see this column, SHARES, 19 November 2020) could yet come into play, supporting bond prices and reducing yields.

In sum, no one has a crystal ball. Therefore, bonds could yet have a role to play in a well-balanced portfolio over time, but it is inflation, rather than risk of default, that looks likely to be the greatest threat to any holder of Gilts.

Author
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Russ Mould
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Russ Mould

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AJ Bell Investment Director

Russ Mould’s long experience of the capital markets began in 1991 when he became a Fund Manager at a leading provider of life insurance, pensions and asset management services. In 1993 he joined a prestigious investment bank, working as an Equity Analyst covering the technology sector for 12 years. Russ eventually joined Shares magazine in November 2005 as Technology Correspondent and became Editor of the magazine in July 2008. Following the acquisition of Shares' parent company, MSM Media, by AJ Bell Group, he was appointed as AJ Bell’s Investment Director in summer 2013.

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