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Turbulence in the bond market: What does it mean for investors?

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Risk-reward is looking favourable for investors as absolute yields have risen considerably over the past six months and now give a reasonable safety cushion to absorb mark to market volatility.

Turbulence in the bond market: What does it mean for investors?

Vikas Garg, Head of Fixed Income at Invesco Mutual Fund

Year 2022 is proving to be yet another year dominated by unprecedented events causing heightened volatility across global financial markets. While the year started on a positive note with many countries moving out of Covid-led disruptions, it was soon eclipsed by un-anticipated Russia-Ukraine conflict leading to a significant surge in global commodity prices and multi-decade high inflationary pressures in many developed countries.

Central bank US Fed has embarked upon aggressive monetary policy tightening led by steep policy rate hikes and quantitative tightening to tame inflation, thereby triggering massive dollar rally and forcing many other so-called safe haven currencies to go into tailspin.

Other key central banks are also undertaking fast paced rate hikes to control domestic inflation/currency. Consequently, global interest rates have remained extremely volatile during the year with an upward bias as market participants have struggled to gauge the inflation trajectory.

India has also seen a paradigm shift in interest rates during the year. RBI has already undertaken 190 basis point rate hike in policy repo rate and has withdrawn systemic liquidity to a great extent in response to the elevated inflation trajectory. Debt investors have been adversely impacted with high mark to market hit as domestic interest rates have hardened sharply during the year with a flattening bias.

Global backdrop continues to worsen with more rate hikes expected by the US Fed over the next few months. Indian fixed income has remained largely insulated to global spillovers on the strength of domestic stability, although the safety cushion has depleted rapidly with forex reserve falling to $524.52 billion and as India’s current account deficit remains high.

Further with FPI outflow of more than Rs 2 lakh crore year-till-date, rupee has depreciated sharply and crossed 83 against USD for the first time even as the RBI intervened to smoothen forex volatility. Much awaited inclusion of Indian G-Sec into global bond indices will now be reviewed by index providers in 2023 only as some of the operational aspects still need to be resolved with the India government.

RBI Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has clearly articulated its concern on inflation which is reflected in retention of inflation forecasts at 6.70 percent for FY23. Domestic CPI inflation touched the 7 percent mark again in August 2022 compared with 6.71 percent in July, marginally higher than market expectations led by sharp rise in select food items such as cereals, pulses, and milk.

Core inflation remained elevated and came in at 6.1 percent YoY versus 6 percent in previous month. Supply side disruptions, geopolitical tensions, erratic rainfall, commodity prices & improving domestic demand conditions pose risks to inflation outlook, while growth seems to be fairly supported by domestic factors.

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Led by global monetary policy tightening as well as still elevated inflationary pressures, we expect MPC to continue with more rate hikes and reach a terminal policy repo rate closer to 6.25 percent or 6.50 percent by early 2023.

With challenging global backdrop as many central banks tighten the monetary policies to tame inflationary pressures, huge fiscal supply and RBI’s expected rate hikes, we expect interest rates to remain volatile with an upward bias.

Nonetheless, risk-reward is looking favourable for the investors as absolute yields have risen considerably over the past 6 months and now give a reasonable safety cushion to absorb mark to market volatility. For instance, a 3 – 4 year G-Sec at 7.30 percent - 7.40 percent levels is up from the lows of 4.75 percent in December 2020 and is now similar to the levels last seen almost 4 years back.

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Against the backdrop of still many uncertainties, we prefer using the conventional wisdom to contain interest rate risk with a moderate overall duration of debt investment portfolio. A much flatter yield curve gives an opportunity to investors to cut down on duration risk and still continue to maintain high accrual.

The 2 to 4 year segment of the yield remains well placed from carry perspective for medium to long investors, as it has already priced in more aggressive rate hikes and also lesser impacted by the rate volatility.

Credit environment remains healthy, however, current narrow spreads of AA / AA+ over AAA bonds do not provide favourable risk adjusted reward opportunities and we expect illiquidity premium to increase sharply over a period of time thereby posing mark to market challenges for this segment.