Gaffney Signals End of Era; Provides Alternative Strategies for Fixed Income Investors

During a frigid Chicago lunch-hour in late February, Kathleen Gaffney, CFA, spoke to a room of CFA Chicago Society members and their guests at the Willis Tower’s Metropolitan Club about the prospects of fixed income investing and potential income generating strategies during the eventual rise in interest rates. Her overriding message was one of reassurance; “We’ve been here before.”

Gaffney, the lead portfolio manager for Eaton Vance’s multi-sector bond strategies, began her presentation by discussing today’s current ultra-low interest rate environment and the risks associated with a Fed decision to increase short-term rates in 2015, which she expects in June, lest the Fed risk being behind the curve. However, she was quick to give the Fed credit for current policies and actions, which Gaffney labeled “bridge-financing” until the private sector can provide the momentum to move the economy forward. As the U.S. leads the world into economic recovery, while other world economies toddle, Gaffney is not concerned about inflation or rising long-term rates. Her forecast for the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond is 4% by the end of 2015, although she admits her forecasts for the 10-year have been incorrect in the recent past.

Besides the obvious risks to bond values in a rising rate environment, Gaffney also noted that nearly none of the fixed income practitioners operating today have experienced the magnitude of the long-term rise in interest rates that preceded the cycle’s peak in 1984. Additionally, regulatory changes have reduced Wall Street’s ability to put their own capital to work, resulting in decreased valuation support, reduced liquidity and very swift corrections in high yield, emerging and equity markets.   The end of the era will require careful asset allocation and alternative strategies that seek to mimic fixed income returns, while minimizing interest rate risk.

Gaffney encouraged the audience of investors and advisors to enhance portfolio flexibility by thinking broadly about the various “levers” that can be pulled to generate investment returns, i.e. credit, country and currency. She likened taking interest rate risk in today’s rate environment to driving down a dead-end road at 80 mph.  Rather, with her expectation of a secular bull market in equities, fixed income investors may consider “high-quality” equities with good dividend yields that will provide additional return on positive market movements, according to Gaffney. She also suggested that investors consider equity sensitive convertible bonds to mimic the returns of high yield bonds, while minimizing interest rate risks. Floating rate bonds were also offered as a reasonable alternative. However, Gaffney noted that floating rate notes introduce an additional element of repayment risk if rates rise too high or too fast, which she does not expect. The current strong dollar also provides opportunities to benefit from the potential growth from product importers to the U.S. Additionally, Gaffney proffered an idea that countries working to implement long-term positive structural reforms, including Brazil and India, have the potential for enhancing portfolio returns. However, she cautioned investors regarding new issuances encouraging investors to increase due diligence levels for new market entrants.

Gaffney finished the luncheon session with a question and answer session that included audience inquiries regarding duration assignments, the potential for negative deposits rates and, among other things, the performance of the her managed portfolios if the 10-year yield does reach 4% in 2015.