— Paul Amery's Blog

Archive
corporate bonds

US mutual fund manager Third Avenue Funds’ justified its decision on Wednesday to gate redemptions from its Focused Credit Fund (FCF) as follows:

“We believe that, with time, FCF would have been able to realize investment returns in the normal course. Investor requests for redemption, however, in addition to the general reduction of liquidity in the fixed income markets, have made it impracticable for FCF going forward to create sufficient cash to pay anticipated redemptions without resorting to sales at prices that would unfairly disadvantage the remaining shareholders.”

Instead, investors remaining in the fund will be placed in a Liquidating Trust and will have to wait for the return of their money until the fund manager can dispose of the assets at what it calls “reasonable prices”. That may take months or more.

US mutual fund investors entering and exiting a fund do so on the basis of the fund’s net asset value (NAV), which is hard to determine in illiquid markets. If exiting investors are able to do so at prices that do not reflect the liquidity of the underlying market, they obtain an unfair advantage over those remaining in the fund, whose interests are diluted.

A central question is unanswered in Third Avenue Funds’ statement. Why not mark down the fund’s NAV until it reflects the price at which its portfolio of junk bonds can be sold?

Marking fund NAVs to the “bid” side of quotes in the portfolio is common practice in a bond fund, since it represents the most conservative approach. A portfolio of assets is realistically worth what it can be sold at.

The fact that Third Avenue felt unable to do this is the most worrying aspect of its fund closure. There are persistent reports that liquidity in junk bonds is so poor that a request to market makers for a quote on a portfolio can be left unanswered. Bonds go “no-bid”, in other words. As a former market maker in emerging market debt, I remember from the Russian crisis of 1998 that the market could simply stop and there was no prospect of selling your holdings at all.

The risk of bond illiquidity reoccurring on its scale has been masked by central banks’ zero interest rate policies. As many have argued, putting illiquid, higher-yielding assets in funds promising daily liquidity to investors has created large-scale structural risk. In simple terms, it’s been an accident waiting to happen. Following Third Avenue Funds’ decision to suspend redemptions, the managers of other funds investing in junk bonds, bank loans and emerging market debt will be looking nervously over their shoulders.

Read More

Today the main US-listed high yield bond ETFs, BlackRock/iShares’ HYG and State Street’s JNK, are trading at levels unseen for over two years. At the time of writing, HYG is at 88.10, down nearly seven points in price from an interim peak of 95 in late October.

Junk bond indices have been hit by the sharp post-summer decline in oil prices and fears of broader deflation: according to Dave Nadig of ETF.com, 15% of the index underlying HYG is in bonds issued by energy companies; for JNK’s index it’s 17%.

Here’s a three-year chart of HYG, JNK and Invesco Powershares’ BKLN, another high yield ETF, this time investing in senior bank loans from sub-investment grade companies. The three ETFs’ prices are rebased to 100 at the end of 2011.

hyg jnk bkln

Source: Google Finance

Over recent days many analysts have been pointing out the divergence between the weakness in the junk bond market and the relative strength of US equities. In the past such divergences have hinted at equity market falls to come, since the credit market tends to act as a leading indicator.

Unlike during previous bouts of market nervousness, the price declines in the high yield market haven’t so far been met with large-scale ETF redemptions. During the first half of 2013, the last significant sell-off, HYG and JNK lost up to 20% of their net assets, a collective outflow of $5 billion. This time round things have so far been different: Nadig noted earlier this week that the two funds have pulled in almost $3 billion in new assets so far in the fourth quarter. Of the three ETFs in the chart above, only BKLN has seen net redemptions for the quarter to date.

Here are the Q4 fund flows for the three ETFs, courtesy of ETF.com.

HYG flows Q4 JNK flows Q4BKLN flows Q4

That’s what’s concerning about recent price weakness in the sector. During previous market downturns (notably in June last year) the redemption mechanism of high yield ETFs has been put under strain. Meanwhile, by many accounts, the underlying liquidity of the corporate bond markets has worsened further.

What if the sell-off in junk bonds hasn’t even really started?

Read More

Take two exchange-traded funds (ETFs), both on sale to retail investors, both investing in dollar-denominated high yield bonds. The funds are run by the same asset management firm, both track an index from the same benchmark provider and both promise their authorised participants (APs) the ability to create and redeem fund units daily on the basis of the underlying net asset value (NAV).

APs are the entities that transact in wholesale lots with an ETF fund issuer, an interaction that dictates how the fund is priced in the secondary market, where most of us buy and sell it.

Yet in one prospectus we read that the ability of investors to exit the fund may be curtailed in a number of circumstances. The ability of APs to redeem their fund units, says the prospectus, may be suspended if any of the principal underlying markets are closed or if the fund’s directors decide it’s difficult to determine the NAV.

More broadly, redemptions can be halted if the directors decide a suspension of dealing is in the interests of the fund, its shareholders or the investment company (an “umbrella” structure under which tens of ETFs are issued).

And even if none of these things occur, the fund may limit redemptions to 10% of the fund’s assets a day, meaning that large withdrawals may be scaled down and that those heading for the exits may have to wait.

Under any of these circumstances you could expect secondary market trading in the ETF to come to an effective halt.

In the other prospectus—remember, for a fund sold by the same firm, tracking an index in exactly the same asset class—there’s no mention of a possible suspension of redemptions.

All we read is that “if particular investments are difficult to purchase or sell, this can reduce the fund’s returns because the fund may be unable to transact at advantageous times or prices” and that, if it’s difficult to obtain reliable quotations for securities held by the fund, its manager may use a so-called “fair value” approximation of the securities’ worth in order to calculate the NAV.

Why the difference in language? The first fund operates in Europe and in compliance with the region’s UCITS rules. The second is a US ETF, operating according to the 1940 Investment Company Act, the governing regulation for US mutual funds.

A central principle of the 1940 Act is that investors should be able to redeem their fund units on demand. Unlike in Europe, where local regulators accept the possibility that redemptions may be suspended or “gated”, the US mutual fund rules dictate that fund inflows and outflows should continue even when the liquidity of underlying markets is compromised. There are very narrow exceptions to this principle, mainly relating to the closure of local (US) equity markets.

Does this difference in regional approaches matter?

In its March 2013 principles for the management of liquidity risk in collective investment schemes, IOSCO, the international coordinating body for securities regulators, accepted that liquidity crises in funds are less likely to cause systemic confidence problems than when the same occurs in the banking sector. Investors know they can lose money when buying a fund, or they should do.

But IOSCO’s principles are very high-level and non-prescriptive, no doubt as a result of the transatlantic differences in fund frameworks. In 2012 the regulatory body skirted around the fundamental gap in mutual fund rules by saying that the suspension of redemptions by a mutual fund may be justified only if permitted by (local) law.

IOSCO—whose principles are non-binding—has advised fund managers that they should not promise more frequent liquidity to investors than is appropriate for the underlying asset class and that liquidity risk and a fund’s liquidity risk management process should be effectively disclosed to prospective investors.

Again, this is subject to very wide interpretation in practice. Mutual funds promising daily redemptions (and, in the case of ETFs, instantaneous dealing), now invest on a large scale in a variety of asset classes that have been prone to liquidity crises in the past, from high yield bonds, to emerging markets equity and debt and even senior bank loans.

BlackRock, the asset manager responsible for the two ETFs I mentioned earlier (Europe-listed SHYU and US-listed HYG), has recently called for globally consistent best practices for fund structures, liquidity risk management and investor disclosure.

This is a hot topic, with those charged with ensuring the stability of the financial system now taking a much closer look at whether mutual fund run risk could cause wider contagion. IOSCO and the G-20 Financial Stability Board are due to issue a new consultation on systemically important non-bank financial institutions by the end of the month.

If a fund issuer gates redemptions in one jurisdiction, could there be a run from its funds elsewhere? I don’t know. But while local rules continue to differ so markedly, it’s hard to see how US investors are getting the same message on fund liquidity risk as those in Europe.

Read More

US fund manager PIMCO is apparently being investigated by the US regulator for valuing bonds in its Total Return ETF differently to the prices at which it bought them, providing a temporary boost to fund returns as a result.

“The inquiry comes amid escalating scrutiny by the SEC of whether investment funds are valuing assets accurately and fairly,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

In one sense this is hardly a story at all. In another it’s a very big issue. Why?

The reasons why PIMCO’s reported behaviour may not have breached standard market practice are the following.

First, unlike in the equity market, the liquidity of the bond you’re trading depends greatly on the size of the deal.

“On a typical [corporate] bond issue, the bid-offer spread on a US$1 million transaction might be 1 percent  of par value, but for a smaller order the spread might be 3 percent  or more,” a bond trader told me a couple of years ago.

Press reports suggest that PIMCO may have been buying odd lots of bonds (with wide bid-offer spreads) for its ETF and valuing them assuming more standard deal sizes, generating an apparent (though temporary) performance boost to the ETF. This assumes that the fund manager was able to buy its bonds on the “wrong” side of the spread: at or close to the bid price. Unusual, but possible, given PIMCO’s clout.

Second, mutual fund managers’ practices in valuing bonds vary widely and typically allow the managers a great deal of discretion. Yes, managers use external pricing services, but they often retain significant control over pricing policies.

PIMCO’s Total Return ETF prospectus tells us that “portfolio securities…are valued at market value. Market value is generally determined on the basis of last reported sales prices, or if no sales are reported, based on quotes obtained from a quotation reporting system, established market makers, or pricing services,” and that “securities…for which market quotes are not readily available are valued at fair value as determined in good faith by the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has adopted methods for valuing securities and other assets in circumstances where market quotes are not readily available, and has delegated to PIMCO the responsibility for applying the valuation methods.”

So if your bond is relatively illiquid and has a 3% spread between bid and offer prices you have pretty free rein to value it anywhere within that spread, as long as your approach is consistent. This practice may strike outside observers as lax, but it’s how the mutual fund business has long worked.

In 2007, academics from the Mason School of Business published a prize-winning paper showing how the same corporate bonds are priced differently by different mutual fund groups. Some fund firms priced a bond based on secondary market bid prices, others based on the mid-point between bid and offer prices. Around a third of the firms (like PIMCO) refused to tie their pricing policies explicitly to bid or mid prices and instead referred to pricing on the basis of “fair value”, a concept affording substantial discretion to the fund managers.

The academics also produced evidence of return “smoothing”: those funds that had outperformed had a tendency to mark bonds at higher prices, while those that had underperformed tended to do the reverse.

Such smoothing basically cheats one or more of three constituent groups: existing, new, or redeeming fund investors, since someone is dealing at too favourable or too unfavourable a price. But according to the plentiful evidence supplied in the paper, this practice has been going on for years, and it’s not against the rules.

Unless the SEC’s enforcement policies have changed markedly (and I can’t find any evidence for this), I can’t see how it can nab PIMCO for its valuation practices, however loose the “fair value” pricing policy might sound, that have been industry practice for years, as long as the firm was acting consistently and in accordance with the prospectus language.

Cases where the regulator has brought enforcement action against a fund group have tended to involve much more dramatic overstatements of funds’ NAV than those reportedly involved in the PIMCO case.

On a deeper level, this story is of course quite alarming. It reminds us of how deeply illiquid large segments of the bond market really are, even with the recent near-zero levels of interest rates, and how we disguise that illiquidity by putting bonds into daily dealing mutual funds and ETFs and marketing them as more liquid than their constituents. This comment isn’t aimed at PIMCO, by the way.

There’s an irony here, as well. The SEC that’s reportedly investigating PIMCO for overoptimistic valuation policies in a bond fund was long set against reforms forcing money market funds–another type of mutual structure–to value their holdings at market prices, rather than at a notional (and often fictitious) $1 a share. But that’s another story.

Read More

According to the Financial Times (subscription required) the US central bank is concerned about the potential for a run on retail bond funds. The Fed has discussed imposing mandatory exit fees on those holding funds as a way of managing this run risk.

The FT reminds us that US retail investors have pumped over $1 trillion into bond funds since early 2009. Central bankers worry about investors buying funds that promise immediate liquidity while investing in potentially illiquid underlying assets like corporate bonds.

Ironically, the increasingly desperate search for yield by income-deprived investors is squarely the result of central banks’ own zero interest rate and quantitative easing (QE) policies. In recent months there’s been a top-of-the-market feel about bond ETF inflows, for example, with buyers focusing on the highest-yielding (and junkiest) part of the market, like leveraged loan funds.

I wrote in 2012 that regulators were soon likely to focus on fund liquidity risk. There’s an inherent tension between the promise of the retail fund “wrapper”—to allow investors to enter and depart at will—and the underlying assets of some funds.

In Europe, fund exit fees already exist in a rough and ready way in the form of redemption gates in fund prospectuses. If more than 10% of investors in a retail (UCITS) fund want to leave in a single day, the fund administrator can postpone redemptions until the next day.

Interestingly, some ETF issuers have told me that they’ve waived this right in the past, deciding not to halt occasional daily redemptions exceeding 10% of fund assets, presumably for fear of negative publicity.

ETFs, which are traded intraday on stock exchanges, provide a pressure valve in the sense that secondary market trading in a fund with suspended redemptions might continue—but it would be in limited volumes and presumably at a big discount to the fund’s net asset value.

We saw this happen on a small scale during a mini-panic in US-listed corporate bond ETFs last June, with one market-maker stepping away from its promise to process investors’ sell orders.

In the US mutual fund market, suspending redemptions is trickier because of the liquidity promise built into the 1940 Act structure. Fund managers must meet redemption requests within seven days and a suspension of redemptions is possible only in extreme circumstances.

At least 85% of fund assets have to be invested in “liquid securities” (I’m not sure how leveraged loan ETFs, which comply with the 1940 Act, can claim to be doing that).

You can see why the Fed is worried about run risk in junk bond mutual funds, particularly since there’s evidence that US investors are flightier than their European counterparts.

By cracking down on the banks, which can no longer hold large inventories of bonds for trading purposes, regulators have shifted risk to bond mutual funds. Now they are concerned about the consequences of their own policies.

I’ve written in the past about the potential for a crash in this sector. In particular, the shaky dealing infrastructure underlying bond funds seemed (and still seems) to me like an accident waiting to happen.

All the same, I feel uneasy about regulators’ current proposals to intervene so directly in the fund market. Investors buy funds knowing they may lose money. You can’t outlaw market bubbles and busts: they happen. If central bankers really think they can manage away all systemic risk then the next crash will be all the more violent.

Read More