One Man’s Opinion: The Seven Stages To A Bear Market For Bonds

By Michael Carino

We have just lived through the most spectacular global bull market run for the fixed income markets.  This bull market rallied the bond market to the lowest yields ever!  Over a third of all global fixed income was trading with a negative yield.  The most accommodative central bank policies made heroes out of bond fund managers. Bond investors that stayed fully invested with fingers crossed, hoping for the greater fool theory to eventually take them out of their overvalued position were rewarded handsomely.  These bond managers are now managing hundreds of billions in assets, have attained rock star status in the investment community and are living the life of Riley.  After such a spectacular run that has spanned a decade, most fixed income participants have never witnessed losses in their bond portfolios, never mind a bear market that lasts some time and delivers a good amount of pain.

This recent back-up in yields has left many bond investors confused, nervous and unsure what to expect. Well, rest assured, I’m here to assist. After 25 years managing bond portfolios and trading trillions of dollars in the bond market, I believe I have perfected my timing model that identifies when a bond market selloff has run its course.

This proprietary model stands out for being unique, intuitive and void of the quantitative modeling mistakes and biases.  The model is quite qualitative, psychologically driven and keys off the 7 stages of a bear market for bonds:

Stage 1: Shock.  You can’t lose money in the bond market, right?  Wrong.  Losses from the recent bond market selloff will be staggering.  What has been significant double digit returns over the last decade has ended.  Yields have jumped higher and are still historically low.  Longer duration portfolios can be down over 10% in the past couple of months.  Losses have materialized in the most liquid sectors and will eventually spread to less liquid bonds.  Many participants are dumbfounded, scratching various places but the itch doesn’t subside.  The market is at the end of this stage and there’s six more stages to travel.

Stage 2: Pain and Remorse.  As bond managers and investors watch their bond portfolio decline in real time, the losses hurts.  But the real pain starts once these managers issue their clients statements and the bewildered clients look to the managers for answers.  This gut wrenching pain of disappointing investors and having a tangible negative impact on their beings is a visceral hurt.  These managers and investors realize they, not the markets, are the source of these losses.  There is an overwhelming feeling of guilt for these losses and that they were not, somehow, avoided.  Should these managers have told their investors large potential bond market losses compensated by little to no or negative yield probably wasn’t the soundest investment? Have you ever heard a manager say you’d be better off taking your money back? Bond yields continue to rise with no bounces.

Stage 3: Anger and Bargaining.  Bond managers will get irate and phones will be broken. Misplaced anger for losses that are accumulating will keep managers and investors frozen, unwilling to cut their losses.  They start to talk about all the things they will do if markets reverse to limit their exposures.  Too late.  Everyone is making the same bargains.  This stage sees one last parabolic rise to higher bond yields impacting less liquid bond markets the most.

Stage 4: Depression and reflection. As losses deepen, the market comes to the conclusion there is no bounce in bond prices.  The prior low yields reflected a mispricing in the market brought about by exorbitant enthusiasm.  Another financial bubble to go down in the history books.  Once confident and jubilant managers who knew no losses are reclusive, downtrodden and distant.  Being a mortal human as opposed to a bond managing deity is humbling.  Bond yields still grind higher and liquidity remains poor. There is a dearth of confidence.

Stage 5: The Beginning of a New Beginning.  Depression starts to lessen and lucky shirts, ties, socks and rocks start to come out of the drawers and closets.  The flickering thoughts of a better future inside and outside of the financial markets begin to appear.  Could there be an end to this ugly chapter?  Bond yields are still inching higher and liquidity remains poor.

Stage 6: Rebuilding & Reflection. New financial conferences on what went wrong in the bond market and how to avoid it in the future pop up globally and are fully attended.  Surviving bond managers, albeit with much smaller assets to manage, talk about the bear bond market and how obvious and avoidable it was.  Plans are bounced around for new strategies. Of course, these are strategies that learns from the past.  Volatility in bond yields has now dissipated and shallow rallies occur.

Stage 7: Acceptance and a New Beginning.  Investors and managers agree that the bond strategies of the past were wrong and new strategies are implemented. Small amounts of money trickle in the markets. As profits start to materialize, confidence gets restored.  The first managers to show profits becomes known as the new and improved bond guru du jour.  The market has stabilized to a new range of yields and a normal amount of volatility.  Slowly, liquidity is returning encouraged by the beginning of positive reported earnings.  Stage 7 closes the bond market bear cycle and begins what I am sure will be the beginning of a new (and never to outdone by prior) bond bull market.

Bond bull market dynamics have ended and bear market dynamics will be the norm for some time.  The over-subscribed quantitative, backwards looking models, high volume traders and bond investors that closed their eyes and played a fool’s game are now feeling pain and guilt.  They invested in the most overvalued market and were caught when the market turned.  It was like playing musical chairs and the music just stopped.  Tragically, there is a plethora of players and only one chair left.  Investors discarded fundamental value investing and pursued other flawed strategies for too long. They now must experience these seven stages before they can have closure for their missteps.

The market is just entering stage 2. The most liquid sectors have come under intense pressure.  Less liquid bond managers are holding their breath with their fingers on the sell button looking for the first crack in their lofty prices.  If that button gets pressed, stage 2 will be in full swing. So buckle up.  As we travel down this long and windy bear market road for the bond market, it will have many bumps and a couple pot holes.

About Ulli Niemann

Ulli Niemann is the publisher of "The ETF Bully" and is a Registered Investment Advisor. Learn more
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