Life as a journalist covering fixed income is usually easy in January. They will wheel out last year’s article about the imminent collapse of bond valuations and head off to the pub or the gym. If you are lucky you will get a Bill Gross soundbite for a headline! This year has so far been no different, and the Kames fixed income team is keen to avoid such hyperbole and instead offer a more grounded and realistic viewpoint. So, what do we expect?
Government bond yields will continue to remain low but the most likely outcome is that they drift a little higher in 2018. That is likely to be true across all the major markets. Today, 10-year US bonds are at 2.65%, 10-year gilts at 1.35% and 10-year bunds at 0.57%. Fixed income, like all markets, doesn’t move in a straight line, but we are most likely to be managing rates risk within portfolios, anticipating that we could see 3% on US 10s, 1.6% on gilts and potentially up to 1% on bunds during 2018 (mindful that along the way yields may well be lower than where they are today). As active investors we will change exposures and there is a fair chance that 31 December 2018 does not represent the highest point in yields.
What does that mean for short rates? We think it is unlikely that short rates head higher in the UK or Europe. That is most likely a 2019 event and the UK has to deal with the headwind of Brexit. European economies fared better in 2017 but will want to cement their growth path before looking to increase rates. As we have seen from the US, the rates path is slow and shallow. We could see further rate hikes in the US and the market anticipates between two and three increases of 0.25% in 2018. Inflation is set to remain tame by recent standards; US and European inflation could nudge up towards 2%, while UK inflation is likely to retreat from RPI above 3%.
The majority of our assets in fixed income remain invested in credit markets. Credit markets performed well in 2017 and it is unlikely we will see that same level of outperformance in 2018. Nonetheless the extra carry and returns from actively managed portfolios will add performance, and we hope to do better than just the coupons received. We have noticed an increase in events that have the potential to unnerve credit markets, but currently they have only gently rippled into sentiment. We start the year more mindful of that risk, but without a dramatic change to how portfolios were positioned before Christmas.
Each year there tends to be an event that gives us the opportunity to change our risk profiles and add to performance. Having said that, the most exciting opportunity in 2017 was early in the year during the run up to the French elections. 2017 was atypical and our expectation is that we see some events creating more material volatility in 2018. For example, that may be around the Italian elections in spring. Or a further reduction in bond purchases by central banks could inject material concerns into markets. Tax reform in the US could change some behaviours. Other geopolitical events may add to volatility. The current tentative rapprochement on the Korean peninsula may be short lived. Iranian politics could spike oil prices. Eastern European politicians may be less willing in EU plans than currently indicated. There are a host of challenges and the chance is that none of the above capture the market’s imagination but other factors do. We continue to endeavour to be ahead of events.