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May 20, 2018

Are Bonds Still a Good Hedge to Stocks?


By Jeffrey Rosenberg, BlackRock
The conventional wisdom is that bond prices go up when stock prices go down. This hasn’t been the case in 2018, as stocks have posted negative returns alongside bonds.
It’s no wonder, then, that we’re now getting asked even more frequently whether bonds are still a good hedge to stocks. Our answer to the hedging question: yes, but with a caveat.   
Bonds offer some balance for portfolios with equity exposure. For much of the past 30 years–the bond bull market–bonds have played twin roles for investors: diversification and returns. Bonds generated strong returns in their own right, while providing a critical offset to equity risks in times of financial shocks or economic recessions. 

History provides a guide

It is rare to see negative returns in both stocks and bonds in the same year. Of the 24 years with negative equity returns since 1929, U.S. 10-year Treasuries generated positive returns in all but three. See the chart Bonds hedge growth, not inflation risks below (the chart uses S&P 500 Index data back to 1957 and data for an earlier iteration of the index prior to that).


Two of the three historical exceptions were unique events: Among the causes in 1931 were the collapse of Austrian bank Credit-Anstalt and the currency crisis that forced Britain to abandon the gold standard; in 1941 it was the U.S. entry into World War II.
The 1969-70 episode stands out: excessively loose monetary policy coupled with late-cycle fiscal stimulus led to a decade of de-anchored inflation expectations. As growth faltered in 1969, bonds suffered losses even as stocks stumbled. And in the 1970s, bond prices fell in several years of negative equity returns (though high starting yields kept total returns positive). A Federal Reserve trying to quell runaway inflation triggered the equity selloff during this episode.
For most of the new millennium the correlation between bond and equity returns has been negative. Yet the relationship has become more unstable in both the U.S. and the Euro-zone since the end of the global financial crisis. Periodic reversals in the relationship include the “taper tantrum” of 2013, when both equities and bonds sold off in response to Federal Reserve hints about a tapering of its bond purchases. Other examples are the German bond yield spike in 2015 and the more recent equity market sell-off in February. These periodic market “tantrums” show that when concerns beyond growth–such as inflation–dominate, stocks and bonds can both fall at the same time.

The overall lesson

Bonds help cushion against growth risks but not inflation risks. It’s shocks to growth that make the negative relationship hold. Bonds tend to perform well in recessions as they are deflationary, with falling activity and prices (or expectations thereof). But history shows bonds can fail to offset equity losses in periods where inflation fears rise.
During the most recent relationship-reversal episodes, a traditional bond allocation (such as to the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, for instance) would have exacerbated portfolio risks, rather than provide a buffer. This is a result of the ultra-low interest rate and quantitative easing (QE) policies that have spread low interest rates across the curve. With interest rates finally on an expected path toward normalization, at least in the U.S., bonds may be less reliable as ballast.
Today inflationary pressures are far more subdued. What will be the shock that derails the current cycle?

One risk

A trade war tightening financial conditions and hitting growth. We believe bonds would cushion portfolios in such a scenario.  We see no imminent signs of recession, but how any recession manifests matters.
Short-duration, floating rate, inflation-linked and credit exposures can help offset inflation risk. And we see long duration exposures helping cushion portfolios in a financial shock scenario that hits growth. 
About the author: Jeffrey Rosenberg, Managing Director, is BlackRock’s Chief Investment Strategist for Fixed Income, and a regular contributor to The BlackRock Blog (more by BlackRock here)
Investing involves risks, including possible loss of principal. Fixed income risks include interest-rate and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the bond issuer will not be able to make principal and interest payments. Non-investment-grade debt securities (high-yield/junk bonds) may be subject to greater market fluctuations, risk of default or loss of income and principal than higher-rated securities. International investing involves special risks including, but not limited to currency fluctuations, illiquidity and volatility. These risks may be heightened for investments in emerging markets. This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of May 2018 and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this post are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This post may contain “forward-looking” information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this post is at the sole discretion of the reader. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Index performance is shown for illustrative purposes only. You cannot invest directly in an index. ©2018 BlackRock, Inc. All rights reserved. BLACKROCK is a registered trademark of BlackRock, Inc., or its subsidiaries in the United States and elsewhere. All other marks are the property of their respective owners. 500006
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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