U-S- corporate bonds

Changing Liquidity in the Fixed Income Markets

by Brad Houle, CFA Executive Vice President

The bond market is a dealer market with no central exchange. This means that all bond trades are over-the-counter trades whereby market participants trade amongst themselves. By contrast, stocks are traded in a continuous auction market where an investor can get the market price of a stock instantly by seeing where it is trading on the various electronic and physical exchanges. Bond pricing can be more esoteric, particularly for more exotic securities such as some mortgage-backed bonds or high-yield bonds.

The 2008 financial crisis was sparked by speculative mortgage-backed securities which started to fail when homeowners stopped paying their mortgages. Part of the issue was the fact that it was difficult to nearly impossible to value these securities and there was no liquidity for these bonds. The government often regulates in response to the last crisis and this situation is an example of backward looking regulation. As part of the reactive financial market regulation that came out of the financial crisis was that banks are now required to have greater regulatory capital. On the surface this seems like a good idea: banks are required to hold more "safe" assets on their balance sheets like U.S. Treasury bonds to cushion for inevitable bumps in the road. The unintended consequence of this change has made it difficult for large banks to effectively trade fixed income securities. It used to be good business for Wall Street banks to trade bonds with customers. Banks would make a market in bonds and would use their balance sheet to provide liquidity to customers. With onerous capital requirements this business has become difficult and unprofitable for participants. The bond market has gotten much bigger since the financial crisis and much less liquid.

According to the Wall Street Journal, since the 2008 financial crisis the U.S. Corporate bond market has doubled in size to $4.5 trillion dollars. In addition, outstanding U.S. Treasury Bonds trading volumes have fallen 10 percent since 2005 while the size of the market has tripled.

The implication for this change is volatility in the bond market will probably be higher going forward. We have yet to have a real test of bond market liquidity since financial crisis. When interest rates start to climb we will see how resilient the market is when short-term investors in bonds all try to squeeze out the same small door at the same time.

The good news for Ferguson Wellman clients is we largely use individual bonds for clients. This is important because an investor that owns an individual bond can wait out the pricing volatility because at maturity you will get your money back. Participating in panic selling into a volatile or potentially illiquid market is completely voluntary. In the past, we have been able to be opportunistic buyers of bonds sold into illiquid markets. One case in point was the mini-crisis in the municipal bond market when an analyst named Meredith Whitney unwisely used her fifteen minutes of fame on the television program 60 Minutes to incorrectly predict massive defaults in the municipal bond market.

Another silver lining to this potential situation is an advance in technology that could improve liquidity in the fixed income markets. The leading edge of fixed income trading is an electronic bond trading platform that has the potential to revolutionize bond trading. Rather than use a bond dealer intermediary to trade bonds, this platform allows firms like Ferguson Wellman to trade directly with other investment management firms. This concept is in its infancy and Ferguson Wellman is adopting this technology where it can benefit our clients’ portfolios. We are optimistic that wide adoption of this technology can benefit all fixed income investors.

Our Takeaway for the Week

  • A lack of liquidity in the bond market may cause volatility in bond prices to be elevated in the future. Owning individual bonds can allow an investor to ride out any potential storms. Also, we think that an eventual broader adoption of electronic bond trading technology will eventually make markets function more smoothly.