Investor Flows and Fragility in Corporate Bond Funds

Itay Goldstein, Hao Jiang and David T. Ng have released a preliminary paper titled Investor Flows and Fragility in Corporate Bond Funds:

Investment in bond mutual funds has grown rapidly in recent years. With it, there is a growing concern that they are a new source of potential fragility. While there is a vast literature on flows in equity mutual funds, relatively little research has been done on bond mutual funds. In this paper, we explore flow patterns in corporate-bond mutual funds. We show that their flows behave very differently than those of equity mutual funds. While we confirm the well-known convex shape for equity funds’ flow-to-performance over the period of our study (1992-2014), we show that during the same time, corporate bond funds exhibit a very clear concave shape: their outflows are sensitive to bad performance much more than their inflows are sensitive to good performance. Funds have more concave flow-performance relationships when they have more illiquid assets and when the overall market illiquidity is high. Overall, our empirical results suggest that corporate bond funds are prone to fragility. The illiquidity of their assets seems to create strategic complementarities that amplify the response of investors to bad performance or other bad news.

So that’s interesting, and echoes the old stockbroker adage that people hate losing money on bonds. In fact, the “concave shape” they refer to in the abstract suggests that the market might be imposing a sort of ‘negative convexity’ on bond yields.

Observing this trend [of increasing flows to bond funds], several commentators have argued that bond funds pose a new threat to financial stability. What will happen when the current trend of loose monetary policy changes? Will massive flows out of bond funds and massive sales of assets by these funds destabilize debt markets with potential adverse consequences for the real economy? Feroli, Kashyap, Schoenholtz, and Shin (2014) use evidence from the dynamics of bond funds to show that flows into and out of funds seem to aggravate and be aggravated by changes in bond prices. They conclude that this suggests the potential for instability to come out of this industry. They analyze the market “tantrum” around the announcement of the possible tightening of monetary policy in 2013, and suggest that events like this can put the bond market under stress due to amplification coming from bond mutual funds.

Further, the nature of funds can cause bad returns to accelerate:

Indeed, corporate bond funds are in many cases illiquid. Unlike equity, which typically trades many times throughout the day, corporate bonds may not trade for weeks and trading costs in them can be very large. Despite the illiquidity of their holdings, corporate bond funds quote their net asset values and prices to investors on a daily basis. As a result, there is a mismatch between the illiquidity of the fund’s holdings and the liquidity that investors holding the fund get: they are able to redeem their shares at any moment and get the quoted net asset value. This implies that investors’ outflows may lead to costly liquidation by the funds, where the costs could be borne by remaining investors. This creates a ‘run’ dynamic which amplifies the reaction of outflows to bad performance, suggesting that the potential for fragility indeed exists in bond funds.

So does this self-destructive behaviour apply to retail or institutional investors, or both?

Third, following the model and empirical results in Chen, Goldstein, and Jiang (2010), we expect that strategic complementarities will be less important in determining fund outflows if the fund ownership is mostly composed of institutional investors. This is because institutional investors are large and so are more likely to internalize the negative externalities generated by their outflows. Indeed, consistent with this hypothesis, we find that the effect of illiquidity on the sensitivity of outflow to bad performance diminishes when the fund is held mostly by institutional investors.

My first thought on reading the above was ‘so what about the run on Money Market Funds following the Lehman bankruptcy?’ They’ve thought about it too:

These ‘run’ dynamics are very familiar from the banking context, and recently were on display in the run on money market mutual funds following the collapse of Lehmann Brothers.[Footnote] Attempts to prevent such runs are at the core of long-standing government intervention and regulation in the banking sector and now also in the money-market funds industry. It is likely that the surge in activity in corporate bond funds is a response to the restrictions in these sectors, and so the run problem can shift into the corporate bond funds arena. Hence, regulators should be on the alert and consider steps to achieve the value from intermediation by corporate bond funds while minimizing the damage from fragility.

[Footnote reads:]For an empirical study of the run on money market funds, see Schmidt, Timmerman, and Wermers (2014).

The hint that regulators should ‘consider steps’ scares me, since in general investors need protection from regulators!

But, bless their hearts, they acknowledge the argument that MMFs require a capital buffer:

Indeed, many argue that imposing a floating net asset value is not a perfect fix to the problems in money market funds, but other solutions such as holding a capital buffer or putting restrictions on redemptions are likely more appropriate.[Footnote]

[Footnote reads]See, for example, Hanson, Scharfstein, and Sunderam (2014).

In discussing their hypotheses, they make an interesting claim:

As Moneta (2015) documents, the average turnover rate of corporate bond funds is much higher than that of equity funds. For instance, from 1996 to 2007 the average turnover rate of general corporate bond funds is approximately twice as large as that of equity funds, which suggests more active trading and relatively shorter investment horizons of corporate bond funds. Considering the relatively low liquidity in corporate bond markets, the high trading activities of corporate bond funds are likely to generate substantial market impact.

I’ll have to look at that Moneta paper! In a world of long-term value investors who have no particular need to tell a story to potential investors, one would expect higher turnover in a bond fund, since income receipts will generally be higher and the portfolio is directly affected by the passage of time; but I confess I would have thought that turnover would be higher with the equity cowboys.

They also make a more serious charge:

Indeed, Cici, Gibson and Merrick (2011) document substantial dispersions of month-end valuations placed on identical corporate bonds by different mutual funds. Their tests reveal that such dispersion of valuations is consistent with returns smoothing behavior by managers, which involves marking positions such that the net asset value is set above or below the true value of fund shares, resulting in wealth transfers across existing, new, and redeeming fund investors. They find that the returns smoothing is particularly serious for corporate bond funds with hard-to-mark assets and not as much for Treasury bond funds; furthermore, when a fund’s return is low, the fund is more likely to mark the bond positions higher than the true value. Under this situation, existing shareholders would have particularly high incentives to withdraw their money while the mark is good.

Naughty, naughty! This usually becomes known only when such behaviour is egregious – see the market post of June 22, 2011 for one example.

The authors are clearly not fans of behavioural economics!

Why do bond funds experience much higher outflows during negative performance compared to stock funds? Our leading explanation is the presence of strategic complementarities. Corporate bond funds invest in more illiquid assets. Investors’ outflows may lead to costly liquidation by bond funds, where the costs would be borne by the remaining investors. This creates a ‘run’ dynamic which amplifies the reaction of outflows to bad performance. Under this explanation, outflows should be much more sensitive to bad performance among bond funds that are more illiquid.

I think this hypothesis is simply too sophisticated for the market to bear. I would be more interested in an explanation based on risk aversion of the investors, where “risk” is defined as “absolute performance over the past M months”, which refers back to the ‘investors hate losing money on bonds’ adage noted above. This would apply to funds, rather than direct bond holdings by retail, since there is also a persistent belief that a portfolio of bonds held directly is somehow fundamentally different from a fund since direct holdings can be held until they mature at par.

After disaggregating their data to distinguish institutional from retail behaviour, they conclude:

From a policy perspective, it is good news that institutional-oriented funds face less runlike behavior at low performance times. Such funds tend to be larger; and weaker run tendency implies more stability during low performance periods. The retail-oriented funds can still create big problems, as retail investors engage in run-like behavior.

Sadly, their concluding paragraph is a plea for increased employment of box-tickers:

This suggests that bond funds are prone to fragility. Bad events may lead to amplified outflows and these may have adverse consequences for bond prices and ultimately for firms’ financing and real activities. These issues have to be taken into account in the broad scheme of regulation of the financial sector. While it is well understood that banks, and now money-market funds, are prone to such run dynamics, these usually are not associated with bond funds, but our empirical results show that similar forces operate for them as well.

Hat tip for bringing this paper to my attention: Lisa Abramowicz, Bloomberg, You call this a bond rout? Wait until the real selling starts.

2 Responses to “Investor Flows and Fragility in Corporate Bond Funds”

  1. David says:

    A very interesting article, as are most that you comment on. What parallels if any do you see between their conclusions and the potential impact of the two large ETF (CPD and ZPR) type funds on the Canadian pref market?

  2. jiHymas says:

    I suspect that CPD and ZPR are both overwhelmingly retail, although I have no actual data to support this hypothesis.

    Preferred shares are even less liquid than corporate bonds.

    On the other hand, preferred shares are exchange-traded, reducing the mark-to-market risk that the authors suggest is a major factor in the run-like behaviour of corporate bonds funds.

    And the preferred share market is now about two-thirds FixedReset, meaning that investors need not be so worried about broadly based interest rate spikes … however, events of this year have shown that FixedReset investors can indulge in last-minute panic just as well as everybody else!

    All in all, I’ll say that any turmoil in the fixed income market generally will be transmitted to the preferred share market just as it was in 2008-09 … extreme over-reactions, rapid changes in sentiment and superb trading opportunities.

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