When the South African Reserve Bank took the market by surprise with a 25 basis point repo rate cut in July 2017 it handed indebted consumers a fillip; a reduction in their monthly home loan and credit card payments. The general advice from the experts was, however, not to squander this relief, but rather to save through these uncertain times and build a nest egg.
But, while the average investor might be concerned with their property bond, there is another bond which is also impacted by a rate decrease, and that's government bonds. These have more of an impact on you and your investment portfolio than you might think; forming as they do a healthy proportion of any pension fund. So what does a rate cut mean for these bonds?
According to RMB Private Bank expert Justin Louw, a Relationship Manager at FNB Securities, the 'bonds 101' fact we all need to know is that when interest rates go up, bond prices go down. And when interest rates go down, bond prices go up. "So, in a decreasing rates environment, like we have at present, government bond prices are going up. This means that our clients who have bonds in their portfolios or are invested in multi-asset funds could benefit," says Louw.
This may seem contradictory, because South Africa's sovereign debt has been downgraded to sub-investment this year, but, explains Louw, the market had priced in this downgrade possibility well ahead of time and had already reacted to ongoing South African political uncertainty and instability. So, even during this period of doubt and uncertainty, government bonds have delivered solid returns.
"What has been beneficial for us is that the carry trade [where investors borrow at low interest rates and invest in assets that offer higher returns] has been perpetuated, so there have been positive foreign bond flows following the March cabinet reshuffle and the downgrade," explains Louw. "Inflation has come lower, which is very beneficial, this has been aided by the relatively low oil price and the relatively strong rand. The rand strength came from an improvement in the current account balance and the carry trade. Because inflation has come down, the South African Reserve Bank has a bit of room to cut interest rates."
The carry trade can be explained by the real yield differentials at play, explains Louw. Assuming South African inflation averages 5.5% and the bond yield at the time of downgrade was 9%, then you had a 3.5% differential of a real yield. "If you look globally there is no real yield available," he says. "In the United States inflation is around 1.7% and the bond rate is 2.2%, so you have 0.5% yield. That explains why investors are coming here. They are looking for real yield."
While it has been beneficial for bond prices and the rand, foreign ownership of South African bonds is also a concern because it could have a massive volatility effect if foreigners sell. "At the end of the day, if someone sells something you hold, en masse, then the price can go down a lot and you can lose money. The opposite is also true so it pushes the value around," says Louw. "Volatility in something as conservative as a bond isn't great, as bonds tend to be used for more defensive stable retirement vehicles and older clients, so you don't want to be exposed to that volatility."
This volatility is evident in the fact that in 2016 bonds produced roughly a 15% positive total return, however the previous year they declined by around 16%. In summary, RMB Private Bank expects further volatility in bonds and the only way to avoid this is if you hold them to maturity. "You'd have to hold the R186, for example, till 2026, to guarantee that 8.6% return currently," explains Louw. "Bonds are instruments utilised for income generation in portfolios and especially if you have an offset from a tax point of view or a tax beneficial structure they are attractive with the current real yield."
He also notes that, as a fund manager, "you cannot afford not to have a bond strategy for both sides of the coin on the table", but you do need to constantly consider the risk and timing given this volatility. "This is where a good advisor comes in," he says, noting that the timing of buying and selling bonds in volatile times should constantly be appraised.
There has been some negative sentiment around bonds lately, with the likes of Coronation shedding South African government bonds in its flagship Balanced Plus fund earlier this year. In most part this was because they regarded bonds as being too strong and, in their view, the price did not reflect the risk inherent in the market due to the political uncertainty South Africa is currently experiencing, explains Louw. "The R186 as a reference was about 8.40%, which really was too strong pre the rate cut. We also didn't think it would price in further downgrades, so we lightened our long exposure."
But that was before the surprise interest rate cut. So now, if bonds do weaken again, Louw notes that "we might push our weighting in bonds up as they are still attractive, not necessarily for individuals from a tax perspective, because the distribution is considered as interest, but if you have a pension fund then bonds are attractive due to current yields. At this point you get a percent or so higher return than in the money market, but note this does involve putting capital at risk compared with, for example, a money market."
With RMB Private Bank projecting at least one more rate decrease this year - potentially in October or November - and possibly another in early 2018, we are in the throes of what is expected to be a shallow interest rate decline cycle of around 75 basis points. This bodes well for existing holders of bonds.