Is the Bond Market in a Bubble? [Wall Street Journal]

Bonds issued by governments and companies are priced high these days. In the seesaw relation of bond prices to their yields, prices are up, and yields are smacking hard against the ground, at record lows.

Investors, wary of stock valuations and looking desperately for yield, have poured money into bonds and bond funds.

There was a brief scare in September when bond prices suddenly fell over concerns that the Federal Reserve and other central banks might end their “easy money” policies.

But that pullback quickly vanished, with investors convinced that the Fed will move slowly in eventually raising rates. Bond prices recovered.

So, are we left with a valuation bubble that will burst, as tech-stock investors experienced more than 15 years ago? Or are the worries merely another false alarm, which bond investors have heard before for many years?

Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and former mutual-fund executive, argues that the situation is verging on a bubble as yield-hungry investors are gravitating toward riskier bonds. Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia, says he doesn’t see the credit excesses that would qualify this market as a bubble.

Read the rest at wsj.com….

US money market funds: the gain isn’t worth the pain [Financial Times]

Next month the new rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will become effective for money market funds (MM funds).

Most importantly, MM funds with any assets from institutional shareholders – e.g., corporations, pension plans and insurance companies – will no longer maintain a constant net asset value per share of $1. Instead, the net asset value of institutional MM funds will fluctuate on a daily basis – for example, 99.8 cents per share on one day, and $1.01 per share on the next.

The new SEC rules apply to institutional MM funds investing in short-term debt of cities and states – called “municipal” MM funds. The new rules also apply to institutional MM funds investing primarily in short-term debt of banks and top-rated companies – called “prime” MM funds.

However, the new rules do not apply to institutional “government “ funds — investing almost all their assets in short-term debt issued by the US Treasury or federal agencies, loans backed by such debt or cash.

Read the rest at ft.com…

Money Market Funds in China Become Less Systemically Risky [Real Clear Markets]

Last year, China’s stock market took a tumble, which sent shock waves through the global securities markets. Now, money market funds are booming in China and could present the next systemic risk. While Chinese regulators have taken steps to reduce that risk, the question is whether they have gone far enough.

Assets of Chinese money market funds have doubled in the last year – from approximately $350 billion at the end of 2014 to over $700 billion at the end of 2015. These funds are primarily sold online to individual investors by Internet giants like Alibaba and Baidu.

Money market funds have become so popular in China because they offer higher interest rates than retail bank deposits. But these funds achieve higher rates by investing in a much riskier array of debt securities than U.S. money market funds – and the average Chinese investor may not be aware of the level of risk involved. If there were significant defaults in the debt securities held by

Chinese money market funds, investors would likely run for the exits, just as they did last summer in the Chinese stock market.

To prevent these potential problems, the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission has adopted rules, which became effective in February of this year. These rules are designed to decrease the riskiness and increase the liquidity of Chinese money market funds, although the rules are still looser than the regulations for U.S. money market funds.

Read the rest at realclearmarkets.com…

This single act would help many Americans reach retirement savings goals [Market Watch]

It’s true for everyone: despite our best intentions, we often fail to accomplish what we set out to do. When it comes to retirement investing, millions of Americans do not meet their own declared saving goals for retirement.

As a result, almost one-third of the U.S. population has no retirement savings at all, while many others will fall well short of what they will need for their Golden Years.

A solution can be found in the field of behavioral economics, which suggests ways to help Americans start saving. It seems that saving is a lot like dieting — small changes can help you reach your goal.

Read the rest at marketwatch.com…

State Programs to Solve the U.S.’s Retirement Crisis [Real Clear Markets]

The U.S. is facing a retirement crisis. About one third of Americans have no retirement savings, and most don’t have enough savings to retire comfortably. One main cause of this financial shortfall: more than 60 million American workers have no retirement plan offered to them by their employer.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued a rule proposal intended to encourage more employers to offer a retirement plan to their workers. Specifically, the DOL proposed to exempt from ERISA, the federal pension law, state-sponsored plans for individual retirement accounts (IRAs). These state plans would require employers that do not already offer any retirement program to forward to the plan a state-specified percentage of their workers’ salaries. These monies would be invested as retirement savings, unless workers opted out of this state-sponsored plan.

The DOL proposal is an understandable response to the failure of Congress to pass federal legislation for a similar program called the Automatic IRA — with regular contributions from workers without retirement plans unless they opted out. However, the DOL proposal gives too much leeway to the states in offering their own versions of the Automatic IRA.

Here is the background to the DOL proposal. Most employers without retirement plans run small businesses with fewer than 100 workers. These employers do not want the financial burdens of operating and contributing to a retirement plan.

Read the rest at realclearmarkets.com…

Bob Pozen Knows Retirement [Retirement Income Journal]

Few people in the financial services industry have been more productive and influential than Bob C. Pozen. The 69-year-old Harvard-and-Yale-educated lawyer has served as president of Fidelity Investments, as chairman of MFS Investments, as a presidential adviser and SEC official, as a lecturer at MIT and as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has written books on topics both macro (the mutual fund business, the Global Financial Crisis) and micro (personal time management).

Back in October, Pozen moderated a panel on Innovative Retirement Products at the 2015 Fall Journal of Investment Management conference on retirement at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The panelists included Peggy MacDonald of Prudential Financial’s pension risk transfer business and Tom Reid of Sun Life Financial of Canada.

During the panel discussion, Pozen spoke favorably about the usefulness of annuities in mitigating longevity risk. In a recent phone conversation with RIJ, he expanded on some of his views regarding retirement.

Read the rest at retirementincomejournal.com…

Actively managed exchange traded funds are the NextShares big thing [Brookings Institution]

Co-authored with Theresa Hamacher

Actively managed exchange traded funds are a hot topic in the asset management industry these days. To date, most ETFs have been structured as passively managed index funds, because of concerns that the daily portfolio disclosure requirements of ETFs are inappropriate for actively managed funds. Regulators have rejected proposals that would allow active ETFs to keep their portfolio holdings confidential.

However, Eaton Vance Management recently received approval from the US Securities and Exchange Commission for a new type of fund, branded as NextShares, which addresses these disclosure concerns. Yet NextShares are not the same as ETFs; they are hybrid vehicles that combine elements of traditional mutual funds with certain features of passively managed ETFs. In other words, NextShares are a compromise, but one that stands a good chance of success.

On the plus side, NextShares preserve one of the main features of ETFs in the US, namely their tax efficiency compared with traditional mutual funds. ETFs normally generate fewer capital gains for investors, a result of their approach to handling investor purchases and redemptions.

Investors in an ETF do not deal directly with the fund. Instead, transactions go through intermediaries, called authorised participants. Only these intermediaries may purchase shares from the fund, which they then resell in the public market to investors. Therefore, when investors want to cash in their ETF holdings, they sell them on the exchange. To keep supply and demand for shares in balance, authorised participants may purchase the shares in the open market and redeem them with the fund.

Read the rest at brookings.edu

Has the Death Knell of Active Management Been Rung Too Soon? [Financial Times]

Coauthored with Theresa Hamacher

The death knell of active portfolio management has been rung. But with recent studies suggesting that the costs of passive management are rising, has the bell tolled too soon?

Last year, Charles Ellis seemed to predict the imminent demise of active management when he wrote that “the costs of active investment are so high and the incremental returns so low that, for clients, the money game is no longer a game worth playing”. Mr Ellis, a longtime commentator on asset management trends, suggested that investors would be better served if investment professionals shifted their focus toward financial planning and away from stock picking.

Mr Ellis’s comments only reflected what was happening in the investment world. Investors have been steadily shifting assets from actively managed funds into passive. At the end of 2013, index funds accounted for one dollar of every five invested in U.S. mutual funds overall and, stunningly, more than one-third of the assets in US equity funds.

While the interest in index funds is understandable, the disdain for active management is ironic. Active management is what makes index funds attractive in the first place.

How is that? Proponents of passive investing argue that index funds are the only logical alternative when markets are efficient, meaning that asset prices accurately reflect all information. Active managers have a tough time making money in efficient markets because asset mispricings are rare. In efficient markets, index funds generate the same returns while costing less.

Read more at ft.com