When global inflation started rising strongly in 2022 after the COVID-induced lockdowns, central banks were initially convinced this rise would be transitory in nature. When it became clear the rise was much more prolonged, with the war in Ukraine and second-round effects like wage increases leading to extra price pressures, global central banks embarked on an unprecedented monetary tightening path. The subsequent rate hikes pushed up both short- and long-term interest rates to their highest levels in a decade.
Yield-to-maturity on balanced investment-grade portfolio now above 3%
Now that the peak in inflation is behind us and, after two years of unprecedented tightening, most central banks have reached the end of the rate hike cycle, the smoke seems to have cleared. Inflation has been falling last year and can be expected to fall further towards the central banks’ target of around 2 percent. As a result, financial markets expect central banks to start cutting interest rates in the first half of this year. All things equal, euro-based bond investors are now rewarded a decent annual return of more than 3% on a balanced portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of five years. This return does not only compare attractively to cash returns like the interest on a savings account, but it also provides bond investors with a buffer against adverse interest rate developments going forward. An additional advantage of these higher interest rates is that bond investments may increasingly start taking on their traditional role in a balanced investment portfolio again: to provide protection in periods of unfavourable equity performance.
Possible additional return to bond holders on top of attractive interest rates
If inflation keeps falling and economic activity slows down further over the following months, bond holders may expect an extra return from declining long-term yields. In addition, if the main central banks indeed cut rates this year by the currently expected magnitude or more, falling short-term interest rates may further add to bond investors’ total returns. But even if current inflation proves sticky and rate cuts occur later than expected, bond investors can still make a solid return based on the current yield levels.
Deteriorating company fundamentals ask for defensive positioning
We expect credit spreads to widen in the first half of this year, as tighter monetary conditions will start hurting the profitability of debt-heavy companies. The expected environment of weakening company fundamentals and rising default rates asks for a defensive positioning in terms of credit risk. As a result of our prudent investment policy and the defensive positioning of the Triodos fixed income investment portfolios, credit risk is considerably lower in our funds compared to the reference index.
Impact strategy accounts for fully impact-related profile and lower credit risk
We invest for positive change, alongside a financial risk and return that are in line with the broader market. Inherent to our impact strategy, selected issuers have, besides generating positive impact, considerably lower sustainability risks compared to the overall market. In addition, we invest to a large extent in ‘use-of-proceeds bonds’, a type of impact bonds of which the proceeds are earmarked to finance eligible environmental and/or social projects. Use-of-proceeds bonds are a strong instrument to steer the investments towards more positive impact. The issuer of the bond, moreover, is obliged to report on the impact results. Impact bonds have therefore become an important asset in our bond portfolios, currently accounting for two thirds of our euro-denominated fixed income investments. The market for impact bonds has become more mature over the past years, with more and more corporate issuers entering the market. But as the market for impact bonds still consists to a large extend of green- and social bonds issued by large government-related issuers, our fixed income portfolios have by nature of their impact strategy a large allocation to higher-quality impact bonds, which means a lower exposure to spread volatility.
In conclusion: attractive yield and resilience
In current market circumstances, with higher bond yields, fixed income investments have become an attractive asset class again from a risk-return perspective. Apart from the attractive yield, bonds also offer resilience for adverse market developments in risk assets like equities. Impact bonds add additional value by generating positive impact and contributing to lowering overall credit risk through the higher average quality of the issuers.