Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Aug 26, 2021

Is This the Moneyball Approach to Corporate Bonds?

With Andrew Sheets and Vishy Tirupattur


Andrew Sheets: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Andrew Sheets, Chief Cross-Asset Strategist for Morgan Stanley,

Vishy Tirupattur: And I am Vishy Tirupattur, Head of Fixed Income Research at Morgan Stanley.

Andrew Sheets: And on this special edition of the podcast, we'll be talking about factor investing strategies and liquidity in corporate credit markets. It's Thursday, August 26th, at 3:00 p.m. in London

Vishy Tirupattur: And 10:00 a.m. in New York.

Andrew Sheets: So Vishy, before we start talking about factor investing and credit, we should probably talk about what is factor investing and why are we talking about it. So, what is this concept and why is it important?

Vishy Tirupattur: Factor investing whose intellectual roots are from a seminal paper from two University of Chicago professors in the early 90s, Eugene Fama and Ken French. It effectively is a way of identifying companies to invest using rules based systematic investing strategies, be it identifying quality, identifying value, identifying momentum or volatility or risk adjusted carry. A bunch of these strategies involve setting up a set of rules and systematically in following those rules to build a portfolio. And we've seen that these strategies in the context of equities have substantially outperformed more discretionary strategies.

Andrew Sheets: So you can kind of think about it as the Moneyball approach to investing, that you think over time doing certain types of things in certain situations over and over again systematically is going to ultimately deliver a better long run result.

Vishy Tirupattur: Exactly right.

Andrew Sheets: So you mentioned that this has been a strategy that's been around a long time in equity markets. Why hasn't it been around in credit? And what's changing there?

Vishy Tirupattur: The key for systematical rules-based investing strategies or factor investing is being an abundance of liquidity in the market. And the complexity of credit markets means that this has been a big challenge to implementing these types of strategies. For example, you know, S&P 500, not surprisingly, has 500 stocks. And underlying those 500 stocks are literally thousands of bonds that underlie those 500 stocks, that weigh in maturity, in coupon, in rating, in seniority, etc... Each of these introduces an element of complexity that just complicates the challenge associated with factor investing.

Andrew Sheets: So Vishy, that's a great point, because if I want to buy a stock, there's one stock, but if I want to buy a bond of that same company, there might be many of them with different maturities and different coupons. They're just not interchangeable, and that does introduce complexity.

Vishy Tirupattur: So one big thing that's happened is the advent of electronic trading. Electronic trading today accounts for almost a third of all trading in investment grade corporate credit and in over 20% of all trading in high yield corporate credit. This has made a significant difference and enables factor investing possible in the context of credit.

Andrew Sheets: So more electronic trading, more portfolio trading is improved liquidity and made certain types of factors, systematic strategies possible in credit. Are ETFs a part of this story? Obviously, those represent a portfolio of credit. We're seeing rising volumes within the credit market of exchange traded funds. How do you see that playing into this trend? And what do you think is the outlook there?

Vishy Tirupattur [00:04:01] Absolutely. ETFs constitute portfolio trades and portfolio trading indeed has become a very, very big part of trading here. Even five years ago, ETFs accounted for about 5% of all the traded volumes in investment grade and maybe about 20% in high yield. Today, they account for 16% of all traded volumes investment grade and 50% of all the traded volumes in high yield. So, ETF and portfolio trading in general has enabled not only greater liquidity, but more importantly, smaller issue sizes and smaller issuers, and that's an important distinction.

Andrew Sheets [00:05:12] So how would this actually work in practice? You know, I could go out and I could just buy a credit fund that owns all the bonds in a particular market. Or I could try one of these factor strategies. What would the factory strategy actually be doing? I mean, what are the characteristics that our research suggests credit investors should be trying to favor versus avoid?

Vishy Tirupattur: Let me talk about two strategies. First is a risk adjusted carry strategy. So, you take the spread of the bond over Treasuries, so that gets the credit risk premium, divided by the volatility of excess returns of that particular bond over the last 12 months. Group all these bonds, sort them, and invest in the top decile that has the best risk adjusted return. And then rinse and repeat every month. And we have shown that using this strategy in investment grade, you can consistently beat the benchmark corporate bond index. So that's one strategy.

Vishy Tirupattur: The other one is a momentum strategy. Momentum can be both from the bond returns as well as from the underlying stock returns. Our research has shown that by combining equity momentum signals and corporate bond momentum signals, we can also achieve substantial outperformance over the benchmark indices both in investment grade and high yield, even though in high yield the outperformance is even more significant.

Andrew Sheets: So Vishy, why do you think that works? Because it would seem really obvious that, you know, investors wouldn't want to own bonds with a good return versus their volatility, that investors would want to own things that are going up and avoid things that are going down. So why would doing those things, why would following those rules, do you think, still deliver risk premium, still deliver return? Why do you think the market is kind of leaving those nickels kind of lying on the street for lack of a better word, for investors to pick up?

Vishy Tirupattur: Andrew, in the past this kind of a strategy that would involve, say, a monthly rebalancing, would mean very substantial transaction costs. What we would measure through the bid offer spreads in the bond market. So, 10 years ago, in plain vanilla investment grade bonds, the bid offer spreads, the spread in the difference between the spread of buying and selling bonds, was as high as 12 basis points. And today that number is 2-3 basis points. So, this means that transaction costs, thanks to the electronification, thanks to portfolio trading and ETF volumes, has meant very substantially lower transaction costs that makes these returns possible. And since factor investing is still at the very early stages of practice in credit markets, there are still large, unharvested risk premia in the credit markets for these types of strategies.

Andrew Sheets: And Vishy, my final question for you is, what are the risks here? If investors are going to look at the market from a systematic, more rules-based approach, what sort of questions should they be asking?

Vishy Tirupattur:  I think key question to ask is how much dependencies there are on liquidity and how long will liquidity continue to be there in the markets. I think looking at this kind of analysis over multiple credit cycles, the four cycles, lower liquidity, higher liquidity periods, which is what we have done, those are the kinds of analyzes one would need to do to start paying greater attention to systematic investing strategies in credit.

Andrew Sheets: Vishy. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

Vishy Tirupattur : Andrew, always fun to talk with you.

Andrew Sheets: As a reminder, if you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts app. It helps more people find the show. 

Equity investors have applied factor-driven strategies for years, but the approach has seen slow adoption in bond markets. Here’s why that may be changing.

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