Six months after an unexplained flash rally in Treasuries sent markets reeling, bond investors are bracing for it to happen again.
Prudential Investment Management is trading more futures because they’re both liquid and anonymous. State Street Corp. is making smaller bets. And Pioneer Investments is looking for returns in higher-quality securities that are easier to sell.
On Oct. 15, benchmark Treasury yields swung the most relative to overall yields since at least 2000, scarring debt investors who say they’re still trying to figure out why it happened. JPMorgan Chase & Co. chief Jamie Dimon called the move a “warning shot” last week, blaming it on central-bank hoarding of bonds along with regulations that have led dealers to retreat from making markets. Others say the rise of electronic trading is at fault.
Whatever the reason, those trends aren’t changing as the Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006. Bets on market swings suggest traders expect prices to fluctuate the most of any year since 2011, raising the risk of another flash move.
“There’s potential for extreme conditions in the marketplace when volatility really goes up,” said Steven Meier, head of cash, currency and fixed-income at Boston-based State Street’s money-management unit. “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about what happened,” and no “clear explanation of what the drivers were.”
Bond trading has been turbulent this year, driven by uneven economic data, currency moves and Fed changes to its interest-rate forecasts. Yields on 10-year Treasuries have swung from 1.64 percent to 2.26 percent. The yield rose 0.3 basis points, or 0.03 percentage point, to 1.98 percent as of 7:53 a.m. in New York.
Treasuries are the world’s haven during times of turmoil because the securities are supposed to be the most liquid. A market that’s more prone to gyrations has the potential to boost borrowing costs for taxpayers, consumers and companies -- in addition to making it harder for the Fed to exit from its record stimulus.
Dimon isn’t the only one warning episodes such as the one on Oct. 15 may happen again. The Treasury Markets Practices Group -- an advisory committee on bond-market integrity backed by the New York Fed -- echoed the idea at its February meeting.
“There is an increased potential for further episodes of volatility and impaired liquidity in the Treasury markets,” the meeting minutes said. The Merrill Lynch Option Volatility Estimate Index, one gauge of the Treasury market’s expectations for volatility, has traded at its highest average level in 2015 compared with any full year since 2011. The committee concluded that the move was exacerbated by the dealers’ pullback from the market and growth in electronic trading.
Last year, 48 percent of U.S. Treasury trading happened electronically, according to a survey from Greenwich Associates, up from 33 percent a decade ago. The TMPG said in apaper last week that the trend has improved liquidity, while creating added risks, too.
“In some cases, malfunctioning algorithms have interfered with market functioning, inundating trading venues with message traffic or creating sharp, short-lived spikes in prices,” the group said in an April 9 paper.
Calvert Investments money manager Matthew Duch said the mystery of the flash rally leaves him in a tough spot. He wants to buy more high-yield bonds, but said he’s worried about the possibility that a Treasury-market swing could spark broader volatility, making it tough to trade the speculative-grade debt.
“Are you getting compensated for the risk? Uh, maybe not,” Duch, whose firm manages $13 billion, said in a telephone interview from his Bethesda, Maryland, office. “But in this yield-starved environment, it’s difficult to find other places to put your money.”
Part of the reason trading has gotten bumpier is that banks are stepping back from market-making, according to Jeffrey Snider, chief investment strategist at West Palm Beach, Florida-based Alhambra Investment Partners LLC.
That’s shown up in the market for short-term financing, known as repurchase agreements, or repos, which help grease the wheels for bond trading. The amount of securities financed through a part of the market known as tri-party repo is down 15 percent since December 2012, and more than 41 percent from its 2008 high.
“Funding has just fallen off a cliff,” Snider said. “The system is searching for a stable state, but it hasn’t been able to find one yet.”
Not everyone is worried that it’s too hard to trade debt these days.
“We feel pretty comfortable with the liquidity,” Michael Fredericks, head of retail multi-asset client solutions for New York-based BlackRock Inc., said by telephone. Fredericks, who manages the $11.5 billion BlackRock Multi-Asset Income Fund, said he’s more worried that investors have gotten complacent about long-term rates staying low.
State Street’s Meier said he is concerned about being able to efficiently trade his holdings, and is making smaller bond trades as a result. Last year, his company recommended clients build up their cash positions and consider derivatives bets, such as swaps and futures.
Interest-rate futures -- which are essentially an agreement to buy or sell rates at a later date -- have been getting more popular in part because they trade through a clearinghouse, reducing counterparty risk. Trading was up 12 percent in the first three months of the year from the same period in 2014, according to CME Group Inc.
Erik Schiller, a money manager for Prudential’s $533 billion fixed-income unit, said he’s been using futures more because they offer fast and anonymous trade execution during big market swings.
“There’s the potential for these types of moves to happen,” he said. “The liquidity providers in the bond market are less now than they’ve ever been.”
One measure of Treasury dealers’ trading activity has fallen closer to its financial-crisis levels. Deutsche Bank AG’s index that gauges liquidity by comparing the three-month average size of dealer trades against moves in the 10-year note’s yield fell to about 25 in February. It was above 500 in 2005, and reached as low as 19 in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis.
“If liquidity is as bad as it is now, what’s going to happen when things really get adverse?” said Richard Schlanger, who co-manages about $30 billion in bonds as vice president at Pioneer Investments in Boston. “That’s why we’re trying to get in front of this and buy really good, liquid names.”