Financial Market

Investors Dare to Dip Back Into Bonds

Bonds are back, say investors who are daring to buy into the battered market.

Stability emerged in debt markets this week, with the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield retreating from a peak over 3% following a five-month rout that worsened as stocks plummeted. While most of the buyers anticipate further turmoil if the U.S. economy slides into recession, bond prices have fallen to levels they say are too good to pass up, offering a credible alternative to stocks.

Some are targeting corporate bonds ranging from blue-chip names such as

AT&T Inc.

and

Ford Motor Co.

to junk-rated satellite-telecom operator

Dish Network Corp.

Others are buying bonds backed by home mortgages or larger real-estate loans made to mall and factory operators.

“We finally flipped the switch,” said Elaine Stokes, a senior bond fund manager at Loomis Sayles & Co., who says she has been picking up bonds at attractive yields from other investors forced to sell by market conditions. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

Stocks and bonds have been notching a rare simultaneous fall in what has been the worst performing debt market in 40 years. Portfolio managers now see pockets of opportunity as they seek investments that will fare best in future volatility.

In coming sessions, investors will study minutes from the Federal Reserve’s recent discussions for further confirmation that officials plan to raise short-term interest rates by a half percentage point at the central bank’s next couple of meetings. They will also parse earnings from pandemic favorite

Zoom Video Communications Inc.

, along with chip maker

Nvidia Corp.

and retailers

Nordstrom Inc.

and

Macy’s Inc.

Bob Miller,

co-manager of

BlackRock Inc.’s

$44 billion strategic income opportunities fund, likes AT&T’s investment-grade bonds, which fell as much as 30% this year to prices as low as 78 cents on the dollar and yields up to 5%. That is close to their peak yields in March 2020, when the global pandemic rocked financial markets, according to data from MarketAxess. Bond yields rise when prices fall.

Mr. Miller expects interest rates to keep rising globally in years to come, which would push bond markets lower in aggregate. AT&T’s debt is still attractive because the company plans to buy back early existing bonds it took on in part to fund expansion of its 5G network, he said.

Investors historically held bonds as ballast against more volatile stocks but that dynamic broke down this year when debt and equity markets fell together in anticipation of the Fed’s shift to more aggressive interest-rate increases. Higher interest rates made existing bonds with low coupons less attractive, pushing their prices down. Steeper borrowing costs prompted stock investors to recalculate the sky-high prices of stocks they had purchased, often using credit to boost returns.

After the recent downturn, bonds seem closer to their bottom than stocks, and “the ability for fixed income to act as an equity buffer has increased,” LPL Financial Fixed Income Strategist Lawrence Gillum said in a Tuesday report. 

The yield on an index of large corporate bonds has risen to 4.4% from 2.3% at the end of December—meaning the index is now as far above the median yield as it was below it at the end of 2021, according to data from Bloomberg Inc. The extra yield, or spread, that investors demand to own them over U.S. Treasurys was recently 4.44% more than the median, up from 32% below the median at the start of the year.

The risk in buying now is that high inflation could persist, forcing the Fed to push interest rates past current forecasts. There is a roughly 40% chance that such a scenario will push the U.S. economy into a deep recession and that “anticipating recession, credit spreads will widen further,” Bank of America Corp. analysts said in a report this month. 

Investors pulled about $3 billion from junk-bond mutual funds and exchange-traded funds this week but outflows from investment-grade corporate bond funds slowed to a $300 million trickle from about $7 billion a week earlier, according to Bank of America. Net flows out of stocks grew slightly to $2.7 billion. 

SLC Management favors bonds backed by commercial mortgages because their spreads have widened substantially, said D.J. Lucey, a portfolio manager at the investment firm owned by Canadian insurer

Sun Life Financial Inc.

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“I’m not necessarily taking the view that there’s going to be a soft landing [of the economy] but from a pure valuation standpoint, a lot of bad news is already being priced in,” he said.

Commercial mortgage-backed bonds with low investment-grade credit ratings pay an average spread of 4.2 percentage points over Treasurys, roughly 8.4% higher than the median since 2008, according to data from Bloomberg. The bonds yield about 7%, up from 4.9% at the start of January.

The market for so-called agency bonds that bundle mortgage loans made by government-backed giants

Fannie Mae

and

Freddie Mac

also looked attractive to some investors in recent weeks.

Fears that the Fed might sell agency bonds it owns this year pushed their average spread over Treasurys to 0.48 percentage points in late April, about 40% above the median since 2008. The spread fell back to median levels in recent days. 

 “Agency mortgages are a way to take advantage of the fact that government yields are high and get an extra pickup,” said

Christian Stracke,

global head of credit research at bond-fund  behemoth Pacific Investment Management Co.

Others are bottom fishing for junk-rated bonds that gapped lower as losses forced some holders to sell out. The $3.3 billion bond issued by online used-car marketplace

Carvana Co.

attracted hedge funds after it lost roughly 15% in a matter of days. About half of the bonds have changed hands since it was issued in late April and its yield has risen to 13.25% from 10.25%, according to data from MarketAxess.

Convertible bonds, which can be exchanged for shares, have been among the hardest hit by fallout from the stock selloff. Those have some of the security of a bond while allowing holders to capture some of the gains if share prices take off. Convertible debt of technology-related companies such as

Wayfair Inc.

,

Upstart Holdings Inc.

and

Lyft Inc.

dropped roughly 15% to 25% over the past four weeks, while auto maker Ford’s convertible bond fell about 13%.

“The malaise has created some real opportunities,” said Tracy Maitland, chief investment officer at Advent Capital Management, which manages about $10 billion of investments and sees value in the Ford bond.

Convertible bonds typically yield less than their conventional counterparts to account for their embedded equity options. That dynamic briefly reversed this month for companies with big stock declines such as financial technology company

Block Inc.

, residential solar company

Sunnova Energy International Inc.

and

MicroStrategy Inc.

, a software company that invests in cryptocurrency, according to Wall Street Journal analysis of data from MarketAxess.

Hedge-fund manager Wasserstein & Co. has been  buying convertible bonds of biodegradable plastics maker

Danimer Scientific Inc.

, which dropped about 19% over the past six weeks. The company’s claims about its products have generated controversy but the company’s assets well exceed its debts, protecting bondholders, said Wasserstein Chief Investment Officer Rajay Bagaria.

For now, Wasserstein is “nibbling on” opportunities, Mr. Bagaria said. The fund is keeping about a quarter of its assets in cash or cash equivalents in preparation for further market dislocations.

Write to Matt Wirz at matthieu.wirz@wsj.com

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