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Visualizing the Meteoric Rise of Bond ETFs

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Timeline: Bond ETFs Worth $1 Trillion

Visualizing the Meteoric Rise of Bond ETFs

Bonds are a staple in almost any investment portfolio — but up until very recently, they weren’t exactly the easiest thing to own.

Despite the bond market being bigger than the equities market, bonds mostly trade over-the-counter (OTC) and not on any centralized exchange.

In fact, traders mostly swapped bonds over the phone, negotiating prices and making deals. However, this “old school” approach came with several disadvantages, including high transaction costs, illiquidity, and a lack of true transparency in the market.

A New Way to Play

Today’s infographic comes to us from iShares, and it shows that over the last two decades, the bond market has been dramatically transformed and democratized from the “old school” approach that relied on phones, traders, and giant bond calculators.

The biggest factor in this transition: the use of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in the bond market, which just hit a new global milestone of $1 trillion of AUM in June 2019.

Let’s look at the journey of how this rapidly rising segment of the market took off, the factors driving it, and what the future may hold for Bond ETFs.

Bond ETFs: Journey to $1 Trillion

Below is a year-by-year account of new innovations in bond ETFs, and how the usage of them has changed over time:

2002: New tech

A new financial technology, the ETF, shakes up the bond market for the first time – and the first fixed income ETFs launch in the United States.

2003: More variety

Just one year in, and there are already numerous types of bond ETFs that allow investors to fulfill different portfolio needs:

  • Government bond ETFs
  • TIPS ETFs
  • Corporate bond ETFs
  • Aggregate bond ETFs

2006: Achievement unlocked

The global bond ETF industry hits $25 billion in AUM.

2007: Bond ETF innovations

The bond ETF universe continues to expand as investors demand even more options:

  • Mortgage-backed security bond ETFs
  • Muni bond ETFs
  • High yield bond ETFs

2008: A new source of liquidity

Liquidity for individual bonds dries up during the 2008 Financial Crisis. However, bond ETFs step up to the plate by providing a new source of liquidity and volume increases, allowing investors to efficiently access fixed income markets.

2010: More precise strategies

The first term-maturity ETFs launch. These special bond ETFs specifically hold bonds that all mature in the exact same year.

2012: Achievement unlocked

The global bond ETF industry hits $250 billion in AUM.

2015: More product innovation

At this time, factor-based bond ETFs start to hit the mainstream. These use a rules-based approach to employ multiple investment factors, such as low volatility, quality, value, or momentum.

2016: Achievement unlocked

The global bond ETF industry hits $500 billion in AUM.

2017: Green bonds

Green bonds ETFs provide investors with the ability to invest in bonds that are tied to sustainability purposes.

2018: Market volatility and bond ETFs

In the second half of 2018, markets get volatile and investors turn to bond ETFs to help reduce their overall portfolio risk, specifically diversifying their exposure to stocks.

2019: Achievement unlocked

The global bond ETF industry hits $1 trillion in AUM, with now over 1,300 bond ETFs available.

The Path to $2 Trillion?

In just 17 years, bond ETFs have grown to be a significant part of the investment universe, reaching $1 trillion AUM in 2019.

Impressively, it won’t likely take long to double the last milestone. According to BlackRock, it’s anticipated that ETFs will hold $2 trillion in AUM by the year 2024 — just a few short years down the road.

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Central Banks

Visualizing the 700-Year Fall of Interest Rates

Could interest rates enter negative territory permanently? This chart plots trend data over 700 years, showing that it could be a possibility.

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eight centuries interest rates

Visualizing the 700-Year Decline of Interest Rates

How far can interest rates fall?

Currently, many sovereign rates sit in negative territory, and there is an unprecedented $10 trillion in negative-yielding debt. This new interest rate climate has many observers wondering where the bottom truly lies.

Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England (BOE), shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.

The Evidence on Falling Rates

Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.

Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.

Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018

%1300s1400s1500s1600s1700s1800s1900s2000s
Nominal rate7.311.27.85.44.13.55.03.5
Inflation2.22.11.70.80.60.03.12.2
Real rate5.19.16.14.63.53.42.01.3

*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers

Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.

The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.

Current Theories

Why have interest rates been trending downward for so long?

Here are the three prevailing theories as to why they’re dropping:

1. Productivity Growth

Since 1970, productivity growth has slowed. A nation’s productive capacity is determined by a number of factors, including labor force participation and economic output.

If total economic output shrinks, real rates will decline too, theory suggests. Lower productivity growth leads to lower wage growth expectations.

In addition, lower productivity growth means less business investment, therefore a lower demand for capital. This in turn causes the lower interest rates.

2. Demographics

Demographics impact interest rates on a number of levels. The aging population—paired with declining fertility levels—result in higher savings rates, longer life expectancies, and lower labor force participation rates.

In the U.S., baby boomers are retiring at a pace of 10,000 people per day, and other advanced economies are also seeing comparable growth in retirees. Theory suggests that this creates downward pressure on real interest rates, as the number of people in the workforce declines.

3. Economic Growth

Dampened economic growth can also have a negative impact on future earnings, pushing down the real interest rate in the process. Since 1961, GDP growth among OECD countries has dropped from 4.3% to 3% in 2018.

Larry Summers referred to this sloping trend since the 1970s as “secular stagnation” during an International Monetary Fund conference in 2013.

Secular stagnation occurs when the economy is faced with persistently lagging economic health. One possible way to address a declining interest rate conundrum, Summers has suggested, is through expansionary government spending.

Bond Yields Declining

According to the report, another trend has coincided with falling interest rates: declining bond yields.

Since the 1300s, global nominal bonds yields have dropped from over 14% to around 2%.

bond yields declining

The graph illustrates how real interest rates and bond yields appear to slope across a similar trend line. While it may seem remarkable that interest rates keep falling, this phenomenon shows that a broader trend may be occurring—across centuries, asset classes, and fiscal regimes.

In fact, the historical record would imply that we will see ever new record lows in real rates in future business cycles in the 2020s/30s

-Paul Schmelzing

Although this may be fortunate for debt-seekers, it can create challenges for fixed income investors—who may seek alternatives strategies with higher yield potential instead.

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Central Banks

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.

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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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