Advisers are leading clients into junk bond crisis

Advisers are leading clients into junk bond crisis

A chief investment officer has warned of the impeding crisis caused by advisers populating portfolios with junk bonds, as the UK’s fixed income market is threatened by inflation.

Bonds are valued high at the moment, while yields have plummeted to all-time lows, meaning investors who are desperate for some kind of income have been piling cash into riskier parts of the fixed income market.

Christopher Peel, chief investment officer at Tavistock Investments, said: “It is very clear to me that advisers don’t fully understand the risks they are running by populating portfolios with low-grade long-duration bonds.” 

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He said the record-low interest rates are unsustainable given the level of expected inflation, which many industry professionals have claimed could jump to as high as 5 per cent over the next 12 months.

The investment veteran, who has spent 30 years in the industry, said he is seeing advisers build portfolios of junk bonds, which they are calling Strategic Bond funds.

“Strategic Bond funds tend to be pretty misleading in terms of what is under the bonnet, and tend to be made up of low-grade corporate bonds.” 

He said asset allocation models force advisers to have a certain amount invested in bonds, but these models “grossly underestimate” the amount of risk in the asset class.

“Advisers are trying to generate an income of 4 to 5 per cent for their clients, which is unrealistic unless you go down the credit curve quite markedly, which is what is happening.

“The clients that can least afford to lose money in the quest for 4 per cent income have been funneled into very low-quality low-grade investment portfolios,” he said.

“As we go into a higher interest rate environment, those companies which have issued debt will be looking to refinance those bonds and might not be able to, which means the default rate will go up.”

Mr Peel, who has worked for Citibank in London, Salomon Brothers International, and Cardinal Asset Management, said the fixed income market is “in trouble” as inflation rises and the bubble begins to pop.

Simon Torry, chartered financial planner at SRC Wealth Management, said Mr Peel’s comments highlight the risks unwary advisers could be taking with their clients' investments.

He said his firm outsources the investment process.  

Mr Torry said: “We do of course 'look under the bonnet' of the products we recommend as we consider it our responsibility to understand how returns are achieved.  As always, 'due diligence' is essential.”

Ben Willis, head of research at Whitechurch Financial Consultants, admitted that the hunt for yield may have caused advisers to seek out higher yields in higher risk areas for their clients’ income needs, but added he has seen no evidence of advisers wholesale allocating to junk bonds within client portfolios. 

“In most cases, Mr Willis said advisers are spreading the risk across the fixed interest spectrum, with strategic bond managers continuing to attract inflows.