Bonds / Fixed Income

Front-End Fixed Income: The Window of Opportunity

Mar 29, 2023

Key takeaways

  • An active Fed means that investors may finally get some yield out of front-end fixed income. Inverted curves also mean attractive income with limited duration risk, in our view.
  • We think that elevated inflation will likely keep rates elevated. Still, current valuations and a rapidly cooling economy suggest that fixed income has a place in portfolios.

Behind the curve and rushing to catch up

With inflation soaring and the Federal Reserve moving to restrict monetary policy, markets have seen a sharp upheaval in fixed income. In response to solid job growth and elevated inflation, markets see the Fed Funds rate peaking around current levels of 4.85%, well above estimates of the long-run equilibrium rate (Chart 1). That’s not out of line with the Fed’s own projection, as the dot plot from the latest Survey of Economic projections estimates a median rate of around 5.1% by year-end 2023. Over the course of history, this kind of policy overshoot is extremely rare, and we think front-end rates have reached unusually attractive levels, particularly considering curve inversion.

Chart 1: Unusually aggressive tightening cycle is priced-in


Unusually aggressive tightening cycle is priced-in

Source: Bloomberg, Federal Reserve. Data as of 24 March, 2023. Forecasts are based on estimates and assumptions, there is no guarantee that they will be achieved.

Front end: yield with limited duration exposure

In response to a more active Fed, the nominal Treasury curve has flattened and fixed income yields at the front end have increased meaningfully. Bloomberg data as of March 23, 2023 show that the 2- year Treasury rate has risen 300bps since the start of 2022, and currently sits at around 3.8%. In contrast, the 10-year rate is currently lower, at 3.4%. This suggests that markets see rates eventually returning closer to neutral after the current rate hike cycle.

With the curve inverted, there is little term premium in longer-term rates. Indeed, Federal Reserve economists estimate the 10 year term premium to be -0.60% as of March 23, 2023 (Chart 2). Thus, investors extending out beyond front-end rates are bearing more duration risk without higher yields to compensate. Put differently, if we look at nominal yield per unit of duration that investors must bear at different points on the curve, the front-end of the curve looks relatively more attractive than the long-end of the curve (Chart 3).

Chart 2: Ten-year term premium remains low

Ten-year term premium remains low

Source: Bloomberg, Federal Reserve. Data shows the Adrian Crump & Moench 10 Year Treasury Term Premium estimate. Data as of 23 March 2023.

Chart 3: More yield “impact” at the front-end

More yield "impact" at the front-end

Source: Bloomberg. Data shows the yield-to-maturity divided by effective duration, across various points in the on-the-run Treasury curve. Data as of 23 March 2023.

Active fixed income

Attractive yields across the curve could mean higher expected returns in bonds. Learn more about BlackRock's active fixed income platform and investment solutions.
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A slowing economy is good for fixed income

Recent data point to a slowing economy – perhaps a sign that the monetary tightening thus far is starting to take hold. The US nowcast growth index (the 12-month US GDP forecast based on BlackRock's composition of traditional macroeconomic indicators) has decelerated, cooling to around 1% from the previous 3.5% estimates in early-2022 (Chart 4).

The economic slowdown reflects several factors, including declining consumer confidence, more cautious business spending, and more recently, more cautious lending. In our view, a cooling growth trend could help the fixed income sector stabilize after months of losses.

Chart 4: BlackRock’s growth nowcast is easing

BlackRock's growth nowcast is easing

Source: Refinitiv Datastream, chart by BlackRock Investment Institute, 4 January 2023.

As growth slows, inflation could also begin to stabilize. We already see tightening financial conditions and reduced consumer confidence weighing on spending. The readthrough to consumer prices may have a lag of several months, and our Economics team sees Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) inflation slowing to 2.5% by year-end 2023 from the current 5.4% (Chart 5). While we can’t rely too much on point forecasts given economic uncertainty, we believe that if inflation continues to ease in coming months as we expect, fixed income could see potentially attractive performance ahead.

Chart 5: Slowing growth could weigh on inflation

Slowing growth could weigh on inflation

Source: BlackRock. Actual headline PCE figures are displayed for data up to January 2023 with BlackRock forecasts thereafter as of March 23, 2023. Forecasts are based on estimates and assumptions, there is no guarantee that they will be achieved

Where we see the most value: high quality assets

Across the fixed-income universe, rates are higher: this is mostly due to rising risk-free rates as nominal Treasuries have sold off sharply, with the 5yr nominal Treasury rate near the top end of the range of its 10-year history. We have seen credit spreads widen somewhat due to banking-sector concerns, with the option-adjusted spread (OAS) of the Bloomberg US Corporate 1-5yr IG credit index reaching 121bps as of March 23, 2023. Thus, while risk-free rates are attractive in our view, we would lean towards a more cautious approach of gradually legging-into spread sectors in case spreads widen further on the back of slowing growth.

Chart 6: Front-end credit spreads have continued to widen

Front-end credit spreads have continued to widen

Source: Bloomberg. Data as of 23 March 2023.

Bottom line: we think front-end fixed income looks attractive

While there may be some room for interest rates to move higher, we think the front end of the yield curve offers an attractive asymmetry and opportunity to capture yield. This would especially hold true if the economy is slowing, as our economic indicators suggest. We think that for investors focused on yield, the flatness of the curve may mean enhanced capacity for income generation while limiting potential duration exposure.

Akiva Dickstein
Akiva Dickstein
Managing Director, Head of Customized Multi-Sector Portfolios
Akiva Dickstein, Managing Director, is Head of Customized Core Portfolios within BlackRock's Americas Fixed Income Alpha Strategies and a member of the Americas Fixed Income Executive Team. Prior to his current role, he was the lead manager for the firm's mortgage portfolios.
Scott MacLellan
Managing Director, Fundamental Fixed Income Portfolio Manager
Scott MacLellan, CFA, CMT, Managing Director, is a portfolio manager in BlackRock's Fundamental Fixed Income (FFI) Investment Group. MacLellan serves in number of capacities with regard to sustainable investing, including as a member of the Global Fixed Income ESG Leadership Committee and a member of the FFI Executive Committee ESG Advisory Group.