Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Apr 29, 2022

Retail Investing, Pt. 2: ESG and Fixed Income

with Andrew Sheets and Lisa Shalett


Andrew Sheets Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Andrew Sheets, Chief Cross-Asset Strategist for Morgan Stanley Research.

Lisa Shalett And I'm Lisa Shalett, Chief Investment Officer for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

Andrew Sheets And today on the podcast, we'll be continuing our discussion on retail investing, ESG, and what’s been happening in Fixed income. It's Friday, April 29th at 4:00 p.m. in London.

Lisa Shalett And it's 11:00 a.m. in New York.

Andrew Sheets Lisa, the other enormous story in markets that's really impossible to ignore is the rise in bond yields. U.S. Treasury yields are up almost 100 basis points over the last month, which is a move that's historic. So maybe I'd just start with how are investors dealing with this fixed income move? How do you think that they were positioned going into this bond sell off? And what sort of flows and feedback have you been seeing?

Lisa Shalett I think on the one hand, we've been fortunate in that we've been telegraphing our perspective to be underweight treasuries and particular underweight duration for quite a long time. And it's only been really in the last three or four weeks that we have begun suggesting that people contemplate adding some duration back to their portfolios. So the first thing is I don't think it has been a huge shock to clients that after what has been obviously a 40 plus year bull market in bonds that some rainier days are coming. And many of our clients had moved to short duration, to cash, to ultra-short duration, with the portions of their portfolios that were oriented towards fixed income. I think what has been more perplexing is this idea of folks using the bond sell off as an opportunity to move into stocks under the rationale of, quote unquote, there is no alternative. That's one of the hypotheses or investment themes that we’re finding we have to push up against hard and ask people are they not concerned that this move in rates has relevance for stock valuations? And over the last 13 years, the moves that we have seen in rates have been sufficiently modest as to not have had profound impacts on valuations. These very high above average multiples have been able to hold. And very few investors seem to be blinking an eye when we talk about equity risk premiums collapsing. So, you know, the answer to your question is clients in the private client channel avoided the worst outcomes of exposure to long duration rates, were not shocked, and have actually used some of the selloff in bonds or their short duration positions to actually fund increasing stock exposures. So that's I think how I would describe where they're at.

Andrew Sheets And that's really interesting because there are these two camps related to what's been happening. One is, look at bonds selling off. I want to go to the equity market. But at the same time as bond yields have gone from very low levels to much higher levels, the relative value argument of bonds versus stocks, this so-called equity risk premium, this additional return that in theory you get for investing in more risky equities relative to bonds has really been narrowing as these yields have come up. Lisa, how do you think about the equity risk premium? How do you think about, kind of, the relative value proposition between an investment grade rated corporate bond that now yields 4-4.25% relative to U.S. equities?

Lisa Shalett One of the things that we're trying to remind our clients is they live in an inflation adjusted world and real yields matter. And from where we're sitting, the recent dynamic around real rates and real rates potentially turning positive in the Treasury market is a really important turning point for our clients because today if you just look at the equity risk premium adjusted for inflation, it's very unattractive. And so, that's the conversation we're starting to have with people is you got to want to get paid. Owning stocks is great, as long as you're getting paid to own them. You got to ask yourself the question, would I rather have a 2.8-3% return in a 10-year Treasury today if I think inflation is going to be 2.5% in 10 years or do I want to own a stock that's only yielding an extra premium of 200 basis points.

Andrew Sheets When you think about what would change this dynamic, you mentioned that if anything, yields have gone up and investors seem to be more reticent about buying bonds given the volatility in the market. There's a scenario where people buy bonds once the market calms down, what they're looking for is stability. There's an argument that's about a level, that it's about, you know, U.S. 10-year bond yields reaching 3%, or 3.5%, or some other number that makes people say, OK, this is enough. Or it's that stocks go down and that they no longer feel like this kind of more stable or maybe better inflation protecting asset. Which of those do you think would be the more realistic catalyst or the most powerful catalyst that you see kind of driving a change in behavior?

Lisa Shalett I think it's this idea of inflation protected resilience, right? There is this unbelievable faith that, quite frankly, has been reinforced by recent history that the U.S. stock indices are magically resilient to anything that you could possibly throw at them. And until that paradigm gets cracked a little bit and we see a little bit more damage at the headline level, I mean, we've seen, you know, some of the data that says at least half of the names in some of these indices are down 20, 40%. But until those headline indices really show a little bit more pain and a little bit more volatility, I think it's hard for people to want to take the bet that they're going to go back into bonds.

Andrew Sheets Lisa, another major trend that we've seen in investing over the last several years has been ESG - investing with an eye towards the environmental, social and governance characteristics of a company How strong is the demand for ESG in terms of the flows that you're seeing and how should we think about ESG within the context of other strategies, other secular trends in investing?

Lisa Shalett So ESG, I think, you know, has gone through a transformation really in the last 12 months where it's gone from an overlay strategy, or an option and preference for certain client segments, to something that's really mainstream. Where clients recognize and have come to recognize the relevance of ESG criteria as something that's actually correlated with other aspects of corporate performance that drive excellence. If you're paying this much attention to your carbon footprint as a company or you're paying this much attention to your community governance and your stakeholder outcomes, aren't you likely paying just as much attention to your more basic financial metrics like return on assets? And there's a very high correlation between companies that are great at ESG and companies who are just very high on the quality factor metrics. Now what's interesting is as we've gone through this last six months of inflation and surging energy prices around the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the recovery from COVID, what I think the world has recognized is the importance of investing in energy infrastructure. Now for ESG investors that has meant doubling down on ESG oriented investments in clean and green. For others it may mean investing back in traditional carbon-oriented assets. But ESG, from where we're sitting, has gone mainstream and remains as strong, if not stronger than ever.

Andrew Sheets Lisa, thanks for taking the time to talk. We hope to have you back on soon.

Lisa Shalett Thank you very much, Andrew.

Andrew Sheets And as a reminder, if you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts app. It helps more people find the show.

As investors look to diversify their portfolios, there are two big stories to keep an eye on: the historic rise in bond yields and the increased adoption of ESG strategies. Chief Cross-Asset Strategist Andrew Sheets and Chief Investment Officer for Wealth Management Lisa Shalett discuss.

For Part 2 of this discussion, click here

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