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Bond market under fire, but pros keep their cool

Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange
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Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange

Bond strategists are looking to hold their ground against a backdrop that has shown them far underperforming stocks and as the market holds its breath over where rates are going.

Fixed income has been the most-hated asset class in 2013, particularly when it comes to U.S. government bonds.

Investors fear rising rates that would come with a tightening of monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, and multiple strategists have been sounding the "Great Rotation" theme in which they expect money to flee bond funds and head to stocks.

Yet the Fed is likely to do all it can to prevent the sharp run-up in rates that would create capital losses in bonds, and fund flows do show equities attracting money but not at the expense of fixed income.

(Read more: Stock marketskeeping a wary eye on interest rates)

All of the bad publicity is a bit perplexing for bond pros.

"I'm not as gloomy about the forecast for bonds as a lot of people," Kathy Jones, fixed income strategist at Charles Schwab, said during an interview at the firm's IMPACT conference this week. "For two years now we've been told we're going to get inflation...the 'Great Rotation'...the Fed (would be raising rates). None of the above seems to really be happening."

What the bond market has seen is sharply diminished returns.

While, the S&P 500 soars to stratospheric heights, the Barclays U.S. Long Treasury Index is off 8.7 percent for the year though its average annual return over the past five years is still 7.5 percent.

At the very least, the current climate has forced investors to get selective.

(Read more: Huge change could be coming in 2014: Schwab CIO)

That's made it a good time to invest in municipal bonds, Jones said. Hedge funds have been investing heavily in the group, according to a Wall Street Journal report this week.

"It's a category no one has liked for a while," she said. "There's been a lot of headline risk with Detroit and Puerto Rico. It's a retail market, so it's less efficient."

"We actually like good old boring high-quality municipal bonds," she added.

Yet even munis have taken a hit this year after a fairly stellar run, with the Barclays Muni Bond Index falling 2.1 percent this year.

One of the few areas showing positive returns this year has been high-yield—up 6.3 percent for the year, making it a favorite for many fixed income investors.

A recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey of credit investors reflected expectations that heavy fund flows should continue to junk bonds. The survey showed 66 percent of investors expecting either to maintain or increase their high-yield exposure in 2014.

(Read more: Stocks costly, but fund managers are buying: BofA poll)

"We believe the responses bode well for high yield bonds in 2014 as institutional investors potentially continue to look to add high yield exposure to their portfolio," BofAML said in a note.

Broadly speaking, Jones believes not only the Fed but also global central banks still have enough firepower to keep rates low and make bond investing attractive, albeit selectively.

"Central banks are worried about deflation, not inflation," she said. "That continues to keep rates trending down."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.

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