The recent struggles of Bill Gross exemplifies the dangers of bond fund investing in today's volatile market

  • Bill Gross is the best-known bond fund manager, but this year he is worst in his fixed-income peer group.
  • The Janus Henderson and former PIMCO manager's bond strategy is known as unconstrained investing, also classified as alternative credit.
  • In a rising interest-rate era, the approach of Gross and his peers has been popular, but the tactical approach to bond selection is likely to result in bigger hits and misses.
Bill Gross' Janus Henderson Global Unconstrained Bond Fund suffered more than $200 million in redemptions last month, lowering assets to $1.25 billion from over $2.24 billion in February.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
Bill Gross' Janus Henderson Global Unconstrained Bond Fund suffered more than $200 million in redemptions last month, lowering assets to $1.25 billion from over $2.24 billion in February.

For a long time Bill Gross dominated a fixed-income space that is hard to categorize: unconstrained bond market investing. Managers of unconstrained funds don't hew to any benchmark, single bond grade, geography or maturity — they can take their portfolios anywhere to generate return for shareholders.

But the legendary investor has struggled lately in the only place it counts: performance. His Janus Henderson Global Unconstrained Bond Fund (JUCIX), with a return of –6.6 percent through August 16, is among the worst performers in its category year-to-date, according to Morningstar, as well as over the past one-year and three-year periods.

Gross told CNBC earlier this year that European volatility was to blame for the bad performance and that a bet on weakening German bond prices and a rise in U.S. treasurys would provide a windfall for his investors if they're patient enough.

In the past month, things have improved slightly, as the fund has eked out a positive return and is slightly above the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. But last week Gross' boss, Janus Henderson CEO Richard Weil, addressed Gross' underperformance in an interview with CNBC's "Worldwide Exchange," saying that Gross "has been wrong and wrong badly" this year.

The Janus Henderson Global Unconstrained Bond Fund suffered more than $200 million in redemptions last month, according to Bloomberg, lowering assets to $1.25 billion from over $2.24 billion in February. "He's just got to work it through," the Janus Henderson CEO said.

Gross did not respond to requests for comment.

The struggles of the investing guru highlight key bond market issues that many investors face: Where to generate returns in the bond market during an era of low volatility, how to achieve income at a time of historically low interest rates, but at the same time — as U.S. rates are rising as a function of Federal Reserve post-quantitative easing policy — how to invest in a bond market where price appreciation will be difficult to attain.

The unconstrained approach seems to offer an answer: Rely on an individual manager's smarts to outwit the market. But investors who went with Gross have learned the hard way that even though picking bonds has a better track record versus the index than picking stocks, it is by no means a sure thing. If you choose a manager that swings for the fences, there will be periods of time when they miss badly. The least an investor must do when investing in an active bond strategy is understand what the portfolio manager is trying to accomplish.

"This is a competitive individual who wants to do well, but you can't strive for much worse," said Barry Glassman, founder and president of Glassman Wealth Services, which specializes in alternative asset-allocation strategies and who is a member of the CNBC Digital Financial Advisor Council. He said that when investing with a manager like Gross, who can buy bonds anywhere, investors need to be prepared for multiple years of lackluster performance.

Glassman said the strength of the stock market and, as interest rates rise, core bonds being the only negative part of many investors' portfolio, has led more people to look for "the Holy Grail of bond funds" that can do well whether rates go up or down.

"Sometimes they will find it and sometimes they won't. The challenge I have with unconstrained funds is, I don't know what is in there and I can't predict what is going to be in the portfolio," Glassman said.

There are more than 250 mutual funds taking the unconstrained approach to bond investing, also defined as alternative credit by Lipper and nontraditional bond by Morningstar. These bond funds hold roughly $100 billion in investor assets, according to Lipper, and in the year-to-date, one-year and three-year periods through August 16, this category has beaten the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index by a significant margin.

Alternative bond funds versus the bond benchmark

Performance (%)
Alternative Credit Focus Funds
Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond TR
Average of YTD return (-0.1) (-1.1)
Average of one-year return 0.9 (-0.4)
Average of three-year return 2.7 1.7
Average of five-year return 2.1 2.5
Average of 10-year return 3.6 3.7
Lipper

As unconstrained managers make tactical portfolio shifts, there also is a risk that an investor with more than one bond fund ends up with double the exposure to the same fixed-income trade in their portfolio, and that can magnify the losses during periods when the unconstrained manager bets wrongly. Many of the top-performing unconstrained managers right now have a high degree of exposure to the mortgage-backed securities market, but the core Barclays Aggregate maintains an exposure to the mortgage market that is above 30 percent.

"You need to know what is in your bond fund, unless it is an index or the title is really specific and the manager follows it, like intermediate municipal bond," Glassman said. "You need to take the extra step and monitor the mandate of the manager. Whatever they have done in the past three years can completely change, and they have a brand new portfolio tomorrow."

The good news is that most fund companies go beyond basic requirements in terms of sharing portfolio level details, which can be reviewed on fund web pages or through third parties to which mutual funds report holdings regularly, such as Morningstar.

"'Unconstrained bond' or 'alternative credit' is as useless as having a category called 'ego-based managers.' There isn't an index to compare them." -Barry Glassman, Glassman Wealth Management

The issue is not whether active management works in fixed-income — in fact, many actively managed bond ETFs have been beating bond benchmarks and the long-term data from S&P Dow Jones Indices shows that active bond is more compelling than active stock picking. Comparing a 'go anywhere" manager to a core bond benchmark like the Barclays Agg over a seven-and-a-half month period isn't fair either, Glassman said. At the same time, maintaining outperformance — which has always been an issue for stock pickers — is an issue in the fixed-income universe as well. According to Lipper data, alternative credit funds have slightly trailed the Barclays Aggregate in the past five-year and ten-year periods.

Glassman uses active bond funds, but each has a clear approach that he understands, and he is prepared to monitor when the approach changes. One is the Templeton Global Bond Fund (TPINX) led by Michael Hasenstab, which over the long-term (both 10- and 15-year periods) ranks highly among peers. The Templeton fund owns emerging markets debt — a risky area right now given concerns about the strong U.S. dollar and years of dollar-based borrowing in the region — but Hasenstab also shorts various global currencies as part of his strategy. So even when the dollar soared after Trump's election and overseas bonds got hit hard, the fund was positive because of currency shorts.

Even with core bond exposure for retirement assets, Glassman wants an average maturity of bonds that is lower than the Barclays Agg at a time of rising rates and depreciating bond prices. He has been using the Dodge & Cox Income Fund (DODIX) which has an average duration of 4.4 vs. 5.9 for the Barclays Agg. The Dodge & Cox fund has outperformed most peers recently, and over the long-term, consistently beating the benchmark.

Mitch Goldberg, president of investment advisory firm ClientFirst Strategy, said there are so many bond ETFs available today that advisors and investors worried about rising U.S. interest rates can create a strategy of varying maturities and geographies without having to use an active bond manager. He said the idea of unconstrained bond investing makes sense: an investor can achieve not only income but total return that is uncorrelated to the rest of the bond market. But when these funds are generating returns no better than, or even worse than, a core bond ETF like the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (BND), investors are going to be disappointed. "Active managers need long lead times," he said.

The era of quantitative easing tamped down the volatility not only in the stock market but bond market as well, and that makes it harder for unconstrained managers to find the arbitrage opportunities between sectors. "Everyone has to acknowledge that central bank policy has tamped down volatility and reduced the need for active management. It won't be like that forever. But for a monster-size manager like Gross, his best days were before central bank policy saved the universe," Goldberg said. Unconstrained managers need more volatility and more frequent narrowing and widening of spreads between bond asset classes.

5 unconstrained bond funds that are outperforming

Here are the five top alternative credit funds over the past one-year period, according to Lipper data, and the strategies their managers have targeted:

Highland Opportunistic Credit Fund (HNRAX)
One-year return: 10.5 percent

While this fund refers to itself as an unconstrained strategy, Morningstar classifies it as high-yield and co-manager Trey Parker said his fund prefers to invest in companies that are undervalued or misunderstood. He pointed to Fieldwood Energy as a good recent investment, noting that the loan appreciated from 60 cents on the dollar to 98 cents.

"We really are industry agnostic, so we will invest across industries depending on the opportunity set," he said. "We've invested in healthcare and telecom, and those are two very interesting sectors these days. We identify big macro-themes and we look for where there are shifts in an industry."

Its performance can swing significantly: It was down more than 26 percent in 2015 and up more than 30 percent the next year. Over the past 10-year period, it has beaten the Barclays Agg, but trailed the Morningstar high-yield category average.

Ascendant Tactical Yield Fund (ATYAX)
One-year return: 5.7 percent

Co-manager Porter Landreth said the most reliable trend in the marketplace right now is rising short-term interest rates in the U.S., so its safest positions are in adjustable and floating rate instruments. The fund invests 75 percent of its assets in adjustable-rate mortgage bonds and 25 percent in floating-rate bonds.

Landreth said there is tremendous value in adjustable-rate mortgage bonds. "Only the quality bonds are left in those tranches that were forced to be dumped during the financial crisis."

Fundamentals are strong for these securities as real estate value across the country are up and collateral has greatly improved from the crisis period, Landreth said. As a result, these mortgage bonds "may be higher quality than they appear."

The fund has beaten the nontraditional bond category average and Barclays Agg return in the year-to-date, one-year and three-year periods, according to Morningstar.

Nationwide Amundi Strategic Income Fund (NWXEX)
One-year return: 5.2 percent

Co-manager Jonathan Duensing said the fund invests across market sectors, across maturities, and while being U.S.- focused, will invest outside the U.S. to gain some global exposure. Varying the duration of bonds has made the fund less sensitive to interest-rate movement.

Right now, like other successful funds, Duensing is finding opportunities in the securitized credit market. Consumer balance sheets are in good shape and housing is in demand, so fundamentals are strong. "From a valuation standpoint, the securitized credit market versus the corporate bond market, the valuations are absolutely compelling," he said.

The fund has beaten both the Barclays Agg and its bond category year-to-date and in the past year, though Morningstar classifies it as a multi-sector bond fund rather than unconstrained bond fund. The major differences: multi-sector managers tend to stay within a preferred group of bond areas to invest, whereas unconstrained managers tend to make tactical shifts more frequently and focus more on interest-rate risk.

Putnam Diversified Income Trust (PDINX)
One-year return: 4.8 percent

Portfolio co-manager Bill Kohli said minimizing interest-rate risk has been key to his fund's success. He said the Putnam Diversified Income Trust starts at a duration of zero and then mixes bonds of different durations to minimize exposure to the Fed's interest rate moves.

Like Ascendant, a focus on securitized bonds, such as mortgages, that took a beating in the financial crisis, has been a key to performance. "Many market participants have either been regulated out of the market or management deemphasizes those areas where they got their fingers burnt," Kohli said. "So if you're an investor or fund manager you're getting paid an attractive premium to move into the space because the market hasn't healed yet. The spreads you are getting are not representative of fundamental loss risk."

This Putnam fund has generated its biggest performance edge against both the nontraditional bond fund category average and Barclays Agg in the past year, but has maintained a more narrow outperformance over the long-term.

Braddock Multi-Strategy Income Fund (BDKAX)
One-year return: 4.8 percent

Co-manager Garrett Tripp said the keys to his fund's success are two-fold: the fund uses a floating-rate strategy for the rising interest-rate environment, and the managers focus on structured finance. It invests primarily in high yield asset-backed debt securities, residential mortgage-backed securities and collateralized loan obligations.

Tripp said after the housing crisis, underwriting standards tightened which led to better credit markets and builders retrenching, causing a shortage of supply in entry-level homes. "This will keep housing prices from falling," Tripp said. "We'll have high recovery rates in our RMBS even if someone wants to default."

Dodd-Frank reform has also made structured finance more regulated, driving up the quality of the bonds.

The fund has beaten both the Barclays Agg and its category average year-to-date and in the past year, though like the Nationwide Amundi Strategic Income Fund, Morningstar classifies it as a multi-sector bond fund rather than unconstrained bond fund.

By Mike Schnitzel, special to CNBC. Additional reporting by Eric Rosenbaum