Bond Fund Returns Could Shock Jittery Investors

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Retail investors could be in for a shock when they open their quarter-end mutual fund reports next week - and find out how much money they've lost on corporate bonds in the last month.

The sell-off was sparked by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on May 22, when he began talking about ending the Fed's stimulus plan and immediately turned a red-hot market sour.

Corporate bonds, which till then had gained 0.72% for the year based on the Barclays investment-grade index, have now lost 3.74% in 2013 - a staggering 450bp U-turn in just four weeks.

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Spread-based products - investments whose value is tied to the interest rates on US Treasuries - have been pummeled as yields have spiked since Bernanke's remarks.

And while that may partly be good news for large institutional investors who see opportunities to buy as prices have plunged, even they will be watching to see how retail buyers react when quarterly statements come - and the dire current state of their bond holdings kicks in.

"The level to which investment grade corporate bonds are interest rate sensitive will certainly be an eye-opener to many total return investors when they open up their quarterly statements on June 30," said Edward Marrinan, head of Royal Bank of Scotland's US research.

"That means there is a risk that we will see further pressure on valuations, as those investors reduce their exposure."

Leaving Time?

According to fund-tracking firm Lipper, investment-grade corporate bond funds have seen net outflows in two of the last three weeks.

Much of that sell-off has been driven by institutional investors themselves that have needed to raise funds in case of redemptions in the current environment at quarter-end.

But retail investors could also start leaving in droves if they are badly shocked by next week's numbers - and if rates continue to lurch from bad to worse.

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The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury widened another 10bp from Friday to Monday - it hit 2.65%, the highest in nearly two years - especially hurting some of the newest bond issues.

The first-ever bonds from Apple, for example - US$17 billion issued at the end of April - have shed nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in value since then.

For now, bankers and strategists say, investors are not reaching for the eject button just yet.

"There is obviously a significant amount of volatility and some poor performance [in the investment grade market]," said Andrew Karp, head of investment grade corporate bond syndicate for the Americas at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

"But the sense we get talking to investors is that there is far from any panic," he said.

(Read More: Bond Fund Outflows Hit Record Level on Tapering Fears)

Some of the biggest bond fund managers are already nibbling at some oversold morsels at the higher quality end of the bond market.

"This is not going to be a situation where people will look back and think: wow, it was the end of the cycle, we should have sold," said Ashish Shah, head of global credit investment at AllianceBernstein.

"This is a buying opportunity."