Investors have been fleeing high-yield bond funds and ETFs. But why they are doing so is a puzzle.
High-yield bond funds and ETFs have watched a net $19.2 billion walk out the door in the first three months of the year, and $29.7 billion has exited over the past 12 months, according to Morningstar Inc.
"It's kind of a mystery: We were just as surprised by the scope of the outflows when we totaled them up," said Tom Lauricella, editor of Morningstar Direct. In contrast, intermediate-term bond funds welcomed $36.2 billion in 2018 and $153 billion over the past 12 months.
Like most bond funds, those containing junk bonds have taken a hit this year as interest rates have risen. But those hits have been fairly modest: The average high-yield bond fund has fallen 0.21% this year. Intermediate-term bond funds have fallen 1.43% and long-term government bond funds have tumbled 4.23%, including reinvested interest.
Over the longer term, junk has been the sharpest arrow in the bond quiver.
"Investors have enjoyed some really solid performance in high yield," Mr. Lauricella said. The average junk-bond fund has gained 3.81% a year over the past five years, compared with 1.58% for intermediate-term bond funds, the Morningstar bond category with the most assets.
One theory about the outflow: The yield spread between high-yield and Treasury securities dipped to 3.23 percentage points on Jan. 26, versus the long-term average of 5.25 percentage points, according to Morningstar analyst Brian Moriarty.
The low yield spread makes junk less appealing than investment-grade bonds on a relative basis: You're simply not being paid enough to take the extra risk associated with junk bonds. For that reason, some market timers use tight credit spreads as a sell signal for high-yield bonds, Mr. Moriarity said.
"It's easy to look at high-yield spreads and determine when to move in and out," he said.
Investors may be worried that the yield curve will invert, meaning that short-term interest rates would be higher than longer-term rates. An inverted yield curve is one of the better predictors of a recession, which could hit bonds with poor credit ratings particularly hard.
Finally, some investors may have moved from high-yield funds into bank loan funds, which invest in variable-rate securities. In theory, these funds should be less vulnerable to rising interest rates than traditional bond funds. And, in fact, bank loan funds, which have seen net estimated inflows of $5 billion this year, have gained an average 1.32% so far this year.
Whatever the reason, the outflows from junk bond funds don't show typical investor behavior.
"They could be taking chips off the table," Mr. Lauricella said. "Or they could be nervous about the overall macro environment. But they're not just turning tail after losing a lot of money."