The yields on U.S. Treasuries have been at or near record lows for years, thanks to the Federal Reserve's decision to keep interest rates around zero since 2008. Yield-starved investors have been forced to look elsewhere for performance, including the junk bond/high-yield bond space, where yields are often three or four times higher than Treasury yields.
Interest rates won't stay low forever, and there is widespread speculation that a rate increase could arrive in December 2015 or early 2016. This could be bad news for high-yield exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds, since investors could find more attractive returns with safer investments.
The attractive aspect of junk bond ETFs is their liquidity and diversification, which individual bonds don't offer. However, junk bond mutual funds tend to be even more diversified, and funds of all stripes can be very volatile (they are still equities, after all).
Many of the exciting ETFs in the high-yield segment are very young and illiquid – and should probably be complemented with limit orders – though some larger and more established funds are worth considering. Each of the following ETFs was selected with the expectation of rising interest rates in 2016.
SPDR Barclays Short Term High Yield Bond ETF
Issuer: State Street Global Advisors
Assets under management (AUM): $3.26 billion
2015 year to date (YTD) performance: -3.81%
State Street's SPDR Barclays Short Term High Yield Bond ETF (NYSEARCA: SJNK) follows the Barclays U.S. High Yield $350 million Cash Pay 0-5 Year 2% Cap Index, which focuses on short-term U.S. corporate debts with high yields. The 40 basis point (bp) expense ratio is very low for a high-yield bond ETF. SNJK possesses an incredible 1 R-squared, meaning that it essentially tracks perfectly. SJNK is very efficient and well-run.
The yield and yield to maturity (YTM) for SJNK are even stronger than the benchmark's, the latter coming in at a very strong 8.14% as of November 2015. It's set up nicely for a climb out of the zero bound since the weighted average maturity for SJNK's 550+ bonds is just 3.24 years.
Twenty percent of the SJNK portfolio is foreign bonds, mostly concentrated in Northern Europe, although everything is denominated in U.S. dollars. The sector breakdown is overwhelmingly industrial at 81% and financial at 15%. The average credit rating is a solid B, making it right in line with the segment.
IShares 0-5 Year High Yield Corporate Bond ETF
Issuer: BlackRock iShares
AUM: $952.62 million
2015 YTD performance: -2.88%
The yield on the iShares 0-5 Year High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (NYSEARCA: SHYG) trails the yield for SJNK, but SHYG performed better in 2015 and had lower expenses. This ETF tracks the Markit iBoxx USD Liquid High Yield 0-5 Index, which has higher portfolio caps but is otherwise very similar to SJNK's index.
This may be a better play for longer-term, cost-conscious investors who want to stay in the junk bond ETF pool. Otherwise, the funds are very similar in terms of sector exposure, duration, maturity and future prospects.
IShares International High Yield Bond ETF
Issuer: BlackRock iShares
AUM: $145.44 million
2015 YTD performance: -7.40%
Investors afraid of staying in U.S. dollar-denominated high-yield debt might consider the iShares International High Yield Bond ETF (NYSEARCA: HYXU) from BlackRock. HYXU tracks the Markit iBoxx Global Developed Markets ex-U.S. High Yield Index, so it's really a developed markets ETF with a heavy emphasis on the European Union.
This is not a trader's fund; the volume frequently struggles to reach $500,000, and average spreads can exceed 1%. Still, the eurozone is not likely to see rate hikes as early as the United States, so HYXU could prove more attractive if notable U.S. dollar-denominated funds like the iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF experience flight.
BlackRock also introduced the iShares Currency Hedged Global ex USD High Yield Bond ETF in July 2015, which actively holds HYXU and writes forward contracts to hedge currency risk. For HYXU shareholders, this is fund worth watching into late 2016 and 2017.
ProShares High Yield - Interest Rate Hedged ETF
AUM: $104.53 million
2015 YTD performance: -6.55%
ETF providers are ramping up for a rising-rate environment by offering new funds that minimize interest rate risk. One of the latest and most innovative is the ProShares High Yield - Interest Rate Hedged fund (NYSEARCA: HYHG), which goes long on Canadian and U.S. debt issuers and shorts two-, five- and 10-year Treasuries. The idea is to duration-match long and short credit exposure to cancel out any face value movements resulting from fluctuating rates.
The high-yield bonds in the portfolio rarely fall beneath B ratings, and all issuers are capped at 2% of total assets. As of November 2015, HYHG owned just shy of 150 individual bonds, not counting shorted interests.
HYHG is young and untested, but it theoretically holds up better than other junk bond securities. This ETF has some troubling attributes – barely $100 million in AUM, a 50 bp expense ratio – but it's an intriguing play in a high-risk part of the market.
Guggenheim BulletShares 2016 High Yield Corporate Bond ETF
AUM: $703.89 million
2015 YTD performance: 3.4%
Yield to maturity is listed instead of standard yield for the Guggenheim BulletShares 2016 High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (NYSEARCA: BSJG) because of the fund's unique structure.
BulletShares ETFs have an effective maturity date; for BSJG, it is Dec. 31, 2016. On that date, the fund will dissolve and return all capital to its shareholders, just like a standard bond reaching maturity. This structure doesn't naturally lend itself to high trading volume, as most shareholders intend to use BSJG like an income instrument.
As with any maturing security, the yield for BSJG should decline over time. This is ideal in a rising rate environment, since the shareholder could ostensibly use the returned capital to purchase another higher-yielding security. Think of BSJG as the earliest rung in a bond ladder strategy.
BSJG charges 44 bps for the service, but that's virtually inconsequential with such a short investment window. At $700 million in base assets and a hold mentality among shareholders, there is no real risk of closure, either. For creative income investors looking for decent yield on a short-term instrument, this ETF makes a lot of sense.