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Core Bond Funds Leading the Way in 2020

While many fixed-income funds wobbled in this year's sell-off, these three Morningstar Medalists performed as expected.

Editor's note: Read the latest on how the coronavirus is rattling the markets and what investors can do to navigate it.

There haven't been too many bright spots in 2020 because many parts of the fixed-income market were challenged right along with equities in the late-February to late-March sell-off. With volatility roiling the markets, safe-haven assets like U.S. Treasuries are having one of their best years on record as investor demand has pushed yields down to all-time lows. Along with U.S. Treasury-focused funds, intermediate core bond strategies have been clear winners compared with riskier fare so far this year.

As markets tanked between Feb. 20 and March 23, the typical strategy in the intermediate core bond Morningstar Category declined by 3.1% and lagged the commonly used Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index by just over 2 percentage points. These modest losses, while unpleasant, were less severe relative to risky sectors like high-yield bonds and equities. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield and S&P 500 indexes fell by 21.2% and 33.8%, respectively, over that short period. The Federal Reserve took bold action to provide liquidity and stabilize the U.S. economy, which led to a swift snapback for risk assets. Still, the high-yield index and the S&P 500 remained under water for the year to date through May 20 (both are down by roughly 7%), whereas the typical intermediate core bond strategy rebounded to positive territory with a 4.3% gain.

Intermediate core bond strategies provided ballast during other broad-based market downturns such as the global financial crisis and 2011's eurozone debt crisis, thanks to their focus on high-quality bonds, which typically include a healthy dose of U.S. Treasuries. Investors looking for a core bond allocation should consider the following strategies, which suffered some in the sell-off but are all strong long-term choices.

TCW Core Fixed Income TGCFX, which has a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Silver, has been among the most resilient strategies within the category. Its seasoned team employs a valuation-driven philosophy that is heavily focused on security selection within securitized debt and corporate bonds while gradually reducing risk throughout the credit cycle. This philosophy contributed to the team's decision to tweak its positioning in recent years as credit spreads tightened, which gave it a higher-credit-quality tilt than most peers coming into 2020, with 60% of assets in agency mortgage-backed securities and U.S. Treasuries at the end of February 2020. This action helped the strategy stave off deeper losses--its institutional share class slid by 1.9%--and hold up better than nearly two thirds of its category peers as markets tanked. The strategy has a good track record of holding up well in a variety of tough markets thanks to the managers' smart positioning, including during the last quarter of 2018 as credit spreads widened and during the taper tantrum in 2013 when yields spiked. The strategy's institutional share class' record from January 2010 through May 20, 2020, was impressive: It gained 4.6% annualized and topped just over 80% of peers, as well as the Aggregate Index by 50 basis points.

The experienced team behind Gold-rated Baird Aggregate Bond BAGIX takes a measured approach to portfolio construction and risk management. It emphasizes diversification across sectors, typically maintaining some exposure to all components of the Aggregate Index, though it has maintained persistent overweightings in corporate and securitized bonds while downplaying U.S. Treasuries. As a result, this strategy struggled a bit more in March when investment-grade corporates sold off, but the team's generally cautious approach still helped it perform in line with its typical peer. From the market's Feb. 20 peak through its March 23 trough, the institutional share class lost 3.6%, but it has since recovered quicker than almost 70% of peers through May 20, owing to its modest overweighting in investment-grade corporates. The strategy's risk-aware approach has kept it from major missteps over its long life, and the disciplined approach has contributed to its institutional share class' 4.7% annualized gain over the trailing 15 years ended May 20, 2020--topping nearly 80% of peers and the Aggregate Index in the process.

Compared with the Aggregate Index, Gold-rated Western Asset Core Bond's WATFX portfolio almost always exhibits some spread bias through an overweighting in investment-grade bonds and structured credit, as well as some out-of-benchmark issues like nonagency residential mortgages and emerging-markets debt. (It is often near the 5% maximum allowance of below-investment-grade debt allowed in this category.) This has contributed to the portfolio's consistent, modest yield advantage over its typical category peer. The managers here had also favored a longer duration profile than most peers in recent years; however, they reduced the portfolio's duration in early 2020, which ultimately neared its benchmark's 5.5-year stance by the end of the quarter. The fund's lower duration and exposure to corporates and small allocations to emerging-markets debt and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities contributed to its painful 6% decline between the market's recent peak and trough. The team took advantage of this significant spread-widening by modestly adding to its investment-grade corporates stake, and from the March 23 bottom through May 20, its 9.6% gain was among the top results in the category. Tactical moves like this have paid off over the long term. Despite this rough patch, the strategy's 5% annualized gain over the trailing 15-year period ended May 20, 2020, topped 90% of peers and the bogy.

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