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Fixed-Income Insights

Leah Traub, emerging markets specialist, discusses the philosophy and methodology that guide portfolio construction in the Lord Abbett Emerging Markets Local Bond Fund.

Q. What is the attraction of emerging markets for investors?
A. As an investment opportunity, the emerging markets asset class is far from homogeneous. Individual nations and issuers can have dramatically different growth prospects and risk outlooks. Nonetheless, there have been some positive trends in recent years, which are attracting investors. Unlike developed nations where growth has been stagnant since the financial crisis of 2008–09, most emerging markets [EMs] recovered relatively quickly with growth trends intact, thanks to the implementation of sounder macroeconomic policies and better debt-management practices beginning in 2000. Today, the creditworthiness of many EMs has improved. The emerging markets universe is experiencing more upgrades than downgrades, in sharp contrast to developed nations, where public and private indebtedness remains a burden.

Due to the stronger growth potential and large foreign exchange reserves of many EMs, their influence in the global economy is growing. But, even though individual countries may be in a stronger position than in the past to weather adverse risk perceptions and/or events, global factors can still influence risk sentiment in this market overall. Participation in these markets, therefore, requires careful analysis of economic, political, and currency risks. For most investors, active management of both risk factors and opportunities by investment professionals experienced in these markets is highly advisable.

Q. Does the Emerging Markets Local Bond Fund focus only on government-issued bonds?
A. The primary focus of the strategy is to seek investment opportunity in local currency debt issued by governments and government agencies. In the emerging markets space today, most of the local currency debt that is accessible to foreign investors is sovereign. The Fund's prospectus does give us other options, such as local currency corporate bonds, which the Fund may pursue at some point in the future. But today, investment restrictions mean corporate local currency debt is mostly available to domestic investors only. So, although EM corporate local currency bonds could play a secondary role in the Fund's portfolio (approximately 10–15%) at the outset, such bonds are not expected to play a very big role because of current investment restrictions imposed by EMs. It would not be unreasonable, however, to expect the corporate bond market to evolve, as the sovereign bond market has, toward the issuance of local debt available for foreign investors. As that happens, the Fund will take advantage of attractive relative value opportunities in local currency corporate bonds, in addition to sovereign bonds.

Q. What financial instruments does the Fund use in the construction of the portfolio?
A. The primary instruments are government debt securities, nominal bonds, real inflation-linked bonds, and corporate debt securities, where they are available. In terms of derivatives, we can use interest-rate swaps, cross-currency swaps [which are interest-rate swaps with a currency component in them], and some currency forwards, as we use in the Emerging Markets Currency Fund. Currency forwards would be used in those cases where we want currency exposure [which the currency forward would provide] without taking on duration risk.

Which financial instruments we use, and when, depends on a lot of factors. For example, if we're really worried about something happening at the long end of the yield curve,1 such as inflation, we will want to be positioned at the short end or just take on the currency exposure directly via forwards instead of assuming duration risk. Also, in some markets, the swap markets are more liquid than the bond markets, so there may be a liquidity advantage to being in the swap market versus the bond market. It may also be an accessibility issue. Sometimes it's easier to purchase a swap because the swaps are traded in the United States, whereas most local currency bonds are traded in the local market. If we can't get the exact bond that we want when we want it, we might be able to purchase a swap and get the duration exposure that we want while we're waiting to build up a bond position.

Q. Which benchmark does the Fund use?
A. The Fund is benchmarked against the J.P. Morgan Global Bond Index—Emerging Markets Global Diversified [or GBI-EM Global Diversified Index], which comprises the government-issued local currency bonds of 16 countries [Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Hungary, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey]. For local currency bonds to be included in this index, they must be government issued and regularly traded and have a fixed rate, and international investors should be able to readily access them. Notable exclusions from the index are China and India because, although government local currency bonds are available in both countries, local capital controls make it difficult for foreign investors to participate in these markets.

The GBI-EM Global Diversified Index is unusual in that it places a 10% cap on the weight each nation has in the index to increase diversification and lower potential risk. If not capped, for example, Brazil might account for as much as 25% of the index. While the portfolio may deviate modestly from this restriction, it will not allow any one country to dominate from a weight or risk perspective.

Q. Is the Fund restricted to investments in EMs listed in the index?
A. The GBI-EM Global Diversified Index does not include some countries that we would consider as emerging, such as Israel and the Czech Republic, which are already included in some emerging markets currency and equity indexes. We want to have the maximum flexibility in terms of investment choices. Accordingly, the Fund considers EMs to include every nation in the world except the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and most countries located in Western Europe.

Q. Why does the prospectus describe the Emerging Markets Local Bond Fund as "non-diversified"?
A. Under the Investment Company Act of 1940, all mutual funds must be classified as either diversified or non-diversified. A mutual fund that is classified as diversified must meet certain diversification criteria that generally limit the amount of securities that the fund can hold that are issued by any single issuer. In the context of sovereign debt, securities issued by an emerging market sovereign government generally will be deemed to be issued by the same issuer. Based on the Fund’s investment strategy of investing primarily in sovereign debt, the Fund is classified as non-diversified, which generally will permit the Fund to hold securities of any single issuer in greater amounts than would be the case if the Fund were classified or diversified. At the same time, in order to enjoy favorable tax treatment available to mutual funds under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, the Fund must meet the diversification requirements of that code, although these are less restrictive than the requirements under the Investment Company Act.

In addition, the benchmark criteria are such that there aren't enough countries that yet qualify for inclusion to offer broader diversification—hence the 10% cap weights. At this point, seven of the 16 countries in the GBI-EM Global Diversified Index have reached their 10% weight. That means that seven countries currently account for 70% of the index. The Emerging Markets Local Bond Fund will be more diversified than the index. We will consider countries outside the index, and we will selectively underweight or overweight the benchmark. For example, we may have a higher weight in Chile or Philippines than the index does (the index weight is less than 1% in each of these countries), which would mean a lower weight for other countries in our portfolio.

Q. What is the duration2 of the Fund's portfolio?
A. The portfolio is expected to have a duration similar to that of the Fund's benchmark, which averages around five years. Over time, we expect that duration to lengthen as emerging markets fundamentals continue to strengthen and investor confidence in these markets improves. EMs have a long and unfortunate history of inflation, and, despite monetary reforms, investors remain cautious. Some EMs have been able to issue only two-year to four-year bonds, while others have been able to lengthen maturities. Turkey, for example, issued a 10-year bond for the first time in 2010. So, as EM economies, and investor confidence in them, develop further, we can expect the benchmark duration to lengthen, and we will follow that.

Q. Describe the investment philosophy of the Fund.
A. Because factors and events in the global economy have had a significant impact historically on emerging market economies and asset valuation, we begin our analysis of EM investment opportunities at the global macroeconomic level. We look for themes and trends from that global perspective and then identify those countries that can benefit from those trends. For example, the United States is currently [as of June 2013] on a better growth trajectory than the developed nations of Europe. That means that emerging markets whose economies are tied to the U.S. economy, such as Mexico, are likely to experience stronger growth than emerging markets whose economic fortunes are more closely connected to developed Europe, such as Hungary or Poland.

Our fundamental research continues with a comparative analysis of the emerging markets, where we're looking at a number of factors. We want to determine which of the emerging markets are most likely to attract more investment flows, whether in terms of foreign trade, foreign direct investment, or debt, equity, or currency purchases. We consider the outlook for interest rates in light of the growth and inflation trajectory. Higher interest rates that are justified by the economic environment typically attract investment, so we look at changes in the interest-rate differential between one country and another as one sign that investment flows are likely to increase in one rather than in another. We also consider the relative accessibility of investment opportunity for foreign investors: whether Country A is more open to foreign investment than Country B; whether its financial infrastructure is sufficiently developed; and whether its terms of trade are favorable. Each country's political environment is important as well because government policies affect economic growth, the climate for investment, and credit rating.

Once we've identified the individual countries that are of interest, we examine the investment opportunities within their fixed-income markets and search for the best relative value among those opportunities. And finally, we add one more layer of analysis. We look at what the market for a particular bond is telling us. Perhaps the opportunity is already priced into the bond and we need to look elsewhere. In effect, we calibrate what we think versus what's being played out in the market.

Q. Does the Fund employ a sell discipline?
A. Yes, but it's not a hard and fast rule. We don't decide to exit a trade if a move of, say, 2% occurs. A 2% move in a bond issued in a volatile currency may be normal, while in another bond, a 2% move may be extraordinary. We use measures of volatility to determine whether a given move is normal or extraordinary; evidence of the latter may indicate that we should exit out of the position.

As with any investment strategy, in addition to raising cash to satisfy redemptions, there are three primary investment reasons to get out of a position: (1) to take profits; (2) to reduce losses; or (3) to put the assets to work elsewhere. We sell when we've made some money, the market has reached our level of conviction on a position, and we believe there are fewer gains to be had. We sell when our investment thesis isn’t there anymore. For example, we may have extended duration on the expectation that a central bank would be easing rates; but the bank increased them instead. And we sell when the potential for better relative performance appears in another market.

Q. What are the risks to consider?
A. New fund risk: The Fund is newly organized. There can be no assurance that the Fund will reach or maintain a sufficient asset size to effectively implement its investment strategy. The Fund is subject to the general risks and considerations associated with investing in debt securities, including the risk that issuers will fail to make timely payments of principal or interest. Emerging market/foreign investment risk: The Fund is subject to risks associated with its investments in emerging market securities. Foreign investments generally pose greater risks than domestic investments. The securities markets of emerging countries tend to be less liquid, to be especially subject to greater price volatility, to have a smaller market capitalization, and to have less government regulation. Investing in foreign-denominated and/or -domiciled securities may involve heightened risk due to currency fluctuations, and economic and political risks, which may be enhanced in emerging markets. Fixed-income securities risk: Investing in the bond market is subject to certain risks, including market, interest-rate, issuer, credit, call, and inflation risk; investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. Sovereign securities: Bonds issued or guaranteed by foreign governments and governmental entities (commonly referred to as "sovereign debt") present risks not associated with investments in other types of bonds. The sovereign government or governmental entity issuing or guaranteeing the debt may be unable or unwilling to make interest payments and/or repay the principal owed. Derivatives may involve certain costs and risks such as liquidity, market, and counterparty risks, and the risk that a position could not be closed when most advantageous. Investing in derivatives could cause the Fund to lose more than the amount invested. High-yield, lower-rated securities involve greater risk of credit, price volatility, illiquidity, and default than higher-rated securities. The Fund is non-diversified, which means that it may invest its assets in a smaller number of issuers than a diversified fund.

 


1 The yield curve shows the relation between the (level of) interest rate (or cost of borrowing) and the time to maturity of the debt for a given borrower in a given currency. (Source: Department of the Treasury.)
2 Duration is a measure of the sensitivity of the price (the value of principal) of a fixed-income investment to a change in interest rates. Duration is expressed as a number of years. (Source: Department of the Treasury.)

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The goal of this Fund is current income and long-term growth of capital through investing primarily in emerging market debt securities and other instruments denominated in local currencies.

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