Pension schemes facing bond over-concentration risk amid market downgrades

UK pension schemes could face increasing over-concentration risks in their corporate bond holdings following the downgrade of Électricité de France (EDF), AXA Investment Managers (AXA IM) senior credit portfolio manager, Rob Price, has warned.

Credit rating agency Fitch recently downgraded EDF to BBB+ on 17 January, meaning that it was removed from high-quality AAA-A rated indices on the 31 January, which Price noted made forced sellers of those investors who track these indices passively.

“Many of these will be UK DB and DC pension schemes, who remain reliant on such higher quality, 10+ year and 15+ year A-AAA indices to meet their needs for stable, long term, income-generating assets,” he explained.

“Schemes investing via passive products will be compelled to re-invest the circa 6 per cent weighting of EDF back into the index, finding themselves with increasing over-exposure to both sector and issuer risk.

“Following the EDF downgrade and subsequent removal from the indices, the 10yr+ AAA-A index has over 50 per cent exposure to just two sectors - real estate (largely housing associations) and quasi-sovereigns (which offer limited spread). Almost 20 per cent of the index has also been left represented by the top four names.”

Indeed, Price noted that EDF’s downgrade follows numerous high-profile examples in 2020, with names such as Heathrow, HSBC and National Grid also removed, suggesting that this has created increasing issues in regards to diversification and over-concentration within these high quality long-duration indices.

According to Price, this saw index-tracking investors unable to efficiently transact credit that had suffered rating downgrades in April and May 2020, leading them to lobby fixed income index providers to waive the usual month-end index-rebalancing rules.

In addition to concerns around pension schemes’ exposure to over-concentration risks, Price suggested that passive investors will also be forced sellers of the EDF bonds at the exact time that they have fallen in price.

He warned that whilst selling bonds as they drop out of the maturity bucket of an index is never ideal for investors, selling bonds due to downgrades is a cause "for even more concern".

He explained: “Following news of the downgrade, spread levels on the 2037 maturity EDF bond (one of five EDF bonds within the 10yr+ index) widened c.40bps between 13 and 18 January.

“This accounts to a performance in the region of -6 per cent for investors in this bond. For longer dated EDF bonds – such as the 2114 maturity – the impact on performance will be significantly higher.

“Alongside this negative performance investors will also have to contend with the negative impact of trading costs when both selling EDF and re-investing this exposure back into the index.

“For pension fund investors, this means that they will have paid to exit their EDF positions at an inopportune time and paid to re-invest in a more concentrated index.”

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