Reports

What are the best Australian Bond ETFs?

We’ll show you why and what we look out for when selecting a bond ETF.

There seems to be an important investment asset that many Australians have forgotten. This particular asset has proven time and time again to have great diversification benefits and provide steady, reliable income.

What asset is this you may ask?

The name is Bond…Fixed Income Bonds, and much like 007’s martini cocktails, when markets are “shaken, not stirred”, bonds can be a valuable part of your portfolio.

In this article we’ll show you why and what we look out for when selecting a bond ETF.

What is a bond?

A bond (also known as fixed income) is a loan made by investors to a company or government. Bondholders lend money to the bond issuer for an agreed period (until maturity) and in return for that, they are paid a regular income in the form of interest.

At the end of the agreed period investors also receive their principal back. Historically Australian investors have preferred to invest in the share market, so bonds haven’t made it into most people’s portfolios.

According to SuperConcepts, self managed super funds (SMSFs) only have 12% of their portfolio in Bonds. This is incredibly low given the need for defensive income for those in drawdown and retirement phase, and a cushion to share market falls.

Bonds are considered by many to be boring, but at Stockspot, we believe that boring is brilliant!

Source: SuperConcepts Investment Pattern Trends September 2018.

Until recently it has been difficult for everyday investors to access bonds due to high minimum investment amounts, lack of diversification and costs. However, with the rise of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), investors now have a solution to easily access bonds and make them a part of their portfolios.

The growth of bond ETFs

Bond ETFs have started to enjoy strong growth over the last 5 years, growing at a rate of 56% per year to ~$11.4b and now make up 10% of the overall ETF market.

We believe this will continue to rise as ETF issuers release more bond ETFs, and investors demand more defensive assets to smooth out the returns from investing in shares.

Over the past 30 years, it is clear that when shares fall, high grade bonds do their job as a portfolio cushion and rise. Australian bonds were one of the few asset classes with a positive return in 2018 when share markets fell. Bonds were also the ballast that helped cushion the fall during the COVID-19 share market fall.

Whilst the actors playing James Bond may change overtime (Connery, Moore, Brosnan and Craig), bonds are resilient when share markets fall which has happened 6 times since 1990.

Source: Stockspot, Vanguard.

Bond ETFs offer a few key advantages over buying individual bonds:

  • Diversification – Bond ETFs hold a basket of bonds which improves overall portfolio diversification and reduces the chance of you lending a large amount to a dud company.

  • Transparent pricing – Bond ETFs are tradeable on the ASX whereas most individual bonds trade in more complex markets with pricing that is not very transparent and there are higher costs to getting in and out.

  • Performance – Bond ETFs track time-tested indexes, which continually do better than active bond fund managers. The 2020 SPIVA Report showed that 83% of active Australian Bond managers underperformed the index benchmark over 15 years.

  • Yield – believe it or not, dividends are not the only form of income you can get. Bonds can provide regular, consistent and predictable income, with less volatility than shares.

For more information about the basic of bonds as an asset class and the benefits they can provide, see our blog on Why Bonds Belong in Your Portfolio.

Bond ETF Road Test

Each year we compare all 200+ ETFs in our Australian ETF Report. Here we road test 4 Australian Bond ETFs:

  • iShares Core Composite Bond ETF (IAF)

  • SPDR S&P/ASX Australian Bond Fund (BOND)

  • Vanguard Australian Fixed Interest Index ETF (VAF)

  • BetaShares Australian Government Bond ETF (AGVT)


We compare them across 5 factors:

Size

IAF and VAF are the 2 largest Australian Bond ETFs managing $1.8b and $1.5b respectively. AGVT has accumulated $181m since it launched in July 2019. BOND has struggled to gain traction despite being listed at a similar time to its peer group. This is likely due to a number of factors including BOND having higher costs, lower liquidity, less diversification (only holding ~120 bonds), and it tracks a less widely known benchmark.

Costs

When it comes to cost, the headline management fee (known as the Management Expense Ratio [MER]) is not the only thing investors should pay attention to.

Unfortunately, some ETF and Fund Managers bury all hidden costs in their Product Disclosure Statements. Think very tiny writing and lots of pages.

This is why it is important to consider the Indirect Cost Ratio (ICR), which incorporates all necessary transactional and operational costs to run the fund.

We also like to examine the slippage (buy/sell spreads) of each of the ETFs. This refers to how much you lose when buying/selling the ETF.

It is calculated as the average percentage difference between the best buyer and seller during market hours.

ASX CodeCost (Indirect Cost Ratio)Buy/Sell Spreads (aka slippage)
IAF0.15%0.04%
BOND0.24%0.13%
VAF0.20%0.07%
AGVT0.22%0.13%
Source: ASX Fund Statistics June 2021

IAF has the tightest spreads at 0.04% followed narrowly by VAF with 0.07%. The slippage on BOND and AGVT is 3 times their peers given the increased concentrated holdings.  Note: Bond ETFs during the COVID-19 crisis had their spreads widen from the market volatility. Importantly, it is not due to the ETF but due to the illiquid pricing nature of the underlying bonds themselves. 

Blackrock recently reduced fees the iShares Core Composite Bond ETF (ASX: IAF) from 0.20% to 0.15% in April 2020, and is now the cheapest Australian bond ETF on the ASX. BOND is on the more expensive side charging 0.24% per year and incurring triple the slippage of IAF and VAF.

Liquidity

ETFs have 2 layers of liquidity – the liquidity of the ETF, and the liquidity of the underlying bonds within that ETF.

One measure of liquidity is measured by the average daily volume on the ASX. Volume is a measure of market making activity and trading interest which makes it a reasonable estimate of liquidity. IAF has the highest level of liquidity with an average trading volume of $5.3m, while VAF has ample liquidity at $3.3m per day. Both BOND and AGVT have tiny volumes traded relative to to IAF and VAF.

Greater trading volumes make it easier to buy and sell an ETF and reduces the spread/slippage involved.

Performance track record

ASX Code1 Year Total Return3 Year Total Return (p.a.)5 Year Total Return (p.a.)
IAF-1.0%4.0%3.0%
BOND-1.3%4.2%3.0%
VAF-1.0%4.0%3.0%
AGVT-1.9%N/AN/A
Source: ETF Providers as of June 2021. AGVT does not have a 3 and 5-year track record.

IAF, BOND and VAF have generated similar returns over the past 1,3 and 5 year periods. This is because they track a similar underlying portfolio of bonds. AGVT only has a one year track record given it’s infancy and has underperformed due to it’s longer duration of bond holdings.

Given the performance of the funds are likely to be similar, we place a greater importance on other factors when assessing these ETFs.

The longer a track record of an ETF and the index it mirrors, the better understanding you have of how an index reacts to different market conditions as well as how closely the ETF is tracking its index.

Also important is the ‘tracking difference’ which measures how well an ETF does at mirroring its index.

ASX CodeIndexIndex History (Inception Date)ETF History (Inception Date)
IAFBloomberg AusBond Composite 0+Yr IndexSeptember 1989*March 2012
BONDS&P/ASX Australian Fixed Interest IndexOctober 2011July 2012
VAFBloomberg AusBond Composite 0+Yr IndexSeptember 1989*October 2012
AGVTSolactive Australian Government 7 – 12 Year AUD TR IndexDecember 2007July 2019
*Bloomberg acquired UBS Australia’s Bond Indexes in April 2014, and subsequently rebranded. The original UBS index was created in September 1989.

ASX CODE5 YEAR ETF PERFORMANCE (P.A.)5 YEAR INDEX PERFORMANCE (P.A.)TRACKING DIFFERENCE
IAF3.01%3.19%-0.18%
BOND4.21%4.47%-0.26%
VAF3.01%3.19%-0.17%
AGVTN/A3.85%N/A

IAF has the longest track record (albeit marginally), having been listed for over 7 years, and tracks the widely used Bloomberg AusBond Composite Index. It’s had strong performance since inception and also had low tracking error to its underlying index.

Other factors

We look at a few other factors when selecting a bond ETF:

  • Duration – A measure of how sensitive a bond is to changes in interest rates. Bond prices and interest rates have an inverse relationship (i.e. when interest rates go up, bond prices fall).
  • Credit Quality – this is a measure of how likely a bond is to default (not pay its investors back). The scale ranges from the highest quality (AAA) to the lowest (D), with a rating of BBB- considered to be “non-investment grade” and is more risky. For example, Australia has a rating of AAA whereas a country like Mozambique is rated D. The lower the credit quality, the higher the risk of defaulting. Bonds with worse credit quality tend to pay a higher interest rate to compensate investors for taking more risk.
  • Yield to Maturity – The rate of return an investor can expect if they hold the bonds until their maturity date. This does not factor in the price return, only the income return (known as coupon payments).

Bonds with shorter durations and better credit qualities provide a better diversification cushion when share markets fall. Poorer credit quality bonds can give you a higher yield but have a more similar correlation to shares so aren’t as helpful as a portfolio diversifier.

ASX CodeDurationYield to Maturity
IAF6.01.1%
BOND6.51.1%
VAF6.01.1%
AGVT8.01.5%
Source: ETF Providers as of June 2021

Stockspot’s verdict

James Bond chooses the Aston Martin as his choice of wheels. Stockspot adopts the same high quality approach when selecting a bond ETF. We’ve selected IAF for the Stockspot portfolios due to its size, liquidity, track record, high credit quality and relatively short duration.

It is an effective diversifier for the Stockspot portfolios due to its ability to cushion against share market volatility. Thanks to owning IAF and GOLD, all of the Stockspot portfolios had a positive return over the last year despite the share market downfall as a result of the coronavirus

We also offer international bonds using the Vanguard International Fixed Interest Index (Hedged) ETF (ASX: VIF) as part of our Stockspot Themes range. VIF invests in a diversified range of high credit quality and income generating bonds issued by governments around the world (such as the USA, Japan, France and the UK). Other bond themes that Stockspot offers include the Vanguard Australian Corporate Fixed Interest Index ETF (ASX: VACF) and iShares Government Inflation ETF (ASX: ILB). 


Investment Manager

Marc has previously worked for Morgan Stanley, AMP and KPMG. He holds a Bachelor of Business (Finance/Accounting) from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and has completed his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Level 1.

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