Should I add more Bonds?

Should I Add More Bonds?

Yields have risen on bonds this year and for many investors it may now make sense to increase their bond exposure. Eleven months ago, I wrote how bond yields had actually crossed above the expected return for stocks. At that time, we could find A-rated bonds with a 6 percent yield. And that compared favorably to the 5.7% expected return of stocks, as projected by Vanguard over the subsequent 10-years ahead.

This past month, we bought some new 10-year government agency bonds with a 7% yield. Now it looks even better to be adding bonds and maybe even reducing some of your stock market exposure. Last November, the Vanguard Capital Markets Model suggested a 5.7% expected return for US stocks over the next 10 years. As of mid-year 2023, they have reduced that to 4.7%.

Even though stock predictions are usually very inaccurate, I do think it is worthwhile to look at these projections. While the historical returns of US stocks may have been 9-10% over the long haul, returns can be above or below average for an extended period. There have been many 10 year periods which have done better or worse than the “average”. There are many factors which can help us estimate returns, including starting equity valuations (such as the Price/Earnings ratio), corporate earnings growth, or productivity gains. It should not come as a surprise that when stocks are expensive (like in 2000), the following 10 years are below average. Or when stocks are beaten down and cheap (like in 2009), the next 10 years are often above average in return.

Portfolio Models

We manage a series of investment portfolios for our clients with an approximate benchmark blend of stocks and bonds. Our Premiere Wealth Management Portfolio Models include:

  • Ultra Equity (100% stocks / 0% bonds)
  • Aggressive (85/15)
  • Growth (70/30)
  • Moderate (60/40)
  • Balanced (50/50)
  • Conservative (35/65)

In the 4th quarter of each year, we analyze our portfolio models and make tactical adjustments based on where we perceive relative value. We overweight the segments or categories which have better expected returns and we reduce the categories which have a lower expected return. In addition to our Core holdings of Index Funds and investment grade bonds, we consider satellite investments in alternative categories.

But this year is different. We are now looking at bond yields that are above the expected return of US stocks. I think it may make sense for a lot of my clients to consider a healthy increase in their bond holdings. For the last 15 years, since the 2008 global financial crisis, bond yields have been absurdly low. Today, we have a chance to lock-in longer yields at a time when the stock market looks potentially mediocre for the next several years of returns.

I have thought for a long time about how to increase bond holdings. If we move a 60/40 portfolio from 40% to 50% bonds, we probably shouldn’t still call it a 60/40 model. So, instead of making large changes on the model level, I will be discussing with each client if we now want to consider reallocating from the 60/40 to the 50/50 model, for example.

Pro / Con of Adding Bonds

The hope, by adding more bonds, is to reduce volatility and have a smoother, more consistent return each year. If the 4.7% expected return of stocks is correct, bonds could out-perform stocks and improve the return of the overall portfolio. For investors close to retirement, adding bonds could reduce the impact of a large drop in stocks, right before income was needed. And for retirees taking distributions, the now high income from bonds means we can better meet your need for cash flow versus selling shares of stocks.

Of course, there is no guarantee stocks will under-perform as projected. The 10 year projection from Vanguard is an annualized average – the stock market will undoubtedly have years with very different performance than the annual average. Investors with FOMO may be unhappy in bonds, even 7% coupons, if stocks are up 20% in one year. Young investors who are making monthly deposits may prefer dollar cost averaging and not worry as much about stock market fluctuations.

Understand Callable Bonds

Many of the Agency, Corporate, and Municipal bonds available today are “callable” bonds. That means that the issuer has the right to pay off the debt early. “Calls” happens when interest rates fall and the issuer can replace their 7% debt with a lower yield bond. It’s just like refinancing a mortgage to a lower rate.

We don’t necessarily have to hold a 10-year bond to maturity. Here is how past economic cycles worked: Eventually, the economy will slow and fall into recession. At some point, the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates and we often see both short and longer term interest rates drop. At that point, the issuer of the 7% bond may be able to refinance down to 6% or 5%. So, they will call their bonds early and redeem them at full value.

If we are in a recession, it’s also possible that the stock market could be down 20% or more in that period. And that may be a good time to rebalance – to take the proceeds from the called bond and invest it back into a stock market that is beaten up. That certainly worked well in March and April of 2020. If interest rates drop, we are likely to get called and might not be able to find another 7% bond. But that may be okay, if we are willing to rebalance the overall portfolio and buy other investments when they are on sale. And of course, regardless of when a bond is redeemed, we made 7% a year, since we bought these bonds at Par.

Reducing Call Risk

Why not just buy non-callable bonds? I would if they were more available and at the same yields. Most bonds today are callable, with the main exception being US Treasury bonds. But the yield on the 10-year Treasury is 4.7%, not 7%. So, I am willing to take some call risk for the extra 2% in return. Still, there are some things we are doing:

  • Buying discount bonds. Older bonds with a lower coupon often trade at a similar yield to maturity as new issue (and high coupon) bonds. These are less likely to be called. And if we buy a bond at 90 and they call it at 100, that is great.
  • Preferred Stocks are also now trading at sizable discounts, often 60-70 cents on the dollar. If we are comparing a bond from Wells Fargo versus their Preferred Stock, there may be advantages of the Preferred. While they may have similar current yields, the preferred has upside to its $25 price. The bonds, trading near Par, have no price appreciation potential.
  • Fixed annuities (multi-year guaranteed annuities or MYGAs) generally are not callable. And since there is no 1% management fee on the annuity, a 5.5% 5-year annuity may net the same return as a 6.5% 5-year corporate bond. Except the annuity is guaranteed, unlike a corporate bond. So, if you aren’t needing flexible liquidity, MYGAs can reduce your call risk and lock in today’s interest rates.

Your Bond Strategy

We’ve waited 15 years to have bonds with these juicy yields. I think now is not a time to be too defensive with a money market or short-term T-Bills. Those are fine for your immediate needs. But at some point in the future, rates could drop. The risk is that when today’s 5.5% T-Bills mature, the new T-Bills might only yield 3% or 2%. Then we will regret not locking in the longer duration yields available to us now at the end of 2023.

These last four years have been quite a roller coaster for investors. A huge crash in March of 2020, followed the fastest recovery of stocks ever. Then unprecedented inflation. A Bear Market in 2022 brought a 20% drop. A recovery in 2023 that was limited only to a handful of tech stocks. A lot of stock funds have little or almost no gains to show for all this commotion. Stocks have been disappointing.

Bonds today offer a higher yield than the 4.7% expected return of US stocks over the next decade. That’s quite a shift and investors should pay attention – yields will not stay at these levels forever! We are always cautious in making large changes, but would generally prefer bonds over stocks if they had the same return.

Stocks are supposed to have an Equity Risk Premium to compensate you for their added risk and volatility. Not today. Bonds offer lower volatility, a more predictable return of “yield to maturity”, and current income. For retirement planning, these are very desirable qualities that can improve the outcomes of our planning simulations both before and during retirement years. These are the reasons will are looking to add more bonds today.

Bonds and Interest Rates

Bonds and Interest Rates

How are Bonds and Interest Rates correlated? Bonds move inversely from Interest Rates. When rates rise, the price of bonds fall. This simple fact led to the downfall of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank this month. Banks invest your deposits in bonds and earn a spread on the difference between what they pay you and the bonds they buy. Banks are not vaults with piles of cash – they are bond investors. That is their business model.

In 2020, these banks bought long-term bonds with yields of 1-2 percent. Fast forward to 2023, and yields are now 4-5 percent on the same bonds, and some of those bonds are now trading at 90 cents on the dollar. A bank with $10 Billion in these bonds now has a paper loss of $1 Billion.

If they can hold to maturity, these bonds will return back to their full value. But if a large number of depositors all want their money out today, the banks have to sell their bonds for a huge loss. And if that loss is large enough, the bank becomes insolvent and doesn’t have enough assets to cover their deposits.

Bank Failures

When a bank fails, the FDIC steps in and seizes the bank. What is remarkable about these two bank failures in March is the size of the losses. These two banks represent $319 Billion in assets, which makes 2023 the second worst year ever for the FDIC, and it’s only March. In 2008, bank failures totaled $373 Billion in assets. So it is easy to see how bad things could get in 2023, if two bank failures in March almost reached the losses of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

These banks are collateral damage from rising interest rates, thanks to the Federal Reserve. The Fed held rates for too low for too long after the start of the pandemic, and helped create the accelerating inflation. Now they are raising rates to slow the economy.

While the Federal Reserve did set this in motion, the poor risk management at the Banks should bear the brunt of the blame. We have been talking for several years about reducing the duration of our bond holdings and lowering our interest rate risk. And I thought everyone else was doing the same, it seemed pretty obvious to me. But no, there were banks buying these long bonds which were just waiting to get crushed. When customers realized the size of bank losses, they pulled their deposits and there was a run on the bank. Could other banks follow? Maybe. If customers pull out their deposits en mass, it is possible.

I am not terribly concerned about this spreading to other banks, because the Fed has launched a new program. The Bank Term Funding Program will provide loans to banks so that they can hold on to their longer dated Treasury bonds and not have to sell for a loss. It will provide liquidity so that the banks can hold these bonds for longer. And like other government programs, I can see this program being expanded and made permanent.

It is remarkable to me how much of our news today has its roots in bonds and interest rates. The bank crisis, inflation, recession, unemployment, retirement programs, real estate and mortgages, etc. These are all linked. What should the individual investor do? Here are our thoughts:

FDIC Coverage

I would never have more than $250,000 at any bank and exceed the FDIC coverage limits. I heard about a corporate subsidiary that had tens of millions at SVB, which failed last month. Luckily, it looks like the FDIC has arranged for all of those large account holders of SVB to be made whole. But I would not just assume that FDIC coverage is now unlimited. Instead of exceeding FDIC limits:

  • You could use more than one bank and stay under FDIC limits.
  • We can buy brokerage CDs from multiple banks in your Ameritrade account. Each issuer will carry $250,000 of FDIC coverage. Today we have 6-month CDs at 5%. Investors are often surprised that I can show them much better yields from Chase or Wells Fargo than they can get at their local branch.
  • Ladder Treasury Bills. There are maturities every week. Treasury bonds are high quality and the most liquid market in the world.

Bond Strategies

Our core holdings for bonds consist of owning individual bonds laddered from 1-5 years. We buy investment grade bonds including Agency Bonds, Treasuries, Corporate, Municipal, and CDs. Today, the yield on Agency bonds is very competitive with Corporates. And CDs are yielding higher than Treasuries.

With today’s yields, I would avoid taking on significant credit risk. We are not buying any junk bonds, and have sold our Floating Rate bonds. In addition to rising interest rates, we are seeing liquidity problems in some areas of the bond market. It may become difficult or impossible for some low credit quality companies to refinance their debt in 2023 and 2024. It is probable that defaults will rise, another casualty of the Federal Reserve heading the economy towards a likely recession.

Inverted Yield Curve

While the Fed raised the Fed Funds rate 0.25% at their March meeting, the bond market moved the opposite direction. Over the past month, the 2-year Treasury has actually fallen from 4.89% on March 1, to as low as 3.76% on March 23rd. The bond market remains inverted, with the 2-year yields higher than the 10-year yields. This is a strong historical predictor of recession. The bond market is priced as if the Federal Reserve will begin cutting interest rates in 2023, which is not what Jerome Powell is saying at all. The Fed’s commentary shows that they anticipate raising rates to 5.10% (from the current 4.75-5.00%) by year end. The movement in the bond market is bearish for the economy and stocks.

So now there is the potential for the opposite movement of the bond see-saw. If rates do go down this year or next, bond prices will rise. If we enter a recession, investors will want to shift towards safety and the Fed will lower rates. This would be a good time to have longer duration bonds with higher credit quality. And so we have begun buying longer bonds, 7-15 years. And if nothing happens and we just hold these bonds, we have yields to maturity of 6%. That is also a good outcome, an alternative to stocks, which have a similar expected return today.

In spite of seeing losses in bonds in 2022, looking forward, bond returns look strong. Still, it is crucial to be mindful of the risks and to take steps to mitigate them. Here are some additional ways to improve safety in a bond portfolio:

Diversify Across Different Types of Bonds

It’s important to diversify across different types of bonds, such as corporate, municipal, and government bonds, as well as across different industries and sectors. This can help reduce the impact of any one bond issuer or industry experiencing difficulties.

Consider Active Bond Management

Active bond management can help adjust the portfolio to changing market conditions and credit risks. It may be worth considering investing in low-cost actively managed bond funds or working with an investment advisor who specializes in bond management.

Monitor Interest Rate Risks

Investors should keep a close eye on interest rate risks and how they may impact their bond portfolio. The longer the duration of the bond, the greater the impact of interest rate fluctuations. Investors may want to consider laddering their bonds to manage interest rate risks.

Use Credit Ratings as a Guide

Credit ratings can provide a guide to the creditworthiness of a bond issuer. Investors should be wary of bonds with lower credit ratings, as they may carry higher risks of default. However, it’s important to remember that credit ratings are not infallible and can sometimes be inaccurate.

In conclusion, while bonds can offer attractive yields and provide diversification to a high net worth investor’s portfolio, it’s important to be mindful of the risks and take steps to mitigate them. By diversifying across different types of bonds, actively managing the portfolio, monitoring interest rate risks, and using credit ratings as a guide, investors can help reduce their exposure to potential losses. Keeping cash in a bank may not be as safe as you might assume, especially if you exceed FDIC coverage. And why have cash earning next to nothing when you could be making 4-5% in short term CDs or Treasury Bills?

Within our strategic asset allocation models, we actually spend more time on managing our bond holdings than our stock holdings. Why? Because it’s that important, and it is an area where we believe we can add more value with our time. Interest Rates are in the news and there are a lot of risks today. Risk is often defined as a danger, but risk can also mean opportunity. We are seeing both dangers and opportunities in 2023, and you can bet there will continue to be a lot of headlines about Bonds and Interest Rates.

Callable Bonds versus Discount Bonds

Callable Bonds versus Discount Bonds

Bond yields are up this year and we are seeing newly issued bonds with 5 to 6 percent coupons. Which is better – to buy a new issue or an older one with lower coupon? Here is what we are looking at as we buy individual bonds.

Yield To Maturity

The return of a bond from the date of purchase to its maturity is its Yield to Maturity or YTM. We calculate YTM with three things: the bond’s interest payments, the price of the bond, and the number of years to maturity. While bonds are generally issued and redeemed at a Par value of $1000, they inevitably trade at a premium or a discount to Par.

The bonds of any issuer tend to have the roughly the same YTM, but the price can differ. For example, a newly issued 5-year bond could have a 6% coupon (interest payment) and a price of $1000. This bond has a YTM of 6%. But an older bond with 5-years remaining might have a 3% coupon. Today, that bond would likely trade for $872, and have the same 6% YTM. In the first one, the 6% coupon, all of your YTM is solely from the coupon. In the second bond, the 3% coupon, part of your return is coupon and part is from the price increasing from $872 to $1000 over five years.

I think most investors would prefer the first bond, the 6% coupon, and get the same steady income each year. They’d rather have the current income rather than the capital gains of the second bond. However, the annual return on both, held to maturity, is the same 6%.

Callable Bonds

Unfortunately, there is one problem. Most corporate and municipal bonds are callable. That means the issuer has the right to refinance their debt and buy back your bonds early, before the five years are up. So, if interest rates drop from today’s 6% to 4% two years from now, they can buy back your 6% coupon bonds at 1000. And now you have to replace those 6% bonds at a time when interest rates are only 4%. This is called Reinvestment Risk.

However, the discount bond (the 3% coupon) won’t get called in this scenario. The issuer will not refinance a debt that costs them 3% for the new rate of 4%. You hold it for the full five years and receive your expected YTM of 6%. It’s better to buy the discount bond with a 6% YTM than a 6% coupon bond at par because of the Call Risk of the 6% coupon.

I’m sharing this because clients may hear me talking about bonds at 6% but then see a bond listed as a 3% bond on their statement. No one really knows what interest rates will do over the next five years, but they will probably move around quite a bit, like they have over the last five years. And that Call Risk is a real problem for bonds with a high coupon. If you really want to lock in your return from a bond, you have to understand its call features.

Callable Bonds Don’t Appreciate

One other consideration – callable bonds don’t have the ability to appreciate much. If the issuer can redeem anytime for $1000, that bond is not ever going to trade at a significant premium. However, if interest rates fall, our discount bond (the 3% coupon) can increase in price in a hurry. It can move up from $872 quickly. We can have a bigger return in the short run, and even sell that bond if we want.

In managing our bond ladders, I focus primarily on Yield To Maturity, not the current coupon. We prefer to buy discount bonds, which have lower call risk, when possible. Non-callable bonds are even better, but harder to find in all categories. Today, interest in bonds is high (pun intended), and so we have been writing a lot about how we manage this important piece of your portfolio.

Read More About Bonds

Stocks Versus Bonds Today

Stocks Versus Bonds Today

Where is the best opportunity – in stocks or bonds? I’ve been enthusiastic about the rising interest rates in 2022 and this has impacted the relative attractiveness of stocks versus bonds today. What do we expect from stocks going forward?

Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group publishes their projected return for stocks for the next 10 years. And while no one has a crystal ball to know exactly how stocks will perform, this is still valuable information. They look at expected economic growth, dividend yield, and whether stock values (P/E ratios for example) might expand or contract.

Their median 10-year expected return for US stocks is 5.7%, with a plus or minus 1% range, for a range of 4.7% to 6.7%. This is actually up from the beginning of the year. As stocks have fallen by 20%, we are now starting from a less expensive valuation. But a projected return of 5.7% for the next decade would be well below historical averages, and most investors are hoping for better.

Is Vanguard being too pessimistic? No, many other analysts have similar projections which are well below historical returns. For example, Northern Trust forecasts a 6% return on US stocks over the next five years. And of course, these are just projections. Returns could be better. Or worse!

Bonds Are An Alternative

Last week, I bought some investment grade corporate bonds with a yield to maturity of 6% over three to five years. Bonds have much less risk than stocks and have only a fraction of the volatility of stocks. As long as the company stays in business, you should be getting your 6% return and then your principal back at maturity.

If we can buy a good bond with a return of 5.5% to 6.0%, that completely matches the projected stock returns that Vanguard expects. Why bother with stocks, then? Why take the risk that we fall short of 6% in stocks, if we can get a 6% return in bonds? Today, bonds are really attractive, even potentially an alternative to stocks.

For many of our clients, bonds look better than stocks now. And so we may be trimming stocks by year end and buying bonds, under two conditions: 1. The stocks market remains up. We are not going to sell stocks if they fall from here. 2. We can buy investment grade bonds, 3-7 years, with yields of at least 5.5% and preferably 6%. And we have to find different bonds, because we aim to keep any one company to no more than 1-2% of the portfolio.

We won’t be giving up on stocks – not at all. But we may look to shift 10-20% of that US stock exposure to bonds.

Three Paths for the Market

I think there are three scenarios, all of which are okay.

  1. Stocks do way better than 6%. The risk here is that stocks could perform much better than the 5.7% estimate from Vanguard. Maybe they return 8% over the next five years. Well, this is our worst scenario: we make “only” 6% and are kicking ourselves because we could have made a little bit more if we had stayed in stocks.
  2. Stocks return 6% or less. In this case, it is possible we will get the same return from bonds as the expected return from stocks. And if stocks do worse than expected, our bonds might even outperform the stocks. That’s also a win for bonds.
  3. Stocks decline. What if the economy goes into recession, and stocks drop? If stocks are down 10% and we are up 6% a year on bonds, we will be really happy. In a recession, it’s likely that yields will drop and the price of bonds will increase. The 6% bond we bought might have gone up in value from 100 to 104. Then, our total return on the bond might be 10%, and we could be 20% ahead relative to stocks’ 10% drop. And in this scenario, we don’t have to hold the bonds to maturity. We could sell the bonds and buy stocks while they are down.

Smoother is Better

I’m happy with any of those three scenarios. Many investors are feeling some PTSD from the market performance since 2020. Many will be happy to “settle” for 5.5% to 6% from bonds, versus the 5.7% expected return from stocks. And of course, stocks won’t be steady. They may be up 20% one year and down 20% the next. It is often a roller coaster, and so increasing bonds may offer a smoother ride while not changing our expected return by much at all.

Should everyone do this? No, I think if you are a young investor who is contributing every month to a 401(k) or IRA, don’t give up on stocks. Even if the return ends up being the same 6%, you will actually benefit from the volatility of stocks through Dollar Cost Averaging. When stocks are down, you are buying more shares. So, if you are in accumulation, many years from retirement (say 10+), I wouldn’t make any change.

But for investors with a large portfolio, or those in or near retirement, I think they will prefer the steady, more predictable return of bonds. When the yield on bonds is the same as the 5-10 year expected return on stocks, bonds make a lot of sense. The risk/reward comparison of stocks versus bonds today is clear: bonds offer the same expected return for less risk. We will be adding to bonds and adjusting our portfolio models going into 2023.

We Bought An Airbnb

We Bought An Airbnb

In January, we bought a house in Hot Springs, Arkansas and have listed it on Airbnb. This is a new venture for us and I wanted to share my evolving thoughts about debt, inflation, cash, and real estate. Although the stock market has been down so far in 2022, don’t think that this means I am giving up on stocks as an investment. Not at all!

If you want to check out our property, here is the listing on Airbnb. My wife, Luiza, has done a great job of decorating and furnishing the house. And I owe a big thank you to my parents who spent three weeks helping us with renovations. It has been live for one week now, and we have eight bookings in April and May. Let me know what you think about the listing!

We Went Into Debt

Prior to this purchase, we were debt free and we purchased our new property with a mortgage. I could have sold investments and paid cash for the house, but I think that would have been a bad idea. Taking a mortgage is the better choice.

Leverage can be a tremendous tool, when used properly. Taking on debt to buy appreciating assets and cash flowing investments can have a multiplier effect. This is “good” debt. Bad debt would be spending on depreciating assets like cars, or using credit card debt to fund a lifestyle. I eventually realized that being debt-free would actually slow down our growth versus taking on some smart debt.

For Airbnb investors, a property evaluation is often based on the “Cash on Cash” return. What does that mean? Let’s consider a $200,000 house which produces a hypothetical $14,000 a year in profit. If you purchase the property with $200,000 cash, your Cash on Cash return is 7%. But if you put only 20% down ($40,000) and make $8,000 (net of the monthly mortgage), your cash on cash return is 20%. In other words, it can be a fairly attractive investment because of the leverage. Without the debt, the returns are not that compelling compared to stocks, for example. And if you use mortgages, you can buy $1 million of properties with $200,000 down. That could grow your wealth much faster than just buying one property for $200,000.

Debt, Inflation, and Government Spending

Beyond the numbers for this particular house, I think the world is now favoring debtors. Our government spending has been growing for years. And then when the pandemic hit, spending shot up dramatically and shows little sign of returning to its previous trajectory.

Our government, and many others, are running massive deficits and have no intention or ability to reduce spending. They will simply never pay off this debt. It will only grow. (See: the US Debt Clock.) We now have inflation of over 7%. I don’t think inflation will stay this high, but I also don’t think it will go back to 2%. Governments will have to inflate their way out of debt. There is an excellent video from billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio: the Changing World Order. He documents historical civilizations who expanded debt and saw resultant inflation. It is a brilliant piece if you want to understand today’s economy.

Inflation favors debtors and penalizes holders of cash and bonds. 7 percent inflation over 5 years will reduce the purchasing power of $1000 to $600. The holder of a bond will see a 40% depreciation of the real value of their bond. And the debtor, such as the US government or a mortgage holder, will benefit on the other side.

I reached the conclusion that I should be a debtor like our government. Staying in cash and a lot of bonds, would be a poor choice long term. I didn’t sell any stocks to buy our investment property, but I did reduce cash and bonds. Today, we can borrow at 3-5% while inflation is at 7%. And if interest rates do come back down to 2%, I can always refinance the mortgage.

Read more: Inflation Investments

Thoughts on Real Estate Investing

  1. Real Estate is a business, not a passive investment. Managing an Airbnb is time consuming and can have headaches of dealing with people and problems. We have spent a huge amount of time (and about $14,000) improving our property and furnishing it for Airbnb. Buying an Index Fund does not carry as much risk or time commitment!
  2. It is the leverage which makes real estate attractive. Without the mortgage, not so much. (Imagine if we could buy $100,000 of an S&P 500 Index fund with only 20% down. That would be incredible over the long term.)
  3. Higher inflation can help real estate prices and rent prices, while our mortgage stays fixed. Besides the cash flow, we also benefit from: 1. Paying down the mortgage and building equity. 2. Increasing home value over time. 3. Some tax benefits such as depreciation.
  4. Your personal residence is still an expense, not an investment. More pre-retirees should be looking into House Hacking. This will enable many to retire years earlier.
  5. I like the returns on short-term rentals. With elevated prices today, many long term rentals have mediocre cash flow potential. Especially if we have some repair expenses and vacancy.

So far, we are happy to have bought an Airbnb. It fits well with our willingness to take risks, start a business, and do repairs ourselves. We are looking to buy another. But we know it’s not for everyone. If this is something which interests you, I am happy to discuss it with you and share what I know.

Bonds in 2022

Bonds in 2022

Resuming last week’s Investment Themes, today we consider Bonds in 2022. It is a challenging environment for bond investors. We are coming off record low yields and the yield on the 10-year Treasury is still only 1.5%. At the same time, yields are starting to move up. And since prices move inversely to yields, the US Aggregate Bond index ETF (AGG) is actually down 1.74% year to date. Even including the yield, you’ve lost money in bonds this year. With stocks having a great year in 2021, it is frustrating to see bonds dragging down the returns of a diversified portfolio.

Inflation Hurts Bonds

Inflation is picking up in the US and globally. Supply chain issues, strong demand for goods, and rising labor costs are increasing prices. The Federal Reserve this week said they would be removing the word “transitory” from their description of inflation. And now that it appears that Jay Powell will remain the Chair, it is believed that the Fed will focus on lowering inflation in 2022. They will reduce their bond buying program which has suppressed interest rates. And they are expected to gradually start increasing the Fed Funds rate in 2022.

It is difficult to make accurate predictions about interest rates, but the consensus is that rates will continue to rise in 2022. So, on the one hand, bonds have very little yield to offer. And on the other hand, you will lose money if interest rates continue to climb. Then, to add insult to injury, most bonds are not maintaining your purchasing power with inflation at 6%.

Bond Themes for 2022

There aren’t a lot of great options for bond investors today. But here are the bond investment themes we believe will benefit your portfolio for the year ahead. This is how we are positioning portfolios

  1. We will be increasing our allocation to Floating Rate bonds (“Bank Loans”). These are bonds with adjustable interest rates. As rates rise, the interest charged goes up. These are a good Satellite for rising rate environments.
  2. Within core bonds, we want to reduce duration to shorter term bonds. This can reduce interest rate risk.
  3. We continue to hold Preferred Stocks for their yield. While their prices will come under pressure if rates rise, they offer a continuous cash flow.
  4. Ladder 5-year fixed annuities. I have been beating this drum for years. Still, multi-year guaranteed annuities (MYGA) have higher yields than CDs, Treasuries, or A-rated corporate and municipal bonds. If you don’t need the liquidity, MYGAs offer a guaranteed yield and principal.
  5. I previously suggested I-Series Savings Bonds rather than TIPS. These are linked to inflation and presently are paying 7.12%. Purchases are limited to $10,000 a year per person, and unfortunately cannot be held in a brokerage account or an IRA. Read my recent article for more details. I personally bought $10,000 of I-Bonds this week.

Purpose of Bonds

Even with a negative environment for bonds, they still have a role in most portfolios. Unless you have the risk capacity to be 100% in stocks, bonds offer crucial diversification. When we have a portfolio with 60% stocks and 40% bonds, we have an opportunity to rebalance. When stocks are down, like in March of 2020, we can use bonds to buy more stocks while they are on sale. And of course, a portfolio with 40% in bonds has much less volatility than one which has 100% stocks.

Yields may eventually go back up to more normal levels. While it would be nice to have higher yields, the process of yields going up will be painful for bond investors. Our themes are trying to reduce this “interest rate risk”. We hope to reset to higher rates in the future, while reducing a potential loss in bond prices in 2022.

Do You Need Bonds?

Do You Need Bonds?

With ultra low yields today, more investors are asking if you really need to have bonds in your portfolio. It’s going to depend on your objectives for your overall plan. First, let’s take a look at expected returns and how this impacts your allocation.

The primary role of bonds is to reduce the risk of a stock portfolio. Bonds fluctuate a lot less and most are relatively low risk. The trade-off is that they have a lot lower return than stocks. Of course, the stock market has a negative return in approximately one of every five or so years. From 1950 through 2019, 15 of 70 years had a negative return in the S&P 500 Index. Bonds are more consistent, and they can help smooth out your overall returns. In years when stocks are down, you can rebalance by selling some bonds and buying stocks.

The more bonds you have, the more you reduce stock risk, but also the more you probably lower your long-term returns. With the 10-year Treasury bond yielding only 0.721% this week, bonds offer almost no return on their own. Bonds used to offer safety and income, but today, you are really only owning them just for safety.

Portfolio Asset Allocation

We describe a portfolio by the percentage it has in stocks versus bonds. A 70/30 portfolio, for example, has 70% stocks and 30% bonds. Our asset allocation models target different levels of stock and bond exposure:

  • Ultra Equity (100% Equity)
  • Aggressive (85/15)
  • Growth (70/30)
  • Moderate (60/40)
  • Balanced (50/50)
  • Conservative (35/65)  

Expected Returns

Next, let’s consider what Vanguard projects for the next 10 years for annualized asset returns, as of June 2020: 

  • US Equities: 5.5% to 7.5%
  • International Equities: 8.5% to 10.5%
  • US Aggregate Bond Market: 0.9% to 1.9%

Let’s calculate hypothetical portfolio returns using these assumptions. If we take the midpoint of stock projected returns, we have 6.5% for US Stocks and 9.5% for International Stocks. If we invest equally in both, we’d have an 8% return. For our bond return, we will take the midpoint of 1.4%. Now, here’s a simple blend of those expected returns when we combine them in a portfolio.

PortfolioProjected 10 Year Return
100% Equities8.00%
90% Equities / 10% Bonds7.34%
80% Equities / 20% Bonds6.68%
70% Equities / 30% Bonds6.02%
60% Equities / 40% Bonds5.36%
50% Equities / 50% Bonds4.70%
40% Equities / 60% Bonds4.04%
30% Equities / 70% Bonds3.38%
20% Equities / 80% Bonds2.72%
10% Equities / 90% Bonds2.06%
100% Bonds1.40%

If you simply want the highest return without regard to volatility in a portfolio, you could invest 100% into stocks. Moreover, any addition of bonds should reduce your long-term returns. Of course, this assumes that returns are simply linear. In a real portfolio, there would be up years and down years in stocks. That’s when you would rebalance, which could be beneficial.

For young investors, in their 20’s, 30’s, or 40’s, you probably should be more aggressive in your asset allocation. For some, it may even make sense to be 100% in stocks. If you have 20 or more years to retirement, and aren’t scared of stock market fluctuations, being aggressive is likely going to offer the highest return.

The 10-year expected return of stocks is not bad, 8% combined today. That’s a little bit lower than the historical averages, but still an attractive return. Bond returns, however, are expected to be very weak. Consequently, 60/40, 50/50, and more conservative portfolios, are expected to have much lower projected returns.

Retirement Planning and Your Need for Bonds

For those closer to retirement, low yields are a challenge. You want to have less volatility but also want good returns. If you are within five years of retirement, you probably want to reduce the risk of a stock market crash hurting your retirement income. Now, if the hypothetical 8% stock returns were guaranteed, our decision would be easy. But getting out of bonds today, with the market at an all time high, seems too risky. This week has certainly been a reminder that stocks are volatile.

I think most pre-retirees will want to keep their current allocation through their retirement date. After that, they may want to consider gradually reducing their bond exposure by selling bonds. There is evidence that this strategy, The Rising Equity Glidepath, is a beneficial way to access retirement withdrawals. It allows retirees to benefit from the higher expected return of stocks, while reducing their risks in the crucial 5-10 years right before and at the beginning of retirement.

Some retirees have a high risk capacity if they have ample sources of income and significant assets. If their time horizon is focused on their children or grandchildren, they can also consider a more aggressive allocation.

We want to calculate your asset mix individually. I wanted to show you what the blend of stocks and bonds is projected to return over the next decade. We’ve had strong returns from fixed income in recent years because falling interest rates push up bond prices. Going forward, it looks like bond returns are going to be quite low. We do have to consider these projected returns when making allocation decisions.

If you’re looking for advice on managing your investment portfolio today, let’s talk. Our planning process will help you address these questions and have a better understanding of your options.

How to Increase Your Yield

How to Increase Your Yield

Opportunities for a Low Yield World, Part 2

Last week, we discussed how not to increase your yield today: by replacing safe bonds with high yield bonds. That’s because the potential for rising defaults today in junk bonds could have a major drag on what would otherwise appear to be a healthy yield. While the typical default rate for single-B and double-B bonds is 2-4% a year, in a crisis it could go much higher. In 2009, for example, global high yield bonds saw a 13% default rate that year.

It’s important to understand the risks in your bond portfolio and know what you own. There are four opportunities today for investors to improve their yields today, without simply trading down to junk bonds. None of these are home runs, but offer a bit more yield. And in the current low interest rate environment, increasing your yield by even one percent could be doubling your rate of return from your bonds. Some investors will choose to skip bonds altogether and add to their equities, but that would take on a lot of additional risk. For investors who want the risk and return profile of say a 60/40 portfolio, there’s no substitute for the safety of bonds.

1. Cash: Online Savings Account, not a Money Market Fund

Today, the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to basically zero. There is almost no yield on T-Bills, bank accounts, and short-term CDs. I see a lot of investors who park significant cash in a money market fund or in a Bank savings account. Those rates may have been near two percent a year ago, but many are now at 0.01%. That’s a whole one dollar of interest for a $10,000 investment each year! Not only are you not growing your cash, you probably aren’t going to keep up with inflation either. Your purchasing power is likely to decline with each passing year.

Instead of a money market at 0.01%, park your cash in an online savings account. You can link it to your primary checking account, and transfer money as needed. Most are FDIC insured, and several have no account minimums and no monthly fees. The one I use: Marcus.com from Goldman Sachs Bank. The current rate is 1.05%, with no minimums and no fees. You can open an account in about 1 minute and there’s an app for iOS and Android. I cannot think of any reason to not do this if you are presently earning 0.01% on a money market.

2. Buy Insured Municipal Bonds, not Taxable Corporates

The Coronavirus didn’t just hurt companies. Municipal Bonds – which are issued by cities, states, schools, and local entities – depend on taxes or revenues. Revenues from Stadiums, Toll Roads, etc., are down and so are taxes from sales, restaurants and bars, gasoline, income, and everything else which is taxed. The municipal bond market really doesn’t know how to evaluate this unprecedented problem. Compounding this issue is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of different bonds, issued by 50,000 different entities. Some of these bonds are so small that they rarely trade.

The result is that we can now buy a tax-free, A-rated municipal bond with a higher yield than we can buy an A-rated corporate bond which is taxable. This doesn’t help retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or IRA, but if you are buying bonds in a taxable account, taxes matter. Imagine two bonds both yield 2%. One is tax-free and the other one is going to cost you 22 to 37 percent in income taxes. That’s a big difference when we consider after-tax returns!

It is unusual to find yields on tax-free municipal bonds being higher than on corporate bonds of a similar credit quality and duration. For folks in a high tax bracket, taking profits on your corporate bonds and shifting to munis can make sense. (Profits on your appreciated, high-priced corporate bonds can qualify for long-term capital gains rate of 15%, a lower tax rate than receiving the bond’s income and waiting for them to mature at par.)

If you are concerned about the credit quality of municipal bonds, look for bonds which are insured. Bond insurers offer protection to muni bond holders to cover losses of income and principal, should a municipality default. At this point, defaults on municipal bonds remain much lower than from corporate bonds. The highest rated insurer is AGMC, and those bonds remain AA- rated.

We build portfolios of individual municipal bonds for clients with taxable accounts over $250,000. For investors with smaller portfolios, you can achieve a similar benefit with an intermediate municipal bond fund.

3. Buy 5-year Fixed Annuities, not 5-year Bonds

Where are the yields of 5-year fixed income products this week? The 5-year Treasury bond has a yield of 0.27%. The best rate I have on a 5-year CD is 0.55%. I see an A- rated 5-year corporate bond from JP Morgan at 0.95%. Munis are better, but still only 1.0 to 1.3% tax-free for an A-rated bond.

The best place to park money for five years remains a fixed annuity. Today I see several annuities in the 3.0 and 3.1 percent range for a five year product. That’s basically triple the yield of corporates and about 6-times the yield from CDs. A fixed annuity is guaranteed, both for the rate of return and your principal. There is a trade-off with annuities. They charge very steep surrender charges if you need to access your money early. However, if you aren’t going to tap the account for 5+ years, it can make sense to put some money into an annuity.

Whenever people ask me how they can earn more while keeping their money safe, I discuss the pros and cons of an annuity. For today’s bond investors, a Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity (MYGA) can be a way to increase your yield while keeping high credit quality.

4. Buy Preferred Stocks, Not a High Yield Fund

The High Yield ETF (HYG) currently has an SEC yield of 5.06%. There are a couple of reasons I prefer to own preferred stocks, besides the default risks I shared last week. First, I can save the ETF expense ratio of 0.49%. This is actually low compared to most high yield funds. When you own Preferreds directly, you might be saving one-half to one percent versus paying the expense ratio of a fund. At a 5% yield today, that is a 10-20% improvement. Yields are very low today, but expense ratios have not come down. Now, expenses eat up a larger portion of your return, leaving you with less income.

Second, preferreds today are offering a yield of 5-7%, which is attractive compared to bonds from the same company. For example, AT&T has preferred which yields 4.8% and is callable in 5 years. The February 2030 AT&T regular bond, however, yields less than 2.25% today. First Horizon Bank sold a 6.5% preferred this year, callable in five years. Their five year bonds, today, are available for a purchase with only a 1.865% yield.

Generally, the bonds are “safer” than preferreds, as they would rate higher in a bankruptcy liquidation. That’s one reason for the different yields, as well as the longer duration of the preferreds. Still, if you are comfortable with the credit risk of a company, the Preferreds may be trading at a significantly higher yield than the bonds of the company. That’s an opportunity today.

Why do we write so much about fixed income? For many of our investors who have achieved their accumulation goals, moving from growth into preservation and income is important. And there is an opportunity for us to add value through our fixed income choices: to increase yield, improve credit quality, or to reduce your risks. While it is relatively easy and fast to trade equity ETFs, buying individual bonds can require hours of research and trading.

Stocks have gotten all our attention this year, but don’t ignore your fixed income. The great return of fixed income in recent years has largely been the result of falling yields increasing the value/price of your bonds. Today, at nearly zero, yields could prove disappointing going forward. Our goal is to help you get more yield without simply taking on a lot of credit or duration risk.

Of these four ideas, you can certainly do #1 on your own. For #2 through #4, though, I think you will want to work with a financial professional. If you’d like to learn about individual municipal bonds, fixed annuities, or Preferred Stocks, please give me a call.

The High Yield Trap

The High Yield Trap

Opportunities for a Low Yield World PART 1

Everyone wants their investments to make more money, but we have to be careful to avoid the High Yield Trap. Since the Coronavirus Crash, central banks have been lowering interest rates to near zero. Last year, I was buying CDs at 2-3%. This week, I’m looking at the same CDs with yields of 0.1% to 0.2%. To which, my client innocently asks: What can we buy that will make more than a couple of percent with low risk?

Nothing, today. The five-year Treasury Bond currently yields 0.22%. That’s unacceptable for most investors, and it will push them out of safe fixed income, like Treasuries, CDs, and high quality municipal and corporate bonds. The yields are just too darn low.

Where will they go in pursuit of higher yields? Oh, there are plenty of bonds and bond funds with higher yields today. Credit quality has been plunging, as rating agencies are trying to keep up with downgrading firms that are being devastated by the shutdown or low commodity prices. In fact, through June 16, $88 Billion in BBB-rated bonds were downgraded to Junk Bond status this year. Each downgrade causes selling, which lowers the price of the bond, and the yield goes up (at least for new buyers).

Why It’s Called Junk

Before you get too excited, there are reasons to be concerned about buying lower grade bonds. In an average year, 2% of BB bonds and 4% of single-B rated bonds will default. That’s why high yield bonds are called junk bonds.

When those companies file for bankruptcy, the bond holders won’t be getting paid back their full principal. They will have to wait for a bankruptcy court to approve a restructuring plan or to dissolve the company. According to Moody’s, the median recovery is only 24 cents on the dollar when a bond defaults.

And while a 2-4% default rate might not sound too bad, that’s in an average year. In a crisis, that might rise to 8-10% defaults. In 2009, global high yield bonds had a 13% default rate in that year alone. These are historical rates, and it could be worse than that in the future. Additionally, the possibility of default increases as a company gets downgraded. If your BB-rated bond gets cut to CCC-rated, the chance of default is now a lot higher than 2%. And the price will probably go down, which creates a difficult choice. Do you sell for a loss or hold on hoping that the company can pay off your bond?

Here in Dallas, we are seeing a lot of companies go bankrupt, pushed over the edge by the Coronavirus. Big names like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, Pier One, Chuck E. Cheese, Bar Louie, and others have filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Most of these companies were issuers of high yield bonds and had a lot of debt. When they got into trouble, they could not keep up with their debt payments and had to fold. Expect more retailers, oil companies, and restaurants to go under before the end of 2020. Bond holders in those companies could lose a lot. (In all fairness, stock holders will do even worse. There is usually zero recovery for stock holders in bankruptcy.)

Funds versus Individual Bonds

If you are investing in a high yield bond fund, you may own hundreds or thousands of bonds. The fund may have a 7 percent yield, but don’t get too excited. A high yield fund is not a CD. You are not guaranteed to get your principal back. It’s likely (even more likely in the current crisis), that your return will get dinged by 2-4% in defaults and losses due to credit downgrades.

If you own individual high yield bonds, it can be even more precarious. Either the bond defaults or it doesn’t. Having the potential for an 75% loss, while earning an average 5-7% annual yield, is dangerous game. Everything is fine until you have a default. A single loss can wipe out years of interest payments. That’s why I generally don’t want to buy individual high yield bonds for my clients.

The quoted yield of 5-7% for high yield bonds does not reflect that some of those bonds will default. If you consider a 2-4% default rate, your net return might be more like 3-5%. That’s the High Yield Trap. Your actual returns often fall short of the quoted yield.

High Yield bonds are issued by companies. Stocks are companies. If companies do poorly – really poorly – both the stocks and bonds can get walloped at the same time. That’s the opposite of diversification. We want bonds to hold up well when our stocks are doing poorly. In finance jargon, we would say that there is a high correlation between high yield bonds and stocks. We want a low correlation.

Instead of High Yield?

What I would suggest, if suitable for an investor, would be a 5-year fixed annuity at 3% today. That would give you a guaranteed rate of return and a guaranteed return of your principal. That’s not super exciting, but it’s what investors need from fixed income: stability and dependable income. Don’t buy bonds for speculation. And above all else, Bonds should avoid the possibility of massive losses.

Be wary of the High Yield Trap. The yields appear attractive in today’s super low interest rate environment. But let’s be careful and not take unnecessary high risks. All bonds are not created equal. When you reach for yield, you are taking on more risk. Defaults have the potential to drag down your performance in a fund. In individual bonds, they could almost wipe out your original investment.

High Yield bonds are not inherently bad. If you bought at the bottom in 2009, they recovered very well. But I am very concerned that today’s yields are actually not high enough to compensate for the potential risk of defaults. We’ve already started to see corporate bankruptcies in 2020 and it’s possible we will have above average defaults in the near future. Until we have a real fire sale in high yield bonds, I’d rather stay away.

We will discuss ways of improving your yield next week. Yes, it’s a low interest rate world, but there are ways we can incrementally improve your portfolio while maintaining good credit quality. We will also discuss financial planning strategies for low rates in an upcoming post. If you’d like a free evaluation of your portfolio, to better understand your risks, please send me a message for an online meeting.

Long Bonds Beating Stocks in 2019

Through August 31, the S&P 500 Index is up 18.34%, including dividends. Would it surprise you to learn that bonds did even better? The Morningstar US Long Government Bond Index was up 18.40% in the same period. Even with this remarkable stock market performance, you would have done slightly better by buying a 30-year Treasury Bond in January!

How do bonds yielding under 3% give an 18% gain in eight months? Bond prices move inversely to yields, so as yields fall, prices rise. The longer the duration of the bond, the greater impact a change of interest rates has on its price. This year’s unexpected decrease in rates has sent the prices of long bonds soaring. While bonds have made a nice contribution to portfolios this year because of their price increases, today’s yields are not very attractive. And longer dated bonds – those which enjoyed the biggest price increases in 2019 – could eventually suffer equivalent losses if interest rates were to swing the other direction. We find bonds going up 18% to be scary and not something to try to chase. 

Today’s low interest rates are a conundrum for investors. The yields on Treasury bonds, from the shortest T-Bills to 10-year bonds are all below 2%. CDs, Municipal bonds, and investment grade corporate bonds have all seen their yields plummet this year. In some countries, there are bonds with zero or even negative yields.

What can investors do? I am going to give you three considerations before you make any changes and then three ideas for investors who want to aim for higher returns.

1. Don’t bet on interest rates. Don’t try to guess which direction interest rates are going to go next. We prefer short (0-2 year) and intermediate (3-7 year) bonds to minimize the impact that interest rates will have on the price of bonds. With a flat or inverted yield curve today, you are not getting paid any additional yield to take on this interest rate risk. Instead, we take a laddered approach. If you own long bonds which have shot up this year, consider taking some of your profits off the table.

2. Bonds are for safety. The reason why we have a 60/40 portfolio is because a portfolio of 100% stocks would be too risky and volatile for many investors. Bonds provide a way to offset the risk of stocks and provide a smoother trajectory for the portfolio. If this is why you own bonds, then a decrease in yield from 3% to 2% isn’t important. The bonds are there to protect that portion of your money from the next time stocks go down 20 or 30 percent.

3. Real Yields. Many of my clients remember CDs yielding 10 percent or more. But if inflation is running 8%, your purchasing power is actually only growing at 2%. Similarly, if inflation is zero and you are getting a 2% yield, you have the same 2% real rate of return. While yields today are low on any measure, when we consider the impact of inflation, historical yields are a lot less volatile than they may appear. 

Still want to aim for higher returns? We can help. Here are three ideas, depending on how aggressive you want to go.

1. Fixed Annuities. We have 5-year fixed annuities with yields over 3.5%. These are guaranteed for principal and interest. We suggest building a 5-year ladder. These will give you a higher return than Treasuries or CDs, although with a trade-off of limited or no liquidity. If you don’t need 100% of your bonds to be liquid, these can make a lot of sense. Some investors think annuity is a dirty word, and it’s not a magic bullet. But more investors should be using this tool; it is a very effective way to invest in fixed income today. 
Read more: 5-year Annuity Ladder

2. High Yield is getting attractive. Back in 2017, we sold our position in high yield bonds as rising prices created very narrow spreads over investment grade bonds.  Those spreads have widened this year and yields are over 5%. That’s not high by historical standards, but is attractive for today. Don’t trade all your high quality bonds for junk, but adding a small percentage of a diversified high-yield fund to a portfolio can increase yields with a relatively small increase in portfolio volatility.

3. Dividend stocks on sale. While the overall stock market is only down a couple of percent from its all time high in July, I am seeing some US and international blue chip stocks which are down 20 percent or more from their 2018 highs. Some of these companies are selling for a genuinely low price, when we consider profitability, book value, and future earnings potential. And many yield 3-5%, which is double the 1.5% you get on the US 10-year Treasury bond, as of Friday. 

While we don’t have a crystal ball on what the stock market will do next, if I had to choose between owning a 10-year bond to maturity or a basket of companies with a long record of paying dividends, I’d pick the stocks. For investors who want a higher yield and can accept the additional volatility, they may want to shift some money from bonds into quality, dividend stocks. For example, a 60/40 portfolio could be moved to a 70/30 target, using 10% of the bonds to buy value stocks today. 

When central banks cut rates, they want to make bonds unattractive so that investors will buy riskier assets and support those prices. When rates are really low, and being cut, don’t fight the Fed.

Long bonds have had a great performance in 2019 and I know the market is looking for an additional rate cut. But don’t buy long bonds looking for capital appreciation. Trying to bet on the direction of interest rates is an attempt at market timing and investors ability to profit from timing bonds is no better than stocks. If you are concerned how today’s low yields are going to negatively impact your portfolio going forward, then let’s talk through your options and see which might make the most sense for your goals.  

Source of data: Morningstar.com on September 2, 2019.

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