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.

A Bond Primer

We have been adding individual bonds and CDs across many accounts since December, as we looked to reduce our equity exposure and take advantage of higher yields now available in short-term, investment grade fixed income. When you are an owner of individual bonds, you are likely to encounter some terminology that may be new, even if you’ve been investing in bond funds for many years. Here are some important things to know:

Bonds are generally priced in $1,000 increments. One bond will mature at $1,000. However, instead of quoting bond prices in actual dollars, we basically use percentages. A bond priced at 100 (note, no dollar sign or percentage symbol is used) would cost $1,000. 100 is called its Par value. If you are buying newly issued bonds, they are generally issued at Par (100). This is called the Primary Market – where issuers directly sell their bonds to the public. We also buy bonds in the Secondary Market, which is where bond desks trade existing bonds between each other. 

In the Secondary Market, bond prices are set by market participants. A bond priced at 98.50 would cost $985, and would be said to be at a discount to Par. A bond priced at 102 would cost $1,020, called a premium. As interest rates rise, the value of existing (lower yielding bonds) will fall. There is an inverse relationship between price and interest rates – when one rises, the other falls.

Bonds have a set Maturity date. That is when the issuer will return the $1,000 they borrowed from the bondholder and cancel the debt. Some bonds are also Callable, which means that the issuer has the right to buy the bond back before its maturity date. This benefits the company, but not the bondholder, because when interest rates are low, companies can refinance their debt to a lower rate.

Most bonds pay interest semi-annually (twice a year). We call this the Coupon. A bond with a 4% coupon would pay $20 in interest, twice a year. If the bond is priced exactly at Par, then the coupon is the same as the effective yield. However, if the bond is priced differently, we are more interested in its Yield to Maturity, commonly listed as YTM. This is very helpful for comparing bonds with different coupons. 

Most bonds pay a fixed coupon, although some pay a step coupon, which rises over time, and others are floating, tied to an interest rate index, or inflation. When we purchase a bond between interest payments, the buyer will receive all of the next payment, so the buyer will also pay the seller Accrued Interest, which is the interest they have earned calculated to the day of sale.

For bonds which are callable, we also have the Yield to Call (YTC), which measures what your yield would be if the bond is called early. Generally, if we are buying a bond at a discount, Yield to Call is attractive. If we buy at 96 and they redeem at 100, that’s a good thing. But if we buy a bond at a premium, we need to carefully examine if or when it might be callable. Yield to Worst (YTW) will show the worst possible return, whether that is to maturity or to a specific call date. 

Some bonds do not pay a coupon and are called Zero Coupon Bonds. Instead, they are issued at a discount and grow to 100 at maturity. Treasury Bills are the most common type of zero coupon bonds. US Government Bonds include Treasury Bills (under one year), Treasury Notes (1 to 10 years), and Treasury Bonds (10 to 30 years). There also are Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which are tied to the Consumer Price Index, and Agency Bonds, which are issued by government sponsored entities, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

In addition to Government Bonds, we also buy Corporate Bonds – those issued by public and private companies, Municipal Bonds issued by state and local governments, including school districts, and Certificates of Deposit (CDs) from Banks. 

Most Municipal Bonds are tax exempt, at the Federal and possibly at the state level. If you live in New York, any Municipal Bond would be tax-free at the Federal Level, but only NY bonds would be tax-free for NY state income tax. In states with no income tax, such as Texas, a tax-exempt bond from any state will be tax-free for Federal Income Tax purposes. 

To make their bonds more attractive, some municipal bonds are Insured, which means that if they were to default, a private insurance company would make investors whole. Those municipal insurers got in trouble in the previous financial crisis, and some are still weak today. My preferred insurer is Assured Guaranty (AGMC).

Please note that some Municipal Bonds are taxable; we sometimes buy these for retirement accounts. In addition to the types of bonds we’ve discussed, there are thousands of bonds issued outside of the US, in other currencies, but we do not purchase those bonds directly. 

There are several agencies that provide credit ratings to assess the financial strength of the issuer. Standard and Poor’s highest rating is AAA, followed by AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-. These are considered all Investment Grade. Below this level, from BB+ to C are below Investment Grade, often called High Yield or Junk Bonds. D means a bond has Defaulted. Moody’s ratings scale is slightly different: Aaa is the highest, followed by Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, Baa1, Baa2, and Baa3 for Investment Grade. Junk Bonds include Ba(1,2,3), B(1,2,3), Caa(1,2,3), Ca, and C.

There are about 5,000 stocks issued in the US, but there are probably over a million individual bonds issued, each one identified by a unique CUSIP number. Every week, there are bonds which mature and new ones which are issued. 

Our approach for individual bonds is to buy only investment grade bonds, and ladder them from one to five years with diversified issuers. We also sometimes invest in other types of bonds, such as floating rate bonds, mortgage backed securities, emerging markets debt, or high yield. For those categories, we will use a fund or ETF because it’s more important to diversify very broadly with lower credit quality.  

Bonds for Safety in 2019

2018 saw rising interest rates, which hurt the prices of bonds. Most bond funds were flat to slightly down for the year. Rising interest rates also means higher yields, and we now see sufficient yields to justify buying short-term bonds. We have been reducing our equity exposure over the last few weeks, and have been using those proceeds to buy individual investment grade short-term bonds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). 

I wanted to share a couple of themes which will guide our investment process for fixed income in the year ahead. In general, this is not a great time to be taking a lot of risk with your bond allocation. We want to use bonds to offset the risk of stocks to dampen overall portfolio volatility. Thankfully, bonds can now also make a positive contribution to your return albeit in a very modest 2-4% range, and with low or very low risk.

1. Credit doesn’t pay. A credit spread measures the difference in yield between a high quality bond, such as a US Treasury bond, versus say a bond issued by a company which has lower credit. That spread remains very tight today, meaning that you are not getting much additional yield for accepting the credit risk of a lower quality issuer.

This has led us to be selective about which corporate bonds we buy, only buying issues which have enough spread to justify their purchase. In today’s market, this primarily leads us to financial companies, especially the large banks, and to municipal bonds, including the rarely-discussed taxable municipal bonds which are a good choice for IRAs or other non-taxable accounts.

Both Treasury and US Government Agency bonds still have lower yields than CDs. This month, we bought some one-year CDs at 2.70% to 2.75% while the one-year Treasury was around 2.50%. That spread widens as we look to two and three year maturities.

I should explain that we offer “Brokerage CDs”, which are a little different than your typical bank CDs. Brokerage CDs are FDIC-insured against loss and we can shop for the best rates available, from both top banks like Wells Fargo or JP Morgan Chase and from smaller local banks who want to compete for the best yield. 

While you can typically redeem a bank CD early, albeit with an interest penalty of a few months, with a Brokerage CD, you would have to sell the CD in the bond market. If interest rates continue to rise, you would likely have to sell at less than full value. While these CDs offer the excellent rates, they are best used when you can hold to maturity.

We use CD rates as the basis of our spread comparison, rather than the traditional Treasury bonds. If we can’t find an improvement of at least 0.35% to 0.50% for an A-rated bond, then it’s not worth taking even the small risk over the CD. We will still use Treasury Bills for maturities of 6 months or less.

2. 5-year Ladder. In larger accounts, our goal is to create a ladder of bonds and CDs that mature over the following five years (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023). This gives us a nice diversification of maturities while still maintaining a low overall duration. When the 2019 bonds mature, we purchase 2024 bonds to maintain a 5-year structure. In a rising rate environment, we are likely to be able buy new bonds at a higher rate. 

Besides being a sensible way to build a bond portfolio, a ladder also can be used to meet future needs for withdrawals or Required Minimum Distributions. Then instead of needing to sell equities or bond funds which could be down, we have a bond that is maturing to meet those cash needs. As a result, an investor might not need to touch their equities for the next five years. If or when their equities do grow, we can rebalance by selling stocks and buying new bonds at the top of the ladder.

While bond prices may go down if interest rates continue to rise in 2019, when you have an individual bond or CD, you know that it will mature at its full face value. So even if prices fluctuate, you will realize your stated Yield to Maturity when you do hold to maturity, which should be very possible with a 5-year ladder.

(Two notes: 1. While we can say that CDs and Treasury Bonds are guaranteed, other types of bonds do have some risk of default and cannot be described as guaranteed. 2. Investors who try to predict interest rates have as little success as investors who try to predict stock markets. We do not want to make bets on the direction of interest rates.)

3. Fixed Annuities. Annuities get a bad rap, but a Fixed Annuity is a third type of guaranteed fixed income investment. They deserve a closer look by investors as a bond substitute and work well with a 5-year laddered approach.

The current rate for a 5-year fixed annuity is 3.80% from one carrier I use. That compares to a 5-year CD at 3.35% to 3.60%. That’s not much of an improvement, however, the Fixed Annuity is an insurance product outside of our managed portfolio, so there are no investment management fees. Your net return is 3.80%. The insurance company will pay me a small commission directly, which does not impact your principal or your rate of return.

I think laddering fixed annuities can make sense for some, as a bond replacement, and more investors should learn about this before dismissing it as soon as they hear the word annuity. A 3.80% percent return on an annuity would be the equivalent of a 4.80% bond if you include a 1% annual management fee.

We wrote about doing a 5-year ladder of Fixed Annuities back in February 2016 in this blog, and I think it still makes sense for some investors. We would count this as part of your fixed income target for your overall portfolio allocation (60/40, etc.).

The stock market gets a lot of attention, but we don’t neglect fixed income in our portfolios. I do think there are benefits to managing your bond portfolio, and we spend as much time sweating the details of our fixed income selections as we do our stock market exposures.

Bye Bye High Yield Bonds

We’re making a trade in our portfolio models this week and will be selling our high yield bond fund (SPDR Short-Term High Yield ETF, ticker SJNK). The last 18 months have been excellent for high yield bonds; so excellent, in fact, that at this point the now lower yields don’t justify the risks. For those who might be interested in our process behind this decision, please read on.

High Yield, or “Junk”, Bonds are highly cyclical and go through wide swings up and down. They have much higher volatility than other types of bonds, and in spite of their higher yields, have the potential for negative returns to a greater degree than most other types of bonds. Additionally, they have a fairly strong correlation to equities, meaning that when stock markets plunge, high yield bonds – which are issued by lower quality companies – are also likely to drop in value. In times of recession, several percent of high yield issuers will default on their bonds and go bankrupt each year.

How can we determine if high yield bonds are a good value? One of then most common ways is through Credit Spreads. A Credit Spread is the additional amount of yield a high yield bond will provide over a safe bond like a US Treasury.

As recently as January 2016, high yield bonds were paying 6-7 percent over Treasuries. Today, that spread has shrunk into the 3% range, a level which is closer to the lows of the past 20 years. You can see a chart of US Credit Spreads on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Investors today are not being sufficiently compensated for taking the extra risk of high yield bonds, and given the headwinds of higher interest rates and a late-inning stock market, we believe it is time to remove the high yield position from our portfolio. They’ve done their job. While no one can predict if or when these bonds will have their next downturn, we’d rather make the change now.

This is a small trade in most portfolios; our 60/40 model, for example, has only a 4% position in high yield. The proceeds will be reinvested into other bond funds which have lower volatility and also a short duration.

In the future, if yield spreads widen, we might buy back into high yield bonds. When pessimism is at its highest, low prices on high yield bonds can be a great value for patient investors. And that’s the time to be a buyer, not today. Credit spreads are a unique consideration for high yield bonds, but know that we look at each category within our portfolio models closely and will not hesitate to make adjustments after cautious and deliberate study.

If you have any questions about high yield bonds, fixed income, or any other aspect of portfolio construction, please give me a call!

TIPS: Not Attractive Yet

I love TIPS, but I’m going to tell you why you should not own them today. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) are government bonds, backed by the US Treasury. They pay two ways: a fixed interest rate (coupon) paid every six months, and an adjustment to your principal based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The dollar amount of interest increases when CPI goes up.

TIPS are considered by many to be a nearly “ideal” investment. Most traditional bonds have a set face value of $1,000, which creates inflation risk. The $1,000 you will get back 10 years from now will not have the same purchasing power as $1,000 does today. This inflation risk is nullified by TIPS. And it doesn’t even matter what inflation is: whether it is 1% or 10%, your purchasing power will be preserved by TIPS. It’s a remarkable benefit which makes TIPS “safer” at preserving wealth than a CD or savings account, while carrying none of the market risk of stocks.

At my previous firm, we had tens of millions of dollars invested in TIPS as a core fixed income holding. At my urging, we sold almost all of these bonds between 2012 and 2013. Why? As interest rates fell, the prices of TIPS skyrocketed. Yields on TIPS became negative; investors were willing to pay so much for these bonds that they were guaranteed to not keep up with inflation. Our clients had made a handsome profit in TIPS, but would have made less than inflation if we continued to hold. So we sold the TIPS and moved into other types of bonds.

The yield on TIPS are determined by auction, and the Treasury presently issues 5-year, 10-year, and 30-year TIPS. Institutional investors compare TIPS yield to fixed rate Treasury Bonds. For example, the most recent 10-Year TIPS auction on March 31, 2017 produced a yield of 0.466% (plus inflation). Compared this to the current yield on a fixed 10-Year note of about 2.3% and you get an inflation expectation of 1.8% over the next 10 years.

For big banks, this creates arbitrage opportunities if they think that the market inflation expectations are wrong. This arbitrage mechanism means that the rate on TIPS will likely be tied closely to regular Treasury Interest Rates.

For investors, if you think that we were going to have extreme inflation over the next 10 years, you would prefer to invest in the TIPS rather than the 2.3% fixed rate 10-Year note. But that is speculation, and I am not interested in speculating on inflation rates, thinking that we know more than all of Wall Street.

However, the forces which drove down interest rates and gave us a reason to sell our TIPS at high prices appear to be reversing. The Federal Reserve has started to raise interest rates, which may mean that last summer’s 1.6% 10-Year yield was the top of a 30-year bond Bull Market. As interest rates rise, the price of existing bonds will drop. And that will be painful for holders of 10 year and especially 30 year bonds, including TIPS.

Back when you could buy TIPS and earn 2%, 3% or more above inflation, that was a compelling return for a very low risk bond. Today, the yields on TIPS are less than 0.5% on the 5 and 10 year TIPS and below 1% on the 30 year TIPS. In 2 of the 3 auctions in 2016, the yields on the 5-year TIPS were negative. These rates are simply too low to include in our portfolios. Add in the risk of rising interest rates (= falling bond prices), and the appeal of 10 and 30 year TIPS are gone for me.

There is an alternative to TIPS which do not carry the risk of rising rates: I-Series Savings Bonds. Like TIPS, I-Bonds are linked to CPI-U and also carry a fixed rate of return. You purchase and redeem I-Bonds through TreasuryDirect.gov. They are issued as 30-year bonds, but you can redeem them anytime after 1 year (3 months interest penalty if redeemed in the first 5 years). Since you can redeem them directly with the government, you don’t have to worry about market losses caused by rising interest rates. If there are better alternatives in 5 years, you could simply cash out your I-Bonds and take your money elsewhere.

I-Bonds would be a logical alternative to TIPS, except for two big problems: 1) The current fixed rate is zero. Since 2010, it has been zero for most of the time, briefly reaching only 0.10% or 0.20%. 2) Each taxpayer is limited to buying $10,000 of I-Bonds a year and you cannot own them in an IRA or brokerage account. Still, if the fixed rate on I-Bonds were the same as TIPS, I would buy those first, before buying any TIPS.

There may come a time when it will be attractive to buy I-Bonds or TIPS. For now, interest rates are too low and inflation is not an immediate risk. Still, there are many appealing benefits to these bonds. While preserving purchasing power is the primary difference to other bonds, from a portfolio construction standpoint, there are other benefits, including extremely low default risk, relatively low volatility, and much lower correlation to equities than corporate bonds.

Today, I think we can get a higher return by taking on some credit risk versus government bonds, whose interest rates have been held down by central banks. It has been nearly 10 years now since the peak of the mortgage/financial crisis, but we are just now starting to emerge from a global Zero Interest Rate Policy. That unwinding will take many years and will have a big impact on fixed income for years to come.

Can You Be Too Conservative?

As you approach retirement, you are probably thinking quite a bit about making your investment portfolio more conservative. We generally recommend that investors start dialing back their risk five years before retirement.

However, it is possible to be too conservative. Retirement is not an single date, but a long period of sustained withdrawals. We typically think in terms of a 30-year time horizon, which is not unrealistic for a 60 to 65-year old couple, given increasing longevity today.

The old rule of thumb was to subtract your age from 100 to determine your allocation to stocks. For example, a 65-year old would have 35% in stocks and 65% in bonds. Unfortunately, this old rule of thumb doesn’t work for today’s longer life expectancies.

Researchers analyzing the “4% rule” used for retirement income planning, typically find that optimal allocation for surviving a 30-year distribution period has been roughly 50 to 60 percent stocks. For most new retirees, we generally suggest dialing back only to 50/50 or 60/40 in recognition that the portfolio still needs to grow.

We still need growth in a retirement portfolio to help you preserve purchasing power as inflation erodes the value of your money. At 3% inflation, your cost of living will double every 24 years. So if you are retiring today and thinking that you just need $40,000 a year, you should be expecting that need to increase to $80,000 or more, to maintain your standard of living.

Another reason retirees should not be overly conservative: interest rates are very low today. Bonds had a much better return over the past 30 years than they will over the next 30 years. That’s not even a prediction, it’s just a fact. When we use projected returns rather than historical returns in our Monte Carlo simulations, it suggests that bond-heavy allocations are not as likely to succeed as they were for previous retirees. See: What Do Low Interest Rates Mean For Your Retirement?

The other side of today’s low interest rates is that some investors are reaching for yield and investing in much lower-quality junk bonds. While retirees often focus heavily on income producing investments, financial planners and academic researchers prefer a “total return” approach, looking at both income and capital gains.

We don’t want to take high risks with the bond portion of our portfolios, because we want bonds to provide stability in the years when the stock market is down. High Yield bonds have a high correlation to equities and can have significant drops at exactly the same time as equities.

We manage to a specific, target asset allocation and rebalance annually to stay at that level of risk. That gets our focus away from stock picking and looking at the primary source of risk: your overall asset allocation of stocks, bonds, and other investments. While no one can predict the future, a disciplined approach can help avoid mistakes that will compound your losses when market volatility does occur.

Bonds at a Discount: CEFs on Sale

Since the election, bond yields have risen and prices have fallen in anticipation of increased government spending and an uptick in inflation. The yield on the 10-year Treasury was 2.33% on Friday, almost a full percent higher than the all-time low, set only a few months ago in July. When bond prices fall, many investors will sell their funds at the end of the year to harvest losses and redeploy their capital into other bond funds.

The annual tax-loss harvesting creates a unique opportunity for investors to look at Closed End Funds. Closed End Funds (CEFs) are an alternative to bond mutual funds. They are similar to mutual funds in that they are diversified, professionally managed baskets of stocks or bonds. In a regular mutual fund, you buy and sell shares directly from the fund company, whereas with a CEF, you buy or sell shares on a stock exchange with other buyers or sellers. There are a fixed number of shares, so a CEF manager can focus on managing their portfolio without the impact of money flowing in or out of the fund.

This works very well for bond strategies, and indeed many CEFs have an income focus and pay dividends monthly or quarterly. Today, there are many CEFs that pay 4-6% tax-free, or 5-10% taxable. They range from high investment grade credit ratings to junk bonds. Some have been around for decades.

Here is a comparison of Closed End Funds with Mutual Funds:

Closed End Funds Mutual Funds “open end”
Professionally managed basket of stocks, bonds, etc. Professionally managed basket of stocks, bonds, etc.
Fixed number of shares Unlimited number of shares
Buy/sell on an exchange Buy/sell from the fund company
Price may be at a premium or discount to NAV Price equals net asset value (NAV)
Manager does not need to buy or sell securities; fixed pool of money Manager must buy or sell to meet inflow or outflow of cash
May use leverage Typically not leveraged

Many people have not heard of CEFs because they generally don’t advertise. The managers cannot raise new money, and their management fee is fixed, usually around 1% of assets. The fund manager has no incentive to advertise, so CEFs remain a secret of the investment community. When these CEFs trade at a discount to the underlying value of the assets, you may be able to buy the equivalent of $1,000 of bonds for $950 or $900 dollars. And that is what is happening right now – tax-loss harvesting is widening the discounts of many bond CEFs.

We generally don’t use CEFs in our portfolio models because they tend to have more price fluctuation than mutual funds. Besides the change in NAV, the discount or premium can change by as much as 10% or more in any year. But when that discount widens to 10% plus, that is often a good entry point for investors who are willing to hold the funds for long-term and who don’t mind a bit of additional volatility.

However, not all CEFs are created equal! There are many different strategies, and they have many more moving parts than mutual funds. We have an in depth process for choosing our CEFs and have been investing in these for more than a decade. If you are looking to increase your portfolio income, let’s talk about if Closed End Funds might be a good fit for you.