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.

Retirement Income at Zero Percent

Retirement Income at Zero Percent

With interest rates crushed around the world, how do you create retirement income at zero percent? Fifteen years ago, conservative investors could buy a portfolio of A-rated municipal bonds with 5 percent yields. Invest a million dollars and they used to get $50,000 a year in tax-free income.

Not so today! Treasury bonds set the risk-free rate which influences all other interest rates. Currently, the rate on a 10-year Treasury is at 0.618 percent. One million dollars in 10-year Treasuries will generate only $6,180 in interest a year. You can’t live off that.

You can do a little better with municipal bonds today, maybe 2-3 percent. Unfortunately, the credit quality of municipal bonds is much worse today than it was 15 years ago. A lot of bonds are tied to revenue from toll roads, arenas, or other facilities and are seeing their revenue fall to zero this quarter due to the Coronavirus. How are they going to repay their lenders?

Debt levels have risen in many states and municipalities. Pension obligations are a huge problem. The budget issues in Detroit, Puerto Rico, Illinois, and elsewhere are well known. Shockingly, Senator McConnell last week suggested that states maybe should be allowed to go bankrupt. That would break the promise to Municipal Bond holders to repay their debts. This is an appalling option because it would cause all states to have to pay much higher interest rates to offset the possibility of default. And unlike Treasury bonds which are owned by institutions and foreign governments, Municipal Bonds are primarily owned by American families.

With Treasuries yielding so little and Municipal Bonds’ elevated risks, how do you plan for retirement income today? We can help you create a customized retirement income plan. Here are three parts of our philosophy.

1. Don’t Invest For Income

We invest for Total Return. In Modern Portfolio Theory, we want a broadly diversified portfolio which has an efficient risk-return profile, the least amount of risk for the best level of return. We focus on taking withdrawals from a diversified portfolio, even if it means selling shares.

Why not seek out high dividend yields and then you don’t have to touch your principal? Wouldn’t this be safer? No, research suggests that a heavy focus on high yields can create additional risks and reduce long-term returns. Think of it this way: Company A pays a 5% yield and the stock grows at zero percent; Company B pays no yield but grows at 8%. Clearly you’d be better off with the higher growth rate.

When you try to create a portfolio of high yield stocks, you end up with a less diversified portfolio. The portfolio may be heavily concentrated in just a few sectors. Those sectors are often low growth (think telecom or utilities), or in distressed areas such as oil stocks today. The distressed names have both a higher possibility of dividend cuts, as well as significant business challenges and high debt.

The poster child for not paying dividends is Warren Buffett and his company, Berkshire Hathaway. He’s never paid a dividend to shareholders in over fifty years. Instead, he invests cash flow into new acquisitions of well-run businesses or he buys stocks of other companies. Over the years, the share price of BRK.A has soared to $273,975 a share today. If investors need money, they can sell their shares. This is more tax-efficient, because dividend income is double taxed. The corporation has to pay income taxes on the earnings and then the investor has to pay taxes again on the dividend. When a company grows, the investor only pays long-term capital gains when they decide to sell. And the company can write off the money it reinvests into its businesses.

2. Create a Cash Buffer

Where a total return approach can get you into trouble is when you have to sell stocks in a down market. If you need $2,000 a month and the price of your mutual fund is $10/share, you sell 200 shares. But in a Bear Market when it’s down 20%, you’d have to sell 250 shares (at $8/share) to produce the same $2,000 distribution. When you sell more shares, you have fewer shares left to participate in any subsequent recovery.

This is most problematic in the early years of retirement, a fact which is called the Sequence of Returns Risk. If you have a Bear Market in the first couple of years of retirement, it is more likely to be devastating than if you have the same Bear Market in your 20th year of retirement.

To help avoid the need to sell into a temporary drop, I suggest keeping 6-12 months in cash or short-term bonds so you do not have to sell shares. Additionally, I prefer to set dividends to pay out in cash. If we are receiving 2% stock dividends and 2% bond interest, and need 4% a year, we would have to sell just two percent of holdings. This just gives us more flexibility to not sell.

Also, I like to buy individual bonds and ladder the maturities to meet cash flow needs. If your RMD is $10,000 a year, owning bonds that mature at $10,000 for each of the next five years means that we will not have to touch stocks for at least five years. This approach of selling bonds first is known as a Rising Equity Glidepath and appears to be a promising addition to the 4% Rule.

3. Guaranteed Income

The best retirement income is guaranteed income, a payment for life. This could be Social Security, a government or company Pension, or an Annuity. The more you have guaranteed income, the less you will need in withdrawals from your investment portfolio. We have to be fairly conservative in withdrawal rates from a portfolio, because we don’t know future returns or longevity. With guaranteed income, you don’t have to fear either.

We know that Guaranteed Income improves Retirement Satisfaction, yet most investors prefer to retain control of their assets. But if having control of your assets and the ability to leave an inheritance means lower lifetime income and higher risk of failure, is it really worth it?

I think that investors make a mistake by thinking of this as a binary decision of 100% for or against guaranteed income. The more sophisticated approach is to examine the intersection of all your retirement income options, including when to start Social Security, comparing lump sum versus pension options, and even annuitizing a portion of your nest egg.

Consider, for example, if you need an additional $1,000 a month above your Social Security. For a 66-year old male, we could purchase a Single Premium Immediate Annuity for $176,678 that would pay you $1,000 a month for life. If you instead wanted to set up an investment portfolio and take 4% withdrawals to equal $1,000 a month, you would need to start with $300,000. So what if instead of investing the $300,000, you took $176,678 and put that into the annuity? Now you have guaranteed yourself the $1,000 a month in income you need, and you still have $123,322 that you could invest for growth. And maybe you can even invest that money aggressively, because you have the guaranteed annuity income.

Conclusion

It’s a challenge to create retirement income at zero percent interest rates. Unless you have an incredibly vast amount of money, you aren’t going to get enough income from AAA bonds or CDs today to replace your income. We want to focus on a total return approach and not think that high dividend stocks or high yield bonds are an easy fix. High Yield introduces additional risks and could make long-term returns worse than a diversified portfolio.

Instead, we want to create a cash buffer to avoid selling in months like March 2020. We own bonds with maturities over five years to cover our distribution or RMD needs. Beyond portfolio management, a holistic approach to retirement income evaluates all your potential sources of income. Guaranteed income through Social Security, Pensions, or Annuities, can both reduce market risk and reduce your stress and fear of running out of money. The key is that these decisions should be made rationally with an open mind, based on a well-educated understanding and actual testing and analysis of outcomes.

These are challenging times. If you are recently retired, or have plans to retire in the next five years, you need a retirement income plan. We had quite a drop in March, but recovered substantially in April. The economy is not out of the woods from Coronavirus. I think global interest rates are likely to remain low for years. If you are not well positioned for retirement income, make changes soon, using the strength in today’s market to reposition.

Five Ways To Invest Tax-Free

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“It doesn’t matter how much you make, but how much you keep.” Over time, taxes can be a significant drag on returns, especially for those who are in the higher tax brackets. Today, many families are also hit with the 3.8% Medicare surtax on investment income. If you are in the top tax bracket, you could be paying as much as 43.4% (39.6% plus the 3.8% Medicare surtax) for interest income or short-term capital gains.