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.