When To Sell A Fund

When to Sell a Fund

As part of monitoring your investments, you should have defined reasons when to sell a fund. It is important to distinguish between market timing and valid reasons for selling. Don’t sell an index fund and buy an actively managed fund just because the active fund has outperformed recently. That is performance chasing – and you need to guard against this.

There are a couple of scenarios when you might want to sell a fund, primarily if it is to fix your portfolio. There is probably not a bad time to do this, although investors often agonize over the timing of moves. We cannot predict the future. If you know your portfolio has problems, make those changes and move on.

Three Sales to Fix Your Portfolio

First, if you have narrow funds, such as a sector fund, I would suggest you sell those and get into a broader index fund. If you are up, and have a nice gain, go ahead and sell. Don’t wait until the fund or stock has tanked. If it has tanked, take your loss and learn a lesson. You may hope that it will come back, but hope is not a good investment rationale. While you are waiting for it to come back, perhaps you could be growing your portfolio in an index fund.

I’m not going to recommend that you try to own individual stocks in your portfolio. That is speculative and a distraction for most investors to growing your wealth. I know many millionaires who invest in funds, but not many who got there with individual stocks. The majority of people who are trading stocks have tiny accounts. According to the NY Times, the popular trading app, Robinhood has only an average account of $4,800. Focus on your accumulation and being a market participant, not a speculator. If you’ve had good luck with individual stocks, take your gains and get into index funds. 

Second, if you are invested in a fund or product that has high expenses, switch to a low-cost index fund. For example, if you have an actively managed fund, an A-share mutual fund with 12b-1 fees, or a fund in a Variable Insurance product, your expense ratio might be 0.75%, 1.00% or more a year. An index fund might be one-tenth of that, 0.10% or less for many categories. When your goal is long-term growth through market participation, costs are a direct drag on your performance. That’s a good reason to sell.

Interestingly, the average active manager often (slightly) beats their benchmark before fees. It’s just that the drag of a 1% expense ratio, in a market that returns 5% or 10%, eats up all the benefits the managers can create. Over time, low expenses are correlated with better performance.

Third, you may want to sell some of your funds to establish your target asset allocation. Most of your performance is based on your overall asset allocation. I see many younger investors who start out 100% in stocks and as they grow their wealth, eventually realize that they need some bonds. Other investors have some bonds, but no target allocation to use for rebalancing. So, start with your recipe first and adjust your funds to fulfill your target allocation. Otherwise, you end up with a poorly diversified portfolio.

Staying Invested

If you are already invested in a low cost, diversified index fund, why sell it ever? I can think of two good reasons: rebalancing and tax loss harvesting. Outside of that, investors can do quite well by having little or no turnover and sticking with low cost Index funds for not just years, but decades.

What aren’t reasons for a long-term investor to sell? Coronavirus. Elections. Business cycles. News.

Sure, those things can impact stock prices in the short-term. But staying the course in an Index Fund seems to work better than any other strategy. So, yes to selling sector funds, single stocks, and high-expense funds to replace them with an Index Fund. Yes to the occasional sale for rebalancing or tax loss harvesting. Outside of those reasons, try to keep your diversified allocation and stick with your index funds. Now, if you are within five years of retirement and are concerned about risks to your retirement income, let’s talk about how to make sure you are on the right path.

I am posting this because right now volatility seems to be picking up into the election. And over the next two months, I worry that a lot of investors are going to feel spooked. You’re going to hear a lot of opinions about what is going to happen. And markets could, indeed, go down. That’s always a possibility. That’s the inescapable reality of being an investor. But, our approach is to stay the course in turbulent times and be patient. As unique as today’s challenges are, there were unique challenges before. Markets prevailed.

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.

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.

Have stocks risen too fast?

Have Stocks Risen Too Fast?

Many investors today are asking, Have stocks risen too fast? We’ve had a terrific rebound off the lows of March and US stock indices are largely back in positive territory for the year. It has been quite a roller-coaster ride.

Unfortunately, uncertainty about Coronavirus remains high. We have neither a cure nor do we have the contagion under control in the US. The economic fallout from unemployment, consumer spending, and falling corporate profits remains unknown. It’s easy to make a case that the stock market has gotten ahead of itself and is being too optimistic.

That could be the case. But we shouldn’t be surprised that stocks are up. The stock market is a leading economic indicator. Traders are betting on things that they expect to happen, not waiting to respond to things that have already happened. Yes, the market is pricing in things improving. And if the market is wrong, stocks could respond negatively.

What should investors do? Run for cover? Buy gold and guns? No, I don’t think we should attempt to time the market. Trades based on what we think might happen in the next 12 or 24 months are not likely to add any value, in my opinion.

While our approach is focused on long-term results, I do not think investors should be complacent today. There are steps we are taking, without trying to bet on the short-term direction of stocks. Here are six strategies:

Stock Strategies for Today

  1. Rebalance. When there’s a big move in the market, up or down, rebalance to your original allocation. This creates a process to buy low and sell high.
  2. Re-examine your risk profile. Did the March collapse make you realize that your portfolio is too aggressive? If so, let’s take a closer look at your overall risk profile. This shouldn’t be guesswork. We use FinaMetrica, a leading Psychometric evaluation tool, to measure each client’s risk tolerance. If you should be less aggressive, now is a good time to make trades. Not when there is panic like March.
  3. Consider your return requirement. Two people could have the same risk tolerance. But if one has $100,000 and the other has $2 million, it is possible that they need different returns to meet their goals. One might need growth and the other might favor more stability and income. You only need to get rich once.
  4. Add alternative sources of return. The more we can diversify your portfolio, the better. Investments that have a lower correlation to stocks and less volatility can help create a smoother overall performance. That’s why we have taken the time to educate our clients about investments such as Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.
  5. Look to lagging parts of the stock market. US Large Cap Growth is leading the rebound since March. Other areas are not yet back to even. For example, international stocks, or US Mid Cap Value. Today, some parts of the market are more expensive than others. If all you are doing is buying the best recent performers, you are looking in the rear view mirror. Instead, look at the fundamentals. Which stocks are less expensive today and a better relative value going forward?
  6. Lower your expense ratio. If your expected return on stocks is less today, a lower expense ratio will help you keep more of the market’s returns. That’s a big advantage of Index Funds. But we also like actively managed funds from companies like Vanguard, who recognize the importance of low costs.

Fixed Income

As you are worrying if stocks have risen too fast, don’t neglect your fixed income. Yields are way down in 2020. The good news is that the price of bonds has risen, which has helped your portfolio. Now, the problem is that people aren’t looking at the current yields. Money markets are yielding 0.01%. The five year Treasury Bond was at 0.22% this week. Your Investment Grade bond fund may be at 1.25% or less.

What worked in fixed income over the last 1-2 years is unlikely to produce much return going forward. We have ideas to upgrade the yields on your fixed income – from cash to intermediate bonds – while maintaining your credit quality and risk. That won’t have any impact on what stocks do, but your fixed income can create safety and income that gives you a smoother portfolio result.

The fact is that no one knows if stocks have risen too fast. It’s unknowable. We should resist the temptation to try to time the market today. We prefer to focus on what we can control: our asset allocation, good diversification, implementing portfolio alternatives, and keeping expenses and taxes low.

Adding Convertible Bonds

Adding Convertible Bonds

This week, we are adding Convertible Bonds to our Premiere Wealth Management portfolios. This will shift 2-6 percent of portfolios from equities to our Alternative Investments sleeve. What are convertible bonds and why now?

Convertible bonds and are unique in that they have an option to convert from a bond into shares of stock of a company. Why would you want to do that? Let’s say a $1,000 bond has an option to convert it into 20 shares of stock. That would give a convert price of $50 a share. If the stock price stays at $40 a share, you would just let the bond mature and get back your $1,000 in principal. But if the stock price rises to $60 a share, you could convert your $1,000 bond into 20 shares. Then you could sell the shares for $60 a share, or $1,200. And while you wait, the bond pays interest.

Benefits of Convertible Bonds

Why do companies offer convertible bonds? There are a couple of benefits to the company:

  • Convertible bonds typically pay lower interest rates since there is also potential upside for investors. This saves the company on interest costs versus issuing regular bonds.
  • If the bonds do convert to stock, the company issues new shares and does not have to use cash to pay back the loan. Imagine borrowing $100 million and then paying it off by issuing stock!
  • Compared to issuing new shares right away, a convertible bond delays diluting existing shareholders for several years. The interest expense is deductible for the company, whereas paying a stock dividend would not.

Here are the benefits for investors of convertible bonds:

Other Considerations

What are the risks of convertible bonds?

  • Companies who issue convertible bonds can be lower credit quality, and more than half do not carry a credit rating. Some of these bonds will default.
  • The volatility of convertibles can be closer to stocks than it is to high quality bonds like Treasury Bonds. Once the stock price is above the convert price, the price of the bond will be about as volatile as the stock.

How to invest in Convertible Bonds?

Because Convertible Bonds are closely related to equities, I consider them more of a substitute for stocks rather than fixed income. For this reason, we reduced equities to purchase a Convertible Bond Fund. I would recommend buying a fund rather than individual bonds. The fund can research the credit quality of unrated issuers and will diversify into a large number of bonds.

The fund we are adding has a 27-year track record and a five-star rating from Morningstar. Here is the most recent quarterly fact sheet on the fund. We will invest in the Institutional Share class, which has a lower expense ratio. Typically, investors would need $1 million to buy the institutional shares, but I can buy shares for my clients as a Registered Investment Advisor.

Why now?

We have had a very strong rebound in stocks markets since the lows of March. While there are a lot of reasons for optimism, the economic recovery from the Coronavirus seems to be priced into stocks. Bond yields are near zero, and offer little return potential compared to stocks. In this environment, I would like to add alternative investments that might offer returns better than bonds, but with less downside risk than stocks.

Currently, we have 10% allocated to Alternatives, using Preferred Stocks and a Hedge Fund replication strategy. Adding Convertible Bonds, our target weighting in Alternatives will be to 12-16 percent. No one can predict what markets will do in the near future. What we can do is to diversify our sources of return and risk. We can evaluate which investments have offered effective risk-adjusted returns historically and how they might work today. If you have questions about investing during the Coronavirus, please send me a message.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investing in convertible bonds carries risk of loss.

Stock Crash Pattern

Stock Crash Pattern

There is a stock crash pattern which is playing out in 2020. We’ve seen this before. We saw it in 2008-2009 with the mortgage crisis, in 2000 with the Tech bubble, and in 1987. The cause of every crash is different, but I’d like you to consider that the way each crash occurs and recovers is similar. Let’s learn from history. What worked for investors in 2000 and 2008 to recover?

I don’t believe in the value of forecasts, and no one can predict how long the Coronavirus will last. This week, things are getting worse, not better. Truthfully, a market bottom could be weeks or months away. No one can predict this, yet it’s human nature to seek certainty and guarantees.

Once we accept that we cannot predict the future, what should we do? I believe the answer is to study what has worked best in the past. That is what we plan to do here at Good Life Wealth Management for our client portfolios. Here’s our playbook.

Stock Crash Pattern Steps

  1. Don’t sell. I had clients who sold in November of 2008 and March of 2009. Luckily, we got them back into the market within a few months. Unfortunately, they still missed out on a substantial part of the initial recovery. The initial recovery will likely be very rapid. We aren’t going to try to time the market.
  2. Rebalance. In our initial financial planning process, we examine each client’s risk tolerance and risk capacity. This leads to a target asset allocation, such as 50/50 or 70/30. Because stocks have fallen so far, a 60/40 portfolio might be closer to 50/50 today. Rebalancing will sell bonds and buy stocks to return to the target allocation. This process is a built-in way to buy low and sell high. (Selling today would be selling low. It’s too late for that.)
  3. Diversify. The investors who have concentrated positions in one stock, one sector, or country jeopardize their ability to recover. Some stocks might not make it out of this recession. Some sectors will remain depressed. Don’t try to pick the winners and losers here. We know that when the recovery does occur, an index fund will give us the diversification and broad exposure we want.
  4. Tax loss harvest. If you have a taxable account, sell losses and immediately replace those positions with a different fund. For example, we might sell a Vanguard US Large Cap fund and replace it with a SPDR US Large Cap fund. Or vice versa. The result is the same allocation, but we have captured a tax loss to offset future gains. Losses carry forward indefinitely and you can use $3,000 a year of losses against ordinary income. Tax loss harvesting adds value.
  5. Stay disciplined, keep moving forward. When it feels like the plan isn’t working, it’s natural to question if you should abandon ship. Unfortunately, we know from past crashes that selling just locks in your loss. Instead, keep contributing to your 401(k) and IRAs, and invest that money as usual.

This Time Is Different

The most dangerous sentence in investing is This time is different. It isn’t true in Bull Markets and it isn’t true in Bear Markets. In the midst of a crash, people abandon hope and feel completely defeated. Maybe you will feel that way, maybe you already feel that way. Maybe you are thinking that this is the Zombie Apocalypse and all stocks are going to zero.

What history shows is that all past crashes have recovered and led to new highs. If you’re going to invest, this is what you have to believe. Even though things are terrible right now, if you think that this time there will be no recovery, I think you will be making a mistake.

The stock market will continue to go down for as long as there are more sellers than buyers. Panic selling is the driver, not fundamentals. No one knows how long that will take. Eventually, we will reach a point of capitulation, when all the sellers will have thrown in the towel. That will be the bottom, visible only in hindsight.

My recommendation is to study past crashes, not for the causes, but to see the charts of the recoveries. I believe that 2020 will have a similar stock crash pattern to 2008, 2000, and previous crashes. We don’t know how long this takes or how deep it goes, but we do know what behavior worked in past crashes.

We have a plan, and I have faith in the plan. Things may be ugly for a while, probably a lot longer than we’d like. All we can control is our response. Let’s make sure that response is based on logic and history, and have faith in the pattern and process.

Investing involves risk of loss. Diversification and dollar cost averaging cannot guarantee a profit.

2020 Stock Market Crash

2020 Stock Market Crash

This month will likely be called the 2020 Stock Market Crash in the years ahead. Investopedia defines a crash as a double digit drop over a few days as the result of a crisis or catastrophic event. A crash typically occurs after a period of speculation which drives stock prices to above average valuations. Panic is a hallmark of a crash, versus a Bear Market. Certainly, we have met the definition of a crash.

Risk is perceived as danger when it occurs, but only in hindsight do we see another definition of risk: opportunity. If you look at the purchases you made in your 401(k) back in 2008 and 2009, you may be astonished by the gains you made at those low prices!

Your emotional response to a crash may be to ask if you should sell. But then you might miss out on today’s opportunities. Even if you are fully invested today, consider these five actions instead of selling.

Five Opportunities

  1. Keep buying. Dollar cost average in your 401(k), IRA or other accounts. The shares you buy at a low price could be your largest future gains. If you have not made your IRA contribution for 2019 or 2020, this might be a good time.
  2. Roth Conversion. Thinking about converting part of your IRA to a Roth? If so, you would now pay 11% less in taxes versus last month. After that, your gains will be tax-free in the Roth.
  3. Rebalance. Hopefully you started with a defined allocation, like 60/40 or 70/30. If that has subsequently gotten off-target, now may be an opportune moment to make rebalancing trades.
  4. Replace low yielding bonds. Look at the SEC Yield of your bond funds. The SEC Yield measures the yield to maturity of a fund’s bonds and subtracts the expense ratio. It is the best measure of expected returns for a bond fund. Bonds can work as portfolio ballast: a way to offset the risk of stocks. If that is your objective, stay safe. Unfortunately, the actual contribution of bonds to your portfolio return is terrible, maybe 2%, or even less than 1% if you own short-term treasuries. Instead, what I find attractive after this crash is Preferred Stocks, non-callable CDs (versus Treasuries of the same duration), and Fixed Annuities. If your SEC Yields are unacceptable consider changes, but proceed with great caution. Above all, avoid trading down from a safe bond to a risky bond just for a higher yield.
  5. Do nothing. Markets go up and down. You have the choice of just ignoring it. Selling on today’s panic is the worst type of market timing, giving into fear. So, take a deep breath and realize that after the crash it is often best to hold.

Work on Your Financial Plan

There’s more to your financial success than just whether the stock market is up or down. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I on track for retirement?
  • Do I have an Estate Plan?
  • Am I prepared for my children’s college education expenses?
  • Have I protected my family with a term life insurance policy? Additionally, are there risks to my career, business, health, or family which I need to address?
  • Do I have a disability and long-term care plan?
  • How am I addressing my charitable goals?
  • Are there additional ways to save on taxes?
  • Should I refinance my mortgage?
  • Am I eligible for a Health Savings Account or Flexible Spending Account?
  • Have I calculated the optimal age to begin Social Security for myself and my spouse?

Don’t let investing in the stock market consume all your attention, because it is only one piece of your financial plan!

Think Long Term

Risk is danger and risk is opportunity. Instead of worrying about this month, imagine that it is 2021 or 2022 and the market has recovered. What would you have wished you had done in the 2020 Stock Market Crash?

Ignoring the panic of the day isn’t easy. Thankfully, a good investor doesn’t have to make predictions about the market going up or down. We can’t control that. The key is managing how you respond when the market is at its worst. Finally, if you know you need work on your financial plan or would benefit from professional advice on managing your portfolio, I am here to help.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Stock market investing involves risk of loss of principal. Dollar cost averaging does not guarantee a gain.

Preferred Stocks Belong in Your Portfolio

Why do we own Preferred Stocks? US Stocks are expensive today. Bond yields are very low. Neither are terribly attractive. With any allocation, the expected return of the portfolio going forward is lower than historical returns. Risks, however, remain in the market. That’s not a dire prediction, just a statement of fact. We hope 2020 is another great year, like 2019.

The challenge for a portfolio manager like myself, is to diversify and find the sweet spot of risk and return. Because of today’s high prices of stocks and bonds, we include a 10% allocation to alternative investments. We’re looking for things which might offer a higher yield than bonds, but with less risk than stocks. And ideally, with a low correlation to stocks or bonds.

What is a Preferred Stock?

A Preferred Stock is a hybrid security. It has characteristics of both a common stock and a bond. It trades like a stock and pays a quarterly dividend. Like a bond, it has a fixed rate of return and a par value. With a Par value of $25, a company issues a Preferred stock at $25 and can redeem it at $25. 

(How well do you understand bonds? Read: A Bond Primer.)

Historically, Preferred Stocks were “perpetual”, meaning that they had no ending date. More commonly today, Preferred Stocks are callable. Companies can buy back their Preferreds at $25 after a specific date in the future, most often five years after issue. Other Preferreds have a specific redemption date, when the company will buy back all of the shares.

Dividends of a Perpetual Preferred are typically qualified dividends. They qualify for the 15% tax rate on dividends. Other Preferreds, with redemption dates, may treat dividends as ordinary income, like bonds. As a result, we prefer to buy Preferreds in an IRA. 

The Investment Rationale

We are interested in Preferreds which are callable or have a redemption date of less than 10 years. The reason is that, unlike perpetual Preferreds, these ones are trading for close to $25 a share. The ones we own have coupons of 4.75% to 7.25% or higher. We are generally paying a little above $25 today, but plan to hold until the shares are redeemed or called. (We can also sell them any day if desired, as they are liquid.)  

You buy Preferreds for the dividend. They do not offer any growth. But that also means we have more stability. They tend to trade right around $25. And for those with a redemption date, we know the company will buy them for $25. So, any price volatility is likely a temporary fluctuation.

I am featured in this article “Are Preferred Stocks Preferable?” at US News & World Report from the summer of 2016. Since then, the relative attractiveness of Preferreds versus common stocks has improved significantly. Today, I think they have a place in our portfolios.

How to Invest in Preferred Stocks

Because Preferred Stocks carry the credit risk of the company, we prefer to purchase a basket rather than just one. Typically, we have a 5-6% allocation to Preferreds per household, and will buy at least five different issuers. That gives us some diversification of risks. Like any stock or bond, if the company goes bankrupt, you lose money. That’s why we diversify with a basket of small positions.

There are also funds and ETFs for Preferreds which offer a bigger basket. But, I prefer to pick the duration and companies I want. Also, we can save clients the expense ratio of a fund, often 0.50% to 1% a year. That would take a big bite out of your yield.

Preferreds are a niche investment and not a part of our core holdings. Given today’s market, we think they offer a nice complement to our traditional stock and bond holdings. Most advisors have never purchased a Preferred Stock, but I have been analyzing and trading the sector for over 15 years. We generally buy on the open market, but this month we have also participated in IPOs of Preferreds from Wells Fargo, AT&T, and Capital One. People want these yields. They’re no magic bullet, but Preferred Stocks are an interesting tool and we think a good fit for what our clients want.

If you’re looking for more than just a generic robo portfolio or a target date fund, let’s talk. Our Premiere Wealth Management Portfolios are for investors with at least $250,000 to invest.

Investment carries risk of loss of principal. Preferred Stocks are not guaranteed. 

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.