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Posts Tagged ‘bonds’

Bonds are not the stodgy, boring things that most investors think of even though there’s no army of talking heads on financial news shows talking about them.

They are a huge market (about double the value of stocks as noted in my last post). They are an essential part of our economy.  Most companies cannot function without easy access to credit.  In fact, the shock and uncertainty that followed the collapse of some of the largest banks pretty much brought the economy to a standstill and contributed mightily to the Great Recession.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t money to be made in this asset class. Savvy investors of all stripes need to consider the value of bonds in a well-diversified portfolio.  And how you build that portfolio will help lower risks and costs and ultimately mean more money in an investor’s personal bottom line.

Whether someone is retired or not, bonds can provide income and potential capital appreciation (and depreciation if not hedged properly).

Bonds are a key part of an income-producing strategy (dividend-paying stocks are another asset class useful for this as well).

What is a Bond Ladder?

Essentially, a bond ladder describes a strategy to manage fixed-income investments by staggering the maturity dates of the various investments.

Some may be familiar with CD ladders: You select a series of bank certificates of deposit and stagger their maturity dates so that every six months, for example, a CD matures and you can reinvest the proceeds.

The advantage of this is that in a rising interest rate environment the investor is not locked out  of getting a higher rate on new money.

As with any fixed income investment, the disadvantage is that in a falling rate environment money that matures gets reinvested at a lower rate.

To minimize this impact professionals focus on the concept of “duration” which is a measure of how sensitive a bond (or any fixed income investment) is to changes in interest rates:  The lower the duration, the less sensitive and vice versa.

Mutual funds may publish an implied “duration” measure but it is not accurate because the fund, unlike the bonds themselves, is perpetual.

So to minimize risk to a fixed income portfolio, an investor (with the help of a competent financial professional) can create a custom portfolio.  And unlike a passive index fund, this custom portfolio can be built using bank CDs of staggering maturities for the near-term money coupled with a variety of bonds (corporate, US Government and municipal issues) with their own staggered maturity dates.

To mitigate the risks posed by higher interest rates caused by inflation or other political influences, the mix can also include “floating rate” bank notes. These are essentially bank loans to companies that adjust. Think of them like adjustable rate mortgages but to fund company operations  instead of real estate.

To add diversification to the mix, one can add closed-end funds that can be bought at a discount. These funds are professionally managed and offer an opportunity for price appreciation but at an expense ratio that is typically far lower than a conventional open-ended bond mutual fund.

By combining these elements, an investor may be able to lower the overall risk from interest rate movements, from default risk of individual components and from the impact of a “run on the bank” when others are selling (NAV risk).

And the overall cost of putting this together is cheaper than many mutual funds.  The cost to buy or trade an individual bond is typically included in the yield offered without any additional charge.  CDs do not have any added cost.  And for US Treasurys there may be a nominal fee (less than $3 per bond or example).

A knowledgeable financial professional can have access to hundreds of bond brokers.  By being independent and not beholden to any one broker’s inventory, an adviser can access offerings from multiple sources, find the best price and terms and lower an investor’s costs.

Depending on the total assets in the bond portfolio, the cost for professional management to monitor and make changes can typically run between 0.4% and 0.7% of the portfolio which is well under the cost of many mutual fund options.

For help putting your personal portfolio together, call Steve Stanganelli at Clear View at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

 

 

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Investors are always looking for the next big thing. By the amount of time and energy devoted to talking heads divining tea leaves and spouting stock tips on news programs, cable TV and the internet, you would think that the only market that counts is the US stock market.

In fact, the global bond market actually dwarfs the stock market by a factor of two to one. According to the December 2010 Asset Allocation Advisor, the amount of outstanding debt in the world tops $91 Trillion compared to the $52 Trillion market value of all stock markets around the globe. Of this all US stocks are valued at only $17 Trillion.

There is a mistaken belief among investors that bonds are only for “conservative” investors or those who are retired. Stocks are exciting.  Bonds are boring.  If we have learned anything from the financial collapse triggered by mortgage bonds in 2008, bonds are anything but boring.  The important lesson is knowing that bonds are not to be ignored and can play an important role in a diversified portfolio when done right.

What’s an investor to do?  Build a better mousetrap.

Most investors, if they have any bond exposure at all, will buy them through a mutual fund.  While mutual funds offer instant diversification and professional portfolio management, there are limitations.  In no particular order, these are: costs, inability to control for taxes, lack of customization and what is known as “NAV” risk.

For actively managed bond mutual funds, the average operating costs (or expense ratio) can exceed 1% per year.  For index or passive bond mutual funds, the costs can be less (sometimes as low as 0.2% per year) but you will only have access to a statistical sampling of bonds.  With either option you lack the ability to customize the holdings to match your specific needs for generating income or control the timing of sales which may be important from a tax perspective.

Another problem, NAV risk, is little understood by consumers.  Mutual funds are priced daily.  A value is determined for each of the mutual fund’s investments (closing price times number of shares or units owned).  And this total is divided among the total number of mutual fund units outstanding.  This Net Asset Value is the number you see in the charts and tables on line or in the newspaper.

With a mutual fund there is a constant flow of money coming in to buy more units or flowing out to cover redemptions made by other investors.  Sometimes there is a mismatch between these flows.  If there is a “run on the bank” and lots of redemptions occur, the mutual fund may be forced to sell holdings at “fire sale” prices intended for long-term investment to raise cash to meet the demands caused by redemptions.  For those investors who hold on, they can be punished in the near-term by seeing the NAV fall and dragging down the value of their holding. That’s the NAV risk.

In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about the ways to help reduce the impact and costs of these problems by building your own portfolio of bonds.

For additional information or help with investing, call Clear View Wealth Advisors at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

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There are many valid reasons to consider a 401k rollover.

Costs

While it may not seem like it, you are paying for your funds to stay with your old employer’s sponsored plan.  You just don’t see it.  Fees for employer plans are not very transparent.  While you may not see an actual bill, your employer is probably paying for the administration of the plan through hidden fees assessed on the balances held in it.

I have seen sponsored plans that had these back-end hidden fees and charged the participant a piece for each contribution.  A little here, a little there all adds up.  And the more it is, the less there is to compound for your retirement.

While there are few things that you can control in life and investing, fees are one of them.

In a rollover IRA, you’ll have more choices of platforms which may offer low loads and costs so you can keep more in your pocket.  So control what you can when you can for successful investing.

Choice and Access

While some employer plans may offer a variety of funds which may be top of the line, you’re still limited to the menu selected by your employer.  More often than not this is influenced by the broker associated with the plan.  And this can be influenced by the restrictions placed on the choices by the broker’s company or administrator because there may be an incentive to fill the menu with one fund family.

I’ve seen plans offered through national payroll companies that required more than 50% of the fund choices to be of one particular fund family.  Not every choice in a management company’s fund line up may be stellar so you’re limiting yourself by staying with the old plan.

When you rollover you’ll have a much larger universe to choose from.  (My company has access to more than 14,000 non-proprietary mutual funds with no loads or loads waived).  You’ll typically even have access to individual stocks, bonds, Unit Investment Trusts, Exchange Traded Funds and bank CDs.

Have you ever considered investing in something besides stocks, bonds or mutual funds? Maybe you might want to invest in real estate or buy judgments or invest in a business by being its lender or providing a friend with start-up capital.

Well, you can’t do that with a typical 401k plan.  But you can with a self-directed IRA.  And such an IRA can’t be done through the Big Box financial firms.  There are specialized bank and non-bank custodians who handle such transactions and work through independent financial planners to help their clients learn more about such options.

Risk Controls & Broader Choice of Investment Strategies

While you may have online access to your company-sponsored plan so you can make trades or switches of your funds periodically, there really are no risk controls that you can use given the limitations of the platform the 401k is using.

Let’s put it this way:  Investors make money when they don’t lose it.  At least that’s my working philosophy.  Having options and systems in place means that you stand a better chance of protecting your retirement nest egg.

It’s always easier to not lose money in the first place than it is to try to make up for lost ground.  Your money has to work harder to get back to breakeven much less get ahead for your retirement goals.

Consider this:  If you think that Treasurys or munis are in their own bond bubbles, what can you do to protect yourself through your 401k?  Probably, not much.  But in your own IRA you’ll be able to build a more all-weather portfolio that includes inflation hedges like convertible bonds, foreign dividend-paying stocks, master limited partnerships or even managed futures.  All come in mutual funds or ETFs which offer the advantages of diversification without the tax and cost structures of direct investment options.

Or maybe you want to minimize the impact of another downdraft in the market.  Using ETFs and trailing stop-loss orders you may help protect your gains.  Not an option in your old 401k.

So when you roll your account over, you’ll also have access to professional help, tools and direct management options tailored to your specific needs that you just can’t get within your old 401k.

Things to Consider:

iMonitor Portfolio Program

Money Tools DIY Program

For more information, please call Steve Stanganelli, CFP® at the Rollover Helpline at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

Check out the website and newsletter archive for more on this and similar topics:  www.ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com.

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What could possibly link the children’s story of Watership Down, Thanksgiving turkey and retirement investing risks?

Well, my mind works in strange ways (just ask my wife and I’m sure my 15-month old Spencer agrees as well).

Buy and Hold – A Broken Promise?

After all the troubles in the stock market and in financial markets in general over the past couple of years, I was recently rereading an article in the trade magazine, Journal of Financial Planning. In the September 2009 issue there is a book excerpt by Ken Solow, CFP (R) entitled Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Trouble with Quant Models.

Over the past couple of years there has been much written about Buy and Hold investing. You may be familiar with the concept as an approach to investing that focuses on selecting an investment (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate) and simply holding on through good times and bad.  Occasionally, you should rebalance back toward some strategic assert allocation to reduce or minimize certain risks.

The reasoning behind this is simple: humans are bad at financial decisions and by adopting this approach you can take the emotion out of investing.  Too often, we tend to make important decisions with little information and rely on emotions like fear or greed.  In fact, Warren Buffet, investor-extraordinaire of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, has said this many times and by doing the opposite of what the masses do he has amassed a fortune for himself and his investors.

For many, buy and hold was discredited after the great Financial Meltdown that tipped us into the Great Recession.  All asset  classes – whether large company stocks, small company stocks, stocks of foreign firms, bonds from companies large or small and bonds issued by sovereign nations – went down.

Most investors feel cheated, angry and worse. This buy and hold approach was advertised as a way to minimize risk.  Unfortunately, most investors probably misinterpreted the idea of minimizing risk and thought that it eliminated the downside volatility.

As I often say to clients, we know there will be sunny days and rainy days.  Risk management means carrying an umbrella and maybe wearing a rain coat as well.  But just because you are using one or both of them doesn’t mean that you won’t get wet.  You’ll just not get soaked like the guy who’s running from the street curb toward the office door with nothing but a newspaper over his head.

It’s true that Buy and Hold will help take the emotion out of investing. Over the long-term, the Ibbotson Charts will show that all asset classes have gone up since 1926 until now even after the meltdown.

That provides cold comfort to the retiree who is just about to start withdrawals from his portfolio to supplement his retirement income and lifestyle.  There were many who saw their investments drop 30%, 40% or more.  And while their portfolio may have bounced back some with the market rally and over time the market may continue to rise, they just don’t have the time to wait.  They have to start taking out money now.  And each time they take out money to live on, there is less in the pot to grow.

This has happened before.  Remember Enron.  Remember Lucent Technologies.  On one day someone is a paper millionaire.  Fast forward and the companies are in the tank (bankrupt in the case of Enron) and your retirement dream is a nightmare. If you’re at the tail end of a 25 year career, you really don’t have the time to make it up but have to make do with what you have. (Even for these folks, not all is lost and there are things one can do to sustain a retirement as I noted here in a previous post. And I’ll be talking about sustainable withdrawal rates in another post on retirement income planning.)

For the rest of us, there is a lesson in there. And this is where Watership Down and Thanksgiving turkey come into play.

Buy and Hold, Modern Portfolio Theory & The Illusion of Math

Buy and Hold is based on the quantitative model of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) first devised Harry Markowitz more than 50 years ago.  Such quantitative models are based on lots of mathematics.  The formulas are complex and elegant.  They are beyond what most of us are comfortable with but they do provide a sense of security.  You input numbers from data on various asset classes and a very precise number comes out the other side of the black box.  This provides a sense of security.  Instead of relying on something subjective like your instinct or your gut feelings, you can put your faith into something objective like the science of math and finance.

Over the past few years and principally from the mid-1990s until our recent meltdown, we have come to rely on ever more complex quantitative models. These complex models drove the markets in real estate and mortgages as we relied more and more on the black boxes of the financial engineers.  But theories are only theories and models are only as good as the assumptions and data used to create them.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And a model is only as good as the assumptions behind it.  All models are based on past events. And even though we are warned that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” we rely on these backward-looking, statistically-based models for predicting our futures.

In a normal world, the behavior of markets and investors can be assumed pretty well. But in panics, all bets are off.  No amount of modeling can predict how presumably reasonable people will act but it’s safe to say that human nature’s fight or flight syndrome kicks in hard.

Watership Down – A Lesson from Spencer’s Bedtime

What happens is that things go along and work until they don’t.  Assumptions are assumed to be fine until they need to be revised. When I was reading Watership Down there is a scene where the protagonist, a wild rabbit, encounters a number of other well-fed white rabbits.  Our hero tries to get them to follow him but to no avail.  The tame rabbits live in a fine world where they are provided plenty of food, water, shelter and care.  What more is there to go searching for “out there?”

The Thanksgiving Turkey

Our false sense of security and belief in a system like MPT or Buy and Hold can be illustrated in the tale of the Thanksgiving turkey.

As retold by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan:

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey:  It will incur a revision of belief.

Unable or unwilling to question its beliefs, the turkey was lulled into a false sense of security by his daily reinforcing experiences. Like the tame white rabbits in Watership Down, the turkey’s world is looking good and life is great.  So much so that neither even think about ways to escape.

At least in the animated movie Chicken Run with Mel Gibson (another soon-to-be Spencer favorite), the chickens are led to question their assumptions about life on the farm and plot ways to escape.

What We Learn from Bedtime Stories for Investing

What we learn from these stories is that just because things have worked in the past, doesn’t mean that they are absolute truths that will hold in the future. The most dangerous thing that an investor can do is simply accept with blind faith the assumptions of the past.  In a changing market, there’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking.

Theories are only theories and while it may seem like heresy to question assumptions, it’s in your best interest to do so.

Does this mean abandoning Modern Portfolio Theory or Buy and Hold? No.

It does mean that it makes sense to add some human judgment to the mix.  Good models can work even better with common sense.

Like the counter-culture of the 1960s would teach, you as an investor will do best to question authority and question assumptions.

Use an Investment Policy Statement as a Better Road Map

Here with the aid of a qualified professional you can walk through and create a personalized investment policy statement as a road map for investing decisions.

Such an approach can combine the quantitative tools to be used along with the more qualitative, value-based criteria that can be combined to help in the investment selection and portfolio management process.

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It’s easy to get tripped up in retirement.  I’m reminded of the expression by the octogenarian to the recent newlywed fretting about life but rejecting out of hand the advice of his experienced senior:

A long time ago I was where you are now.  And later you’ll be where I am now.  But just as you haven’t been your age before, I’ve never been old before.

So for new retirees who “not been there or done that” it’s a whole new world filled with possibility and pitfalls.

Transitioning

Most retirees have an imperfect vision of retirement at best.  And if it hasn’t been discussed or communicated, it could be vastly different from that of your spouse.

Finding meaning in a post-work world can be a real challenge.  If your identity has been wrapped up in what you do, then you might now feel lost.  Your social networks might change.  Your activities might change.

It’s important to reassess your values and envision how you want to live in this next chapter of your life.

Initially, there may be more travel to visit family, friends or places.  You may want to tackle that “bucket list.”

But to live a truly fulfilling and rewarding retirement may require you to take stock in yourself, your values and what gives you meaning.  You may benefit from working with a professional transition coach or group that can help guide you through this period of rediscovery.  One such resource can be found here at the Successful Transition Planning Institute.

Lifestyle Budget

Typically, most retirees may take the rule of thumb bandied about that you will need from 60% to 70% of your pre-retirement income to live on in a post-retirement world.  This is because it is assumed that many expenses will drop off:  business wardrobe, commuting to work, professional memberships, housing, new cars, etc.

The reality is far different.  According to research conducted by the Fidelity Research Institute 2007 Retirement Index, more than two-thirds of retirees spent the same or higher in retirement.  Only eight percent spend significantly lower and about 25% spend somewhat lower. The Employee Benefit Research Institute  reported in its 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey that while 60% of workers expected to more than half of retirees didn’t see a drop in retirement expenditures while 26% of this group reported that their spending actually rose.

It all depends on your goals, lifestyle and what curve balls life throws at you.  If you have adult children who end up in a financial crisis of their own caused by job loss, health issues or divorce, you may be spending more than you expected to help out. Maybe the home you live in will require higher outlays for maintenance or to upgrade the home so you can live there independently. In reality all of that travel and doing things on your bucket list will cost money, too.  So it’s more the rule than the exception to expect spending to increase while you’re still healthy to get up and go.

Over time, the travel bug and other activities will probably decline but even after that these may be replaced by other expenses.

Healthcare

There is an old saying that as you get older you have more doctors than friends.  This is a sad reality for many including my parents.

My father is on dialysis and has complications from diabetes.  His treatments probably cost Medicare (and ultimately the US taxpayer) more than $30,000 each quarter as I figure it.  He takes about 13 prescriptions each day and enters the dreaded “donut hole” about mid-year each year. At one time their former employers (a Fortune 500 company) provided medical insurance benefits to retirees but that became more and more cost prohibitive for their employer and for my parents as premiums, co-pays and deductibles rose.  So now they rely on a combination of Medicare and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and a state program called Prescription Advantage.

As private employers and cash-strapped state and municipal governments tackle the issue, you can expect to pay more for your health care in retirement.

Wealth Illusion

It’s not uncommon to feel really rich when you look at your retirement account statements.  (Sure, the balances are off where they may have been at the peak but it’s probably still a large pot of money). The big problem is that retirees may have no comprehension about how long that pot of money will last or how to turn it into a steady paycheck for retirement.

In reality the $500,000 in your 401k or IRA accounts may only provide $20,000 per year if you plan on withdrawing no more than 4% of the account’s balance each year. Then again if you take out more early on in retirement, you could be at risk of depleting your resources quickly.

Misplaced Risk Aversion & The Impact of Inflation

So as you get older, you’ll be tempted to follow the rule of thumb that more of your investments need to be in bonds. Although this may seem to be a conservative approach to investing, it is in fact risky.

Setting aside that this ignores the risks that bonds themselves carry, it is ignoring the simple fact that inflation eats away at your purchasing power.  Even in a tame inflationary world with 1% annual inflation, a couple spending about $80,000 a year when they are 65 will need over $88,000 a year just to buy the same level of goods and services when they turn 75.  Given the potential for higher inflation in the future that may result from a growing economy and/or current monetary policy, investments need to be positioned to hedge against inflation with a diverse allocation into stocks and not just bonds even when in retirement.

The other risk is trying to play catch up.  As a retiree sees the balances on his accounts get drawn down, he might even be tempted to “shoot for the moon” by investing in illiquid investments like stocks in small, thinly traded markets or in sectors that are very speculative.

Ball games are one by base hits and consistency on the field and at the plate.  Home runs are dramatic but not a sure thing.

Underestimating How Long You’ll Live

We all want a long and productive life.  Many will even say that they don’t want to live to be a burden to their families.  But here again the reality is that most folks do a bad job of guessing how long they’ll live.  A report by the Society of Actuaries notes that 29% of retirees and pre-retirees estimate that they’ll outline the averages but in fact there is a 50% chance of outliving them.

So while they may have enough resources to carry them through the average life expectancy, they will not have enough when they live longer than the averages. And if a couple attains the age of 65, there is a better than 50% chance that at least one of them will live into their 90s.

Given the fact that most women become widows at the age of 53 (Journal of Financial Planning, Nov. 2010), this has a big impact on the availability of resources for retirement.  Too often, a short-sighted approach to maximize current retirement income from a pension is to choose the option that pays the highest but stops when one spouse dies. All too often this puts the widow who may live longer without a reliable source of income to provide for her.

Conclusion

Too often people underestimate how long they will live in retirement, how much they will actually need for living in retirement and how to invest for a sustainable retirement paycheck using appropriate product, asset and tax diversification.

Many people do not save enough for their own retirement.  The social safety net providing support for old age income and healthcare may not be enough to maintain a desired lifestyle.  Women need to understand the risk of living long into retirement and manage resources accordingly.  And because more than 40% of Americans are at risk of retiring earlier than expected because of job loss, family care needs or personal health, there is a real need for proper planning to address these issues.

While retirees will benefit from having a good plan and road map before the final paycheck ends, it’s never too late to start. And for the newly retired with the time to address these issues, now’s as good a time as any to speak to a qualified professional who can help.

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After the Dow Industrials reached their peak on October 9, 2007, there was a long, painful decline to the trough reached on March 9, 2009.  During that time the DJIA lost 54% but was followed by a rally of 70%. Even with this spectacular run up through 2009, the index never reached it peak. While closer now after a good 2010 it, the peak is still a long climb up the mountain.  In fact, to break even from a 50+% loss requires a disproportionate increase (more than 100%) just to “get back to where you once belonged” as the classic rock song lyrics said.

Investors Win By Not Losing

As this roller coaster shows, its easier to keep what you have than try to rebuild it.  Unfortunately, after such volatility, investors tend to flee to places that are perceived to be safe.  For most that has created a flight to bonds. While investors think of risk as “loss of capital” the traditional views of risk continue to be turned on their head. Sure, you could stash your money away in a money market or under the mattress but what kind of return will that produce?  Will you have enough to eat more than dog food in retirement?

A recent documentary on the disaster at Pompeii and Herculaneum shows how many townspeople fled to the concrete tunnels near the wharves.  Considered a safe place, it ended up as a tomb to more than 300 skeletal remains. These hopeful survivors were trapped by the lava flows which sealed up the tunnels where they had fled.

In many ways, investors fleeing the danger of the markets by shifting to government bonds could be dooming themselves to a similar fate as the Pompeians.

The returns from “safe” Treasuries are pathetic.  Huge investor appetite has driven up to demand and helped lower the yields offered.  A backlash could hurt investors when interest rates rise as they inevitably have to.

If the goal is to preserve capital and avoid dangers, it shouldn’t matter to an investor what asset class is used.  (It’s Halloween.  Watch any scary movie and when the hapless victim is trapped he/she could care less whether the guy in the hockey mask is stopped by a dump truck or an arrow).

In much the same way, we should be looking at other ways to conserve capital.

Carrying Junk Around

Say “junk bonds” to someone and they may be thinking about Michael Milken in the 1980s or businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.  While these bonds are issued by companies with lower credit ratings, they offer a very good alternative to “safe” Government bonds. The point of diversification is to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Today most investors are torn between a savings account paying practically no interest or reaching for yield using alternatives.

The bond market prices the risks of bonds every day.  Currently, the bond market is pricing in a possibility of 6% default risk on junk bonds as a group.  That’s down from its historic number. Some individual bonds of companies may certainly be higher but as a group that’s not a bad number.  Some analysts at JP Morgan Chase have even estimated that the default risk for 2011 is as low as 1.4%.

Why so low? The projected default risk is low in part because companies are showing their highest level of profits in years.  They have shed workers, squeezed productivity gains from those remaining and taken over market share as weaker competitors have failed. The prospects for these companies look even better considering that as a recession ends company cash flows improve.  This means more cash available to service debt. And as these companies improve so too will their credit ratings leading to lower interest rates that they can get when they refinance their debts just like any homeowner would who has an improved credit score.

Avoiding the Danger of a Secular Bear

In a secular bear market, there are rally periods while the markets as a whole may languish or sometimes drop.  During the secular bear from 1/1/1965 to 12/31/1985, a Buy and Hold bond investor would have been whipsawed but ending up gaining about 1 basis point (or 0.01%)  per year for 20 years.  Not a lot of payback for the sometimes stomach-churning ride over that time.

A More Tactical Approach to Risk Management

Not all bonds are the same.  There are government bonds, municipal bonds, US investment grade corporate bonds, US hi-yield/junk bonds, convertible bonds, bonds from overseas and bonds from emerging markets.  Just like every homeowner applying for a mortgage is different and has to go through different underwriting,  the characteristics of all these bonds are different as well.

For instance, hi-yield bonds are more likely subject to credit risk.  Since the rates on these types of bonds are higher than that found on a Government bond or investment grade corporate bond, they are not so sensitive to changes in interest rates.  On the other hand, Government bonds are more sensitive to interest rate risk and the perceptions about expected inflation or the impact of monetary and fiscal policy on future interest rates.

Since these two bond categories are influenced by different factors, they tend to not be correlated meaning that they don’t move in lock-step: When one is zigging the other is probably zagging in the opposite direction.

A key way to reduce risk and potentially increase returns when dealing with bonds is to rotate among the different bond types.  Sometimes the market conditions favor one flavor of bonds over another.  At other times it’s better to reduce all bond types and shift to cash or money markets.

Simply buying and holding means that gains made in one period may be taken away by another. If you’re able to make gains and take them off the table from time to time, you’ll have less money at risk and greater opportunities at preserving capital for the long term.

In the chart below, you can see that buying each of these major bond indexes can produce widely different results.  For nearly the same risk level (as measured by the standard deviation), US High Yield long term bonds have a clearly higher overall return and higher return during periods of higher interest rates than the long-term US Treasury index.

Bottom Line

Investors seeking ways to add income to their portfolio and reduce risk of loss to their capital really need to consider alternatives to buying and holding.  Rotating among these different bond asset types may reduce the overall volatility to the portfolio and preserve capital for the long term.

If you don’t want to end up like the victims of Mount Vesuvius and be buried by a “safe” move, you should open your minds to understand all the risks and ways to manage them.

Figure 1 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation/Nataxis Global Assoc, 10/27/2010)

Bond Index Annualized ReturnNov 1992 – Aug 2009 Standard Deviation (measure of risk) Annual Return During Rising Rate Period
BarCap US High Yield Long 10.45% 10.94 6.75%
BarCap US Corp Baa Investment Grade 6.97% 6.31 1.75%
BarCap US Aggregate Bond 6.46% 3.82 1.31%
BarCap LT US Treasury 8.11% 9.28 -0.40%

Figure 2 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

Bond Sector Credit Risk Interest Rate Risk Currency Risk
US High Yield High Low None
International Developed Market Low Medium High
Long-term US Government None High None
Emerging Market High Low High
US Municipal Low High None
US Investment Grade Corporate Low High None

Figure 3 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

CAPITAL PRESERVATION KEY to LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Loss Gain Needed to Get Back to Break Even

(15%)

+ 18%

(20%)

+ 25%

(30%) + 43%

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For individuals in retirement living on a fixed income, it can devastate one’s savings and lifestyle.

As a bond or CD-holder, the purchasing power of regular interest income gets hit.  As a stock investor, stock prices can suffer as profit margins and earnings of your equity holdings are hurt by the higher costs for inputs like energy, precious metals and labor.

Right now, Wall Street is in a good mood.  For the quarter just ended, the Dow has gained about 14%, the S&P increased 14.5% and the NASDAQ was up 15%.  In fact the last time the Dow saw such a large quarterly surge was back in the fourth quarter of 1998 when it rose more than 17% as the dot-com bubble was forming.

This quarter’s rally continued a trajectory that began in mid-March 2009.  It has been primarily propelled by glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.  A variety of positive statements from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke contributed to a more optimistic view.  Residential real estate sales continued to come back mostly prompted by a first-time homebuyer tax credit.  Corporate earnings have been up.  The popular “cash for clunkers” program spurred auto sales and by some measures consumer spending increased marginally even without the impact from auto sales.

Despite the Wall Street rally, Main Street is still hurting: unemployment continues to rise, business and personal bankruptcies have increased, bank failures are at their highest level and the dollar continues to weaken fueling fears of inflation down the road.

Signs of future higher inflation are on the radar screen:  All the government economic stimulus here and abroad coupled with mounting public debt; the Fed’s projected end of a program in March 2010 that will likely lead to higher mortgage rates; a Fed interest rate policy which has no place to go but up and rumblings that foreign governments and investors may not want to continue at their current pace of supporting our debt habit. 

So how do you position yourself to profit whichever way the tide turns?

Now, more than ever, it is important to have a risk-controlled approach to investing.  This is centered on an age-based allocation that includes exposure to multiple assets.

This is why we will continue to manage portfolios with an allocation to bonds and fixed income but there are ways to protect from the impact of inflation and still allow for growth.

1.)    Include dividend-paying equities:  Using either mutual funds or ETFs that have a focus on dividend-paying stocks will help boost income as well as return.   Stocks that pay dividends have averaged near a 10% annual return compared to a total return less than half of that for stocks that rely solely on capital appreciation.  Better yet, consider stock mutual funds or ETFs that focus on stocks that have a record of rising dividends.

2.)    Stay short:  By owning bonds, ETFs or bond mutual funds that have a shorter average maturity, you reduce the risk of being locked into less valuable bonds when higher inflation pushes future interest rates up.

3.)    Hedge your bets with inflation-linked bonds: Fixed-rate bonds offer no protection against inflation. A bond that has changes linked to an inflation index (like the Consumer Price Index) like TIPS issued by the US-government or ETFs that own TIPS (like iShares TIPS Bond ETF – symbol TIP) offer an opportunity for a bond investor to get periodically compensated for higher inflation.

4.)    Float your boat with Floating-Rate Notes: These medium-term notes are issued by corporations and reset their interest rates every three or six months.  So if inflation heats up, the interest rate offered will likely increase.  Yields in general are higher than those offered by government bonds typically because of the higher credit risk of the issuer.

5.)    Add Junk to the Trunk: Hi-yield bonds are issued by companies that have suffered down-grades – sort of like homeowners with dinged credit getting a mortgage.  Yields are set higher than most other bonds because of the higher risk.  Yet, as inflation heats up with a growing economy, the prospects of firms that issue junk improve and the perceived risk of default may drop. So as the yield difference narrows between these “junk” bonds and Treasuries, these bonds offer a “pop” to investors.

6.)    Own Gold and Other Commodities:  Whether as a store of value or hedge against inflation, precious metals have a long history with investors seeking protection from inflation.  It’s usually best to focus on owning the physical gold or an ETF that is tied directly to the physical gold. Tax treatment of precious metals is higher because of its status as a “collectible” but this is a minor price to pay for some inflation protection.  And because the demand for commodities in general increases with an expanding economy or a weakening dollar (in the specific case with oil), owning funds which hold these commodities will help hedge against the inflationary impact of an expanding economy.

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