With rising interest rates, what to do about bonds.

With interest rates increasing investors are noticing that their bonds are not doing nearly as well as their stocks.  In fact many investors may have lost money on bonds this year.  For example, the typical tax exempt bond fund has lost between 4 – 5% year-to-date.  What should investors do about bonds when the likelihood of rising interest rates is high?

The October issue of Financial Planning magazine give us an insight into what happened in the past when interest rates rose.

During the five-year period from 1977 through 1981, the federal discount rate rose to 13.42% from 5.46%, an increase of nearly 800 basis points, or 145.8%. During that period, the five-year annualized return of U.S. T-bills was an impressive 9.84%.  But T-bills are short-term bonds.

But bonds did not fare nearly as well. The Barclays one- to five-year government/credit index had a five-year annualized return of 6.61%, while the intermediate government/credit index had a 5.63% annualized return. The long government/credit index got hammered amid the rising rates, and ended the five-year period with an annualized return of -0.77%. Finally, the aggregate bond index had a five-year annualized return of 3.05%.

As every investor should know, bonds go down in price when interest rates go up but that decline is offset by the interest paid on the bonds.  If an investment manager knows what he is doing and protects his portfolios by avoiding exposure to long-dated government bonds the results will be acceptable. An annualized return of 5.63% is quite good when rates are increasing.

But one important note: It does not seem prudent to avoid bonds entirely during periods of rising interest rates. Bonds are a vitally important part of a diversified portfolio containing a wide variety of asset classes – during all times and seasons. Rather than trying to decide whether to be in or out of bonds, the more relevant issue would seem to be whether to use short-duration or long-duration bonds.

This, of course, is consistent with a strategic approach to portfolio design. Rather than completely remove an asset class from a portfolio, advisors and clients would be well advised to thoughtfully modify the components of an asset class. To use a nautical metaphor, rather than swapping boats, we simply trim the sails.

 

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