At the mutual fund company where I once worked, the stock and bond teams liked to poke fun at one another. Bond managers viewed the stock-pickers as overpaid storytellers. Meanwhile, the stock-pickers saw the world of bonds as stultifying. “Playing for nickels and dimes” is how one of them put it.
For better or worse, bonds do indeed represent the slow lane. But this year, with rising rates having depressed bond prices, investors are wanting to learn more. Below are the questions I’ve been hearing most frequently.
Bonds are down 10% this year. How do I think about risk? The trickiest thing about bonds is that they carry two entirely separate types of risk. The first is called credit risk, and it’s the easier one to understand. This represents the risk that a bond issuer might fail to make all its required payments. When this happens, it’s called a default. The result is usually a sharp decline in the price of the bond.
When Enron went bankrupt, for example, its bonds declined to 17 cents on the dollar. With only a few obscure exceptions, though, the U.S. government has never defaulted on its debt. For that reason, these are the bonds I recommend most frequently.
As we’ve seen this year, though, even U.S. government bonds can decline in price. That’s because of the second category of bond risk, known as duration risk.
The duration formula is somewhat involved, but in short, it’s a measure of how long it will take an investor to get their money back. The longer the duration, the longer the wait. The problem with waiting: When rates rise, newer bonds sporting higher rates become more attractive. That depresses the prices of older bonds with lower rates. The longer a bond’s duration, the longer its owner is stuck with that lower rate. That’s why bond prices drop when interest rates rise, and why bonds with longer durations experience larger declines.
A good rule of thumb: When you invest in bonds, align the duration of those bonds with your timeline for needing those funds. Saving for a home down payment next year? Then I’d opt for a duration of a year or less. You can find bonds of virtually every duration.
What about international government bonds? Don’t they pay higher rates? This is a reasonable question. I don’t worry about major developed countries defaulting on their debt. But there’s another problem: exchange rates. Because bond yields are so thin, it’s easy to lose money on a bond just because the dollar strengthened a little.
Are bond prices going to keep dropping? What we’ve seen this year is unnerving. But keep in mind that a bond is just like any other investment: If its price has dropped, it now represents a better value, all things being equal.
Yes, the Federal Reserve could continue raising rates. They’ve indicated their plans to do so, and that would put further downward pressure on bonds. But here’s the key thing to keep in mind: Rising rates also have a silver lining. If you’re invested in a bond fund, the fund manager is now able to buy new bonds with more attractive rates. And those higher interest payments will help offset losses you experience if bond prices fall further. Eventually you’ll reach a breakeven point. How long will that take? Again, duration is important. The longer the duration, the longer it will take to break even.
Does that mean you should only ever invest in short-term bonds? No. Historically, the vast majority of bonds’ returns have come from interest payments and not from price changes. So it can be worthwhile to own longer-term bonds if they’re paying more. Today, however, longer-term bonds aren’t paying much more than shorter bonds. So for now, I’m happier with short-term bonds. But this situation won’t last forever. As a bond investor, I think it makes sense to diversify between short- and intermediate-term bonds.
A bond manager is promoting rates of 5%—much higher than prevailing rates. How is that possible? When you buy a stock, it’s straightforward. If the price is $100, you pay $100 and hope it goes up. But with bonds, it’s more confusing. Bonds have a face value—usually $1,000. But they’ll often trade at either a premium or a discount—that is, higher or lower than the face value. Regardless of what you pay, though, the bond will still only pay $1,000 at maturity.
As an investor, then, you need to be careful. Don’t be misled by the coupon payments a bond offers. That represents just one part of a bond’s return. The other component is the difference between what you paid and the $1,000 you receive at maturity.
Let’s come back to the fund manager trumpeting that 5% interest rate. What’s actually going on? The bonds do indeed pay 5% coupons. However, in the current environment, with rates closer to 3%, bonds paying 5% will be trading at a premium. They’ll cost more than $1,000.
Consider a simplified example: A bond offering a 5% rate, with one year to maturity, might cost $1,020. What will happen over the next year? You’ll collect a 5% interest payment. But at maturity, you’ll receive only $1,000, not the $1,020 you paid. That represents a 2% loss. Thus, the net return will be 3%, not 5%.
The lesson: Don’t be distracted by the interest rate on a bond. What you want to look at instead is its yield to maturity. That represents the net return investors will actually receive—3% in the above example.
If yield to maturity is what’s important, then what does it mean when mutual funds report their distribution yield or SEC yield? These are confusingly similar terms. If you’re looking at an individual bond, its yield to maturity is the most useful figure. But if you’re looking at a bond fund, you’ll generally see only its distribution yield and its SEC yield.
I wouldn’t put much stock in distribution yields. First, they’re backward-looking. They extrapolate from past income distributions. In a normal environment, that might be reasonable. But when rates are rising, as they’ve been this year, it makes no sense to extrapolate from past returns.
Further compounding the issue: Fund companies each calculate this figure differently, making it minimally useful for comparing investment options.
The SEC yield, on the other hand, does provide a common yardstick for comparing bond funds. While it too extrapolates from a fund’s recent income, it does so in a more meaningful way. And second, it accounts for a fund’s internal expenses. That’s why, if you’re looking at a fund, this is the figure I’d consult.
Should I own individual bonds or a bond fund? In theory, the performance of a bond fund should simply be the aggregate of all of the bonds it owns. For that reason, there shouldn’t be much difference between the performance of an individual bond and the performance of a fund that holds a group of comparable bonds.
There’s one caveat, though: When you’re a shareholder in a mutual fund, it’s like sharing an elevator with a group of strangers. Everything should be fine—as long as everyone behaves. In the context of a mutual fund, what does it mean for other investors to behave? You want them to be patient, especially when the fund is having a tough year, like this one.
What happens if fellow investors pull out of a fund after it’s dropped? The fund manager may need to sell some of the fund’s holdings to raise cash. That may force the fund to lock in a loss that might otherwise have been temporary. And because mutual funds are collective endeavors, it means that every investor will share in that loss.
In ordinary times, I have no problem with bond funds. In fact, they carry a number of advantages. However, in today’s environment, there’s no guarantee that everyone on the elevator will cooperate. For that reason, I think individual bonds make more sense than in the past.