What a Rising Rate Environment Could Mean for Bond Funds

After the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury Bond – a widely used economic bell weather – bottomed in July 2016, interest rates have risen substantially through March of this year.  The recent upward pressure on yields has pushed bond prices lower.  Strong economic growth, ongoing interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, and recent political developments could mean higher yields ahead.  Given the current environment, we’d like to take a closer look at bonds and bond funds.  We’ll examine how they work, a key risk metric to consider, and how these investments might perform if interest rates continue to rise.

Bonds are a type of fixed income investment given the regular cash flows a bondholder receives.  Similar to your home mortgage but with the roles reversed, investors who own bonds are loaning money to an entity (usually a corporation or a government) in exchange for a variable or fixed interest rate over a specified period of time.  This interest rate is known as the bond coupon and it varies based on the credit worthiness of the entity and the length of the payback period, among other factors.

While a bond’s coupon rate, or its stated yield at issuance, remains fixed for the life of the bond its price or value on the open market will vary based on prevailing interest rates.  When interest rates rise, bond prices fall, and when interest rates fall, bond prices rise.

How sensitive a bond’s price is to a change in interest rates is measured by a term called duration.  Specifically, duration is a measure of interest rate risk.  It indicates how much a bond’s principal value will rise or fall due to a change in interest rates.  Measured in years, a bond or bond fund with a higher duration will be more sensitive to changes in interest rates than a lower duration bond or bond fund.  As a result, a portfolio of bonds with a higher duration will fall more in price as interest rates rise than a portfolio with a lower duration, all else being equal.  Fortunately, bond mutual funds or ETFs report their portfolio duration and investors can use this metric to gauge short-term risk.

I say short-term risk because while a jump in interest rates – as we’ve seen recently – will weigh on a bond fund’s near-term performance, the higher current income that comes as a result of an increase in interest rates will often offset much of the decline in a bond fund’s value over the long-term.  This is one benefit of owning multiple bonds or a fixed income fund versus an individual bond.  Because a portfolio of bonds or a bond fund doesn’t have a single maturity date (instead it contains many bonds with different maturity dates), it can provide more income flexibility.  For example, in a rising rate environment, as some bonds in the portfolio mature, the manager can reinvest proceeds from those securities into new bonds that now have higher yields.  In turn, this pushes the portfolio’s yield up and helps to offset price declines.  In particular, bond funds can offer significant diversification benefits given their exposure to many individual bonds with different durations and credit profiles often for a low fee.

While a bond fund’s duration will indicate how much it declines (or rises) in price when interest rates rise (or fall) over a given period, it also indicates how much of a boost it will get from new, higher yields.  Bond funds with higher durations – which are more sensitive to interest rates – typically offer higher current yields to compensate for their higher risk profiles.  So while bond portfolios with higher durations will experience sharper price declines when interest rates rise, they’re also more likely to benefit from higher current income over the long-term.  At the same time, bond funds with shorter duration – which are less sensitive to interest rate changes – won’t benefit as much from higher current income associated with rising interest rates, but they won’t fall in price as much either.

The point is that bond duration is a useful risk metric.  When a fund has a higher duration it tells us that its price will fall more dramatically when interest rates rise as compared to a lower duration fund, but it should benefit more from higher current income tied to higher yields.  The key, however, is your investment time-horizon.  As an investor, you’ll be able to benefit from the higher current income of a longer duration bond fund only if your time-horizon exceeds the fund’s duration.  When it does, higher income over the long-term should offset near-term price declines.

This dynamic – of higher income offsetting falling bond prices – is related to the nature of bonds and is nicely illustrated by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index.  According to Charles Schwab, since 1976 over 90% of this index’s total return has come from income payments rather than price changes.

While most investors should fair well with a bond fund that is aligned with their investment horizon, diversification is another important consideration.  As stocks have historically delivered the strongest long-term returns and have outpaced inflation since the early 1900’s, bond investments are best used when there is a specific income need.  When this is the case, having a mix of shorter and longer-duration bond funds can help an investor take advantage of a changing interest rate environment and mitigate sharp price swings.  In today’s environment, owning bond funds with varying durations – in proportion to one’s income needs, investment time horizons, and risk tolerance – an investor should be better able to take advantage of rising interest rates.  For example, let’s take a client with 20% of his bond holdings in a short duration fund, 20% in an intermediate duration bond fund, and 60% in a long duration bond fund.  If interest rates were to rise sharply, the lower duration fund would see a small if negligible decline in value. In some cases, it may make sense for the investor to sell some of those shorter duration securities and use the proceeds to add to their long duration bond fund, which would now have a higher current yield.

In addition to duration and price sensitivity, Parsec’s Research Committee considers many other factors when constructing a client’s fixed income portfolio.  We also look at where we are in the credit cycle, the underlying quality of each bond asset category, valuation levels, and inflation sensitivity, among others.  Although thorough and well thought out research is critical to meeting your financial goals, staying invested for the long-term is even more important.  When appropriate, doing so with a fixed income portfolio can help you better weather significant price swings and ultimately benefit from current income.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

Share this:

What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

Share this: