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The main reason why Financial Advisors are recommending that individual investors sell bonds is that interest rates are likely to rise over the next 3-5 years or more. Although those sentiments have been a familiar refrain over the last 3-5 years though. Well, I would tend to agree that interest rates are poised to rise at some point toward the end of this decade. However, interest rate risk is only one of the risks of bonds. In fact, the size of the bond market dwarfs the stock market. When Financial Advisors are talking about bonds, they tend to be referring only to US Treasury bonds, corporate bonds, and municipal bonds. Interest rate risk greatly affects these bonds indeed. With that being said, they tend to conflate the interest rate risk of these bonds with the entire bond market. Remember that interest rates have dropped from 16.30% on the 1-month US Treasury bill back in 1981 to roughly 0.25% today. Therefore, bond prices have been rising for over 35 years and most financial professionals outside of the fixed income markets have forgotten (or if they are younger than 50) how bonds normally work, especially in a rising interest rate environment. But does it even matter really?
Yes. Here is an urgent note to all individual investors: “Beware of financial professionals that recommend dividend stocks or other equities as replacements for your fixed income allocation”. What I mean by this is that the volatility of stocks is far greater than bonds historically. Yields may be very low in money market funds, US Treasuries, and in bond mutual funds now. However, your risk tolerance must be taken into account at all times. While it is true that many dividend-paying stocks offer yields of 3% or more with the possibility of capital appreciation, there also is significant downside risk. For example, as most people are aware, the S&P 500 index (which represents most of the biggest companies in America) was down over 35% in 2008. Many of those stocks are included in the push to have individual investors buy dividend payers. With that being said, stock market declines of 10%-20% in a single quarter are not that uncommon. If you handle the volatility of the stock market well, there is no need to be concerned. However, a decline of 10% for a stock paying a 3% dividend will wipe out a little more than 3 years of yield. Individual investors need to realize that swapping traditional bonds or bond mutual funds is not a “riskless” transaction, meaning a one-for-one swap. The volatility and riskiness of your portfolio will go up commensurately with your added exposure to equities. Sometimes financial professionals portray the search for yield by jumping into stocks as the only option given the low interest rate environment. While your situation might warrant that movement in your portfolio allocation, you need to be able to accept that the value of those stocks is likely to drop by 10% or more in the future just taking into account normal volatility in the stock market historically (every 36 months or so in any given quarter). Are you able to handle that volatility when looking at your risk tolerance, financial goals, and age?
The purpose of this blog post is to discuss the risk factors associated with bonds in greater detail. Most bonds, such as Treasury notes and bonds, corporate bonds, and municipal bonds, will go down in value when interest rates go up. Conversely, they will go up in value when interest rates decrease. This characteristic of these types of bonds is called an inverse relationship. For a primer on how most bonds function normally, I have posted supplementary material alongside this post. You can refer to it to brush back up on bonds and how they work, and I also provide a historical look at interest rates over the last 35 years. Here is the link to that prior blog post:
There are many risk factors associated with investments in bonds. A great overview of those risks can be found in Fixed Income Mathematics the Fourth Edition by Dr. Frank Fabozzi who teaches at Yale University’s School of Management. Most fixed income traders, portfolio managers, and risk managers use his Handbook of Fixed Income Securities as their general guidebook for approaching dealing with the trading, investing, and portfolio/risk management of owning fixed income securities. Suffice it to say that he is regarded as one of the experts when it comes to the bond markets. Dr. Fabozzi summarizes the risks inherent in bonds on page 109 of the first text referenced above. The risks are as follows:
- Interest-rate risk;
- Credit risk;
- Liquidity risk;
- Call or prepayment risk;
- Exchange-rate risk.
Most of fixed income folks and myself would add inflation risk, basis risk, and separate credit risk into two components. Bonds have two types of risk as it relates to payment of principal and interest. The first risk is more commonly thought of and referred to as default risk. Default risk is simply whether or not the company will pay you back in full and with timely interest payments. Credit risk also can be thought of as the financial strength of the company. If a company starts to see a reduction in profits, much higher expenses, and drains of cash, the rating agencies may downgrade their debt. A downgrade just means that the company is less likely to pay back the bondholder.
Here is an example to illustrate the difference more fully: a company may have a AA+ rating from Standard & Poor’s at the beginning of the year, but, due to events that transpire during the year, the company may get downgraded to A- with a Negative Outlook. Now the company is still very likely to pay back principal and interest on the bonds, but the probability of default has gone up. As a point of reference, AAA is the highest and BBB- is the lowest Standard & Poor’s ratings to be considered investment grade. You will note that the hypothetical company would need to be downgraded four more times (BBB+, BBB, BBB- to BB+) to be considered non-investment grade or a “junk” bond. Bond market participants though will react to the downgrade though because new potential buyers see more risk of default given the same coupon. So even though the company may not default eventually on the actual bond, the price of the bond goes up to compensate for the interest rate required by the marketplace on similarly rated bonds to attract buyers.
Now I will address the full list of risks affecting bonds outlined by Dr. Fabozzi above. Any bond is simply an agreement between two parties in which one party agrees to pay back money to the other party at a later date with interest. All bonds have what is referred to as credit (default portion) risk. Credit risk in general is simply the risk one runs that the party who owes you the money will not pay you back (i.e. default). What is lesser known or thought about by individual investors is interest-rate risk and inflation risk. These two risks are usually missed because investors tend to think that bonds are “safe”. Interest-rate risk relates to the fact that interest rates may rise, while you hold the bonds (spoken about at length in the beginning of this blog post). When financial pundits make blanket statements about selling bonds, they are referring to this one risk factor normally. Inflation risk means that inflation may increase to a level higher than your interest rate on the bond. Thus, if the interest rate on your bond is less than inflation or closer to inflation from when you bought the bond, your purchasing power goes down. The prices of goods and services go up faster than the interest you earn on the bond. Call risk refers to instances where some companies have the option to redeem your bonds in the future at an agreed upon price. This is normally done only when interest rates rise. Prepayment risk is a more specialized case of call risk and refers to people paying their mortgages (or credit cards, home equity loans, student loans, etc.) back sooner than expected. Most people group these two risks into a category called reinvestment risk. Think about the concept in this manner: many people refinanced their mortgages because interest rates went down. They did so because they could lower their total mortgage payment. Well, companies do the same thing if they have the option. Companies can redeem bonds at higher interests and issue new bonds at lower interest rates. Chances are that, if you are the owner of the redeemed bonds, you will be unable to find as high of an interest payment currently if you want to buy a bond with similar characteristics of the company issuing the bonds you own before.
The other three risks I mentioned above are less commonly discussed and not quite as important. Exchange-rate risk exists because sometimes a company issues bonds in a currency other than its own. For example, you will sometimes hear the terms Yankee bonds or Samurai bonds. Since the company is paying you interest and principal in a foreign currency that money may be worth more or less depending on what happens in foreign exchange markets in the future. Liquidity risk refers to the phenomenon that there are certain crisis times in the market where very few, if any bond market participants, are willing to buy the bonds you are trying to sell. Therefore, you might have to take a bigger loss in order to entice someone to buy the bonds given the current macro environment. Basis risk is a more obtuse type of risk that institutions deal with. Basis risk essentially refers to anytime when interest rates on your bond are pegged to another interest rate that is different but normally behaves in a certain way (referred to as correlation). Now most of the time, the behavior will follow the historical pattern. However, during times of stress like a liquidity and/or credit crisis, the correlations tend to break down. Meaning you can think you are “hedged” but, if the historical relationship does not hold up, your end return will be nothing like what you had expected. These two risks are not something that individual investors need to focus on for the most part, since these types of bonds are not normally owned by them.
I will admit that this list is quite lengthy and, quite possibly, a bit too detailed and/or complicated. However, I wanted to lay them all out for you. Why? When you hear Financial Advisors recommend that you sell a large portion of your bonds, and/or hear the same investment advice from the financial media, they normally are really only referring to interest-rate risk primarily and secondarily inflation risk as well. As you can see from the description above, the bond market is far more complex than that to make a blanket statement.
As I usually say, I would never advise individual investors to take a certain course of action in terms of selecting specific bonds or not selling bonds to move into more stocks. However, I am saying that you should feel comfortable enough to ask your Financial Advisor why he/she recommends that you sell a portion of your bonds. If the answer relates only to interest-rate risk, I would probe the recommendation further. You can explain that you know that is the case for Treasury notes/bonds, municipal bonds, and corporate bonds. However, there are a whole host of other fixed income securities with different characteristics and risks. Now I am not referring solely to Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), although the residential and commercial markets for these are in the trillions of dollars. There are bonds and notes that have floating interest rates which means that as interest rates go up, the interest rate you receive on that security goes up. Not to mention that different countries are experiencing different interest rate cycles than the US (stable or downward even).
The complete list is too in-depth to cover in a single blog post. My goal was to provide you with enough information to at least ask the question(s). Your risk tolerance and financial goals might make a move from bonds to stocks the best course of action. With that being said, you also have the option of selling bonds and keeping the money in cash or investing in the different types of bonds offered in the fixed income markets while keeping your total allocation to fixed income nearly the same. Thinking holistically about your portfolio, you may be increasing the riskiness of your portfolio beyond your risk tolerance or more than you are aware unbeknownst to you by moving from bonds into stocks. This is something you definitely want to avoid. It can turn out to be a rude awakening and hard lesson to learn one or two years from now.