Posts tagged ‘inflation protection’

Confessions of a Bond Hater

Source: stock.xchng

Source: stock.xchng

Hi my name is Wade, and I’m a bond hater. Generally, the first step in addressing any type of personal problem is admitting you actually have a problem. While I am not proud of being a bond hater, I have been called many worse things during my life. But as we have learned from the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin case, not every situation is clear-cut, whether we are talking about social issues or bond investing. For starters, let me be clear to everyone, including all my detractors, that I do not hate all bonds. In fact, my Sidoxia clients own many types of fixed income securities. What I do hate however are low yielding, long duration bonds.

Duration…huh? Most people understand what “low yielding” means, when it comes to bonds (i.e., low interest, low coupon, low return, etc.), but when the word duration is uttered, the conversation is usually accompanied by a blank stare. The word “duration” may sound like a fancy word, but in reality it is a fairly simple concept. Essentially, high-duration bonds are those fixed income securities with the highest sensitivity to changes in interest rates, meaning these bonds will go down most in price as interest rates rise.

When it comes to equity markets, many investors understand the concept of high beta stocks, which can be used to further explain duration. There are many complicated definitions for beta, but the basic principle explains why high-beta stock prices generally go up the most during bull markets, and go down the most during bear markets. In plain terms, high beta equals high octane.

If we switch the subject back to bonds, long duration equals high octane too. Or stated differently, long duration bond prices generally go down the most during bear markets and go up the most during bull markets. For years, grasping the risk of a bond bear market caused by rising rates has been difficult for many investors to comprehend, especially after witnessing a three-decade long Federal Funds tailwind taking the rates from about 20% to about 0% (see Fed Fatigue Setting In). 

The recent interest rate spike that coincided with the Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke’s comments on QE3 bond purchase tapering has caught the attention of bond addicts. Nobody knows for certain whether this short-term bond price decline is the start of an extended bear market in bonds, but mathematics would dictate that there is only really one direction for interest rates to go…and that is up. It is true that rates could remain low for an indefinite period of time, but neither scenario of flat to down rates is a great outcome for bond holders.

Fixes to Fixed-Income Failings

Even though I may be a “bond hater” of low yield, high duration bonds, currently I still understand the critical importance and necessity of a fixed income portfolio for not only retirees, but also for the diversification benefits needed by a broader set of investors. So how does a bond hater reconcile investing in bonds? Easy. Rather than focusing on lower yielding, longer duration bonds, I invest more client assets in shorter duration and/or higher yielding bonds. If you harbor similar beliefs as I do, and believe there will be an upward bias to the trajectory of long-term interest rates, then there are two routes to go. Investors can either get compensated with a higher yield to counter the increased interest rate risk, and/or they can shorten duration of bond holdings to minimize capital losses.

Worth noting, there is an alternative strategy for low yielding, long duration bond lovers. In order to minimize interest rate risk, these bond lovers may accept sub-optimal yields and hold bonds to maturity. This strategy may be associated with short-term price volatility, but if the bond issuer does not default, at least the bond investor will get the full principal at maturity to help relieve the pain of meager yields.

Now that you’ve survived all this bond babbling, let me cut to the chase and explain a few ways Sidoxia is taking advantage of the recent interest rate volatility for our clients:

Floating Rate Bonds: Duration of these bonds is by definition low, or near zero, because as interest rates rise, coupons/interest payments are advantageously reset for investors at higher rates. So if interest rates jump from 2% to 3%, the investor will receive +50% higher periodic payments.

Inflation Protection Bonds: These bonds come in long and short duration flavors, but if interest rates/inflation rise higher than expected, investors will be compensated with higher periodic coupons and principal payments.

Shorter Duration: One definition of duration is the weighted average of time until a bond’s fixed cash flows are received. A way of shortening the duration of your bond portfolio is through the purchase of shorter maturity bonds (e.g., buying 3-year bonds rather than 30-year bonds).

High Yield Bonds: Investing in the high yield bond category is not limited to domestic junk bond purchases, but higher yields can also be earned by investing in international and/or emerging market bonds.

Investment Grade Corporate Bonds: Similar to high yield bonds, investment grade bonds offer the potential of capital appreciation via credit improvement. For instance, credit rating upgrades can provide gains to help offset price declines caused by rising interest rates.

Despite my bond hater status, the recent taper tantrum and interest rate spike, highlight some advantages bonds have over stocks. Even though prices declined, bonds by and large still have lower volatility than stocks; provide a steady stream of income; and provide diversification benefits.

To the extent investors have, or should have, a longer-term time horizon, I still am advocating a stock bias to client portfolios, subject to each investor’s risk tolerance. For example, an older retired couple with a conservative target allocation of 20%/80% (equity/fixed income) may consider a 25% – 30% allocation. A shift in this direction may still meet the retirees’ income needs (especially if dividend-paying stocks are incorporated), while simultaneously acknowledging the inflation and interest rate risks impacting bond positions. It’s important to realize one size doesn’t fit all.

Higher Volatility, Higher Reward

Frequent readers of Investing Caffeine have known about my bond hating tendencies for quite some time (see my 2009 article Treasury Bubble has not Burst…Yet), but the bond baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water. For those investors who thought bonds were as safe as CDs, the recent -6% drop in the iShares Aggregate Bond Index (AGG) didn’t feel comfortable for most. Although I am still an enthusiastic stock cheerleader (less so as valuation multiples expand), there has been a cost for the gargantuan outperformance of stocks since March of ’09. While stocks have outperformed bonds (S&P vs. AGG) by more than +140%, equity investors have had to endure two -10% corrections and two -20% corrections (e.g.,Flash Crash, Debt Ceiling Debate, European Financial Crisis, and Sequestration/Elections). If investors want to earn higher long-term equity returns, this desire will translate into more volatility than bonds…and more Tums.

I may still be a bond hater, and the general public remains firm stock haters, but at some point in the multi-year future, I will not be surprised to hear myself say, “Hi my name is Wade, and I am addicted to bonds.” In the mean time, Sidoxia will continue to optimize its client bond portfolios for a rising interest rate environment, while also investing in attractive equity securities and ETFs. There’s nothing to hate about that.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), including floating rate bonds/loan funds, inflation-protection funds, corporate bond ETF, high-yield bond ETFs, and other bond ETFs, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in AGG or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

July 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm 2 comments

The European Dog Ate My Homework

I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.

Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.

Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.

The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.

Correlation Conundrum

Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.

Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.

Politics & Winston Churchill

Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.

Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science.  Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:

• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.

• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.

Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.

The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.

Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:

1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or

2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.

Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position will be to keep kicking the fiscal can issues down the road. In the absence of political leadership, eventually the crisis will naturally force tough decisions to be made. Until then, I will go on explaining to others how the European dog ate my homework.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, dividend, and alternative investment ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AIG, JNJ, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm 1 comment


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