By Garrett German
Are tough times ahead for the bond market? Some investors think so. U.S. monetary policy is tightening, with the Federal Reserve planning gradual increases for the key interest rate.
A rising interest rate environment presents a challenge to the bond market, but it does not necessarily imply some kind of doomsday for bondholders. Blanket advice to “get out of bonds” is imprudent, because it really all depends on what you intend to do with the debt investments you hold and how long you intend to hold them.
Rising interest rates affect the market values of bonds. Repeat: the market values. Market values should not be confused with face values.
To illustrate, say you invest $5,000 in a 30-year Treasury with a 1% yield. That means that every year for the next 30 years, that Treasury note will pay out $50 to you.
Then, interest rates on 30-year notes start climbing. Three years later, they reach 2%, and you have a problem if you want to sell your 30-year Treasury. The problem is that no one will buy it for $5,000. Why pay $5,000 for a 30-year Treasury with a 1% yield when you can invest the same $5,000 in a brand new one set up to yield 2%?
Bond yields and bond prices move in opposite directions, and in order for your $5,000 30-year note to yield 2%, its price (read: market value) has to drop to $2,500. The market value of your bond has fallen below its face value, and if you sell it, you will take a loss.
Rising interest rates do not affect the face values of bonds. So, if you hold onto that 30-year Treasury until its maturity date, you will get your $5,000 principal back at that point, plus $50 per year in interest along the way.
There is a potential downside to holding onto that bond, however, and it may be measured in opportunity cost. Yes, you are avoiding a loss and redeeming your security for its face value. The thing is, you could, potentially, have put your money into another investment with a better yield – a yield that could have kept up with or surpassed the rate of inflation.
This is why some investors favor a laddered bond strategy. They take the interest their bonds pay out and use that money (and other funds) to buy newly issued bonds at higher interest rates, so they can benefit from the upside of a rising interest rate climate. Lower-yielding bonds in their portfolio are gradually replaced by higher-yielding bonds over time. Through this strategy, they can plan to manage interest rate risk and cash flow.
When interest rates fall, the market value of older, higher-yielding bonds rises. Interest rates do not have very far to fall right now, but this is a detail to remember for the future.
A fear of higher interest rates does not necessarily imperil bonds or bond funds. As a recent example, one bond market benchmark – the Vanguard Long-Term Treasury Fund – rose 13% in the 12 months ending in November 2016.
In the long run, we may see interest rates normalize. Bond investors planning to reinvest their money in newly issued bonds with higher yields can potentially take advantage of such a development.
Regardless of whether interest rates rise, plateau, or fall, remember that their movement does not affect a bond’s total return over its term.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.