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  • Writer's pictureMark Fonville, CFP®

Understanding Bond Risks in Your Retirement Portfolio

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


Understanding Bond Risks in Your Retirement Portfolio

At a glance, the concept of investing in bonds might seem straightforward.


When you buy a bond, you're essentially lending money to entities like corporations, local city organizations, or even the U.S. government. In return for this loan, these entities agree to pay you interest.


how bonds work

This interest is typically paid out on a monthly or quarterly basis over the bond's lifespan, also known as its 'term'. Once the term concludes, you're repaid the initial amount you invested, known as the face value of the bond.


It sounds like a simple and secure way to grow your money, doesn't it?


However, the world of bond investments is layered with intricacies.


A financial advisor with expertise in bond investing may be able to help you create a plan to navigate future economic uncertainty.

 

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Taking a trip down memory lane to the late 1990s provides a glimpse into these complexities. Investors were hit with a realization that bonds, despite their initial appearance, were laden with underlying risks.


A notable instance from this era was the downfall of a hedge fund named Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM). Despite being managed by esteemed financial experts, some of whom were Nobel laureates, LTCM faced a catastrophic collapse. The fund's failure stemmed from its misplaced bets on bond rates, which did not align with the prevailing interest rate movements.


LTCM wasn't an isolated case.


In a similar vein, high-yielding bonds were the culprits behind the downfall of multiple savings and loan associations in the previous decade including Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. The situation became so notorious that a common jest at the time was: if you ventured out to buy a toaster, you'd end up with a savings and loan association (S&L) thrown in as a complimentary gift.


All these historical instances underscore the importance of understanding and respecting the complexities of bond investments. While we firmly believe bonds can and should be a valuable component of a diversified portfolio, it's crucial to approach them with a well-researched and informed strategy.


Unraveling the Intricacies of Bond Values and Returns


Bond values and the returns they generate are influenced by an array of factors, making the terrain of bond investments both fascinating and challenging.


One of the most predominant factors affecting bond values is the "interest rate risk."


Here's a simple breakdown: if prevailing interest rates rise after you've purchased a bond, the value of your bond might decrease.



Bond prices inverted to yields and interest rates


Why?


Because newer bonds being issued in this environment of higher interest rates become more attractive.


Think of it this way: if two stores were selling similar quality chocolates, but one store offers a larger quantity for the same price, most buyers would naturally gravitate towards the store providing more value for their money.


Similarly, why would investors opt for older bonds, which pay less interest, when they could buy new bonds that offer higher interest payouts?


Now, diving deeper into the realm of risks, where do the significant challenges lie?


Generally, bonds with longer durations, such as those maturing in 20 or 30 years, tend to lure investors with their higher interest rates compared to their shorter-term counterparts.


This is generally true throughout history, however there are periods where short-term bonds provide a higher yield than long-term bonds. This is known as an inverted yield curve and has happened preceding recession in the past as illustrated in the chart below.


For example, as of August 25th, 2023, 2-year bonds are yielding 0.78% more than 10-year bonds.



Historical yield curves and recessions


During periods of a normal yield curve, investing in long-term bonds might seem like a lucrative proposition at first glance.


However, there's a catch.


Longer-term bonds are particularly sensitive to shifts in interest rates. This means that if interest rates rise, the value of these long-term bonds can decline more dramatically than those of shorter-term bonds.


So, while the allure of higher yields from long-term bonds can be tempting, investors must tread with caution.


Rising interest rates can erode the value of these bonds substantially, serving a tough lesson on the repercussions of interest rate fluctuations.


In essence, while bonds can be a strategic component of an investment portfolio, it's essential for investors to understand the intricate dance between bond values, interest rates, and bond durations to make well-informed decisions.


The Influence of Bond Ratings on Their Value


Bond values don't just waver based on interest rates; they're also significantly influenced by the bond's rating.


At its core, a bond rating serves as a measure of the creditworthiness or financial strength of the organization issuing the bond. In simpler terms, it's an assessment of how likely the issuer is to repay the borrowed amount along with the promised interest.


Several established agencies specialize in providing these ratings. While each agency has its unique scale and criteria, the overarching objective remains consistent: to evaluate the issuer's reliability.


For instance, when you invest in Treasury bonds, you're essentially buying a promise from the government.


Given the stability and financial might of the government, there's a high degree of confidence that they will honor this promise, repaying both the interest and the principal amount.

Traditional sources of bond yields across treasuries, US aggregate, Investment grade bonds, and high yield bonds.

This reliability is also seen with top-tier, or "blue chip," corporations and certain municipalities.


As you can see in the chart above, lower risk bonds such as U.S. treasuries and the U.S. Aggregate bond index have also provided lower returns relative to investment grade bonds or high-yield bonds.


Municipal bonds often derive their backing from the revenue anticipated from the specific project they finance, adding another layer of security for investors.


However, not all bonds share this level of reliability.


Enter the realm of "junk bonds."


These bonds come from issuers who might not have a sturdy financial footing. Their shaky status makes them a riskier bet for investors. Recognizing this, investors typically expect a higher return or yield to justify the added risk, considering the possibility that the issuer might default.


In layman's terms, defaulting means the borrower might run into financial troubles and might not pay back the full amount, sometimes only returning a fraction of the borrowed sum.


Bond ratings aren't static; they fluctuate based on the financial health and performance of the issuing entity. Companies can and do evolve.


A firm facing financial challenges might turn its fate around, either by improving its business model or restructuring its debts. Such positive transformations can lead rating agencies to upgrade its bond rating, which in turn boosts the value of its bonds, even those already in circulation.


Conversely, if a company hits a rough patch and its financial prospects dim, rating agencies might downgrade its rating. Such downgrades can make its bonds less attractive, marking them as riskier propositions for investors.


In summary, while bonds offer a plethora of investment opportunities, it's paramount for investors to understand the underlying ratings and their implications, ensuring a balance between risk and reward.


Navigating the Risks of Tempting Bond Yields

In the world of investments, high returns often come hand in hand with high risks, and the bond market is no exception.


When the economic clouds darken, signaling a potential recession on the horizon, a unique danger emerges. Investors are often drawn to bonds that dangle the carrot of attractive yields.


However, there's a catch: these bonds often belong to the lower rating tiers, making them inherently riskier.

Why does this matter?


When an economy dives into a recession, companies, especially those with shaky financial foundations, are more vulnerable. A significant portion of these firms might face downgrades in their credit ratings, while some might even shutter their operations entirely. Consequently, those alluring yields that initially grabbed an investor's attention can plummet, often falling short of initial expectations.

Interestingly, this risky segment of the bond market has its set of avid supporters.


Several mutual funds have carved out a niche, predominantly investing in these so-called "junk bonds."


However, a word of caution: not all these funds are transparent about the origins of their impressive yields. Every year, like clockwork, some investors pit the modest yields of stable Treasury or blue-chip corporate bonds against the siren call of the substantially higher yields of junk bond funds.


On the surface, opting for the latter might seem like an obvious choice, promising higher returns.

However, here's the crux of the matter: in the financial world, there's a strong correlation between the safety of an investment and its yield. Bonds with lower yields often bring with them the comfort of longer maturity lengths and solid credit ratings, indicating they're a safer bet.


Conversely, while the pursuit of higher yields can be exhilarating, it's a journey riddled with pitfalls. These heightened risks are not always apparent or sufficiently acknowledged by investors.

In essence, while the allure of high yields in the bond market can be hard to resist, it's imperative for investors to thoroughly assess the landscape, understanding that with greater rewards often come greater risks. An informed approach to bond investments can strike the right balance between safety and yield.


Summing Up the Bond Investment Landscape


Bond investments, often perceived as the stable bedrock of a diversified portfolio, indeed have a myriad of facets to consider.


Whether it's navigating interest rate risks, understanding bond ratings, or assessing the true origins of enticing yields, investing in bonds requires a nuanced approach.


The historical misadventures of institutions like LTCM remind us that even the most knowledgeable can falter if they overlook the intricate dynamics of the bond market.


With the stock market's inherent volatility, having the right bond strategy becomes imperative to offset risks and stabilize a portfolio. However, chasing higher yields without grasping the accompanying risks can be a perilous endeavor.


In short, while bonds can act as a counterbalance to the unpredictabilities of stocks, it's crucial to understand the tradeoffs and intricacies they present. Making well-informed bond investment decisions ensures a harmonious blend of safety, yield, and risk management within a holistic investment strategy.


Do you want to know what bond strategy is best for your particular situation?


Request a free retirement assessment from one of our experienced financial advisors today!



 

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Disclosure: Covenant Wealth Advisors is a registered investment advisor with offices in Richmond and Williamsburg, VA. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital. The views and opinions expressed in this content are as of the date of the posting, are subject to change based on market and other conditions. This content contains certain statements that may be deemed forward-looking statements. Please note that any such statements are not guarantees of any future performance and actual results or developments may differ materially from those projected. Please note that nothing in this content should be construed as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any security or separate account. Nothing is intended to be, and you should not consider anything to be, investment, accounting, tax, or legal advice. If you would like accounting, tax, or legal advice, you should consult with your own accountants or attorneys regarding your individual circumstances and needs. No advice may be rendered by Covenant Wealth Advisors unless a client service agreement is in place. Hypothetical examples are fictitious and are only used to illustrate a specific point of view. Diversification does not guarantee against risk of loss. While this guide attempts to be as comprehensive as possible but no article can cover all aspects of retirement planning. Be sure to consult an advisor for comprehensive advice.


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