Gavin W. Stephens
Director of Portfolio Management
Director of Portfolio Management
The first three quarters of 2019 have produced unexpectedly strong results for bond investors. Slowing global economic growth, declining inflation expectations, and accommodative central bank policies have combined to push interest rates lower, causing broad price increases across fixed-income markets. Indeed, as measured by the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Index, fixed-income returns have been a surprisingly strong 8.52% year-to-date. Investment-grade and high-yield corporate bonds have had even stronger performance, with year-to-date returns of 13.2% and 11.4%, respectively1.
And while many investors may be pleased with the year-to-date price performance of their bonds, the resulting decline in yields across bond markets has lowered the level of future expected returns. With yields again near historic lows, bond investors are again facing an unpleasant picture of modest returns from fixed-income portfolios2. In addition, it is well observed that bonds have underperformed stocks for extended periods. For the past five years, the U.S. aggregate bond market has produced an annualized total return of 3.4%. Large-capitalization U.S. stocks, on the other hand, have produced an annualized total return of 10.8% over this same period3. Such results, combined with lowered return expectations, might lead investors to ask, “Why own bonds at all?”
Although we acknowledge today’s challenging fixed-income environment, we strongly advocate for the continued inclusion of an actively managed, well-diversified bond portfolio as part of an investor’s asset allocation. For despite the challenges raised above, a well-managed bond portfolio should deliver three crucial benefits to an investor’s portfolio: steady income, portfolio diversification, and capital preservation.
Owning a bond is equivalent to loaning money. In return for lending someone—or, more specifically, a government or a business—your money, you expect to receive not only your money back but also interest payments along the way. For example, a $10,000 U.S. Treasury note bearing coupons of 2% and a maturity date of September 30, 2019 represents a 10-year loan to the U.S. government in exchange for interest payments of 2%, received semiannually. Those semi-annual payments provide the steady income that defines the “fixed” part of fixed income. As a bond investor—or a lender—you can expect this specific stream of income for as long as you own the bond. In other words, the bonds in your portfolio are effectively outstanding loans for which you should receive interest. These loans are constantly at work for you, accruing interest every day and paying you predictable income throughout the life of the bond.
1 Bloomberg, as of September 30, 2019.
2 According to Goelzer’s long-term fixed-income return model, we expect 5-year and 10-year annualized returns on intermediate taxable bonds of 1.70% and 2.30%, respectively.
3 Bloomberg, 09/30/14 to 09/30/19. U.S. aggregate bond performance as measured by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index. U.S. Large US stock performance as measured by the S&P 500® Index
Although this characteristic may seem obvious, the income-producing nature of bonds provides at least two immediate benefits. First, a fixed income allows investors to more accurately match cash flows to cash needs. For example, consider an investor with a known federal-tax liability that she plans to pay in quarterly estimates. With a predictable income stream generated from a high-quality bond portfolio, this investor could match her interest receipts to provide sufficient funds for her quarterly tax payments. This same investor might also match the maturity dates of her bonds to expected tuition payments for her college-age children. These examples are two basic ways in which investors can use bonds to match assets to their liabilities.
The income-producing nature of bonds also enhances a portfolio through the power of reinvestment—an additional and potentially powerful source of increased investment returns. For unlike assets with no predictable income streams, bonds provide regular interest payments that can be reinvested to earn additional interest. This practice of earning interest on interest can be particularly beneficial in the context of rising interest rates.
As an example, consider the Treasury note mentioned above, bearing 2% coupons and maturing September 30, 2019. Table 1 below shows the income produced over this life of this bond reinvested at various short-term interest rates. At one extreme, if an investor chooses not to reinvest coupons—presumably by spending his income—the interest received on the bond equals only the coupon payments. Such use of these interest payments reduces the overall compounded return of the bond to 1.84%. On the other hand, an investor who is able to reinvest his coupon payments can increase his return over the life of the bond. If he reinvests his coupons at a rate equivalent to his coupon, he will earn a compound return of 2.0%—a return equivalent to the original yield to maturity. If he reinvests his coupons into higher-yielding securities, he will increase his overall return on the bond to above 2%.
As this example shows, a bond’s income stream offers investors the powerful option of enhancing their returns through disciplined reinvestment of that same income. The option to reinvest income is especially valuable in an environment of rising short-term interest rates: each consecutive coupon received can be reinvested into higher yielding securities, thus enhancing the overall compound return on the initial bond investment.
Investors may eschew bonds because of their limited return potential relative to stocks. But while many investors claim that their goal is to maximize returns, their more accurate goal is to maximize returns without taking too much risk. To achieve this more realistic goal, a bond portfolio is crucial. See, for example, the chart below that illustrates the correlation coefficients of several fixed-income asset classes to U.S. large capitalization stocks, as represented by the S&P 500® Index. Correlation coefficients range from -1.0 to +1.0, with -1.0 representing an exact negative move in market value (asset X increases 1.0%, asset Y declines 1.0%) and +1.0 representing an exact positive move in market value (assets X and Y move in equal amounts in the same direction).
As the chart 1 below shows, over the 10-year period from 2009-2018, all fixed-income sectors except for corporate high-yield bonds displayed negative correlation to the U.S. stock markets. Investors received the greatest diversification from investments in long and intermediate U.S. Treasury bonds. Over this period, a portfolio of high-quality bonds—such as U.S. Treasuries—provided portfolio ballast in periods of stock-market stress with returns moving in the opposite direction of U.S. stocks. An allocation to such a bond portfolio would have prevented an investor from seeing losses across her entire portfolio—thus making short-term stock-market declines more tolerable. Maintaining an allocation to bonds is therefore crucial to helping investors achieve their more accurately stated goal of positive long-term returns with tolerable levels of risk.
Bonds also play a special role in recovering from the roughest of bear markets. Charts 2 and 3 below show how two portfolios—one invested 100% in stocks and another in 70% stocks and 30% bonds—would have held up after two relatively recent and sharp declines in the U.S. stock market. In each case our 100% stock investor would have recouped his losses over several years by maintaining his stock investments. However, six years elapsed from the beginning of the “dot-com” bust
In 2000 before our 100% stock investor was made whole, while four elapsed after the stock-market plunge of 2008 before this same investor recovered his initial portfolio value. Moreover, this investor would be made whole only if he could stay invested over these periods—an emotionally challenging, and somewhat unlikely, outcome for someone who has endured such losses.
A modest allocation to bonds can shorten the recovery from such nasty bear markets. Two factors make this possible: the historically negative correlation on high-quality bond returns to stock-market returns and the effect of disciplined rebalancing. Consider, for example, if our investor had experienced the same two bear markets, but rather than holding a portfolio invested solely in stocks, he had allocated 30% of his portfolio to high quality bonds and 70% to stocks. This investor would have recouped his initial portfolio value more quickly than our 100% stock investor—four years following the “dot-com” bust and two years following the decline of 2008. (See charts 2 and 3.) In both examples our hypothetical investor benefited from bonds’ negative correlation to stocks (earning over 13% from his bond portfolio in the first year of each market decline) and the positive effects of portfolio rebalancing. Because this investor owned bonds as part of his portfolio, not all of his portfolio would have suffered losses during these difficult periods. In fact, his bonds would have provided stability within the portfolio and therefore the option to sell bonds and buy stocks at lower prices. This process, achieved through regular portfolio rebalancing, would have increased his returns and thereby decreased his recovery time in both periods. Only with the ballast of a bond portfolio would that have been possible.
Investors should not invest in bonds to maximize long-term returns. Rather, investors should own bonds to achieve desired investment returns while assuming tolerable levels of risk. To achieve the latter goal, we believe that bonds should remain an integral component of investor portfolios now and in the future. As sources of income, diversification, and stability, bonds provide important balance to an investor’s overall asset allocation.